"Black Skin White Masks" by Franz Fanon

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Nov 2 2011 21:58
"Black Skin White Masks" by Franz Fanon

Have any of you read this book and what do you think?

In his Introduction to the book, Fanon wrote "I believe that the fact of the juxtaposition of the white and black races has created a massive psychoexistential complex. I hope by analyzing it to destroy it." (Pg. 12.)

As with his much more popular work, "Wretched of the Earth," I think much of what he wrote is not only relevant to people of color in general living in a multi-racial society, but also to people of color living in the United States now.

"When a Negro talks of Marx, the first reaction is always the same: 'We have brought you up to our level and now you turn against your benefactors. Ingrates! Obviously nothing can be expected of you.' And then too there is that bludgeon argument of the plantation-owner in Africa: Our enemy is the teacher.'" (Pg. 35)

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Nov 3 2011 20:48

No, but I have read and re-read his 'Wretched of the Earth', which broke new ground.

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Nov 3 2011 21:21

"Wretched" is an amazing book, I should re-read it, but I figured I'd read some of his other books first. Then I'll maybe read the newer translation into English because I had it's less dry.

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Nov 3 2011 23:11

Black Skin White Masks and Wretched of the Earth are both killer books. i don't agree with everything in the latter but it is still great.

I would say definitely read it. He picks up on the psycho-analytical notion of sociogenesis to describe racism, basically as a social structure imported into the psyche. So he offers a nice way to look at the psychology of racism without falling into psychological reductionism. He also has a great critique of Hegel's master slave dialectic. Fanon points out that in the manichean colonial condition the dialectic is never resolved, there is never recognition.

Anyway, there is a lot in there and its worth reading. I think you should also try to read it with fresh eyes rather than putting your marxist cap (or whatever cap you wear when approaching a text) and expecting it to fill expectations.

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Nov 4 2011 00:04

I'm reading it right now, and I've got Studies in a Dying Colonialism on hand too!

Heh, I think the primary cap I'm wearing while reading it is the one of a person who has read and was deeply impressed by Wretched, but it's always good to try to refrain from being too doctrinaire.

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Nov 4 2011 00:08

Well it is very different than Wretched. Skin is still pretty optimistic in comparison!

working class
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Nov 4 2011 02:10

I have not read "Black Skin White Masks".

But there are several problems with the Wretched of The Earth. Fanon essentially idolises the bureaucratic and middle classes of the so-called third world. In one passage, he explicitly romanticises the bureaucratic class, claiming they are really "good" and they mean really well and so on (how sweet!). In another passage, he explicitly condemns the urban working classes of the so-called third world and paints them as servants of imperialism.

Essentially, his perspective is firmly that of the middle class petit-bourgeoisie. This class is bound to the nation of their origin. Hence his romanticisation of the "national struggles" of the third world. His works can be read as a historical curiosity in so far as he was a participant in the national liberation of Algeria, but from a class struggle perspective, his work looks like good propaganda material for the bureaucratic and bourgeois classes of the third world. More can of course be said of his pseudo-scientific efforts at analysing imperialism through a dubious "psychological" perspective. Fanon contributed little but provide fodder for the bourgeois regimes of the third world, which continued to display their real class nature ever since their inception. In this sense, Fanon's books can be considered the third world counterpart of Milton Friedman's works.

From a historical perspective, Fanon was part of the national liberation and anti-colonial struggles movements of the middle part of the previous century. As history has shown, the national liberation struggles in the third world (including Africa, Latin America and Asia) resulted in state capitalist regimes which had no scruples in cramping down brutally upon the the working classes of those countries, who were reduced to merciless militarisation of labour and brutal working conditions all in the name of the "nation".

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Nov 4 2011 04:10
working class wrote:
But there are several problems with the Wretched of The Earth. Fanon essentially idolises the bureaucratic and middle classes of the so-called third world. In one passage, he explicitly romanticises the bureaucratic class, claiming they are really "good" and they mean really well and so on (how sweet!). In another passage, he explicitly condemns the urban working classes of the so-called third world and paints them as servants of imperialism.

I don't recall any of this from my reading, could you provide exact quotes and page numbers?

I did find the bulk of the book rather dry, so perhaps I glossed over these sections as I can sort of go into auto-pilot when reading something I find boring until something really jumps out at me, but considering the amount of note worthy material I did find in Wretched, I'm surprised none of this rings a bell with me.

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Nov 4 2011 12:58

I really can't be bothered to get into this. As I already have done in another thread recently. But it looks like working class gave Wretched an extremely cursory read (if he/she even read it at all). You will be hard pressed to find much petit-bourgeois love in there....

Before you get all uptight about my rebuff working class please go back and re-read the book. Don't paw it for any suggestion that Fanon loves the petit-bourg (though I doubt you will find anything substantial), just read it. Especially the chapter 'The Pitfalls of National Consciousness'.

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Nov 4 2011 21:32

Thanks, i'm going to check this shit out.

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Nov 4 2011 22:01
Refused wrote:
Thanks, i'm going to check this shit out.

Sweet, let us know what you think about it.

working class
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Nov 7 2011 03:13

It has been a while since I read Fanon, but those passages had stood out to me then. One could of course make whatever one wants to out of them, but these are the passages of Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth I was referring to:

Quote:
"In underde­-
veloped countries, there are certain members of the elite,
intellectuals and civil servants, who are sincere, who feel
the necessity for a planned economy, the outlawing of
profiteers, and the strict prohibition of attempts at mys­-
tification
. In addition, such men fight in a certain meas­
ure for the mass participation of the people in the order­
ing of public affairs.
In those underdeveloped countries which accede to
independence, there almost always exists a small number
of honest intellectuals, who have no very precise ideas
about politics, but who instinctively distrust t he race for
positions and pensions which is symptomatic of t he early
days of independence in colonized countries. T he personal
situation of these men (breadwinners of large families) or
their background (hard struggles and a strictly moral up­
bringing) explains their manifest cont empt for profiteers
and schemers. We must know how to use these men in
the decisive battle that we mean to engage upon which
will lead to a healthier outlook for the nation. "

p. 177: Displaying his everlasting love for the elites, the petit-bourgeoisie.

Quote:
"It cannot be too strongly stressed that in the colonial ter­-
ritories the proletariat is the nucleus of the colonized
population which has been most pampered by t he colonial
regime.
The embryonic proletariat of the towns is in a
comparatively privileged position. In capitalist countries,
the working class has nothing to lose; it is they who in the
long run have everything to gain. In the colonial coun­
tries the working class has everything to lose; in reality it
represents that fraction of the colonized nation which is
necessary and irreplaceable if the colonial machine is to
run smoothly: it includes tram conductors, taxi drivers,
miners, dockers, interpreters, nurses, and so on. It is these
elements which constitute the most faithful followers of
the nationalist parries, and who because of the privileged
place which they hold in the colonial system constitute
also the "bourgeois" fraction of the colonized people."

p. 108 - 109: Judge for yourselves, but sounds like typical nationalist anti-worker bullshit.

Quote:
"In capitalist
societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical,
the structure of moral reflexes handed down from father
to son, the exemplary honesty of workers who are given
a medal after fifty years of good and loyal service, and the
affection which springs from harmonious relations and
good behavior—all these aesthetic expressions of respect for
the established order serve to create around the exploited
person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition
which lightens the task of policing considerably. In the
capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, coun­
selors and "bewilderers" separate the exploited from those
in power. In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the
policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence
and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with
the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and
napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents
of government speak the language of pure force." etc

p. 38 : Claims there is no capitalism in the colonial world.

Quote:
"Castro sitting in military uniform
in t he Uni t ed Nations Organization docs not scandalize
the underdeveloped countries. W h at Castro demonstrates
is the consciousness he has of the continuing existence of
the rule of violence. T he astonishing thing is t h at he did
not come into the U NO with a machine-gun; but if he
had, would anyone have minded?"

p.78: Castro: The hero of the masses!

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Nov 7 2011 05:35

Working Class,

I had a feeling his quote about "certain members of the elite, intellectuals and civil servants, who are sincere," was going to be the sort of token node "well intentioned liberals" tend to get from the Left in the U$. Since you don't have where you're from on your info, I have to assume we're coming from different perspectives with the rest. I've never claimed Fanon is God, or 110% right all the time. For every few things he wrote that I've found dry or not relevant to AmeriKKKa, he hit the nail on the head like in his conclusion to Wretched:

So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her.

Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature.

If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe, and America into a new Europe, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.

But if we want humanity to advance a step farther, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.

If we wish to live up to our peoples’ expectations, we must seek the response elsewhere than in Europe.

Moreover, if we wish to reply to the expectations of the people of Europe, it is no good sending them back a reflection, even an ideal reflection, of their society and their thought with which from time to time they feel immeasurably sickened.

For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.

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Nov 7 2011 13:37

OK I don't think I have ever written a post this long before, and it took me ages! I mean it in the most comradely of temperaments. I do have problems with Fanon myself (problems I mention later), but I think people have a tendency to straw man him as a typical representative of everything that went wrong with anti-imperialist struggles. I think part of the reason this is so is because he is the most renowned of its spokesman.

Some interesting paragraphs there working class. But without further context and elaboration, I don’t think all of them necessarily ‘speak for themselves’. I don’t think the first passage you quoted fully justifies this,

working class wrote:
Fanon essentially idolises the bureaucratic and middle classes of the so-called third world. In one passage, he explicitly romanticises the bureaucratic class, claiming they are really "good" and they mean really well and so on (how sweet!).

There is no essential idolatry there. All he is saying is that there is a section of the bourgeois who are sincere to ‘the cause’. This is not an explicit romanticization of a whole class, but a recognition that a part of a class are not completely beyond the pale.

working class wrote:
p. 38 : Claims there is no capitalism in the colonial world.

What? The passage you quoted does not substantiate this claim at all!

Claims against Fanon as a lover of the ‘elites and bourgeoisie

Fanon wrote:
the national bourgeoisie of under-developed countries is not engaged in production, not in invention, nor building, not labour; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket.

p.120

Here we see Fanon, not as anti-worker, but as pro-worker anti-nationalist bourgeoisie who he sees as carrying on the job of the colonializer after formal colonialism has ended.

Fanon wrote:
in under-developed countries the bourgeois phase is impossibly arid. Certainly, there is a police dictatorship and a profiteering caste, but the construction of an elaborate bourgeois society seems to be condemned to failure. The ranks of decked-out profiteers whose grasping hands scrape up the bank-notes from a poverty-stricken country will sooner or later be men of straw in the hands of the army, cleverly handled by foreign experts. In this way the former mother country practices indirect government, both by the bourgeoisie that it upholds and also by the national army led by its experts, an army that pins the people down, immobilizing and terrorizing them.

p. 140

We can see quite clearly here Fanon’s contempt for the national elite and the bourgeoisie of newly independent nations. Fanon is aware that if the mode of production is not revolutionized the nation will fall prey to neo-colonial methods of capital extraction. This is what I really like about the Wretched. Fanon seems to be foretelling exactly what was to happen to large parts of Africa.

But I am not going to be disingenuous. Fanon does have his problems, I just don’t think you pointed to the right ones working class. He is enamored by certain elites, I just thought you have the wrong ones. Essentially Fanon is a Leninist. We see this more clearly later on page 140 quoted above,

Fanon wrote:
The observations that we have been able to make about the national bourgeoisie bring us to a conclusion which should cause no surprise. In under-developed countries, the bourgeoisie should not be allowed to find the conditions necessary for its existence and its growth.

No problems there. Fanon clearly does not love the bourgeoisie. The problem comes later in the passage,

Fanon wrote:
In other words, the combined effort of the masses led by a party and of intellectuals who are highly conscious and armed with revolutionary principles ought to bar the way to this useless and harmful middle class.

p.140

Woops! Fanon slips up. Rather than being caught in the quandary of third world nationalism (bourgeoisie elites are not questioned, neo-colonialism and indirect rule etc), he is caught up in the problem Bakunin sees in Marxist politics, namely, how do you stop the party becoming a new elite (that said, he does recognize this. Later on [page 145 of my edition] he does go on to discuss the danger of nationalization leading to a bureaucratic dictatorship). Fanon doesn’t really have an answer to this and instead does many intellectual summersaults around the idea of the party emerging from the masses, not losing touch, ‘educating the masses’ etc, etc. This is certainly a problem, but it doesn’t warrant this description,

working class wrote:
Fanon was part of the national liberation and anti-colonial struggles movements of the middle part of the previous century. As history has shown, the national liberation struggles in the third world (including Africa, Latin America and Asia) resulted in state capitalist regimes which had no scruples in cramping down brutally upon the the working classes of those countries, who were reduced to merciless militarisation of labour and brutal working conditions all in the name of the "nation".

As I have already shown, Fanon explicitly argues against a neo-colonial state capitalist regime. There is also lots of passages throughout the book about the need to decentre the revolution from the urban hubs (as centres of colonial rule) to the rural lands etc, etc. He is also aware of the dangers of militarized labour,

Fanon wrote:
we have been able to make the masses understand that work is not simply the output if energy, not the function of certain muscles, but that the people work more by using their brains and their hearts than with only their muscles and their sweat.

Fanon is quite aware of the damage militarized labour can do to people. He had been to the soviet union and seen first hand what dying at work for the revolution might look like.

My Problem with Fanon

Ok I have already mentioned this in another thread recently but I will unpack it here a little bit more.

The problem with Fanon isn’t that he is a typical ‘anti-imperialist third world ideologue’ as working class (and others) seem to suggest. Throughout his texts there are many warnings about the pitfalls decolonialization. He is aware that it can lead to neo-colonial relations. He is aware that the party can make itself into a decadent new elite that exploits the masses in the same way the colonizer did (with the added justification of being the party that ‘liberated’ the people, just look at Zanu PF or the ANC). That the party can lead to a feeding structure for the training of a new elite, to tribalism (see p. 147, think Gadaffi etc). About ‘old’ rivalries being reignited to justify this elite decadence and tribalism (At one point in the Wretched he explicitly mentions how the ‘crescent and cross’ are exploited anew. This is interesting even still today).

My problem isn’t that Fanon is a typical nationalist. But that he offers a brilliant critique of nationalism that begs the question, why did he not take it a step further? Fanon is aware that nationalism is not the end point,

Fanon wrote:
We have seen in the preceding pages that nationalism, that magnificent song that made the people rise against their oppressors, stops short, falters and dies away on the day that independence is proclaimed. Nationalism is not a political doctrine, nor a programme. If you really wish your country to avoid regression, or at best halts and uncertainties, a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.

So Fanon is not just simply a nationalist. As AJI has already quoted, the end of Wretched points toward a new humanity, a new universalism. But in order to get to this, one has to go through nationalism. I just don’t understand this. I see nationalism as essentially Janus faced, as a Pandora’s box that should be avoided at all costs. But Fanon seems to think it can be instrumentalized in the name of ‘New Humanism’. There is something almost tragic about that.

N.B Yeah that Castro quote is pretty irredeemable. But it is worth pointing out, Fanon is not praising Castro’s politics or his social programmes. He is praising what he represents to the west. That is. The colonized willing to use violence against the colonizer. For Fanon violence is not really an issue. Colonialism is violence. This is my other problem with Fanon. On the one hand, he talks about the need to leave Europe, to leave the cold war and start a new humanity, on the other hand it seems that this is only possible if it is christened with the sword (or the gun or what ever). I don’t know how Fanon expected this would stop the circle of violence. It seems like he is suggesting it is a violence that will end all violence.

working class
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Nov 8 2011 02:46

Thanks for that thoughtful post, Arbeiten. Gives me food for thought, though I sensed the same type of thought you present Fanon as having when I read Samir Amin.

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Nov 8 2011 15:31

I have not read a lot of Samir Amin (just seen him speak a couple of times), what is your impression of him?

I think Fanon is just very hard to pidgin hole in any meaningful way. As I said he does have problems, but they are different ones to what people usually presume. The whole 'anti-imperialist' decolonization moment is really interesting and a lot more contradictory than it is often presented as being.

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Nov 8 2011 16:38

It seems to me that the best black Marxists and others in touch with twentieth century national liberation movements understood the class structures of colonies and neo-colonies so much better than the European / North American Left and, because they recognised the weaknesses of the working class in colonies, including its size & higher status than rural workers & peasants and the ideological weaknesses arising from this, decided that an alliance of all those oppressed by colonialism had to be the basis for overthrowing it.

That's as far as they got, just like the European and the North American Left rarely ventured any ideas on what might follow a proletarian revolution.

Hence the interesting and contradictory nature, but why so many in Europe and North America.

Arbeiten, you say Fanon should have gone further, but, in the colonised world and the neo-colonised world, is it not the case that class composition has to change soon after a formal ousting of the coloniser if a nationalist phase is to become a historical footnote rather than the end-point?

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Nov 8 2011 16:40

Ignore penultimate para, please

working class
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Nov 9 2011 01:09
Arbeiten wrote:
I have not read a lot of Samir Amin (just seen him speak a couple of times), what is your impression of him?

I think Fanon is just very hard to pidgin hole in any meaningful way. As I said he does have problems, but they are different ones to what people usually presume. The whole 'anti-imperialist' decolonization moment is really interesting and a lot more contradictory than it is often presented as being.

Amin too goes a lot into the lack of universalism in much of the left. "Eurocentrism" is often one of his pet theories he likes to bring up often. Though his analysis can be somewhat interesting to some extent. He criticises the lack of acknowledgement for the unique contributions of ancient Middle Eastern philosophers towards the process of enlightenment. He then claims that imposing the Western model on all peoples of the world is Eurocentric though this is presented as being universalist. In many ways, however his view is sort of third worldist. He is one of the main theorists for the often third worldist Monthly Review group.

This critique of Amin by Loren Goldner is highly relevant in this regard, The Universality of Marx. Goldner basically asks the same question as you to Amin: why not take universalism further to its logical conclusion? Why not see the world-wide working class as the true universal as opposed to third world autarchies? I tend to agree with this estimation of third worldism which tends to rears its ugly head oftentimes among many sections of left, both in Western and non-Western countries.

Also see Multi-Culturalism or World Culture? for the usefulness of Amin's type of discourse to combat post-modern multiclturalism.

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Oct 28 2012 23:15

Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth are available in PDF format here and here respectively if anyone wishes to read them.