Fanon, Marx and Black Liberation

On the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Frantz Fanon’s 1959 classic, A Dying Colonialism, Ken Olende considers Fanon’s complex relationship to class and Marxism. Fanon wrote during a period of intense anti-colonial struggle where links with Marxist ideas were taken for granted. Olende argues Fanon’s work was grounded in a deep understanding of capitalist society.

By Ken Olende

Frantz Fanon is experiencing a well-deserved renaissance which has led to the reissue of books including A Dying Colonialism and the appearance of previously unavailable work. He was politically active for a relatively short period, from the end of the Second World War until his death from leukaemia at the age of 36 in 1961, and the development of his ideas followed an explosive path. He is a thinker who is radically reinterpreted periodically, sometimes becoming almost unrecognisable.

Black American Eric Garner’s dying cry of ‘I can’t breathe’ as a police officer kept him in a choke hold in 2014 became the slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters recalled Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks where he wrote: ‘It is not because the Indo-Chinese discovered a culture of their own that they revolted. Quite simply it was because it became impossible for them to breathe in more than one sense of the word.’[1] He was referring to Vietnamese resistance against imperialism—and the links between racism, colonialism and imperialism appear manifest.

Fanon wrote at a time of anti-colonial struggle where links with Marxist ideas were taken for granted. In the modern world not only is this not so, but many writers see his critiques of various positions by people who called themselves Marxists as a rejection of all Marxist ideas. I want to argue here why I think this is a mistaken position. Fanon’s relationship to class and Marxist arguments was far more complex and nuanced. And as Nigel Gibson has said, ‘Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth is not a story of wretchedness and suffering but of self-fashioning movements which through action become aware of themselves as subjects as they become aware of the betrayals of the leaders who speak in their name.’[2]

Fanon and Malcolm X: race, history and the dialectic

Fanon is also sometimes presented as a black separatist, who believed white people can have no role in the fight against racism and imperialism. This is despite the fact that Fanon’s wife Josie was white, from a French working class background. After his death she worked as a journalist for the Algerian press.[3] At the extreme, Afropessimist Frank Wilderson III argues that by definition black people cannot fit into Marxist categories, because the history of slavery excludes them from being part of the working class. ‘Civil society’s subaltern, the worker, is coded as waged, and wages are white. But Marxism has no account of this phenomenal birth and life-saving role played by the black subject.’[4]

In many ways it is odd that this argument denying black people a class role in US civil society should develop at a time of increasing class polarisation among African-Americans. As Darryl C Thomas argues in Futures of Black Radicalism, ‘One of the consequences of neoliberal/globalized US capitalism for many African Americans is a growing difference in life chances between poor and affluent blacks… a divide that is beginning to be reflected in black politics and black public opinion.’ [5] Yet, as Angela Davis comments in the same book, ‘With every generation of antiracist activism, it seems, narrow Black nationalism returns phoenix-like to claim our movements’ allegiance.’[6] To avoid that narrowness a wider furrow has to be dug.

Fanon was born in Martinique in the French Caribbean in 1925 (the same year as Malcolm X) and grew up in a culture that was incredibly sensitive to race. France carved an empire out of the Caribbean on the basis of slavery. At one point in the 18th century it controlled Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), which was the most profitable area of the colonial world until it was overthrown in a slave uprising. In a letter from the leaders of the revolt to the colonial assembly in Saint-Domingue, in 1792, rebel leader Toussaint Louverture raised issues that have been key for anti-racists ever since: ‘It is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right that you pretend to have over us… We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colours within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black or an advantage to be white.’ [7]

Modern racism developed with the slave trade and setbacks for it has always involved dialectical inversions. In Decolonising Dialectics, George Ciccariello-Maher asks, ‘What was the Haitian revolution if not a dialectical eruption in the last place master dialecticians would have chosen to look?’ [8] He means that the 19th century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel – the ‘master dialectician’ – would have assumed that revolution could only occur in the most developed states of Europe.

In his first book Black Skin, White Masks Fanon describes how he felt growing up black and middle class in a French colony: ‘I am a black man—but of course I do not know it, because I am one. At home my mother sings to me in French, French love songs where there is never a mention of black people. Whenever I am naughty or when I make too much noise, I am told to ‘stop acting like a nigger’. A little later on we read white books and we gradually assimilate the prejudices, the myths, the folklore that come from Europe.’ [9]

He saw himself as French as a young man and volunteered to fight for the Free French in the Second World War. He was shocked at the racism he encountered in France. After the war he trained as a doctor, expressing the radicalised views that had developed with his experience. He argues: ‘All colonized people—in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed—position themselves in relation to the civilizing language; i.e., the metropolitan.’[10]

This echoes an earlier argument by black American radical WEB Du Bois: ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’[11] Du Bois wrote this in 1903—in 1963 he moved to the recently independent west African state of Ghana, supporting president Kwame Nkrumah’s attempt to promote socialism.

Fanon’s connection with Algeria began when he was posted to work as a psychiatrist just as the rebellion against the French was starting. France had invaded in the 1830s and incorporated the country into its empire. Indeed, it now claimed it was an indivisible part of France with the population as French citizens, though the Arab population was not treated in this way. The settler population, known as pieds-noirs enjoyed these benefits. At the end of the Second World War victory celebrations developed into calls for independence. The French killed thousands in a massacre in the town of Setif. Resistance grew into an armed independence movement.

Fanon joined the underground resistance organisation the Front de libération nationale (FLN). Now he found himself treating French soldiers in the day and guerrillas at night. Eventually he had to flee, living in exile in Tunis and travelling around supporting the revolutionary cause. But before the war was won he developed leukaemia. His best-known work The Wretched of the Earth was written rapidly in the last year of his life to get his ideas on paper before he died. The unremitting anti-colonialism of the book made Fanon a hero to resistance movements through the 1960s.

Both Fanon and later Malcolm X had epiphanies regarding their understanding of imperialism and racism connected to the Algerian war of independence. After the FLN’s victory, Malcolm visited the newly independent country and it helped him formulate the idea that colonised people had gained pride and respect through ‘nationalism’, and the colonised and previously enslaved people in the US could do the same – finding their own path to freedom with ‘black nationalism.’ For both there is a dialectical process at work relating to ideas of race. It was through travelling that Malcolm came to reject the idea that all whites were the problem, but it also caused him to shift on which groups of the oppressed he was referring to. So, he talks of colonised peoples, but then of the specific experience of ‘black’ Americans who have had the experience of slavery.

Ciccariello-Maher argues that ‘Malcolm’s trip [an 18-week tour of Africa in 1964] had convinced him that the African-American community needed to broaden its scope, forcefully participating in the African and Third World liberation movement against the remaining vestiges of colonialism and imperialism.’[12]

On Fanon, Ciccariello-Maher notes he was ‘a man for whom race, the ultimate crime against human unity, had no objective standing. “Blacks” only exist as such on the basis of “a series of affective disorders” resulting from a process of racialisation in which… “it is the racist who creates the inferiorised.”’ [13] Fanon took this argument from Jean Paul Sartre’s 1946 analysis of antisemitism, Anti-Semite and Jew. Ciccariello-Maher maintains that Fanon saw a dialectics ‘short circuited by white supremacy.’[14]

Wilderson argues that Fanon divides the world into the motherland and the colonised, ‘two different “species,” between which “no conciliation is possible”.’[15] But while Fanon talks of a movement of explosive change, of a shift in relations between fluid groups of people, Wilderson rejects any idea of change. Categories for him are fixed and permanent. He comments, ‘The phrase “not in service of a higher unity” dismisses any kind of dialectical optimism for a future synthesis.’[16]

As Fanon developed his anti-colonial theories, he was particularly inspired by two recent struggles. The first in Vietnam had seen the French militarily defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the British defeat of the Mau Mau (Land and Freedom Army) in Kenya, East Africa, but at such a cost that they resolved not to fight such a war again and withdrew. Conversely, he was disgusted with the French left and particularly the Communist Party (PCF), which did not support the resistance in Algeria. This is one reason why though he was sympathetic to Marxist ideas he never came to identify with them. The party said it wanted rights for Algerians, but as part of France, denying them the right to self-determination. It was suspicious of the FLN which it did not regard as part of the left.[17]

Marxism, Racism and Class

When discussing Marxist attitudes and responses it is always worth remembering that there are different strands of thought that think of themselves as Marxist. For instance, returning to France in the late 1950s, Fanon stayed with Trotskyist Jean Ayme, who fully supported the Algerian resistance. ‘Among the documents that Ayme gave him to read, he was fascinated to discover the transcripts of the first four congresses of the Communist International… Fanon spent entire nights in their company.’ [18]

Marx himself had come to understand the vital importance of anti-colonial struggles. He wrote of Britain’s first colony to his collaborator Frederick Engels in 1869, ‘For a long time, I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working-class ascendency… Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.’[19] Marx had come to see how effectively the promotion of ethnic division hamstrung attempts to challenge capitalist exploitation. As he noted in Capital, in the US, ‘every independent workers’ movement was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.’[20] Marx saw the fight against racial oppression as absolutely key to the struggle of the working class against capitalism. At the end of the US Civil War in 1865 he wrote: ‘While the workingmen…allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned labourer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labour.’[21]

Such concerns were also central to the victorious communists in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. They declared that the oppression of Muslims, that had been so central to the Russian Empire, was at an end. ‘Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable.’[22] This attitude was one reason why so many Muslims came to support them during the Russian Civil War. It was also why they held a Congress of Peoples of the East—aimed at all colonised peoples—in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1920. This decided to support all anti-colonial struggles.

The first such conflict that the Communists related to was Turkish resistance to invasion. Turkey was the shrunken heart of the massive Ottoman Empire, which had been on the losing side in the war and was now being dismembered by the victors. The Soviet government trained and armed Kemel Ataturk’s Turkish nationalists, knowing that their victory would be a major blow to the imperial powers. But they also correctly predicted that once in government Ataturk would put down revolutionary activity.  This knowledge was why Lenin warned the Indian revolutionary M N Roy, ‘don’t paint nationalism red.’ [23]

Fanon was right about the unremitting struggle needed to challenge imperialism and racism. He was right to be suspicious of the post-independence governments – Algeria soon became a dictatorship. However, he was wrong on the reasons. He accepted that there was no alternative to developing as a nation state. In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon argues—wrongly in my opinion—that the working class ‘constitute the most faithful followers of the nationalist parties, and who because of the privileged place which they hold in the colonial system constitute also the ‘bourgeois’ fraction of the colonized people.’[24]

Fanon was wrong to dismiss the working class, seeing them as little different from the bourgeoisie. He did not know that the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which he discusses as an earlier inspiration, was started by a workers’ movement in radical trade unions. It was after this layer under Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai was arrested that the struggle moved into the forest.[25] The breaking of this urban movement and the retreat into the forests weakened rather than strengthening the rebellion.

Fanon’s engagement with Marxism

There have been many strands of Marxist thought and most black revolutionaries have engaged with them at some level. Those removing this strand from engagements with Fanon weakens our understanding of his legacy. Fanon in particular never regarded himself as a Marxist, but he engaged with Marxists and Marxist ideas. His fully justified resentment of the French Communist Party was based on its failure to support Algerian independence and thus to challenge the racism of French society.

Several writers who have recently revisited Fanon, including Leo Zeilig and Peter Hudis, have constructively engaged with these strands of his thinking without ever suggesting that he was a Marxist in disguise. Peter Hudis comments that when Fanon says in Wretched of the Earth, ‘A Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue’, his point is that it is ‘Slightly stretched, but not rejected or abandoned. Fanon never ceases to remind his readers that anti-black racism is deeply rooted in the structure of capitalist class society and cannot be understood apart from it.’[26] This seems to me to be the correct assessment of Fanon’s astonishing legacy.

Ken Olende is researching a PhD at Brighton University in Britain in Rethinking ‘blackness’ as a racial identity. He wrote the chapter, ‘The Roots of Racism’ in Say it Loud: Marxism and the Fight Against Racism edited by Brian Richardson (Bookmarks, 2013).


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 201.

[2] Nigel C. Gibson, “The Rationality of Revolt and Fanon’s Relevance, 50 Years Later”, Karib – Nordic Journal for Caribbean Studies, 2:1 (2015), 9.

[3] Leo Zeilig, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of Third World Revolution (London: Bloomsbury , 2015), 31, 232.

[4] Frank Wilderson III, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?”, Social Identities, 9:2 (2003), 238.

[5] Darryl C Thomas, “Cedric J Robinson’s Meditation on Malcolm X’s black internationalism and the future of the Black Radical Tradition” in Futures of Black Radicalism ed. by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (London: Verso, 2017), 149.

[6] Angela Davis, “An interview on the futures of radicalism”, Futures of Black Radicalism, ed. Gaye Theresa and Johnson and Alex Lubin (London: Verso, 2017), 2.

[7] Toussaint L’Ouverture, The Haitian Revolution (Verso, 2008), 6.

[8] Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, 157.

[9] Fanon, Black Skin, 168.

[10] Fanon, Black Skin, 2.

[11] WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903), 215.

[12] George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics (Durham NC: Duke University, 2016), 157.

[13] Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, 51.

[14] Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, 7.

[15] Frank Wilderson III, “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal” in Afropessimism: an Introduction, (Minneapolis: Racked & Dispatched, 2017), 69.

[16] Wilderson, “Prison Slave”, 69

[17] Leo Zeilig, “Pitfalls and Radical Mutations Frantz Fanon’s Revolutionary Life”, International Socialism 2:134 (2012), 153.

[18] Quoted Zeilig, “Pitfalls and Radical Mutations”, 152.

[19] quoted in Kevin B Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago Il: Chicago, 2010), 144.

[20] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1 [1867] (London: Penguin, 1976), 414.

[21] Karl Marx, Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln.

[22] John Riddell (ed), To See the Dawn (Pathfinder, 1993), 13.

[23] M N Roy, Memoirs (Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1964), 395.

[24] Fanon, Wretched, 86.

[25] See for instance Bildad Kaggia, Roots of Freedom (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1975) and Makhan Singh, History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement, to 1952 (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1969).

[26] Peter Hudis Race, Class and New Humanism,


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