The following theoretical work by Arturo, a member of BtR-Philly, examines the concepts of praxis, spontaneity, cadre and humanity in the work of revolutionary thinker Frantz Fanon. It is accompanied by a piece of visual art by Lainie, a member of BtR-NYC, which places Fanon within a historical trajectory of mass struggle from colonization to the present.
Down a New Road:
Thoughts on Fanon’s Revolutionary Praxis
What I call middle-class society is any society that becomes rigidified in predetermined forms, forbidding all evolution, all gains, all progress, all discovery…a closed society in which life has no taste.
—Fanon, Black Skin White Masks
Revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
—Marx and Engels, The German Ideology
Initially subjective, the breaches made in colonialism are the result of a victory of the colonized over their old fear and over the atmosphere of despair distilled day after day by a colonialism that has incrusted itself with the prospect of enduring forever.
—Fanon, A Dying Colonialism
That people change at the same time that they change the world is a basic fact of revolutionary praxis. In the very moment of lashing out against an insuperable oppression the individual undergoes a radical alteration. Frantz Fanon took this observation a step further in arguing that at the very center of the individual participating in social change is not only a “remodeling” of the consciousness we have of ourselves, or the ruling class and its world, “at last within reach”—there is also a “renewal” of the “symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people,” in short, the “reassertion” of our “capacity to progress.”1 This intersection of thought and practice is the critical focus of Fanon’s dialectical conception of revolutionary praxis. A common theme in his theoretical work, a theme fiercely developed by Fanon scholar Lewis Gordon, is that of human consciousness as an open-ended question, as a lived experience of the body in movement, in antagonism with the inhuman institutions of society. This consideration stimulates the question: how and why does revolutionary thought arise in the process of battle for a new humanity?
True to the nature of his ideas, to read Fanon’s writings is to engage in a continual process of methodological self-reflection. One finds oneself going back to the texts at an unusual frequency, discovering new ways of interpretation. To start off with, if one is to study Fanon’s conception of revolutionary praxis, one must begin with the basic thesis that the human is a perpetual question—that “basic personality” is not “a constant,” but rather “a variable.”2 V.I. Lenin and other communist philosophers have somewhat of a similar existential tendency in this regard. Lenin wrote in Guerrilla Warfare “new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes…the coming crises will introduce new forms of struggle that we are now unable to foresee.” In other words, revolutionary praxis is never a fixed dogma. It is born out of the changing circumstances of the historical space and the political time of each revolutionary situation. That is another thesis of Fanon’s, which overlaps with a similar tradition in C.L.R. James and Gordon: that a people cannot know in advance what forms of organization and methods of struggle their liberation will take, for to attempt to do so is to impose bureaucratic abstractions on a living, breathing phenomenon. Marx also reflected this current when he declared that “I am not going to write any recipes for the cook shops of the future.” In revolution there is never the guarantee of a future heaven and always the risk of failure.
Let’s look at some examples of how this revolutionary praxis plays out. Fanon highlights in A Dying Colonialism how the possibility of a new horizon not previously imaginable emerges in periods of revolutionary upsurge. In his essay “Algeria Unveiled” Fanon details the transformation of the Algerian woman who participates in the national liberation struggle, an involvement that necessitates a radical reorganization and reexamination of the familial structure of Algerian society. “The old fear of dishonor was swept away by a new fear, fresh and cold—that of death in battle or torture of the girl. Behind the girl, the whole family—even the Algerian father, the authority for all things, the founder of every value—following in her footsteps, becomes committed to the new Algeria.”3 Hierarchal customs, fixed relics of the past, flexibly adjusted themselves to new conditions as they arose. The veil, a symbol of sexual subordination, became an instrument of female rebellion, a means to sneak weapons past the French military. Defying all tradition, the veil was taken off—Algerian women Europeanized themselves in order to further deceive the enemy. In the Algerian woman was the birth of a completely new consciousness, “without preliminary instruction,” without a previously known “character to imitate.”4
A similar methodological shift is detailed in “This Is the Voice of Algeria” and in “Medicine and Colonialism.” Fanon explains how the radio and medicine of Europeans were at first rejected by Algerians, just as attempts by Europeans to unveil the Algerian woman were rejected, not because of backwardness, but because they were techniques solely in the hands of the occupiers, which threatened to annihilate Algerian national consciousness. To preserve from foreign intrusion ones basic personality, ones native consciousness of the world, even if metaphysically, was more important than finding a common ground with the enemy. Moreover, new forms of resistance beyond the old ones were made possible through the conservation of traditional values in the face of the interruption of colonialism. In the midst of racial domination and repression Algerians preserved their national consciousness while imaginatively recreating it. Fanon goes on to show how techniques of colonialism were expropriated by the colonized, the radio and medicine rapidly adopted by Algerians in the war of independence and used in completely new ways, synthesized with traditional constructions of reality, transforming instruments of colonial oppression into those of native liberation. The necessities of combat against French colonialism forced the “dislocation of old myths,” giving rise to “new attitudes, to new modes of action, to new ways,” in short, to a new praxis.5
Fanon highlights how these kinds of revolutionary modifications cannot fit neatly into objective or quantitative frameworks; shifts of praxis cannot be calculated as mathematical equations are calculated. “At the level of actual experience, one cannot expect to obtain a rationalization of attitudes and choices.”6 The subjective reasoning of the colonized in choosing to reject the techniques of the colonizers in order to safeguard their native ideas and practices, when objectively, in cold rationality, these foreign techniques could have benefited them, and then taking the techniques up in the course of the revolution—the reasons for this cannot be inventoried. They are situated within a particular experience of reality.