When Hamas fighters attacked Israel on October 7, killing some 1,300 people, one Cornell professor declared that he found the attack “energizing” and “exhilarating.”
This was not an isolated reaction. The massacre was celebrated by parts of the left on college campuses and social media, revealing a sea change in American attitudes toward Israel and Palestine, especially among young people. To understand it, many observers turned to a writer who died more than 60 years ago: Frantz Fanon.
During Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, in the 1950s, Fanon emerged as the most formidable and incendiary theorist of decolonization. A practicing psychiatrist as well as a spokesman for the F.L.N., the Algerian liberation movement, he argued in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth, that for a colonized people, violent struggle isn’t just a political necessity. It is therapeutic, a way of restoring the psychic wholeness shattered by colonial rule.
“The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence,” Fanon writes, and the book often revels in descriptions of killing: “In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives”; “for the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist.”
The Wretched of the Earth is a syllabus fixture, and the professors and students who welcomed the Hamas attack knew their Fanon. Five days after the massacre, ethnic-studies professor Hatem Bazian, of the University of California, Berkeley, published an essay titled “Fanon’s Palestine and the Colonial Dividing Line,” arguing that “Fanon’s framework provides valuable insights into the ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, right of return, sovereignty, and peace in Palestine.” Other pundits decried the use and misuse of Fanon; in the London Review of Books, the American writer Adam Shatz rebuked “the ethno-tribalist fantasies of the decolonial left, with their Fanon recitations and posters of paragliders.”
Shatz, who is himself on the left and a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, argued that those who invoked Fanon to celebrate Hamas had misunderstood him. Yes, Fanon saw anti-colonial violence as a justified response to colonial violence. But Shatz argued that his “understanding of the more murderous forms of anti-colonial violence was that of a psychiatrist, diagnosing a vengeful pathology formed under colonial oppression, rather than offering a prescription.” One might say that, for Fanon, the function of violence was to release the colonized man from his dreams of violence.
The question of violence lies at the heart of The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, Shatz’s excellent and thought-provoking new biography. Books take years to write and months to publish, so an author can never be sure what kind of world his or her work will be released into. But the October 7 attack has made a book about Fanon all too timely, and The Rebel’s Clinic should be read by anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the intellectual origins of today’s “decolonial left,” whether they sympathize with it or not.
The Wretched of the Earth is a syllabus fixture, and the professors and students who welcomed the Hamas attack knew their Fanon.
Fanon was an unlikely spokesman for the Algerian revolution, given that he was not Algerian and did not speak Arabic. He was born in 1925 in Martinique, another French colony, halfway around the world, where he was raised to have faith in the French Republic and its ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. His ancestors included African slaves and emigrants from Alsace (whence his German first name), and Shatz writes that as a young man Fanon “didn’t quite see himself as black”; the first words he learned to spell were “Je suis français.”
This patriotism impelled Fanon, like many young men across the French empire, to volunteer for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces, which continued to resist Nazi Germany after France itself was conquered. From September 1944 until the end of the war, Fanon fought his way across France, earning the Croix de Guerre and sustaining several injuries. But the experience opened his eyes to the reality of French racism behind the rhetoric of brotherhood, and he came to feel that he had risked his life for a lie. “If I don’t return,” he wrote to his family, “console yourselves but never say ‘he died for a just cause.’”
Disillusionment didn’t end Fanon’s attraction to France and French culture, however; if anything, it made it stronger, multiplying the force of love by that of hatred. When the war ended, Fanon returned to Martinique, but he could no longer be content there, and in less than two years he departed once again, this time permanently, to study psychiatry in Lyon. For the next seven years, he lived in France, where he became a doctor and married a white Frenchwoman.
Far from growing more comfortable, Fanon took furious note of every racial insult he received—at school, at work, on the street. In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, he drew on the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to analyze these experiences, concluding that a Black man in France was condemned to profound alienation. As Shatz writes, “his only way of being recognized as a man” is to mimic whiteness, while knowing that “whiteness remains forever out of reach.”
The Algerian independence struggle offered Fanon a way out of this dilemma. Ironically, he went to Algeria in 1954 as an employee of the French state, hired to run a small hospital in the town of Blida. Shatz writes that he moved not out of any particular interest in Algerians but for the same reason that French officials generally went to the colonies: “a good job and the chance to start a family.” Yet when the F.L.N. launched its armed revolt, later that year, Fanon joined immediately. “As a child of French colonialism,” Shatz writes, “he was compelled to side with the colonized.”
One might also say that for a man whose adult life had been defined by his struggle for recognition from France, the Algerian War offered a perfect opportunity. By joining France’s most feared enemy, Fanon found a way to compel the French to respect him, without having to imitate them. He became a great French writer by using the colonizer’s language not to flatter but to excoriate.
The Rebel’s Clinic should be read by anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the intellectual origins of today’s “decolonial left,” whether they sympathize with it or not.
Even as Fanon rose to edit the F.L.N.’s newspaper and serve as its roving ambassador in Africa, he continued to practice psychiatry. At first, he ran a clandestine clinic out of his hospital in Blida, treating French soldiers by day and Algerian rebels at night. After the F.L.N. leadership moved across the border to Tunis, he saw patients there, both ordinary Tunisians and Algerian fighters in exile.
This fusion of politics and medicine is the inspiration for Shatz’s title, The Rebel’s Clinic, and he is never more admiring than when writing about how Fanon used humane psychiatric methods to serve the revolutionary cause. Indeed, for Fanon, there could be no cure for the neuroses and psychoses of an oppressed people without liberation from colonial rule.
Yet Shatz also writes that “my admiration for [Fanon] is not unconditional, and his memory is not well served by sanctification.” Some things that seem objectionable today can be explained by the fact that Fanon was a man of his time and place. For instance, though he introduced some compassionate innovations in his clinics—such as creating a traditional North African café for Muslim patients, to help them feel more at home—he also placed a lot of faith in psychiatric techniques that now appear barbaric, such as electroshock and insulin-shock therapy. About women, his instincts were patriarchal if not chauvinist; Shatz writes that he once told a friend “that he couldn’t bear not being a ‘god’ to his wife.”
But the central problem for The Rebel’s Clinic, and for Fanon’s legacy, has to do with the always contemporary problem of political violence. In joining the F.L.N., Fanon put himself at the service of an authoritarian terrorist group that freely killed civilians—not just French settlers, but Algerians who belonged to different political factions or resisted F.L.N. demands. Fanon died a year before Algeria won its independence, so he didn’t live to see the liberation movement turn into a military dictatorship that purged and banned its opponents.
Shatz argues that readers of The Wretched of the Earth too often stop after the first chapter, with its celebration of violence, and don’t make it to the last one, where Fanon offers case studies of the psychological toll of violence on both perpetrators and victims. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Fanon, whom friends and patients praised for his humanity, glorified violence in terms that any Fascist can applaud: “As for the people living in their huts and their dreams, their hearts begin to beat to the new national rhythm and they softly sing unending hymns to the glory of the fighters.”
The idea of redemptive violence has always appealed to modern intellectuals—especially those who, as George Orwell once put it, are “always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.” Many things about Fanon’s life and work are worthy of admiration, but what makes him historically important, in his time and ours, is that he convinced so many that killing innocent people is an act of idealism.
Adam Kirsch, an editor at The Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section, is the author of several books, including The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us