New Hampshire Left And Right, Plus Frantz Fanon Today
On this episode of Start Making Sense, John Nichols analyzes the first primary of 2024, and Adam Shatz talks about his new book, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.
On this episode of Start Making Sense, John Nichols has our analysis on the New Hampshire primary–Biden's big win, and Trump's furious victory speech.
Also: Adam Shatz talks about Franz Fanon, whose books Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks made him a huge figure on the left, not just in the '60s when they were published, but in the era of Black Lives Matter when “his shadow looms larger than ever.” Now he's the subject of Adam's new book, The Rebel's Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. Adam is the US editor of the London Review of Books, and former Literary Editor of The Nation.
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Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, first in the nation, was also the last chance for Republicans to move beyond Trump. It was also the first chance for Democrats to pressure Biden to push for a cease-fire in Gaza. John Nichols has our analysis.
Also on this episode: Adam Shatz talks about Frantz Fanon, whose books Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks made him a huge figure on the left, not just in the 1960s when they were published, but in the era of Black Lives Matter when “his shadow looms larger than ever.” Now, he’s the subject of Adam’s new book, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. Adam is the US editor of the London Review of Books, and former literary editor of The Nation.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.
A political battle is underway in Los Angeles, where landlords, multi-millionaires, and the police are trying to defeat the leading progressive on the city council. Their key issues are protection for renters and new taxes on mansions.
Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: A new podcast brings us stories from the early days of HIV & AIDS. It's about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color and the people who refused to stay out of sight. WNYC's Kai Wright and The Nation's Lizzy Ratner are behind the new show, Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows.
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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show: Adam Shatz will talk about Frantz Fanon, whose books Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks made him a huge figure on the left, not just in the ’60s when they were published, but in the era of Black Lives Matter when “his shadow looms larger than ever.” Now he’s the subject of a new book by Adam, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. But first: John Nichols with our analysis of the New Hampshire primary. That’s coming up – in a minute.
The first primary election of the season was Tuesday in New Hampshire. For comment, we turn of course to John Nichols. He’s National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation and author of many books, most recently, It’s Okay To Be Angry About Capitalism, co-authored by Bernie Sanders. John, welcome back.
John Nichols: Well, it’s good to be with you after the first New Hampshire primary in a decade that wasn’t won by Bernie Sanders.
JW: Fantastic way to start here. Well, for Republicans, the first primary of 2024 was also the last chance to really stop Trump. It was all up to Nikki Haley. The old guard of the Republican Party of New Hampshire rallied around her. The governor supported her. The Republican former senator supported her. The biggest newspaper supported her. Ron DeSantis dropped out. She was hoping independents would vote in the Republican Party against Trump, which they are allowed to do. In the end, Trump got 54%. Nikki Haley got 43%. What does that mean? Is the race over?
JN: Pretty close. It’s not quite over because Nikki Haley has decided that she’s going to fight on, and as long as the Koch brothers and their network of donors are willing to continue to fund her, for whatever reason, whether they want to simply weaken Trump and they think the best way to do so is with an ongoing Republican primary challenge, or whether they genuinely are delusional enough to think she could win the nomination, doesn’t much matter. If they keep giving her money, she’ll keep running. What that means is that she’ll head out, they’ll probably take a little shot at Nevada, which won’t go very far and then she’ll head to South Carolina, which is probably, not certainly, but probably where the Haley campaign ends because though she is the former governor of South Carolina and has a lot of roots there, the infrastructure of South Carolina Republican politics is almost entirely united against her.
They’re literally aggressively campaigning against her. And South Carolina is a very strong Trump state. So bottom line is that Nikki Haley went to the state that was her best chance. And she got pretty much every break she could get. The other candidates got out of the race. She did get the Manchester Union leader endorsement, which is of some consequence, although it came very late. And then she had the governor literally driving her around the state, the other people. And a lot of crossover, I think there was a tremendous amount of crossover, but it just wasn’t sufficient. She didn’t hit that John McCain sweet spot from 2000 or 2008. And so as a result, she comes out of New Hampshire with a loss, pretty significant loss, and very little to build upon going forward.
JW: But isn’t it true that Trump would’ve been an overwhelming favorite to win the nomination even if he lost in New Hampshire? Nikki Haley’s base of support in the Republican Party is moderate and highly educated voters, who we know are a shrinking part of the Republican Party today.
JN: Right. Look, as I said, New Hampshire was her best state. I mean, not just her best state for this early stage of the process. If you looked nationwide and you said, ‘Well, what’s the state where if everything fell in place, Nikki Haley had her best chance of winning a primary?’ It was New Hampshire, without a doubt. And pretty much everything fell in place for her, and yet. I think this tells you something profound about where the Republican Party is, and that is that the base of the Republican Party is a Trump party. It’s Trump’s party. And there was enough of them, a sufficient number of them to get him a victory even when everything was sort of stacked up in Nikki Haley’s favor in that state.
And so she’s not going to get a better deal than that anyplace else. And so what we come away from New Hampshire with is this. Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party is as firm as it has ever been. However, there is some evidence that his appeal to independents may actually be less than it’s ever been. And so the numbers out of New Hampshire are not very good for Nikki Haley, but perhaps very good for Joe Biden.
JW: Well, Nikki Haley is perceived as the representative of the pre-Trump old guard corporate Republican Party. Is that the right way to understand her?
JN: Pretty much, yes. It pretty much is. Look, Nikki Haley is a polite extreme right-wing corporate conservative, right?
JN: Whereas Donald Trump is an impolite extreme right-wing corporate conservative. They’re not that far apart on the issues. The one thing that’s striking about Nikki Haley is she is undoubtedly more anti-union than Donald Trump and probably a little bit more firm on some of these social issues than Trump is. So there’s an argument to be made that she was to the right of Trump. However, her long-term willingness to do the bidding of the biggest corporations and the biggest donors is really what’s defined her throughout her career. There’s very little evidence that she is a particularly interesting political player. She’s not a Rand Paul or somebody like that. She is essentially a corporate conservative who got the lucky break of being the last person standing against Trump and thus could get support from some people who were more moderate than she is. But I doubt will be voting for her in November, a lot of them.
JW: You wrote in The Nation that, “she missed her best chance to take on Trump.” Ahe actually could have done better. How so?
JN: There’s absolutely no question she could have done better. Look, Trump panicked, as he often does in the late stages of the New Hampshire fight. And as Ron DeSantis stepped out of the running, as Chris Christie stepped out, it was clear we were getting a one-on-one between Trump and Nikki Haley. Trump’s response to that was to do what he does, which is to go toward racism and xenophobia. And he started attacking Nikki Haley by misstating her name, emphasizing her birth name, which is Nimarata, emphasizing the fact that she is the child of immigrants, even going so far as to suggest that she might not be qualified to be President of the United States because she was the child of immigrants. And so he did to her everything that he did to Barack Obama. And this is his old move. It’s an approach that he does politically.
Haley had a chance to call him out on it to say, ‘Look, Donald Trump is doing the same thing he’s done year after year, campaign after campaign. And notably, we’ve been on a losing streak since 2018 as a Republican Party. This Trump approach is a bad approach. It narrows what this party should be.’ And she could have ripped into him in a really strong way, which I think would’ve maybe not moved too many Republicans, but I think it might’ve brought more independents into that primary and more kind of moderate types into the primary. And she might’ve really bumped her numbers, I think, maybe not to a winning level, but she probably could have closed the gap a good deal more if she had run a courageous campaign, which she did not.
JW: Our colleague at The Nation, Joan Walsh, wrote that, “Nikki Haley is hanging on in case Trump unravels.” If Trump were to be convicted before the convention, or if he had some kind of health issues. You think that’s a real possibility here?
JN: How are you going to know when Trump has unraveled? Where is the measure of that in our American politics? I mean, look, the fact of the matter is Trump has unraveled, again and again and again, and the Republican base has stuck with him. Obviously, Joan is brilliant, and what she’s suggesting is that the 1% chance, this is the Cheney model, 1%, you go for it. This is the 1% chance that Trump really does just either get massively convicted, very, very quickly, which I am not necessarily thinking that’s going to happen, but that would be significant because the polling suggests that there’s a lot of people that would move away from him if he was convicted or if he has some sort of huge health problem of some kind.
There’s people who’ve been anticipating that might happen for a long time. It doesn’t seem to be where Trump is headed. I think it is true that Haley got some traction with questioning whether he’s unbalanced or maybe whether he’s kind of losing it.
JN: That may have some reality, but that’s not going to swing the Republican-based voters. So I think that what we’re looking at is that Haley will hang on the outside chance, it’s not so much that Trump falls apart, that somehow a primary comes where she can actually score a surprise. And that does happen now and again in politics. I just don’t think it’s going to happen for Nikki Haley. My sense is that before Super Tuesday it’s very likely she’ll be out of this race.
JW: Well, you and I have talked a couple times about reasons for hope, not optimism, but hope. You mentioned the exit poll results about the question of, “If Trump were convicted of a crime, would you still vote for him?” 42% of Republican voters in New Hampshire said that if he’s convicted of a crime, they will not vote for him. Now, nobody can be elected if 42% of their supporters don’t vote for them. So I consider that a reason for hope.
JN: Well, it’s an interesting thing. And remember, a lot of those aren’t really Trump supporters. Those are independents who came over, right?
JN: These are Republican primary voters. But what it does mean is that independents, there’s some pretty good evidence that they may break more for Biden. There was also another figure in that poll. I think it was 38% said that Trump would be an unsatisfying or unacceptable nominee. If you’ve got more than a third of the people voting in your primary saying, ‘This guy’s unacceptable,’ that’s a very, very, very good number for the other party. Now, Biden’s got to be smart in how he approaches that and how he reaches out to that, and he’s got plenty of challenges ahead of him. But I’ll tell you, when I looked at the exit polling from New Hampshire, my takeaway from it was that Biden’s got a very good chance of winning what is a swing state.
JW: Well, let’s talk about the Democrats. There was a Democratic primary. Biden opted to keep his name off the ballot. The ballot did list two significant challengers, Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson. And as you wrote at thenation.com, “Anti-war activists campaigned to send Biden a message about Gaza by writing in the word ‘Cease-fire’ in the write-in space on their ballots, seeking to pressure the administration to shift its policy.” Dean Phillips looks like he’s going to get about 20% of the vote. Marianne Williamson, something like 5%. You wrote at thenation.com on Wednesday morning, “Biden might have had the best night of all in New Hampshire, even though he didn’t campaign and did not appear on the ballot.” Please explain.
JN: That’s right. Yeah, they’re still counting what are referred to as the unprocessed write-in votes. So we don’t know exactly what vote Biden got.
JW: Yeah, let me say we’re recording this on Wednesday at midday.
JN: Right. And reasonably soon they’ll get a clear figure. But it’s clear he’s already gotten a percentage that is, it’s in the 50s in the mid-50s. And I think that when I look at the numbers that are still out, there’s a reasonable chance that he could get to where NBC is suggesting he’ll end up, which is someplace around mid-60s, maybe even two-thirds of the vote.
If he gets that, that’s a very substantial win. That is, yeah, a portion of people didn’t vote for him, but they didn’t vote particularly for anybody else. 20% for Phillips. That’s a credible finish, but he’s still being beaten by a pretty overwhelming margin, five to one. Marianne Williamson, who ran a very sincere campaign in the state and really did hit a lot of towns, put a lot of effort in, that 5% has got to be disappointing for her. And I think when I look at the outstanding write-in votes, it looks to me like there’s probably about 5%, maybe four or 5% for ceasefire. So end of the day, Biden’s got a very strong number. And this is for somebody who wasn’t on the ballot, who didn’t campaign in the state, and who really basically insulted the state by saying, “We’re going to take you out of the primary schedule.” And yet–
JW: I want to talk about that. How come Biden did not want to appear on the first primary ballot in the nation which we’ve always been obsessed with, the New Hampshire primary?
JN: Well, I don’t know that Biden was particularly afraid of New Hampshire this time. He may have been. Look, historically, he’s done poorly in the state. I mean, his numbers there were really bad four years ago. I think he came in fifth. And so New Hampshire’s never been a state that he’s been overly close to politically. Whereas South Carolina is, and South Carolina saved him in the 2020 race. I think he wanted to reward South Carolina. I think he sincerely believes that the primary process should begin in a more diverse state than New Hampshire. That’s a very legitimate argument and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, for whatever reason, he made the choice to affirmatively seek to get New Hampshire out of its first-place position on the primary schedule.
New Hampshire said, “No, we’re not going to go along with that. We’re still going to schedule a primary.” So Biden was put in a very difficult position. I went up to New Hampshire, I talked to New Hampshire Democrats, and they were really furious. They were very, very mad about this. And I think there was a fear that Biden could really underperform there.
But a group of New Hampshire Democrats, former chair Kathy Sullivan, some other folks, as well as some national figures, particularly Ro Khanna, decided that they were just going to go into New Hampshire and build up a write-in campaign and it looks like it worked. Now, maybe you could tell yourself Joe Biden is just super popular and he would’ve gotten those votes anyway. But I suspect the reality is that some people in New Hampshire saved Biden from himself. And got him a good finish and that is important because I think it does translate to the November race in that state and maybe other states. So Biden played a dangerous game here, but came out probably in the best possible result that there could be for him, a good solid win in New Hampshire. And then he goes on ultimately to South Carolina where things will formally begin, undoubtedly, with an even bigger win for him.
JW: You mentioned the Ro Khanna campaign for the Biden write-in campaign. You interviewed Ro Khanna, California progressive congressman from Bay Area, Silicon Valley. Ro Khanna told you, “Joe Biden should not be skipping New Hampshire.”
JW: And a lot of people agreed with that. What’s the argument here?
JN: Well, I mean, the argument is that the best argument for New Hampshire is that it’s where the media tends to go. And the Republicans were going to go there anyway, and so it’s going to be high profile, and New Hampshire isn’t going to cancel its primary just because the Democratic National Committee doesn’t want them to have one.
So all of those things are there. And then there’s the final thing is that in the test between New Hampshire and South Carolina as an example, South Carolina is not a November swing state. New Hampshire is. And so, look, if the suggestion was, ‘Oh, we’re going to move the first primary to Michigan.’ New Hampshire’s got very few legs to stand on. It wouldn’t be very good. But in South Carolina, that thing is Biden will win the primary in South Carolina, but he will almost certainly lose in November. The reverse is in New Hampshire he has a real November race there, and New Hampshire has mattered in November politics. I’ll remind you that if New Hampshire had voted for Al Gore in 2000, he would’ve had sufficient electoral votes so that Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Al Gore would’ve been President of the United States.
JN: So when you play political games with New Hampshire, you do run risks.
JW: South Carolina’s primary isn’t until February 24th. That’s a month. It’s going to be a long month for Nikki Haley, but it’s also going to be a long month for Donald Trump, don’t you think?
JN: Oh, yeah. It’s going to drive Trump nuts. It already is. I would invite people, as much as I think you should get all your information from Jon Wiener’s podcast, of course, but if on the chance you wanted to watch anything else, I’d invite people to watch Trump’s “victory” speech. And I put quotation marks around the word victory because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a speech like that. I’ve never seen a winner who was so angry. He was just furious at Nikki Haley for remaining in the race. He devoted much of his speech to attacking her, even though she had lost. And then he actually just to put an exclamation mark on it, brought up Vivek Ramaswamy to attack her some more.
And so at the end of the day, Trump is, for better or worse, even though Nikki Haley is not that good a candidate and not doing all that well, she sort of lives inside his head. And as long as she’s in the race, yeah, it’ll frustrate him, and he will probably say and do things that are even more outrageous than some of what he said and did in New Hampshire.
JW: John Nichols: read him at thenation.com. John, thanks for talking with us today.
JN: Pleasure to be with you.
Jon Wiener: Now it’s time to talk about Frantz Fanon. His two books, Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks, made him a huge figure on the left, not just in the ’60s when they were published, but in the era of Black Lives Matter when “his shadow looms larger than ever.” Now he’s the subject of a magnificent new book by Adam Shatz. It’s called The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. Adam is the U.S. editor of The London Review of Books, and his writing appears in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review, The New Yorker and elsewhere. He was also literary editor of The Nation. The last time he was here, we talked about his first book, Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination. We reached him today at home in Brooklyn. Adam, welcome back.
AS: Thanks so much for having me, Jon.
JW: I never knew much about Fanon’s life and always thought he was Algerian, but in fact, he came from Martinique, the French island in the Caribbean. You call it “a backwater of empire,” but you say, “it was a stroke of luck to have been born there in 1925.” Why was that?
AS: It was a stroke of luck because even though Martinique was on the surface a quite isolated place, a small place, a parochial place, it was also a small theater of history. For one thing, Martinique came under Vichy rule in 1940. So Fanon, as a young man in his teens, observed the tyranny imposed by Vichy and the way in which Vichy revealed another side of France; not the France of liberty equality and fraternity, but a profoundly racist France. Martinique was also the site of an enormously creative revolution in Black thought known as Négritude. That movement had started in Paris.
One of its founders was a man named Aimé Césaire, a poet and statesman who became a mentor to Fanon. Césaire and his wife Suzanne, also a very gifted writer and critic of colonialism were key figures in this revolutionary movement. I think the other reason I would say that it was a stroke of luck is that when you grow up in a small place, it gives you a kind of hunger to move beyond the island. That’s precisely what Fanon did when he was 18 years old and he offered his services to the Free French forces and left Martinique in a very clandestine and dangerous fashion, and ended up ultimately in a training camp in Morocco and from there to France where he became a war hero.
JW: Fanon didn’t start out as a writer. He went to medical school and became a psychiatrist. What did he think about what we might call the romantic left-wing view of mental illness as a source of visionary truths and valuable perceptions?
AS: That’s an idea that we associate with thinkers like Foucault in his Madness and Civilization to some extent with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan whom Fanon read when he was a medical student, and also with the anti-psychiatry movement led by figures such as R.D. Laing. Fanon was sympathetic to the critique of psychiatry and ultimately to the critique of things like hospitalization. He was radical in many of his perceptions, but he drew the line when it came to the idea that madness could be this visionary, authentic mode of perception, and he regarded it as a “pathology of liberty”–that was his phrase.
I suspect that coming from what had been a sugar colony, coming from a country that had been essentially a creation of racial capitalism founded on color distinctions, Fanon could not bring himself to embrace much less celebrate a mode of perception that meant one lost any kind of self-sovereignty. Fanon believed that to be free, you had to have some kind of self-mastery, and that’s precisely what a mentally ill or insane person has relinquished. I think also it was in large part because he worked with mentally ill people, and he saw how painful an experience it was for most of his patients. He was a deeply sympathetic doctor. He often spoke of how one is humbled before the ill.
JW: There’s a thrilling moment in your book when Fanon decides to leave France for Algeria December 1953 to take up a job as director of a psychiatric hospital there. I always thought Fanon’s move was a political act to join the movement for national liberation. Apparently, that’s not true.
AS: No, it was not. The war broke out, I think, about 10 or 11 months after his arrival. He had gone there to become the administrator, the director of the Blida-Joinville Hospital on the outskirts of Algiers, and this was actually not that unusual for people of Fanon’s background and formation. The French Empire would send, quote, “assimilated or integrated” members of the Black professional class in the West Indies to its newer colonies, places like Algeria or some of their African colonies, and where they were to serve essentially as examples of the glories of French civilization. It certainly wasn’t Fanon’s intention to be an advertisement for the greatness of France. He, I think, had few allusions at that point because of his experience in World War II where he had come up against the racial hierarchy in the French Army. But he did not go there to undertake a political project. He’d had thoughts earlier about perhaps doing his medical work in Senegal, but he ends up in Algeria, and the rebellion breaks out 11 months later, and Fanon wants to join it as a soldier.
JW: You say he needed little convincing to side with the FLN rather than with the other groups on the left, the Communists or the Catholic left, even though the FLN was in your words brazen and reckless and authoritarian with a penchant for settling problems by violence, and even though in the beginning their targets were mostly other Algerians rather than the French Army or police, and even though they were a small group without much success at winning popular support in the beginning. So why the FLN?
AS: Well, that was the very beginning, and I do say those things. I also say things that are rather more favorable toward the FLN. The FLN is many things. It’s a very heroic group of young men who have been members of another Algerian, national Liberation organization who became impatient with its leader, Messali Hadj, who one of the founding fathers of Algerian nationalism who was not willing to take up arms. He didn’t think the time was right for the armed struggle. These young men thought that we really needed to start now, and they did, even though very few people actually knew of their existence. Now, this is precisely the kind of thing that would’ve attracted Fanon because Fanon was drawn to these grand radical gestures and to acts of heroism. The FLN when it announced itself on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1954 was unknown to most Algerians, but it showed a streak of audacity that would’ve been appealing to someone like Fanon, who after all had left Martinique with a similar kind of audacity and joined the Free French forces, courage and heroism were qualities that he admired.
It’s also important to recall that when he starts to work with the FLN and to provide a sanctuary for wounded fighters is exposed to a current within the FLN that is actually quite progressive and open and inclusive. He was in the area known as Wilayah 4. There were six Wilayahs in Algeria. The fourth Wilayah was known for its open outlook, for its more egalitarian notions about gender relations and for its embrace of socialism and Marxism. So the people that Fanon was meeting in the Algerian resistance were very attractive. It was really only when he got to Tunis in 1957 that he began to discover the other face of the movement, the face of the Algerian exterior, but he stays in the movement. I think my book is partly about the shift from being a rebel to being a revolutionary bureaucrat and the kinds of sacrifices that Fanon had to make.
JW: Wretched of the Earth was written and published in 1961. It’s more than 60 years ago. You say the book created what you call “a lasting myth of the Algerian Revolution.” “Myth” is a word that means different things to different people. I’m sure you chose it carefully. What does it mean here?
AS: I think that the central myth, of course, is the idea that the Algerian Revolution was won through violence and force of arms. Violence was, of course, important to the Algerian Revolution, or I think more properly speaking, the Algerian independence struggle. But the Algerian independence struggle also won because of its remarkable diplomats in the UN, these more middle-class nationalists who were members of the GPRA, the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, and these diplomats were able to push international opinion toward the inevitability and desirability of Algerian independence. One of the people they convinced early on was JFK who gave a speech in 1957 in protest of France’s continued rule.
JW: At that point, he was just a senator, not yet president.
AS: He was just a senator. The other aspect of the myth to which Fanon contributed, I think, in Wretched of the Earth as significant a book as it is, is the idea that Algeria’s independence struggle was this transformative revolution that would result in a sweeping transformation of all relations in the country. It’s a very appealing and exciting idea. I think that the actual history is much more complicated.
JW: The first chapter of Wretched of the Earth has a title that is a single word: violence. One of the most famous lines in the book is translated as, “For the colonized, violence is a cleansing force.” You say, that’s not quite right.
AS: No, it’s not. Fanon did not write that violence was a cleansing force. He wrote that it was disintoxicating. While Fanon was an advocate of armed struggle above all for a country like Algeria where colonialism had installed itself through acts of terrifying violence, anti-colonial violence was a counter violence. So although he is a supporter of armed struggle, Fanon’s also a psychiatrist. He’s writing as a psychiatrist, and he has to be read carefully because it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the prescription and the diagnosis. When he’s writing about violence as a disintoxicating force, he’s writing about the initial stages of a rebellion against colonialism in which the subjects of colonial rule who had been forced to look at themselves through the eyes of a colonist who had been denied the opportunity to express their aggressive instincts.
Finally, they’re able to overcome that passivity, the despair that it produces, and to act upon history and to take on the group that has been subjugating them. His argument is that this results at least temporarily in a kind of disintoxication and overcoming of that colonially-induced lethargy. As it happens, Fanon was also very clear minded about the lasting aftereffects of violence on the minds of the colonized, and those effects were far less appealing. So there’s also this tension in the Wretched of the Earth between his, in some ways, positive account of violence on the minds of the colonized and his very somber assessment of the long-term effects of violence.
JW: Fanon was a psychiatrist to the end. The last chapter of Wretched of the Earth is titled “Colonial Warfare and Mental Disorders.” You say it seems implicitly to offer a rebuttal to the opening passages of the book. What is this rebuttal?
AS: The opening chapter on violence asks us to imagine that through violence, the colonized can recreate themselves, can develop new souls, can become new humans, possessed of power, capable of self-mastery cleansed, if you will, although he doesn’t use the word, of colonial complexes. Yet, in the last chapter, we read about the psychic devastation of a nation. Of course, Fanon places principle blame on the French because without French rule, there never would’ve been a need for a rebellion in favor of independence.
But he also writes about acts of atrocity carried out by the liberation movement and about the impact that it has on those fighters who are plagued by terrible nightmares, who break out into sweats when they see people who remind them of people they killed during the war. You don’t get the sense of a people who have been reborn in the act of violence, but of a people who are going to have to wrestle with this for the rest of their lives. Now, I’m not suggesting that Fanon regrets the armed struggle. He sees it as a tragic necessity, but the heroism of that first chapter is at the very least tempered by that final chapter.
JW: Over the many years you were writing this book, Fanon was alive primarily on American campuses in the movements for decolonizing their own schools. But since you finished the book, Fanon’s ideas seem to have come to life in the Hamas attack on Israel. On October 7th, you wrote an LRB essay about Israel’s war on Gaza in which you recall Fanon’s description of the colonized person. What did he say?
AS: What he says is that the colonized person is “a persecuted person who dreams constantly of becoming the persecutor.” Fanon believed that this feeling was an inevitable product of colonialism, but that in the course of struggle, the movement of the colonized would have to overcome those early desires for revenge and what he called anti-racist racism and hatred. He said these qualities were entirely understandable given the centuries of oppression that the colonized had lived under, but that hatred and the justified desire for revenge could not nourish a liberation movement and could not allow it to succeed in the end. It’s understandable that some of the people who’ve written about October 7, both those who have condemned the October 7 attacks as unimaginable acts of terrorism and those who have contextualized them or even defended them as anti-colonial warfare, anti-colonial justice.
I think what both those observers miss is the dialectical nature of Fanon’s writing on colonial warfare and the psychiatric nature of those writings. Fanon today has been widely vilified as a kind of founding father of modern terrorism, and at the same time treated as this almost angelic hero of anti-colonial warfare, he’s neither. He’s a supremely incisive analyst of what goes on in these struggles. We can only guess what Fanon would’ve said about October 7. Fanon was clearly troubled by certain kinds of anti-colonial warfare.
We know this because in one of his books, he condemns what he calls, “The almost physiological brutality deployed by our brothers, caused,” as he puts it, “by centuries of oppression.” So on the one hand, he’s understanding it. On the other hand, he’s clearly troubled by it, even if he is generally supportive of armed struggle. I think that you can find both arguments in the work, but I don’t think that he would’ve been surprised by the attacks, and I don’t think he would’ve been surprised by the ruthless and brutal response of the Israelis. He regarded colonialism as defined by what he called “atmospheric violence” and he believed that anti-colonial warfare would produce a reaction that would lay bare the violent nature of an oppressive system. This, of course, is what we have been seeing.
JW: Fanon died shortly after the publication of Wretched of the Earth. He was only 36. One of the biggest shocks of his life is that he died in the United States. What did he call it?
AS: He called it “the country of lynchers.”
JW: How did this happen?
AS: What happened was that Fanon, after returning from a rather daring reconnaissance mission in Mali, trying to set up a southern front for Algeria’s Liberation Army, after returning from that mission, he was ill, and he was diagnosed with leukemia. It so happened that stationed in North Africa was an American named Ali Iselin, a member of the Central Intelligence Agency who had developed sympathy for North African independence struggles. The Americans by now understood that France would not remain in power in Algeria forever. The Algerians were likely to win the war, and they wanted to make a goodwill gesture to the FLN who would be ultimately the country’s new masters. So they arranged for Fanon to fly to Washington for treatment in the fall of 1961. He protested. He was not pleased to be going to the United States, but ultimately the decision of the FLN leadership in Tunis prevailed, and he ended up dying in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
JW: One last thing: your acknowledgments include one I’ve never seen before. You thank a group of incarcerated men at the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York State. What is that about?
AS: Bard College, where I teach, has an extraordinary program called the Bard Prison Initiative that was created by a man named Max Kenner. I taught a seminar on Fanon to a group of about 15 or 20 incarcerated men while I was doing research on this book. I was deeply impressed by their dedication, determination, and curiosity about Fanon’s work, which they applied in various ways to their own condition and often in ways that you would not really expect. There was, for example, an incarcerated man who was a white Irish guy who recounted the one time that he’d been outside the prison. He was in a hospital receiving treatment, and when people in the hallway became aware that he was a prisoner from a maximum-security prison, they began to look at him differently. He felt what he called the weight of the carceral gaze.
He felt it in a way that he’d never felt it before. When he read Black Skin, White Masks on the white gaze, the gaze that whites bring to bear when looking at Black men, he felt this pang of recognition. He wrote a quite inspired paper on this. He was one of many. While working with these men who had been incarcerated in some cases for decades who had become accustomed to the burdens and difficulties of being in confined spaces, I experienced a sense of the vitality of Fanon’s work. Fanon was writing before the end of the Cold War about the West Indies, about Algeria, and yet, this is work that somehow continues to speak to us. It resonates in so many profound ways. It has not only an analytic power, but a visceral power, and that experience fueled the writing of this book.
JW: The book is The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. The author is Adam Shatz. For me, it’s the political book of the year. Adam, thanks for talking with us today.
AS: Thanks so much, Jon.