Fanon and the Trouble with Nationalism: from Sentiment to Consciousness

Fanon’s account of the role of Nationalism in Wretched of the Earth is perhaps unparalleled in revolutionary theory in its taking on the problem of exclusionary forms of self-determination in a way that recognizes both their positive role in struggle and liberation, as well as their limit and need for surpassing. More often than not, you will find people and theorists in pro-nationalist or anti-nationalist camps, either espousing the virtues of love of one’s people, or decrying the violence of defining oneself as a kind of human apart from other kinds of humans.  Fanon stands above them by recognizing the need not simply for ideas that correspond to utopian visions, but ideas that motivate, that spurn change, and especially by his willingness to advocate for ideas that by his own admittance have failings due to their power and potential historical force.

Fanon’s account of Nationalism is a historical-revolutionary one. In Concerning Violence, Fanon argues that nationalist sentiment is the right form of organization for an anti-colonial struggle. Nationalism unites the people against its non-illusory common enemy – the colonizer – and helps indigenous peoples overcome tribalism which makes them weak in the face of a united enemy. However, in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, Fanon explains the weaknesses of Nationalism after the Revolution, after independence, and describes a way that through collective work and education sentiments of Nationalism can be transformed into a National Consciousness, a republican humanism of a people’s sovereign self-determination which is not fundamentally nationalist at all but humanist.

According to Fanon, it is not enough for the revolutionary elites to lead the people as a passive herd towards the correct form of consciousness and activity. Rather it is from the people itself as much as from the leaders that the transformation must take place. The key thought here, although un-cited, is Rousseau’s idea of sovereignty. It is from the people’s participation in the armed struggle and the liberation of their homeland – according to Fanon it is the very participation in liberation that helps the people realize that they are deserving of dignity, and that the mere replacement of the colonial bourgeoisie with a native bourgeoisie is not sufficient for dignity. Above all, the people must feel deserving of dignity, and therefore of sovereignty:

A deserving people, in other words a people conscious of its dignity, is a people that never forgets these facts. During the colonial occupation the people were told that they must give their lives so that dignity might triumph. But the African peoples quickly came to understand that it was not only the occupying power that threatened their dignity. The African peoples were quick to realize that dignity and sovereignty were exact equivalents, and in fact, a free people living in dignity is a sovereign people. (198)

It might be fairly pointed out that the elites, which as an intellectual includes myself, are often very happy to talk about the “popular will” without hardly talking to anyone, and not using the concept to represent general sentiment but rather dishonestly using it as a synonym for “common good”, an elitist idea which treats the needs and wants of a people as an objective fact better determined by experts than by polling. And there is a good reason for this – usually no “general will” exists, because usually people disagree, and they disagree on pretty much everything. Therefore, it is refreshing that for Fanon the production of a general will is something active, something that needs to happen as a result of a collective process. And that collective process, in the post-colonial situation, is motivated by the objective collective nature of the crisis in which the natives in the colony find themselves:

The search for truth in local attitudes is a collective affair…. No one can get out of the situation scot free. Everyone will be butchered or tortured; and in the frame­ work of the independent nation everyone will go hungry and everyone will suffer in the slump. The collective struggle presupposes collective responsibility at the base and collegiate responsibility at the top. Yes, everybody will have to be compromised in the fight for the common good. No one has clean hands; there are no innocents and no onlookers…. Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor. (199)

Of course, we’ve heard such calls for universal collective action before, and they remind us of Hegel’s criticism of Kant and the French Revolution – that if you demand everyone to be the universal you will find yourself needing to kill everyone but yourself. However there is a difference here – Fanon is not talking about purity, not talking about the sort of divine violence which Robbespierre advocated which is pure devotion to the revolution. Rather, for Fanon there is something essentially “dirty” about de-colonization, rather than talking about the cleanness of the sword he declares that there are “no innocents” and “we all have dirty hands”. Of course, you may get worried when he calls every onlooker a coward or traitor, but the difference between Fanon and the normal revolutionary extremism is that for Fanon any form of participation is redemptive, and no form of participation is pure. Fanon’s theory of revolution is a sort of collective throwing together of efforts, none of which are perfect, but which need to be worked out through a sort of compromise. Fanon is perhaps the “liberal revolutionary”, the revolutionary who is the closest to advocating for individual rights within the revolution, or at least some sense of tolerance as the bare minimum condition for cohesion between so many imperfect souls. This mucky melting pot of collective action is a condition for the group recognition of a national consciousness which is not merely a nationalism, but it is not sufficient – leaders and the people must  both work towards transforming national sentiment into an experience which engenders a form of collective consciousness:

Individual experience, because it is national and be­ cause it is a link in the chain of national existence, ceases to be individual, limited, and shrunken and is enabled to open out into the truth of the nation and of the world. In the same way that during the period of armed struggle each fighter held the fortune of the nation in his hand, so during the period of national construction each citizen ought to continue in his real, everyday activity to associate himself with the whole of the nation, to incarnate the continuous dialectical truth of the nation and to will the triumph of man in his completeness here and now. (200)

So we can say that Fanon is concerned with creating forms of experience that collectivize, that move us away from individual selfish orientations towards collective consciousness of a group as a whole. But it would be fair to ask how is this “collective experience” different from nationalist sentiment – why is the shared experience any less emotional than the sentiments of nationalism that fueled the revolution? The first clue is that the object of national consciousness is not a sentiment – nothing here about “love for one’s country”, but rather everyday association of individual activity with “the whole of the nation”. This is clarified by the content and style of “national construction”, of the building of the infrastructure and minds of the people of the newly liberated homeland:

If the building of a bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it, then that bridge ought not to be built and the citizens can go on swimming across the river or going by boat. The bridge should not be “para­chuted down” from above; it should not be imposed by a deus ex machina upon the social scene; on the contrary it should come from the muscles and the brains of the citizens. (200-201)

So we can see that Fanon takes “collective project” quite literally, and believes in the redemptive social power of labour. This has bad connotations, partially because work is associated with exploitation, and partially because academics have cushy jobs, and partially because “work will make you free” was engraved on the gates of the Nazi’s extermination camps. But none of those are particularly good reasons to disbelieve in the productive social and intellectual power of shared labour, especially if done in a way explicitly directed towards producing social cohesion and national consciousness. Fanon here is simply taking seriously the impact on local ways of life of the building of infrastructure, and by inference taking seriously the danger of alienation if the infrastructure seems to come out of nowhere. Communities that always took a boat or swam across a river might likely experience some internal cultural dislocation if all of a sudden a bridge meant goods could be moved much more cheaply, and by different means than before. We should remember that Fanon’s major concern with de-colonization and armed struggle is the undoing of the conditions of stagnation in the native culture, unlike other anti-colonial thinkers of his day he was actively opposed to fetishizing the past and thinking of the traditional native way of doing things as eternally perfect and wonderful – what he was for was not simply western modernization, but the healthy progression of the native culture, kick-started by the armed struggle. When it comes to a bridge, this is a perfect opportunity to coalesce the knowledge and muscle power of the new country, to make something that is the expression of the country’s abilities, and by which will stand as a symbol of achievement and local progress. And not a symbol apart from history – because the overcoming of challenges with respect to the bridge building are real victories for the new country, not merely a superficial political game to raise popularity, but real people facing real challenges, gaining real new skills and self confidence. The activity of construction doesn’t build passive tools, because tools remain always symbols and metaphors, as well as pieces of living history by which citizens experience their present and past.

Another, more traditional way the consciousness of the people is to be raised is through compulsory military service:

 The level of consciousness of young people must be raised; they need enlightenment….The army is not always a school of war; more often, it is a school of civic and political education. The soldier of an adult nation is not a simple mercenary but a citizen who by means of arms defends the nation….We must take advantage of the national military and civil service in order to raise the level of the national consciousness, and to detribalize and unite the nation. (201-202)

It would be easy to see this as a simulacra of the colonial army, because does not the colonial army serve a role of instituting nationalism in the imperial motherland? This quick comparison which aims at equivocating between difference uses of force, specifically between the use of force by the oppressor and the use of force by the liberator, misses the specific role of the army within a post-colonial nation. The situation here is a society still amenable to tribal disputes and to fractioning into smaller entities. But national unity is not enough, never enough, what differentiates nationalism from national consciousness is that while the former remains in the realm of sentiment, the latter aims at solving the real challenges faced by the people who share the nationalist sentiment.  This difference is articulated by Fanon himself in his conclusion:

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 program. 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. The nation does not exist in a program which has been worked out by revolutionary leaders and taken up with full under­ standing and enthusiasm by the masses. The nation’s effort must constantly be adjusted into the general back­ ground of underdeveloped countries. The battle line against hunger, against ignorance, against poverty, and against unawareness ought to be ever present in the mus­ cles and the intelligences of men and women. The work of the masses and their will to overcome the evils which have for centuries excluded them from the mental achieve­ ments of the past ought to be grafted onto the work and will of all underdeveloped peoples. (203)

Statements like this by Fanon will always remain mysterious to anti-nationalist thinkers, who don’t understand that if nationalism is not a political doctrine, not a program, but just a political tool that the bourgeoisie can use to subvert and oppress the people, why do we need it? But Fanon’s answer is simple and straight forward – that the only way to move out of nationalism towards collective consciousness of the general will and the common needs, is to move through the first into the second:

if nationalism is not made explicit, if it is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words into humanism, it leads up a blind alley.  (204)

This “making explicit” is what anti-nationalist thinkers always miss. But rejecting republicanism in favour of internationalism, they suppose that a group of people can transcend directly from local consciousness (or perhaps only family consciousness) and nationalistic sentiment, directly to international consciousness – the recognition of the needs of all humanity. But the problem with this is it puts nationalism and internationalism as sentiments into discord, forces them to fight. “Do you love your country”, or “do you love the workers of the world” becomes a fight between right and left, between rich and poor, between the elites manufacturing consent and the pseudo-revolutionary elites that pretend to stand for international socialism. The first group are reactionary because they want to be reactionary, but the second are more tragic because in their desire for a better world they ignore the importance of collective motivation and collective insight, imagining both can come from a dogma as if outside of the real historical dialectic, which is at base a play of social forces and shared emotions. Only by educating sentiments can those sentiments become more revolutionary. The transformation of sentiments towards something more universal, more humanist, is the march of freedom through history.

The living expression of the nation is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people; it is the coherent, enlightened action of men and women. The collective building up of a destiny is the assumption of responsibility on the historical scale. (204)


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