Rebel’s Rebel

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon BY Adam Shatz. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 464 pages. $32.

The cover of The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon

Adam Shatz and I met recently to speak about his latest book, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32). Fanon was a psychiatrist and anti-colonial theorist. Born in Martinique in 1925, he trained as a psychiatrist in France before he became the director of a psychiatric hospital in Blida, Algeria. There, he began to work with the National Liberation Front (FLN) and later went into exile in Tunisia. Fanon died at the age of thirty-six in Bethesda, Maryland, after receiving delayed treatment for leukemia at the National Institutes of Health—arranged for by the CIA. Most famously, Fanon is the author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959), and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). His legacy persists—sometimes paradoxically—in the work of contemporary psychoanalysts, Afro-Pessimist theory, decolonial thinkers, liberation movements, and beyond. 

Although Shatz’s book was published in January 2024, it was finished long before the current war on Palestine. Fanon—the great theorist of the colonial psyche and armed resistance—has been called to speak from the beyond about what is unfolding in Palestine and Israel. His work retains extraordinary relevance as Palestinians fight for their own self-determination against the colonial state of Israel. Yet, as Shatz and I discuss, Fanon never spoke directly about the founding of the Israeli state nor the dispossession of Palestinians. Since October 7, Shatz has once more returned to Fanon and what his line of thought might offer us now, largely in the pages of the London Review of Books, for which Shatz serves as the American editor. 

HANNAH ZEAVIN: So, why Fanon?

ADAM SHATZ: I have been thinking about Fanon since I was a teenager. I had discovered a copy of Black Skin, White Masks in the original Grove Press edition in my father’s library near copies of Malcolm X’s autobiography and Isaac Deutscher’s The Non-Jewish Jew. When I finally read the book, it struck me that he occupied a place somewhere between these traditions of Black radicalism and independent or dissident Marxism, even if Fanon was not, strictly speaking, a Marxist. His work is effectively a synthesis, even a collage, of streams of thought that had preoccupied me for a long time: existentialism and phenomenology, anti-colonialism and Black consciousness or Négritude, and, of course, psychiatry. It was his commitment to an analysis of the dream life of race and oppression that attracted me most, since we often pay too little attention to the unconscious dynamics of political life. Yet another aspect of Fanon that gripped my imagination is that he lived his ideas even as he was theorizing them: he is a model, if not the model, of a twentieth-century intellectual engagé—a committed intellectual. Both his life and work exemplify the adventure of commitment as well as the ambiguities and pitfalls that the choice of such a life inevitably engenders. The more that I immersed myself in Fanon’s life, the more I felt that, in spite of all the differences between his times and ours, his work continues to resonate today, whether we’re talking about mental health, social suffering, the effects of racism on the bodies and souls of its victims, or the question of violence in situations of oppression.  

The book is being packaged as a biography of Fanon’s “revolutionary lives.” What did you want the book to do that perhaps the many earlier biographies of Fanon didn’t achieve? 

As it happens, I reviewed David Macey’s biography for the New York Times in 2001. And I know Alice Cherki, the author of a 2006 biography, who was an intern of Fanon’s in Blida and then worked with him in Tunis. I have learned a great deal from both of their books, but neither of them conveyed, in my view, the passion that runs through Fanon’s life. I wanted to write a book that would convey that passion, in some ways the tragic passion, of a highly sensitive, determined, creative thinker who rages brilliantly against systems of oppression and injustice and becomes increasingly aware that these systems cannot be overcome by force of will, certainly not in his own lifetime. He also discovers that the movement he has joined to overthrow French colonialism in Algeria is deeply authoritarian and could end up perpetuating the very structures of domination he opposed. While I make no claims to unveiling the true Fanon, or what he was secretly thinking, I hope that I have illuminated this passion, and his contradictions, by reading his work against the developments in his life as a writer and anti-colonial activist. 

What are the moments of greatest corrective in retelling his life? 

First of all, I didn’t set out to write a book that demystifies Fanon. Whatever my reservations about some of his arguments or his political choices, I greatly admire the force and inventiveness of his writing, the courage he exhibited in war, and his overall charisma. At the same time, I wanted to write about him in ways that would surprise readers by revealing unexpected affinities and connections. One example that immediately comes to mind is Fanon’s relationship to the Catholic left in France, which was in some ways stronger than his relationship to Black and anti-colonial circles when he first set out on his path in the early 1950s. Remember, he chose to publish his first articles not in a Pan-African journal like Présence Africaine, the magazine of Négritude writers, but rather in Esprit, which emerged out of the radical Catholic wartime resistance, and which published remarkable work on social psychiatry that influenced Fanon a great deal. Later, when he arrives in Algeria, it is through circles connected to Esprit that he first meets people in the FLN. Fanon will, of course, later develop close associations with radical thinkers and activists in Algeria and sub-Saharan Africa, but he is, in many ways, a bridge between the Global South and radical traditions of thought in France. He also emphasized, in Black Skin, White Masks, that he considered himself an heir to the history of thought and culture generally, not just to an African past: he accepted no limit to his imagination, no matter who attempted to impose it. 

You’re very careful to allow Fanon to be more than just an idol—which includes his human fallibility. It never seems contrary to how important Fanon is, or against Fanon in any way, even in those calm moments where you end up deflating little elements of his iconicity.

Yes, there has been an understandable and widespread tendency to see Fanon as a kind of saint and to imagine, for example, that he was a leader in the Algerian movement, that he was a theoretician of it, that people were taking orders from him—none of which is true. He was a fellow traveler of a movement with aims that were in some ways quite different from his own. His vision of Algeria’s future was shared by some of his comrades, but not by the leadership of the so-called exterior—the military leaders in exile who became increasingly powerful during the war, and ultimately decided Algeria’s fate as a nation. From one angle, his life in the FLN looks very glamorous: How often do foreigners become spokespersons for the cause of a people to whom they don’t belong? But the closer you look at his situation, the more you realize it was also a predicament. 

Fanon’s decision—and I’m not sure it could have been otherwise unless he’d quit the FLN—was to follow the dictates of the leadership in exile. Take, for example, his relationship to Patrice Lumumba, the leader of independent Congo. There is a myth that Fanon was his faithful and loyal friend until Lumumba’s tragic overthrow and assassination. But the real story is much more complicated. It’s true that they admired each other, but they also differed in their approaches to politics: Lumumba led a mostly nonviolent movement, while Fanon advocated for armed insurrection. And they found themselves on somewhat different sides during the Congo crisis, when Lumumba was losing his grip on power, as Belgium, the United States, and his Congolese opponents conspired to overthrow him. Fanon went to Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, not to help Lumumba, as is widely assumed, but as a representative of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), Algeria’s government in exile. And there he urged Lumumba to step down, to form an opposition party, not to stay in power. Why? Geopolitics, not principles. At the time, the Algerians were cooling on Lumumba because they needed a sanctuary in Tunisia to operate and the Tunisians didn’t like Lumumba. 

Meanwhile, the Americans were making gestures toward the FLN because they understood Algeria was going to be liberated from French rule, and they didn’t want it to fall into Soviet hands. The Algerians felt that if they were too close to Lumumba, they might alienate the Americans. So, when Fanon goes to Leopoldville, he becomes part of a much larger power game, and he carries out his mission for the GPRA and FLN. This flies in the face of the sentimentalism around Fanon’s relationship with Lumumba, but it illustrates how difficult—and even impossible—it is for intellectuals to maintain fidelity to their stated principles and convictions when they become part of a political organization. Does this mean that I entirely lose a sense of Fanon’s idealism, the grandeur of his life? No, because what he does not exhibit in some of his political work you can find in his writing, and in his practice of psychiatry with FLN fighters and victims of atrocities and trauma—there we see Fanon in all his glory, in a sense compensating for his losses as a political bureaucrat embroiled in situations not of his own making.

Frantz Fanon. Everett Collection.
Frantz Fanon. Everett Collection.

Fanon’s friendships are central to your retelling. 

Fanon was part of a generation of anti-colonial thinkers and activists, both in the West and what we now call the Global South, then known as the Third World. His thinking about anti-colonial revolution emerged out of his observations as a psychiatrist but also out of the networks in which he traveled, the intimate friendships he formed, and, most importantly, his reading. Fanon’s writing, read superficially, appears to be fairly obvious, but the more closely you read it, the more you realize that he’s in dialogue with thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aimé Césaire, and Jean-Paul Sartre, at once paying them tribute and taking issue with them, putting his own gloss on problems they had explored in their own work. And he’s also responding to, without acknowledging them, women like Simone de Beauvoir and Suzanne Césaire. It was through reading and reinterpretation that Fanon invented himself on the page, leaping into a future he wanted to create. Re-creating Fanon’s dialogues with other thinkers posed a bit of a narrative challenge for the book, because I wanted to make sure that he remained at the center. 

I also wanted to capture Fanon’s social milieu, which isn’t incidental to his writing—it helped shape it. That’s why I show him teaching his secretary Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, herself a leftist activist, how to make a good vinaigrette, or going to see Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour with a group of friends. Fanon tried to style himself as a correct, militant intellectual, but he was also very social. He clearly enjoyed going to parties, dancing, music. He very much liked being the center of attention. He was not a solitary, brooding intellectual who spent hours at his desk, writing. In fact, he spent no time at his desk writing. He dictated everything we read by him. First, he dictated to his partner and wife, Josie Fanon. And then he dictated to Manuellan

Whom Fanon called his “tape recorder.”

Exactly. Fanon had to speak his work to someone who would understand it—almost like a spoken-word performance; he writes for an audience and addresses us viscerally, with a strong sense of theater. 

What parts of Fanon remained unknowable or less knowable? 

I wish I knew more about his marriage to Josie, which is described by his friends as this great love affair in which he was the perfect faithful partner, despite much evidence to the contrary. I didn’t want to report gossip or make lurid insinuations. To do so would be to betray Fanon. There is a poignancy and pathos about his relationships, and I hope I’ve conveyed it. So, I write in a discreet fashion about one of his affairs because it overlaps with his time in Congo during Lumumba’s crisis and reveals another side of Fanon. 

I find those sections of the book quite moving. In your hands, this is not high gossip, or not only: it’s actually part of the struggle of thinking about relationships prerevolution but with ambitions for revolution. And they’re deeply part of the story. Fanon goes home with the girlfriend of a comrade after asking him, “Does she belong to you?” And in the morning, as Fanon comes out of her apartment after she’s gone to work, he learns she’s been arrested. 

Right. Fanon was having dinner with a group of people that included the American Congo expert, Herbert Weiss, who was close to Lumumba, and Fanon took a particular interest in Weiss’s girlfriend, the radical sociologist Maryse Périn, who became convinced that they were going to run away together and join a revolution in southern Africa. Needless to say, this didn’t happen. Remember, we are talking about young people, people in their thirties, who are far from home, far from what they’ve known, engaged in radical and sometimes dangerous political activities. There’s a sense of shared political and intellectual excitement, and it has an obvious erotic tinge. They were redefining what it meant to be in a marriage in ways that anticipated the rethinking that took place a decade later, in the era of sexual liberation. When Fanon speaks at a dinner party about the idea of “parallel loves,” of affairs that both partners in the relationship accept as an expression of the other’s freedom, Josie is very much on board, and there are indications that she, too, had affairs, especially during his long absences when he was working in Accra, Ghana. That said, I don’t want to overstate their liberation from conventional middle-class norms. Fanon was quite patriarchal in some ways and expected to be worshipped by Josie, however much he valued her work as an intellectual and activist. 

I was also moved to learn that Fanon was planning a book on jealousy when he died. There are so many places it could have gone: Kleinian theories of envy, appropriation, colonial possession . . .  

Another book that he had been thinking of writing was going to be called The Patient and His Double, a title that alluded to Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double. You can almost imagine Fanon writing a book like Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor as he confronts his mortality in the last days of his life. Fanon was not an autobiographical writer: in his most autobiographical book, Black Skin, White Masks, he is quite guarded, even as he writes about extremely painful experiences like his encounter with a white boy on a train who cries out, “Look, maman, un nègre,” as if Fanon belonged to another species. But he was a creative and often very poetic writer who initially set out to become a playwright and whose writing was deeply informed by West Indian poetry and storytelling. There are passages in The Wretched of the Earth that are almost novelistic, or rather cinematic, in their depiction of the segregated spaces of the colonial city, a world “cut in two,” as he writes. 

One thing I thought was profound is the changing relationship between Fanonian thought—on Blackness or the colonial psyche—and anti-Semitism. Was that a conscious decision? How was Fanon’s work influenced by Jewish thinkers working on anti-Semitism in the wake of the war?

There’s no question that my treatment of anti-Semitism and the “Jewish question” reflects my own interests—even a biography such as this contains a concealed memoir of sorts—so much so, in fact, that I paused when you asked me if I had made a “conscious decision” to explore it. I confess that most of my decisions as a writer are more intuitive than conscious. That said, the discussion of anti-Semitism in the book does not come out of nowhere. Fanon was—and knew himself to be—writing in the shadow of the Holocaust. He saw parallels—and revealing differences, too—between anti-Blackness and anti-Jewish bigotry. He was not alone; many students of what was then called “prejudice” or “stigma” shared this belief. A belief that, to be sure, is hard for some to imagine today, given the oppressive and racist policies of the Israeli state, and its instrumentalization of anti-Semitism and the memory of the Holocaust. Fanon described French repression of Algeria’s rebellion as a genocide, a war on an entire people; he also wrote about the specific predicament of Algerian Jews (rather wishfully, it must be admitted, since he described them as the potential “eyes and ears” of the revolt). He also deplored the way in which the West’s others have been set against one another—Black people versus Arabs, Africans versus West Indians, and so forth. He was well aware that the struggle against racism had to be fought on numerous fronts and was not simply a matter of declaring oneself opposed to prejudice. The idea of a hierarchy of prejudice was anathema to him. 

What is more, some of Fanon’s closest relationships were with Jewish Communists who had joined the liberation struggle, including Alice Cherki. These relationships became a potential liability when he was in Tunisia, where a hospital administrator tried to get him fired by claiming, absurdly, that he was a Zionist acting on Israeli orders. 

I want to ask about the epilogue, which you title “Specters of Fanon.” You give us all the afterlives of his thought—the way it’s taken up in the clinic, by Afro-Pessimists, by those fighting for Palestinian liberation. Yet in your epilogue, you note that for all of Fanon’s influence on Palestinian thinkers and militants, he never talked about the question of Palestine.

Fanon died in 1961, so it would have been highly unusual for him to reference Palestine—you’d be hard-pressed to find a Western leftist, other than the anthropologist Jacques Berque or the Marxist Orientalist Maxime Rodinson, who grasped the importance of this issue, or the terrible injustice Israel’s establishment had done to Palestinians, before the 1967 War. There are only a few references to Israel in his work, when he suggests that the model of Germany’s postwar reparations might be applied to Europe’s colonies once they achieve independence. But Fanon’s lack of knowledge of Palestine in no way prevented Palestinians from being drawn to him. Salah Khalaf, aka Abu Iyad, a leader of Fatah, read him in the 1960s. Later, Edward Said wrote brilliantly—and repeatedly—about Fanon. And by the late ’80s, during the First Intifada, Palestinian and left-wing Israeli psychiatrists begin to draw upon Fanon’s work about the traumatic effects of colonial warfare. Palestine’s affinity for Fanon is stronger, and more intimate, than that of Algeria today, where he is mostly forgotten. 

His work is often offered to gloss the struggle that’s continuing right now as we speak, especially his remarks on violence and resistance.

In Wretched, in the very controversial first chapter, “On Violence,” Fanon both diagnoses and defends the use of violence by the colonized in their struggles for liberation. But there has been a tendency to see Fanon as categorically embracing and even celebrating violence. Often the quote cited by both his admirers and detractors is that “violence is a cleansing force,” purifying the colonized. But Fanon never wrote this. What he said is that “violence disintoxicates,” which is quite different. By taking up arms, the colonized overcome the almost drunken stupor in which they have lost themselves and in which they have ceased to think of themselves as potential historical actors. They become aware of capacities and powers that they no longer felt they had. And just in case we imagine that he’s merely celebrating violence, there is a chapter at the end of the book in which he writes about the enduring and horrifying effects of violence weighing heavily on the prospects for true freedom and collective healing after independence. Oddly, those who hate Fanon and some of those who claim to love him offer us the same caricature of a man who celebrates violence, as if they stopped reading Wretched after the first chapter. He’s no pacifist, of course, but his relationship to violence is an ambiguous one.  

Hannah Zeavin is a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, the author of The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press, 2021), and the founding editor of Parapraxis magazine.