The following theoretical work by Arturo 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 which places Fanon within a historical trajectory of mass struggle from colonization to the present.
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 they change the world is a basic fact of revolutionary praxis. Praxis is more than a mechanism through which ideas are put into action, more than the practical implementation of a theory. Praxis is a crossroads between activity and consciousness, between practice and theory.
The individual undergoes a radical alteration in the very moment of lashing out against a system of total oppression. Frantz Fanon took this observation a step further in arguing that at the very center of the individual participating in revolutionary struggle is not only a “remodeling” of the consciousness we have of ourselves, of 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.”(1) This double helix of experience and thought is the critical focus of Fanon’s conception of revolutionary praxis, a lived-reality of the body in motion with the world.
Revolutionary praxis opens up the door for our capacity to recreate the world and us in it. Yet this potential for human growth is not guaranteed. Nothing new ever is. Fanon looks to the future, to human potential, as open-ended. This consideration stimulates the question: How and why does revolutionary praxis develop in the battle for a new humanity?
To study Fanon’s ideas is to engage in a continual process of self-reflection. One finds oneself going back to the texts at an unusual frequency, discovering new methods of interpretation. If one is to take seriously Fanon’s conception of revolutionary praxis, to start off with, one must begin with the basic thesis that the human is a “perpetual question,” that “basic personality” is not “a constant,” but “a variable.” (2) V.I. Lenin had a similar insight. He wrote in Guerrilla Warfare that “new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes… the coming crisis will introduce new forms of struggle that we are now unable to foresee.”(3) In other words, revolutionary praxis is never fixed. It is born out of the changing circumstances of the space and time of each revolutionary situation. This thesis overlaps with C.L.R. James’ notion of organized spontaneity, which emphasizes that praxis is never worked out ahead of time, for to attempt to do so is to impose bureaucratic abstractions on living, breathing phenomena.
In revolution there is never the guarantee of a future heaven and always the risk of failure. A people cannot know in advance what forms of organization and methods of struggle their liberation will take. Karl Marx reflected this line of thought in his declaration that “I am not going to write any recipes for the cook shops of the future.”
Let’s look at some examples of how Fanon’s conception of revolutionary praxis plays out. Fanon highlights in A Dying Colonialism how a new horizon emerges in periods of revolutionary upsurge. In his essay “Algeria Unveiled” he details the transformation that takes place within the woman who participates in the Algerian Revolution of 1954-1962. Her involvement in the social war against French colonialism creates a radical reorganization and reexamination of the familial structure of traditional 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.”(4)
Hierarchical customs, fixed relics of the past, flexibly adjusted themselves to new conditions as they arose. The veil, a symbol of sexual subordination during normal times, became an instrument of feminine rebellion during the period of national liberation, 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. “Without preliminary instruction,” without a previously known “character to imitate,” the Algerian woman in combat produced a new consciousness of herself, for herself.(5)
A similar shift is described in other essays in A Dying Colonialism. In “This Is the Voice of Algeria” and in “Medicine and Colonialism” Fanon explains how the radio and medicine of Europeans were from the onset rejected by Algerians, just as campaigns by French civil society to unveil and “modernize” the Algerian woman were rejected. This rejection was not because of Algerian backwardness, but because the radio and modern medicine were techniques solely in the hands of the colonial occupiers, which threatened to annihilate Algerian national consciousness. To preserve from foreign intrusion one’s basic personality, even if metaphysically, was more important than finding a common ground with the enemy.
In the face of the colonial interruption of native constructions of reality, Algerians conserved their national consciousness while imaginatively recreating it. Fanon shows how the radio and medicine that were at first rejected by traditional Algerian society when introduced by the French occupiers, were later rapidly adopted and used in new and creative ways when expropriated from the colonizers in the war of liberation. The necessities of combat against 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.(6)
Fanon argues that these kinds of radical modifications in human behavior do not fit neatly into objective or quantitative frameworks. Methodological shifts in 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.”(7)
The subjective reasoning of the colonized in choosing to reject the techniques of the colonizers in one moment, when objectively, in cold rationality, these foreign practices could have benefited them, and then taking these techniques up in the course of the revolution—the reasons for this cannot be inventoried. They are situated within a particular experience of reality. What seems impossible in times of relative stability, “with its known, categorized, regulated comings and goings,” becomes possible in outbreaks of revolutionary activity.(8)
New conditions of life in the period of revolt allowed Algerians to act in ways that transformed society and themselves in the process. But the mask of the old world is not taken off as an item of clothing is taken off. It is not the reaching of a pure stage. The mask unravels in the very moment of struggle, as new capabilities are realized in action. As Fanon puts it, the “problems are resolved in the very movement that raises them.”(9)
In revolutionary praxis, then, on the objective as well as the subjective level, there is a reciprocal interrelation, not an “automatic interdependence.”(10) Praxis is not simply the practice of a theory, but the interaction of theory and practice.
That human existence is not a purely objective subject of study complicates attempts to measure the revolutionary potential of the average person, to anticipate when, where, why, how the conflict will reach the surface. It is more than a formal expression that can be captured by the poll or survey. Do you like your job? Do you like the police? Do you agree with the budget cuts? Sometimes what we think and do as isolated individuals is not necessarily what we think and do as part of a people in motion. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we are capable of.
Millions of people make revolution and take their lives into their own hands not because a super-majority vote was passed, but because the sheer force of a collective will makes real the possibility of overthrowing the ruling classes. A combined awareness that means everything together and nothing separately.(11) What might seem like an irrational proposal one month, becomes a matter of fact the next. The organization of every revolutionary leap in history has proceeded through this dialectic of spontaneity.
Martin Glaberman and C.L.R. James liked to point out that regardless of what anybody might answer in a survey, the fact of the matter is that people resist oppressive conditions of life on impulse–not because an exceptional strategy is taught and memorized, but because their mode of existence necessitates it, because they simply cannot breathe otherwise. Suffocation forces us to grasp for air. When one cannot live in a situation that is miserable without resisting it, the contradiction that takes the form of dehumanization becomes the opposite of that (12).
The oppressed people of the world, despite their limitations, are the architects of the new society and the driving force of history. As Joel Olson put it, revolutions are made not by revolutionaries, but by millions of everyday people. Those stuck in the past will of course take this point to romanticize spontaneity and to dismiss the role of organization. But we are interested in the relation of organization to spontaneity. We cannot essentialize the spontaneous self-activity of the oppressed, becoming “an uncritical mouthpiece of the masses,” “a kind of yes-man” who accepts the oppressed as the truth.(13)
People learn how to fight by fighting, even if they lose the fight. Countless revolutionary thinkers have underlined this point: that the struggle itself is a testing ground of forms and methods, where lessons are learned through growing pains and trial and error. What is possible and necessary arises from within the conflict itself.
Spontaneous rebellion does not simply fall from out of the sky, from an external source. It is precipitated by generations of struggles, often under the surface, involving many small victories and defeats. And the fight runs the risk of becoming a dead end.
If we are going to learn from our mistakes and limitations, and take risks in the development of our thoughts and actions, then we need an organizational praxis that is flexible enough to adjust to and sustain us through an ever-changing backdrop. In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon criticized the nationalist parties in Algeria for trying to mechanically apply to the colonial context a predetermined form of organization derived from Europe: the political party. “This instrument of modern political warfare is thrown down just as it is, without the slightest modification, upon real life with all its infinite variations and lack of balance.”(14)
While critiquing nationalism Fanon also critiqued Marxism. He argued that the analysis of class society developed by Marx had to be “stretched” out when applied to the realities of settler-colonialism. He concluded that in colonized societies there is not just a clash between a bourgeoisie and a proletariat but also a clash between two mutually-exclusive positions in the world: human and anti-human.(15) A hegemonic system of values is contained within the class sctructure. In relation to the colonizers, who embody normality, the colonized are alienated not only as non-humans, but as anti-humans, as the very negation of human values, pushed outside the realm of recognition, where all violence is permitted.(16)
Fanon wanted “a world of reciprocal recognition.”(17). He saw the force and power of racism as a central obstacle blocking the growth of a new, unbound humanity. In light of Fanon’s conclusion, Lewis Gordon further argues that a human future is one in which the white “no longer exists in virtue of his ceasing to function as the End, or less ambiguously, the telos of Man.”(18)
Fanon’s revolutionary praxis demands new interpretations of what it means to be human. He argued that any serious study of the human condition must take into account that we literally bring society into being,(19) constantly recreating and giving new meaning to it through the motivating force of our interpretation, as Gordon further elaborates.(20) The question of revolutionary praxis “includes not only the interrelations of objective historical conditions but also human attitudes towards these conditions.”(21)
It is not just a matter of what we are studying, doing and saying, but also how we are studying, doing and saying it, in the very ways we pose problems and solutions. To engage in a far reaching praxis we must interrogate our very method of interrogation, a double interrogation, as Gordon puts it. Because the content of human existence does not come prepared and ready-made, the complex reality of interacting with it, of studying it, of articulating it, of influencing it, requires a new praxis that is rebelliously experimental, improvisational and imaginative.
Refusing to “erect a framework around the people which follows an a priori schedule,” Fanon aimed to ignite the revolution from “the interior to the exterior.”(22) Revolutionary praxis cannot be pre-formulated and imposed from without, but is instead generated from within the revolutionary situation itself. In having to innovatively adapt to the world and engage in battle against it—a world beyond control, yet always within reach—people not only act and think in new ways, but embody an internally driven praxis, an inner movement extending beyond itself which can carry them forward in the face of certain uncertainty. More than just words and actions, this is a way of living and dying which ties experience to consciousness, existence to essence, suffering to significance. Within the unraveling of the contradiction between the theoretical and the practical there is the unending renewal of the subjective being within an objective universality.
1. Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 30.
2. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, 49.
3. V.I. Lenin, “Guerilla Warfare,” Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism (New York: International Publishers, 1968), 85.
4. A Dying Colonialism, 60.
5. A Dying Colonialism, 50.
6. A Dying Colonialism, “Algeria Unveiled,” 64.
7. A Dying Colonialism, 72.
8. A Dying Colonialism, 49.
9. A Dying Colonialism, 48.
10. Black Skin White Masks, 11.
11. Glaberman, Martin, “Work and Working Class Consciousness,” Punching Out (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 2002), 129.
12. Glaberman, 123-124.
13. Frantz, Fanon,The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 49.
14. The Wretched of the Earth, 108.
15. The Wretched of the Earth, 40.
16. The Wretched of the Earth, 41.
17. Black Skin White Masks, 218.
18. Gordon, Lewis, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences (New York: Routledge, 1995), 12.
19. Black Skin White Masks, 11.
20. Gordon, 21.
21. Black Skin White Masks, 84.
22.The Wretched of the Earth, 113.