Fanon on "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

As Neil Lazarus suggests in his Resistance in African Literature, one of Fanon's most telling theoretical contributions is his insistence on what he terms the "pitfalls of national consciousness." Nationalism, as Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, often fails at achieving liberation across class boundaries because its aspirations are primarily those of the colonized bourgeoisie--a privileged middle class who perhaps seeks to defeat the prevailing colonial rule only to usurp its place of dominance and surveillance over the working-class "lumpenproletariat." Fanon's work -- which predates postructuralist understandings of deconstruction that emerged in the last 1960's -- nonetheless resembles Derrida's work in that it points out that the problems with characterizing colonialism as a binary opposition of colonizer and colonized. Instead, as Fanon would suggest, colonialism may only be understood as a complicated network of complicities and internal power imbalances between factions within the broader categories of colonizer and colonized--not least, of course, the way in which nationalist leaders often replicate the systems of coercion and domination that shape colonial rule. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon blames the failings of nationalism on the "intellectual laziness of the middle class" (149). The native bourgeoisie rises to power only insofar as it seeks to replicate the bourgeoisie of the "mother country" that sustains colonial rule. In the following passage, Fanon suggests that the opportunist native bourgeoisie mistakenly attempts to survey and control the colonized masses to the same extent as the colonial bourgeoisie it attempts to displace:

The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace. In its narcissism, the national middle class is easily convinced that it can advantageously replace the middle class of the mother country. But that same independence which literally drives it into a corner will give rise within its ranks to catastrophic reactions, and will oblige it to send out frenzied appeals for help to the former mother country. (149)

One consequence of the native bourgeoisie's economic dependence upon the colonial bourgeoisie is the problem of representation--specifically the relationship between leader and led that so often serves ironically as a synechdoche for the relationship between colonizer and colonized. Notice, in other words, how the power struggle ostensibly between colonized subjects and empire gets displaced upon power relationships within the colonized body politic itself! An important point of comparison here is C.L.R James, the Trinidadian Marxist whose The Black Jacobins documents the San Domingo revolution--an entirely proletarian uprising--that followed closely upon the French revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Toussaint L'ouveture, the heroic leader of that pathbreaking model for Third World revolution, nonetheless encountered a post-independence questioning of his seemingly self-serving political ambitions and his inadequate consideration of the interests of the newly independent proletariat. In accordance with James, then, Fanon suggests in The Wretched of the Earth the ways in which intellectual leaders often betray the national working-class:

Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty, and national dignity. but as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete form the needs of the people in what touches bread, land, and the restoration of the country to the sacred hands of the people, the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns which constitutes the national bourgeoisie. (166)