The Wretched of the Earth begins with Frantz Fanon’s explanation of violence within the “colonial situation.” According to Fanon, the act of decolonization will always involve violence. Decolonization cannot occur with merely a “gentleman’s agreement,” as colonialism itself is steeped in violence. The colonists took control of the colonized through violent means with military tanks and rifles with bayonets, and they maintain control in the very same way. The colonial world is divided by military barracks and police stations, and it constitutes two very different spaces: the colonists’ world is impeccably maintained with modern convinces and opportunity, whereas the world of the colonized is “a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people,” which is saddled with poverty, famine, and illiteracy. Fanon refers to the colonial world as “a Manichaean World” that is divided into light and dark, in which the white colonizers are seen as the light, and the black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness and the epitome of evil. The colonial world keeps the colonized individual continually on edge with their muscles tensed in violent anticipation. There is a constant “atmospheric violence” in colonial society, and the colonized seem to inherently know that their liberation can only be achieved through violent means. During the Cold War, both the socialist Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and their allies) and capitalist Western Bloc (the U.S. and their allies) try to sway underdeveloped Third World countries to their respective causes, and while Fanon argues that nation building is an inherently capitalist venture, the Third World remains politically neutral. They will not support the capitalist West, which, through colonialism, has grown rich through the exploitation of the people and natural resources of the Third World.
The masses of a colonized country and the country’s nationalist political parties are usually not on the same page, Fanon claims. Such political parties are comprised of the colonized intellectuals—the urban proletariat—and they represent less than one percent of the actual population. The urban proletariat is the most privileged of colonial society, and they stand to lose everything through decolonization. They constitute the national bourgeoisie, and they live Western lifestyles, espouse Western ideas, and work Western jobs. The peasant masses—which an undeveloped country is primarily composed of—live traditional lives in outlying villages, and they are at complete odds with the national bourgeoisie and approach them with a general mistrust. While the peasant masses are usually neglected by the nationalist political parties, these people are “the only spontaneously revolutionary force in the country,” and they are crucial in the fight for liberation and decolonization. The lumpenproletariat, the absolute lowest rung of society—criminals, prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, and the like—are the most valuable, Fanon argues, and are the “urban spearhead” of the rebellion. While several countries are fighting and winning independence, they cannot rest, Fanon warns, as new forms of oppression are always brewing in the underdeveloped nation.
In a newly independent nation, the national bourgeoisie takes political control, and they slide right into the place of the exiting colonial power. Underdeveloped like their nation, the national bourgeoisie know nothing about actual economics, and they run a limited economy and keep all the profits. Under this system of neocolonialism, the peasant masses continue to suffer in much the same way they did under colonial rule, and conflict between the classes grows. This leads to building tensions among ethnic and religious groups, as well as continued racism and persecution from the ruling class. Politics often turns to a single-party system, and the nation is transformed into a dictatorship, with a single leader driving the nation in the favor of the national bourgeoisie. In order to avoid this, Fanon says, government must be decentralized, moved to rural areas, and run by the peasant masses. The national bourgeoisie is the single most destructive thing to a developing country, and a new nation cannot possibly progress until the national bourgeoisie is removed from power.
After independence, the formerly colonized intellectual—the cultural class—fights for “the recognition of a national culture and its right to exist.” Colonial racism has long since assumed that black nations are devoid of culture and intellect, and the colonized intellectual toils tirelessly to prove this isn’t true. The colonized intellectual turns to past pre-colonial culture and reclaims black culture on a “continental scale.” They advocate for the creation and acceptance of “Negro” culture, especially “Negro” literature, which encompasses the entire continent of Africa and all the black individuals of the African diaspora. This “black world” stretches from Africa, to the Caribbean, and through the United States; however, Fanon says, they have little in common other than the fact that they all “[define] themselves in relation to the whites.” Culture, Fanon argues, is national, not continental, and it cannot be combined into one large cultural representation. Furthermore, Fanon asserts, culture is not something that can be isolated to pre-colonial times. Rather, culture is created through the developing national consciousness of a struggling and newly independent nation.
Colonialist oppression and the violent struggle for liberation leads to, perhaps not surprisingly, a slew of mental disorders. Fanon, a practicing psychiatrist, includes several case files from former patients he treated during the Algerian War of Independence. Fanon includes assessments and notes from Algerians, as well as Europeans, and he describes the ways in which the colonial situation has negatively affected their mental health and well-being. Fanon’s case files range from anxiety, depression, and anorexia, to major psychotic breaks and homicidal tendencies—each case with trauma stemming directly from the French colonization of Algeria and subsequent war. Fanon examines the psychological impact of prolonged brainwashing and excessive torture, especially through electrocution. He touches on the use of truth serum, considers those Algerians sent to internment camps, and even debates the antiquated theory of Algerian criminality as a product of an underdeveloped Algerian brain and nervous system. For Fanon, Algerian criminality is rooted in the same cause as all the other problems plaguing Algeria: the colonial situation.
Fanon concludes his book with a call to action. He calls to end all colonialism and neocolonialism once and for all, and urges developing nations not to look to Europe as an example. Another developing nation looked to Europe centuries ago, Fanon warns, and now that nation—the United States of America—is “a monster” where the “flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions.” Developing African nations must not look to the past, or to Europe, but instead should start a new history, with a “new man” and “a new way of thinking.”