Psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon is one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century. Jonathan Silver says that this new biography by Christopher J Lee opens the door to the worlds that shaped and influenced Fanon’s thinking.
In Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism, Christopher J Lee offers a concise biography of one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Part of the Ohio Short Histories of Africa series, the book is an important study exploring the historical context that shaped the life of Fanon and the ideas that would resonate across and beyond the Third World liberation movements of the era. A concise yet intellectually vibrant contribution to the ever growing number of studies of Fanon, this book will be welcomed by both those familiar with his work and newer readers of this sometimes controversial, often misunderstood and always challenging psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary.
Lee is clear in his approach to this biography as needing to be situated in the places and spaces in which Fanon came to understand the world and showing the importance of his lived experience in developing a mode of thinking that is described as “a dialectic between self-knowledge and world experience.” (p191) The book is structured through the various periods of Fanon’s life and pays close attention to both the particular intellectual currents and the (post)colonial politics that would come to shape (and be shaped) by him during this extraordinary period of history. This is an important way to understand Fanon that stands apart from much of the work on his ideas in which focus has been on particular moments in his thinking and have employed text-based analysis of his work without considering the ways that “his writing and biography are tightly interwoven.” (p22)
Readers are given rich and illuminating overviews of Fanon’s life. From his early years on the Caribbean island of Martinique and the Negritude black consciousness movement, through his interactions with Aimé Césaire to his time in France and the intellectual milieu represented in journals such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes and Alioune Diop’s Présence Africaine to his years in revolutionary Algeria and Tunisia working both in psychiatry and later as a central figure in the FLN’s bitter independence struggle against the French colonial settlers.
Across this intellectual, political and geographical journey, the reader comes to appreciate Lee’s insistence that “it is essential to understand his life experiences in order to grasp the origins of his thought and its evolution over time” (p22). Lee’s success in situating Fanon within these worlds cautions us against “an uncritical nostalgia” (p33) and importantly in realising that Fanon has perhaps overshadowed other important figures in understanding the subjects he addressed. For instance he suggests that “Fanon must be understood as one voice among many that critiqued the racism of colonial psychiatry in North Africa” (p115) challenging the reader to reach further into the works of those both within and beyond Fanon’s sphere of influence.
The final chapter in the book weaves together and reflects on the life work of Fanon offering a careful celebration of his ongoing influence across Marxism, postcolonial studies and critical theory yet one that is grounded in the complex nature of both the individual and the times in which he wrote. By drawing Fanon’s “new conception of humanity” (p199) into the same sphere as Nelson Mandela’s humanist outlook, Lee offers an important provocation that helps to “resolve the problem of selective memory and to demythologise aspects of his legacy.” (p188) This contribution by Lee is invaluable as it counters the scholarship that has centred Fanon’s call for revolutionary violence to combat colonialism without exploring the equally important ideas of “radical empathy” (p32) that offer ongoing inspiration for “a new political language [and] new forms of political solidarity.” (p199)
This book provides the reader with an invaluable guide to Fanon’s life and an accessible gateway to those interested in further exploring the intellectual worlds in which he developed his thinking. It is sure to become an important resource to the ongoing renaissance of Fanonian thought that shows how his work has transcended the particular struggles and resistance involved in the decolonisation of Algeria and to which he gave his passionate and invaluable support.
Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism. Christopher J Lee. Ohio University Press. 2015.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.