The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review by Brian Tanguay

In my reading over the past thirty years I’ve come across numerous references or quotes attributed to Frantz Fanon, but I’ve yet to read his most well-known books, Black Skin, White Masks or The Wretched of the Earth, for myself. Prior to reading The Rebel’s Clinic, Adam Shatz’ magisterial biography, what I knew about Frantz Fanon was sketchy at best: he was a medical doctor and revolutionary who wrote about the powerless. 

I now appreciate the reasons Fanon is cited so often, just as I’m beginning to appreciate what a complex individual he was. Although his life was brief, Fanon left indelible tracks. Fanon was, as Shatz writes,  partygoer and ascetic, rebel and dutiful psychiatrist, ambitious striver and selfless militant, an urbane intellectual who romanticized the peasantry and was a staunch opponent of France. 

In the Introduction to the 60th anniversary edition of The Wretched of the Earth (which I acquired immediately upon finishing The Rebel’s Clinic), the American scholar Cornel West comes right out with it: “Frantz Fanon is the greatest revolutionary intellectual of the mid-twentieth century. He is also the most relevant for the twenty-first century.”

Born between the two world wars on the Caribbean island of Martinique, at the time an overseas region of France, Fanon was educated to believe in the superiority of French culture and its revolutionary Jacobin traditions of liberty, equality and fraternity. Like many intelligent individuals from small and isolated places, Fanon had an uncontainable hunger for learning, travel and experience. He volunteered to fight for the Free French Forces commanded by Charles de Gaulle in the second world war, an experience which persuaded him that the history he’d been taught was “an invasive form of cultural colonization.” 

As a result of his wartime service and sacrifice, Fanon saw himself as a French patriot, a liberator, and a critical turning point in his young life came when he realized that France did not see him in the same light. Despite being wounded in action, he was neither hero nor equal citizen. Fanon’s post-war experience was similar to that of African Americans who fought, often valiantly, for America in the world wars, expecting that their valor and patriotism would be rewarded with greater social acceptance and opportunity from white society, only to be profoundly disappointed when nothing changed. 

Shatz, the US editor of the London Review of Books, writes in an accessible and engaging style. His admiration for Fanon is clear, but he isn’t overawed by him. What emerges from The Rebel’s Clinic is a nuanced portrait of a complex man and how his thinking, influenced by his psychiatric practice and his participation in the Algerian independence struggle, evolved. While Shatz avoids sanctifying Fanon, he makes a compelling case for Fanon as a thinker of global significance, whose insights about power and resistance, along with his unshakeable commitment to a social order firmly rooted in dignity, justice, and mutual recognition, have endured and remain influential and relevant. The anti-colonial conflicts of the twentieth century may have passed, but in many ways the world remains in the grip of a colonial mindset which produces conditions that lead to inequality, injustice, destruction of the ecosystem and violence. 

Fanon’s advocacy of violence as a primary tool of anti-colonial revolution is often what he’s remembered for, but to view his legacy only through this prism is to misunderstand the man. Fanon believed that colonized people had to be willing to fight and shed blood for their liberation, otherwise there was no way to break the syndrome of depression and helplessness. Violence provided what Fanon regarded as regenerative potential — a kind of medicine that rekindled in the colonized masses a sense of self-mastery and power. But as a psychiatrist who treated the psychological wounds of perpetrator and victim alike, Fanon wasn’t an uncritical champion of violence. 

Fanon arrived in Algeria as a Frenchman and left as an Algerian, fully committed to a state that didn’t yet exist. Algeria’s unique place in the French imagination, in its very understanding of itself as a nation and culture, was different from that of Britain, Portugal and Belgium, the other European empires which grudgingly relinquished their African colonies. For France, allowing Algeria to become independent was unthinkable, and the war was one of the most brutal of the twentieth century, with atrocities committed on both sides against innocent civilians. 

As a writer and intellectual, Fanon was useful to the Algerian cause because he could explain the conflict to the wider world. But his position in that cause was always provisional. As Shatz notes: “He had enlisted in another people’s revolution, in the hope that he would be recognized as one of their own. He was, by some; but true belonging would elude him since he was neither an Algerian nor a Muslim. He would achieve a measure of symbolic power, but he would never be a decision-maker.”

Fanon’s insights into the psychological humiliation of colonial rule, as well as the violent and often erotic fantasies of the colonized, and the arrogance of the national bourgeoisie who sided with the colonizer, found their way into the work of novelists like Nadine Gordimer, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and V. S. Naipaul, as well as scholars, most notably Edward Said, who credited Fanon with recognizing that anti-colonial struggles have a social character as well as a national one. Black Americans such as Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver viewed Fanon as a French-speaking Malcolm X. 

Though it seems utopian, Fanon envisioned a world liberated from the yoke of race, colonialism, poverty and oppression. Since his death in December 1961 at the age of thirty-six, Fanon has been lionized by the political left, attacked by the political right and demonized by some as a misogynist. Being cited on behalf of a range of contradictory agendas is one measure of his lasting significance. 

Shatz concludes this outstanding book by describing Frantz Fanon as “a canonical intellectual figure who commands respect even from his enemies.”