Friday, September 09, 2011


This is one of those long "what the hell is going on" posts that I do every now and then that some of you complain about.  This time, taking a hint from numerous other blogs, I'll just print the beginning of the piece and if you want to read the rest you can click and link to it.

Franz Fanon, many of you should remember him, since though he has been long gone, he never really left.  His ideas and thoughts live on.  What you will find below is an analysis of the British "riots" and other such events which attempts to utilize some of Fanon's basic thinking. It asks "how can we be human in an inhuman world?" I find it very worthwhile.  Whether you will or not is up to you.  It comes from Pambazuka News.

London calling: Fanon, spontaneity and the English insurrections

Nigel C. Gibson

Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the spirit, every time a man says no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act … Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes to generosity … No to the contempt … No to degradation… No to exploitation … No to the butchery of what is most human … freedom.’

‘See to it you remain a human being. To be a human being is the main thing, above all else … to be human means joyfully throwing yourself on the scales of destiny when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud… Oh, I don’t know of any recipe that can be written down on how to be human.’

A new edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters reminded me of the Luxemburg quote above (written from prison at the end of 1916 during the bloody war supported by the social democrats), which I was first introduced to by Raya Dunayevskaya in 1981; it was the year of rebellions across the major cities of England and the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. It was a period of crisis and Thatcher had won the 1979 election, in part, by using the fear of being “swamped by people of a different culture,” and only won re-election later through a jingoistic war in the Falklands/Malvinas. The background to the 1981 revolts, which had begun in black neighborhoods in the mid-1970s against police harassment and brutality, spread across race lines. By 1981, black and white youth were fighting the police across England’s major cities. And now, thirty years later, it is happening again: the same police harassment, the same economic crisis, and, despite the rhetoric of multiculturalism, the same English racism—all this has never really ended. The old imperial concern about cultural miscegenation or Thatcherite “swamping”—the concern that white children would become infected by this corrosive and deforming element which is insensible to ethics and an enemy of values (Fanon 1968:41)[1]—was expressed by the former LSE Professor and current TV personality broadcaster David Starkey (Commander of the British Empire). On national television (Newsnight August 12, 2011) he got to the root: “The problem is that the whites have become black.”[2]

How to be human in a dehumanized society? This question haunted Fanon and it haunts our age. It was the question Fanon asked in his letter of resignation from Blida Hospital (1967b) concluding that a colonial society, a dehumanized society, needed replacing. But how could a dehumanized people replace it? One of Fanon’s contributions to revolutionary theory, a contribution that remains controversial today, is his belief that the “damned of the earth”—the poor, landless, unemployed, the marginalized and less than human—are not only thinking and rational beings but can organize themselves as forces that can change the world and make it a more human place. In other words, those people who are considered outside of society, the cast-offs and dregs, the worthless and stupid, the lazy and uncivilized, the irrational and ill-tempered, are the very people on which Fanon’s hopes for a “new humanism” are based. Being radical means getting to the root, and staying human means rejecting the pseudo-humanism of this world, a world where they massacre the human on every street corner (Fanon 2005:235). Fanon’s challenge to intellectuals to “sanction revolt” (see 1968:207; 2005:146) is no more apparent than in the recent riots in London. The riotous and destructive youth seem to prove the truth that they are nothing more than an “unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind force … insensible to ethics” (Fanon 1968:41), representing at best nothing or nothing but the impossibility of progressive politics. Yet just as much as Fanon’s language describes one discourse, he reminds us that “challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view,” and we might ask: how does Fanon speak to our period?

If Rosa Luxemburg, perhaps the most empathetic of her generation of revolutionary socialists to the sufferings of the colonized against imperialism, insisted until her dying day that national liberation struggles were reactionary, Fanon argued from within the struggles of national liberation that the workers’ movements in Europe had fallen asleep. Perhaps they will wake up, but, he added, we cannot wait. What connects Luxemburg and Fanon is not only their acute sensitivity to human suffering and alienation but also their attempts to theorize and conceptualize new movements and to understand that such theorizations were connected to the construction of a new society. Luxemburg argued that “spontaneity plays such a predominant part [in the 1905 revolution] not because the Russian proletariat are ‘uneducated’ but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them” (Luxemburg 2004:198). For the first time, argues Dunayevskaya (1981:18), “Luxemburg was impressed with what she disliked most—the lumpen proletariat. The revolution irradiated the genius of all people.”

While movements for social change can be viewed retrospectively to harbor longtime political discussions, spontaneous movements often arise quickly and are often dismissed as local, specific, “mindless”, and sometimes as absolutely unfathomable. These rebellions, what John Holloway summarizes as “a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO” (2002:1) against objective dehumanization, are a constant feature of our contemporary world. Yet making sense of them is always made more difficult by the powerful contending forces attempting to break resistance by any means, to use rebellions for their own political ends, or both. Thus, almost as swiftly as a rebellion breaks out it is quickly crushed or compromised, and dismissed as destructive rage as Fanon warns in “The Grandeur and Weaknesses of Spontaneity,” the second chapter of The Wretched of the Earth. Yet just as there is no such thing as pure spontaneity—there is always thinking before and during an event—there is also the quest for self-understanding in the face of psychologists, social workers and political scientists from the right and from the left attempting to give it a meaning. The questions being asked may well be implicit, but the task is to have one’s ears open to “the genius of all people” when it is being drowned out by ideological noise. The task for radicals is to avoid applying pre-formed cookie-cutter theory to new situations and jamming a new event or movement into old categories, but, instead, to begin to open up space for dialogue and reflection on action. On the other hand, it is just “common opportunism”, as Fanon puts it, to abdicate any other responsibility as a revolutionary than to simply herald any action. Once liberated from such undialectical thinking the question remains: how does one perceive a movement’s genius and its reason, especially when it appears, from outside, to have none? This is particularly challenging in the face of those that pathologize rebellions and revolts as illogical and unreasonable, as quite simply mindless acts of violence. Rejecting this standpoint is a first step. The point is that one can’t know beforehand, so one has to be continually open to the world and its breaths, as Césaire puts it, and at the same time always self-critical, always questioning, always connecting.


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