The new Algerian revolution and Black Lives Matter – a Fanonian perspective
27 October 2021
This article looks at the 2019–2021 Algerian uprising through the lens of the works and legacy of Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and revolutionary thinker. It also connects the uprising in Algeria with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and considers what Fanon’s thought has to offer to these and other struggles for economic and political justice.
Born in Martinique but Algerian by choice, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) wrote about the Algerian revolution against French colonialism, and about his political experiences on the African continent. Despite his short life (he died at the age of 36 from leukaemia), Fanon’s work was prolific, ranging from books and papers to speeches. He wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks1 two years before Dien Bien Phu (1954) and his last book, the famous The Wretched of the Earth,2 a canonical work about the anti-colonialist and Third-Worldist struggle, one year before Algerian independence (1962), at a moment when African countries were gaining their independence. Fanon was a radical intellectual and a revolutionary who devoted himself body and soul to the Algerian national liberation. His ideas were always influenced by practice and were transformative; they went on to inspire anti-colonial struggles all over the world, shaped Pan-Africanism and profoundly influenced the Black Panthers in the US.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote: ‘Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it’.3 This statement is particularly relevant in the light of the explosion of revolts and uprisings now taking place all over the world, including in the Arab countries, where a second wave of uprisings (following the first wave from 2011) is breaking, from Algeria to Lebanon and from Sudan to Iraq. As part of this general convulsion, six decades after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria is witnessing another revolution, this time against its national bourgeoisie. What would Fanon say about the new Algerian revolution? What can we learn from his reflections and experiences? This article looks at the 2019–2021 Algerian uprising, as well as wider struggles for economic and political justice, through a Fanonian lens, seeking to shine a light on Fanon’s genius, the timeliness of his analysis, the lasting value of his critical insights and the centrality of his decolonial thought to the revolutionary endeavours of the wretched of the earth.
Fanon and Algeria from colonialism to independence
Before looking at the 2019-2021 uprising in Algeria, it will be helpful to quickly survey Algeria’s journey from colonialism to independence, and Fanon’s place within it.
The colonial period was characterized by expropriations, proletarianization, forced sedentarization, exploitation and brutal violence by the French colonial power.4 Algerians declared their war of independence on 1 November 1954. There followed one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonization, which saw a massive involvement of the rural poor and urban popular classes (lumpen-proletariat).5 Official estimates report that a million and half Algerians were killed in the eight-year war that ended in 1962, a war that has become the foundation of modern Algerian politics.
Arriving at Blida psychiatric hospital in 1953, where he treated both colonial torturers and indigenous victims, Fanon came to see colonization as a systematic negation of the other and a refusal to attribute any humanity to them. He would later describe thoroughly the mechanisms of violence put in place by colonialism to subjugate the oppressed people.
His experiences at Blida led Fanon to resign from the hospital in 1956 and to join the national liberation front (FLN). Thereafter he was active in the fight for freedom, writing articles in support of the struggle and travelling across Africa on FLN missions.
Fanon had high hopes for revolutionary Algeria. His illuminating book A Dying Colonialism (L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne)6 shows how liberation does not come as a gift: it is seized by the masses with their own hands, and by seizing it they are themselves transformed. For Fanon, revolution is a transformative process that will create new souls. For this reason Fanon closes his 1959 book with the words: ‘The revolution in depth, the true one, precisely because it changes man and renews society, has reached an advanced stage. This oxygen which creates and shapes a new humanity – this, too, is the Algerian revolution’.7
Fanon did not live to see his adoptive country become free from French colonial domination: he died less than a year before Algeria achieved independence on 5 July 1962.
In the years following its victory against French colonialism, Algeria’s revolutionary experience and its attempt to break from the imperialist-capitalist system were defeated, both by counter-revolutionary forces and by internal contradictions. The revolution harboured the seeds of its own failure from the start: it was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project (albeit with some redistributive functions that significantly improved people’s lives). This lack of democracy was concomitant with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie that was hostile to socialism and staunchly opposed to genuine land reform.8 Fanon, especially in the chapter ‘The pitfalls of national consciousness,’ from The Wretched, foretold this development: he identified the bankruptcy and sterility of national bourgeoisies that tended to replace the colonial force with a new class-based system replicating the old colonial structures of exploitation and oppression. In Algeria, this national bourgeoisie, closely connected to the ruling FLN, from the 1980s onwards renounced the autonomous development project that had been initiated in the 1960s and 1970s, ushering in an age of deindustrialization and pro-market policies, at the expense of the popular strata. In this context the national bourgeoisie offered one concession after another to the West, initiating blind privatizations and projects that would undermine the country’s sovereignty and endanger its population and environment – the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being just one example.9
In Algeria today, oil money is used to buy social peace, as well as to strengthen the state’s repressive apparatus. Like Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Gabon, Angola and South Africa, among others, Algeria follows the dictates of the new instruments of imperialism, such as the IMF and the World Bank . The ruling classes in Algeria have trapped the country in a predatory extractivist model of development where profits are accumulated in the hands of a foreign-backed minority, with the majority of the population dispossessed.
Rationality of rebellion: the Hirak and the new Algerian revolution
The contemporary reality in Algeria confirms Fanon’s prescient warnings about the rapacity and divisiveness of national bourgeoisies and the limits of conventional nationalism. However, Fanon also makes clear that the enrichment of this profiteering caste will produce ‘a decisive awakening on the part of the people and a growing awareness that [promises] stormy days to come’.10 This may be what we are seeing in the second wave of the Arab uprisings (as well as other mass protests around the world), which began in 2018. The popular masses in all of these countries are rebelling against the violence of the political regimes that offer them growing pauperization and marginalization, and that are enriching the few at the expense and damnation of the majority.
In Algeria, the uprising was triggered by the incumbent president Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term, despite suffering from aphasia and being generally absent from the public scene. Beginning on Friday 22 February 2019, millions of Algerians, young and old, men and women, from different social classes, rose up in rebellion. Historic Friday marches, followed by protests in professional sectors, have united people in their rejection of the ruling system and their demands for radical democratic change. This popular movement (Al Hirak Acha’bi) has two emblematic slogans: ‘Yetnahaw ga’ (They must all go!) and ‘Lablad abladna oundirou rayna’ (The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish).
The events that took place in Algeria between 2019 and 2021 are truly historic. The Hirak is unique in its huge scale, peaceful character, and national spread, including in the marginalized south, and it has seen massive participation from women and young people, who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population. The Algerian people are once again affirming their role as agents of their own destiny. Fanon’s words (speaking of the anti-colonial struggle) are apposite here: ‘The thesis that men change at the same time that they change the world has never been manifest as it is now in Algeria. This trial of strength not only remodels the consciousness that man has of himself, and of his former dominators or of the world … [it] renews the symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people. We witness in Algeria man’s reassertion of his capacity to progress’.11
In line with this description, the liberatory process that is taking place in Algeria has unleashed an unequalled amount of energy, confidence, creativity and subversion. The evolution of the movement’s slogans and forms of resistance is demonstrative of processes of politicization and popular education. The re-appropriation of public spaces has created a kind of agora where people discuss, debate, exchange views, talk strategy and perspectives, criticize each other, or simply express themselves in many ways, including through art and music. Indeed, cultural production has taken on another meaning, being associated now with liberation and seen as a form of political action and solidarity. Instead of the folkloric and sterile productions promoted under the suffocating patronage of authoritarian elites, we are now seeing instead a culture that speaks to the people and that advances their resistance and struggles through poetry, music, theatre, cartoons, and street-art. Once again, Fanon’s words are relevant here: ‘A national culture is not a folklore … It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions … which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people… It is around the people’s struggles that African-Negro culture takes on substance and not around songs, poems or folklore’.12
The struggle of decolonization continues
The Hirak’s demands are for independence, sovereignty, and an end to the pillage of the country’s resources and the oppressive socio-economic conditions under which Algerians have lived for decades. In this, Algerians are making a direct link between their current struggle and the anti-French colonial struggle of the 1950s, as reflected in the popular chant ‘Generals to the dustbin and Algeria will be independent’. They see their efforts as a continuation of the decolonization process, rooted in the anti-colonial struggle against the French and against the neo-colonial ruling regime. As part of this process, Algerians are reaffirming their own place as the true heirs of the martyrs of the liberation, who are referenced in protest chants: ‘Oh Ali [La Pointe] your descendants will never stop until they wrench their freedom!’; ‘We are the descendants of Amirouche and we will never go back!’
Algerians are laying claim to the popular and economic sovereignty that was denied to them when formal independence was achieved in 1962. It becomes clear that the colonialism which Fanon analysed six decades earlier has not entirely disappeared. Instead it has metamorphosed, camouflaging itself in sophisticated forms and mechanisms: debt; structural adjustment programmes; ‘free trade’ treaties; association agreements with the EU; predatory extractivism; land grabs; agribusiness; immigration laws and deadly borders; ‘humanitarian’ intervention and the responsibility to protect; international cooperation and development; racism and xenophobia; etc. All these constitute forms of domination and control deployed to safeguard the interests of the powerful globally.
Fanon predicted this: ‘The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the settler – Blacks and Whites, Arabs and Christians – realize as they go along that it sometimes happens that you get Blacks who are whiter than the Whites and the hope of an independent nation does not always tempt certain strata of the populations to give up their interests or privileges’.13
What we are seeing now is the struggle by the Algerian people to tear away the interests and privileges of the ruling class.
Counter-revolution: the reactionary role of the army and of foreign powers
As with any revolution, counter-revolutionary forces have mobilized to block change in Algeria. The counter-revolutionary campaign currently under way in the country is supported from abroad. Regionally, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are using their money and influence to halt potentially contagious waves of revolt in the region. At the global level, France, the US, the UK, Canada, Russia and China, along with their major corporations, who see a potential threat to their economic and geostrategic interests, are all supportive of the Algerian regime. This context allows us to make sense of the regime’s budget law of 2020 and the new multinational-friendly Hydrocarbon Law.
When it comes to the political level within the country, the counter-revolution has been embodied by the military hierarchy. After Bouteflika’s overthrow, the military has maintained de facto authority. This is in keeping with the military’s position since independence in 1962: during this whole period, Algeria has been ruled by a military regime, either directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, protests have continued. While the brutal repression of past uprisings and the cruelty of the civil war in the 1990s explain the current popular movement’s reluctance to directly confront the army, the people are nevertheless determined to peacefully demilitarize the country, as reflected in the chant: ‘A republic not a military barrack’. So far, the army has not fired any bullets, but it has continued to justify various repressive measures. The Military High Command has also rejected every roadmap for genuine dialogue proposed by the movement.
Once again, Fanon’s words are prescient:
In these poor, under-developed countries, where the rule is that the greatest wealth is surrounded by the greatest poverty, the army and the police constitute the pillars of the regime; an army and a police force which are advised by foreign experts. The strength of the police and the power of the army are proportionate to the stagnation in which the rest of the nation is sunk.14
Algerians know what the military are capable of but, despite the trauma of the ‘black decade’ (the civil war of the 1990s), they are still bravely insisting: ‘A civilian state not a military one!’
Class struggle, organizing and political education
Despite the odds stacked against it, and the state’s efforts to divide, co-opt, and exhaust it, the Hirak has maintained an exemplary unity and peacefulness. This is demonstrated in slogans such as: ‘Algerians are brothers and sisters, the people are united, you traitors.’ The movement is youth-led and relatively loosely organized. There are no clearly identifiable leaders or organized structures propelling it. It is a popular uprising that is mobilizing mass forces from the middle classes and from the marginalized classes in urban and rural areas. Unlike Sudan, where the Sudanese Professional Association has played a leading organizing role, in Algeria organizing is done horizontally and mainly through social media. The general strike in the first few weeks of the uprising, which was instrumental in forcing Bouteflika to abdicate and in shaking up alliances within the ruling class, was organized spontaneously after anonymous calls on social media. While such amorphous, non-structured and leaderless dynamics and movements can generate large inter-class mobilizations, and have the advantage of not offering an easy target for repression, or for the co-option of leaders, they are nevertheless extremely vulnerable, and can manifest fatal weaknesses in the long run.
What can Fanon teach us when it comes to class struggle and organizing?
Class struggle is central to Fanon’s analysis. The Lebanese Marxist, Mahdi Amel, pointing to Fanon’s insights on how the revolutionary praxis differentiates and changes its meaning and direction after independence, writes: ‘While it [revolutionary violence] was before independence, essentially a national struggle, after independence it becomes a real class struggle’ through which the masses discover their true enemy: the national bourgeoisie.15 So from a strictly national level, the fight moves to a socio-economic level of class struggle. Fanon urges us to move from a national consciousness towards a social and political consciousness when he says, ‘If nationalism is not made explicit, if it is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words into humanism, it leads up a blind alley’.16
However, Fanon invites us to ‘stretch Marxism’ as a way of understanding the particularities of capitalism in the colonial and postcolonial world. To borrow Immanuel Wallerstein’s words, Fanon ‘had rebelled, forcefully, against the ossified Marxism of the communist movements of his era’, asserting a revised version of the class struggle breaking with the dogma that the urban, industrial proletariat is the only revolutionary class against the bourgeoisie.17 Fanon thought of the peasantry and the urbanized lumpenproletariat as the strongest candidate for the role of historical revolutionary subject in colonial Algeria. And here, Fanon meets Che Guevara when both point out that in colonised countries, revolution begins in rural areas and moves to the urban towns. It is launched by the peasantry, which embraces the proletariat rather than the other way around as in the case of European capitalist, and even socialist, countries.18
In a nutshell, class struggle is essential provided we clearly identify the struggling classes. In this spirit, it’s crucial to determine the revolutionary classes (and their alliances) in the current uprising. We need to go beyond ‘workerism’ and embrace a much broader conception of the proletariat in its contemporary expressions, namely the unemployed youth, the urban/rural working people, informal workers, peasants, etc. It is these classes that have nothing to lose but their chains, which makes them potentially revolutionary.
In his chapter ‘Spontaneity: its strengths and weaknesses’ in The Wretched, Fanon expressed concern that if the lumpen-proletariat is left on its own, without organizational structure, it will burn out.19 In order to avoid this in the present situation in Algeria, Fanon’s words are worth attending to: ‘The bourgeoisie should not be allowed to find the conditions necessary for its existence and its growth…the combined effort of the masses led by a party and of intellectuals who are highly conscious and armed with revolutionary principles ought to bar the way to this useless and harmful middle class’.20 Fanon insisted on the necessity of a revolutionary political party (or perhaps an organized social movement) that can take the demands of the masses forward, a party/structure that will educate the people politically, that will be ‘a tool in the hands of the people’ and that will be the energetic spokesman and the ‘incorruptible defender of the masses’.
For Fanon, reaching such a conception of a party/movement necessitates first of all ridding ourselves of the bourgeois notion of elitism and ‘the contemptuous attitude that the masses are incapable of governing themselves’.21 Fanon abhorred the elitist discourse on the immaturity of the masses and asserted that in the struggle, they (the masses) are equal to the problems which confront them. It is therefore important for them to know just where they are going and why. To this end, he argues that we have to work out new concepts through ongoing political education, enriched through mass struggle. Political education for him is not merely about political speeches but rather about ‘opening the minds’ of the people, ‘awakening them, and allowing the birth of their intelligence’.22 He wrote: ‘If building a bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it, it ought not to be built and the citizens can go on swimming across the river or going by boat’.23
For Fanon, everything depends on the masses, hence his idea of radical intellectuals engaged in and with people’s movements and capable of coming up with new concepts in non-technical and non-professional language. For him, just as culture has to become a fighting culture, so too must education become about total liberation. These principles should be heeded in Algeria’s current revolutionary moment.
The shadow of Fanon: the new Algerian revolution and Black Lives Matter
In 2020, a global revolt against white supremacy started in the streets of Minneapolis in the United States, following the murder of George Floyd, a 46 year-old Black man, by a policeman who knelt with his knee on his neck for almost eight minutes. Like Eric Garner before him, George Floyd’s last words before he died were ‘I can’t breathe’. The words of Fanon when he discussed the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle may be recalled here: ‘It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because … it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe’.24 The ensuing global rebellion and show of solidarity with Black Americans reflect the conviction that we can no longer breathe in a system that dehumanizes people, that enshrines super-exploitation, that dominates nature and humanity, and that generates massive inequality and untold poverty. Thus, revolts against this system are now taking place on all continents and in all regions. However, if these episodic and largely geographically-confined acts of resistance are to succeed, they need to go beyond the local to the global; they need to create enduring alliances in the face of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. Transnational solidarities and alliances are needed to emancipate the wretched of the earth. I would argue that both Algeria and Fanon can, once again, be a linkage and a nodal point in these struggles, as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the first two decades of its independence, Algeria became, as Samir Meghelli has described, ‘a critical node in the constellation of transnational solidarities’ being forged among revolutionary movements around the world.25 During this time, Algeria was a powerful symbol of revolutionary struggle and served as a model for several liberation fronts across the globe. The Algerian capital became a Mecca for revolutionaries. As Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary leader from Guinea-Bissau, declared in 1969: ‘the Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Christians to the Vatican and the national liberation movements to Algiers!’
The movement for African American liberation also found inspiration in Algeria. According to Meghelli, in the heydays of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, ‘just as Algeria looked to Black America as “that part of the Third World situated in the belly of the beast” so, too, did much of Black America look to Algeria as “the country that fought the enslaver and won” ’.26 Through both the popular film The Battle of Algiers and Fanon’s writings, Algeria came to hold an important place in the ‘iconography, rhetoric, and ideology of key branches of the African American freedom movement’,27 which viewed their struggle for civil rights as connected to the struggles of African nations for independence. An observer at the time wrote: ‘If The Wretched of the Earth is the “handbook for the Black Revolution,” then The Battle of Algiers is its movie counterpart’.28 The writings of Fanon and his analysis of the Algerian war revealed many parallels between the experience of colonial domination in Algeria and the racial oppression Blacks had suffered for centuries in America. The Wretched became a ‘Black bible’ (according to Eldridge Cleaver), selling some 750,000 copies in the United States by the end of the 1970s. Dan Watts, editor of Liberator magazine, declared: ‘Every brother on a rooftop can quote Fanon’.29
Two of the most important figures in the movement for African American liberation, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, likewise drew on the Algerian experience. King was visited in New York by Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN leaders and the first Algerian president, in October 1962. During the meeting Ben Bella underlined the close relationship between colonialism and segregation . In 1964, Malcolm X made a visit to Algeria, during which he toured the Casbah – the site of the 1957 battle of Algiers. On his return, responding to allegations that a Black ‘hate-gang’ based in Harlem was calculatedly committing crimes against Whites, he declared: ‘The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort eventually to the terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Black community’.30
The lessons from these experiences of anti-racist and anti-colonial internationalism should be heeded today. We need to revive the ambitious projects of the 1960s that sought full emancipation from the imperialist-capitalist system. As part of this, it is essential that we rediscover the revolutionary heritage of the Maghreb, Africa, West Asia and the Global South, developed by great minds like Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney and Samir Amin, to mention just a few. Building on this revolutionary heritage, being inspired by its insurgent hope and applying its internationalist perspective to the current context is of utmost importance to Algeria, to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to other emancipatory struggles all over the world.
In guise of conclusion
The progressive forces in Algeria and beyond have a huge task confronting them: the task of putting the socio-economic issue at the centre of the debate around alternatives, and of injecting a class analysis into the broad movement. It is incumbent upon them, and more specifically upon the radical and revolutionary left, to elaborate new visions that go beyond resistance to the current predatory offensive of capitalism to question the imaginary of development and modernity itself, with its lifestyle based on overconsumption and its globalization that places the majority of the world in a subordinate position.
Fanon’s advice on the need to invent and make new discoveries, and not to blindly imitate Europe, is instructive here. The struggle of decolonization, Fanon tells us, must challenge the dominance of European culture and its claims of universalism. Decolonizing the mind includes deconstructing Western notions of ‘development’, ‘civilization’, ‘progress’, ‘universalism’ and ‘modernity’, which represent a coloniality of power and knowledge whereby ideas of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ were conceived in Europe and North America and then implanted in Africa, Asia and Latin America in a colonial context,31 becoming part of the apparatus supporting land confiscations, resource plunder, and the domination of ‘other’ peoples in order to ‘civilize’ them.
In the conclusion of The Wretched, Fanon wrote:
Come, then, comrades … We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent and resolute…. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe… Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe…. For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.32
Fanon did not offer us a clear prescription for making the transition after decolonization to a new liberating political order; he viewed it as a protracted process that must be informed by praxis and, above all, by confidence in the masses and in their revolutionary potential to develop a liberating alternative. In this vein, it is of paramount importance for the revolutionary and emancipatory movements now active in Algeria, among African Americans, and across the world, to continue the tasks of decolonization and delinking from the imperialist-capitalist system in order to restore our denied humanity. Through resistance to colonial and capitalist logics of appropriation and extraction, new imaginaries and counter-hegemonic alternatives will be born.