From the Editor’s Keyboard

The wretched of the earth: Critical psychology in the colonial context

26 May 2007 at 02:58 | 829 views

Mandisi Majavu draws on Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth to encourage an exploration of the interconnections between psychology and society in Africa.

By Mandisi Majavu, Guest Writer.

Derek Hook (2004) argues that Frantz Fanon’s greatest source of originality as a postcolonial theorist lay in the fact that he combined psychology and politics in his analysis of colonial problems, national liberation and social revolution.

For Fanon, psychopathology in the colonial society, or any other oppressive society for that matter, can be characterised as a ‘pathology of liberty’. This means that for a psychological intervention to be sincere and relevant, the psychological services offered would have to play their part in restoring freedom in some meaningful capacity to the sufferer (Hooks 2004).

According to Bulhan (1985), for Fanon, oppression in the practice and institutionalisation of violence by the colonial state is not only motivated and perpetuated by economic motives, but also by psychological and cultural interests. The revolutionary response of the oppressed to such violence generates a new language, people and humanity. Such a response has the potential to produce a liberated society (Bulhan 1985).

Concerning violence

Fanon argues that decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon: ’The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it.’ Accordingly, decolonisation is a programme of ’complete disorder’ which aims to change the social order of the colonial world. It is a meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature: ’[their] first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together - that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler - was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannon’. Colonial society by its very nature is violent.

It does not, however, necessarily follow that decolonisation as a revolutionary programme is violent in nature. It might be true that most countries that have been colonised have achieved freedom through a violent struggle. However, that says more about the arrogance of colonial power than it says about the decolonisation programme itself.

This misconception of decolonisation as violent in nature characterises the false assumptions that underlie Fanon’s thinking about where the decolonisation process ought to begin. Fanon’s understanding of the colonial world is profound. However, some of his assumptions regarding decolonisation hinder how we might relate sensibly to the possibilities of moving forward, beyond pathology, to the liberated, decolonised society.

We could conceive of decolonisation as a fundamental, societal radical change in both the economy, and in social relations such as race and class relations; and that through such a programme, colonised people find their freedom; and not, as Fanon claims, through violence.

Fanon argues that violence for the colonised is therapeutic, a ’cleansing force’. But as Albert (2004) points out, ’violence has horrible effects on its perpetrators, more often than not causing them to devalue human life’. Colonial societies serve as evidence to support this view. There is no evidence to make us believe that violence perpetrated by the other side will not have the same effects.

Fanon argues that violence frees ’the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction...[and] restores his self-respect’. He does not provide evidence to support this perspective, nor does he explain his assumption regarding the ‘native inferiority complex’. He seems to assume that simply because blacks in the colony are subjected to all sorts of racist humiliation, this automatically results in an inferiority complex and self-hatred in blacks (Owusu-Bempah & Howitt 2000).

In his book Shades of Black, William Cross (1991) argues that there are at least four factors that explain why the mental health of blacks, including any propensity toward self-hatred, are not and have never been easily predicted by measures of racial identity:

- the limited generalisability of results of racial-preference studies conducted with three and four year old children
- the effects of black biculturalism, acculturation, and assimilation on black monoracial preference trends in racial identity experiments
- the problem of interpreting the meaning and salience of racial preference and racial identity for black adults operating with a multiple reference group orientation
- the historical failure of students and scholars of racial identity to differentiate between concepts and measures of ascriptive RGO [Reference Group Orientation] and concepts and measures of self-defined RGO.

Some of Fanon’s assumptions vis-à-vis the representation of decolonisation: the motivation that inspire natives to violently rebel against a colonial regime and the supposedly rampant inferiority complex are unfounded. If we are concerned with building a sound postcolonial theory, then that theory ought at least to be based on sound assumptions. A postcolonial theory is needed that explains social events and psychological and political trends and phenomena sufficiently for us to situate ourselves, explain to others and understand the way things are.

The pitfalls of national consciousness

Fanon discusses how the new government of the liberated postcolonial state can betray the revolution. He argues that the middle class of the new post-colonial state is underdeveloped because it is reduced in numbers, has no capital, and is opposed to the revolutionary path. Eventually it falls into deplorable stagnation. For this middle class, nationalisation of the economy simply means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period. The middle class ’will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoise’s business agent’.

Fanon refers to this middle class as the ’bourgeois dictatorship’. He argues that they are not real bourgeoisie in the true sense of the word, but rather a ’sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster, only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial power hands out to it’. Accordingly, after independence this middle class does not hesitate to invest the money it makes out of its native soil in foreign banks.

According to Fanon, the reason it is corrupt is because it has a permanent wish to identify with former colonisers. Consequently, it adopts with enthusiasm their characteristic ways of thinking. It is incapable of generating great ideas to manage and develop the economy, for it remembers what it has read in European textbooks.

The logic that underlies Fanon’s analysis is that the postcolonial government and its new middle-class betray the revolution because, among other things, they want to be white, or to occupy the position formerly occupied by the coloniser. For example, he writes that before independence the ’look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possessions - all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible’.

History teaches us, as for example Howard Zinn argues in his People’s History of the United States, that when people are oppressed they always rebel sooner or later. Furthermore, they do not rebel because of lust or envy, but because they believe in justice, equity and freedom.

In most cases, the revolution is betrayed due to a combination of a lack of vision for the new institutions for a democratic society, and a mixture of internal and external forces such as self-interest and the global economy.

Postcolonial politics from this standpoint is revealing and enables us not only to explain but to predict political and social phenomena. A theory based on flawed assumptions, that compels us to focus on lust, envy and desires to be white, forces us to chase psychologically reductionist dead-ends.

On national culture

Fanon’s basic premise is that native intellectuals respond to colonialism and the cultural hegemony that goes with it by rejecting Western culture and embracing a pre-colonial history way of life. To escape from the hegemony of the Western culture, Fanon argues that the native intellectual feels the need to turn backwards towards his unknown roots, and as a result, sets a high value on the African customs and traditions: ’The sari becomes sacred, and shoes that come from Paris or Italy are left off in favour of pampooties, while suddenly the language of the ruling power is felt to burn your lips.’

The appreciation of certain Western ideas and the fact that certain postcolonial writers are influenced by Western writers and write in European languages should not be presented as a failure to create an authentic postcolonial cultural work, as Fanon presents it.

To write in an African language, or to quote only African writers, does not necessarily translate into originality. A radical postcolonial vision on culture ought not to be opposed to diverse cultures, including Western cultures, or a reduction diverse cultures to a least common denominator. The point is to enjoy their benefits while transcending prior debits.

As Albert (2006) points out the only real cultural salvation lies in eliminating racist institutions, dispelling colonialist ideologies and changing the colonial environment within which historical communities relate, so that they might maintain and celebrate difference without violating solidarity. A radical post-colonial theory would encourage individuals to choose ’cultural communities they prefer rather than have elders or others of any description define their choice for them’ (Albert 2006: 47).


What is needed is a liberated society that is not characterised by cultural hierarchies and the one-way community assault common throughout the colonial history. Liberation postcolonial theory ought to provide us with concepts to describe and explain what it would take to build such a society and what such a society would constitute.

This essay is based on the premise that to have a growth-oriented attitude about one’s ideas, rather than a stability-oriented attitude, is healthy and the antithesis of sectarianism: ’Sectarianism is defensive and preservationist and often obscurantist and unconcerned with truth. We need instead to be self-critical and growth-oriented, and to strive for clarity and seek truth as best we can’ (Albert 2004: 190).


Albert, M., 2004, Realising hope: Life beyond capitalism, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Albert, M., 2004,. Thought dreams: Radical theory for the 21st century, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Bulhan, H.A., 1985, Frantz Fanon and the psychology of oppression, New York: Plenum Press.

Cross, W.E., 1991, Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American identity, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fanon, F., 1990, The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books.

Hook, D., 2004, ’Steve Biko, psychopolitics and critical psychology’, in Hook, D., ed., Critical psychology, Cape Town: UCT Press, pp. 84-114.

Owusu-Bempah, K. & Howitt, D., 2000, Psychology beyond western perspectives, UK: British Psychological Society Books.

* Mandisi Majavu, a Stephen Bantu Biko fellow, is currently working on his masters in psychology at the University of Cape Town.

Source: Pambazuka News

Photo: Frantz Fanon.