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In Algeria’s Freedom Struggle, the Spirit of Frantz Fanon Is Still Alive

Frantz Fanon died 60 years ago today. In his last decade, he was deeply involved in Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle — providing lessons that can still be used in the country's fight against dictatorship today.

Radical intellectual and revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote about the Algerian revolution against French colonialism and was dedicated to the country's liberation. (Photo via Verso Books)

“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.” With these words, Frantz Fanon was talking about Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle in the 1950s. But he could easily have said the same about the popular uprising that gripped the country over the last three years.

Born in Martinique but Algerian by choice, Fanon (1925–61) wrote about the Algerian revolution against French colonialism, and his own experiences on the African continent. A radical intellectual and a revolutionary dedicated to his adoptive country’s national liberation, his transformative ideas went on to inspire Pan-Africanism, the Black Panthers, and anti-colonial struggles all over the world.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon had written that “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” This statement is relevant for the current generation, too — especially in light of the explosion of revolts and uprisings all over the world in the last few years, including in the Arab countries, from Algeria to Lebanon and from Sudan to Iraq.

As part of this general convulsion, over the last three years Algeria has seen a new revolution against its national bourgeoisie. In 2019 and 2020, millions of people, young and old, men and women from different social classes, have taken to the streets in a momentous uprising, re-appropriating long-confiscated public space. Historic Friday marches followed by protests by various parts of the population put an end to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s twenty-year rule in April 2019. But the struggle against the military regime continues.

Six decades after Fanon’s death, his revolutionary thought and experiences remain an inspiration for today’s struggles — and offer insights into how Algerians can finally free themselves from the exploitation and oppression bequeathed by French colonial rule.

From Colonialism to Independence

The colonial period in Algeria was characterized by expropriations, proletarianization, forced sedentarization of nomadic populations, and brutal violence by the French colonial regime. Algerians declared their war of independence on November 1, 1954. There followed one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonization, with the rural poor and lumpenproletariat joining the struggle in massive numbers.

Arriving at Blida psychiatric hospital in 1953, where he treated both colonial torturers and indigenous victims, Fanon saw colonization as a systematic negation of the other and their humanity. His experiences led him to resign from Blida hospital in 1956 and to join the National Liberation Front (FLN). Thereafter he was active in the fight for freedom, writing in support of the struggle and traveling across Africa on FLN missions.

Fanon had high hopes for revolutionary Algeria. His book A Dying Colonialism shows how liberation does not come as a gift: it is seized by the masses with their own hands. For Fanon, revolution is a transformative process that will create new souls.

After its victory against French colonialism, Algeria’s revolutionary experience was defeated, both by counterrevolutionary forces and internal contradictions. The revolution was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project, even if some of the redistributive measures taken by the new state did significantly improve people’s lives. This lack of democracy under FLN rule went hand-in-hand with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie (a ruling elite subordinate to the interests of foreign capital) that was hostile to socialism and genuine land reform.

Fanon foretold this development in The Wretched. Here, he identified the sterility of national bourgeoisies that tended to replace the colonial force with a new class-based system replicating colonial structures of exploitation. In Algeria, this national bourgeoisie, closely connected to the ruling FLN, from the 1980s onward ushered 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, undermining the country’s sovereignty and endangering its population and environment — the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being just one example.

In Algeria today, the ruling classes in Algeria have trapped the country in an extractivist model of development where profits are accumulated in the hands of a foreign-backed minority, with the majority of the population dispossessed through austerity policies dictated by the new instruments of imperialism, such as the IMF and the World Bank.

The Hirak and the New Algerian Revolution

Today’s Algeria confirms Fanon’s warnings about the divisiveness of national bourgeoisies and the limits of conventional nationalism. However, Fanon also makes clear that the enrichment of this caste will produce “a decisive awakening on the part of the people.” This may be what we are seeing in the second wave of the Arab uprisings which began in 2018.

In Algeria, the uprising was triggered by long-standing 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, February 22, 2019, millions of Algerians rose up in rebellion. Friday marches, followed by protests by various types of workers and professionals, have united people in their demands for radical democratic change.

The events that took place in Algeria between 2019 and 2021 were truly historic. The Hirak is unique in its huge scale (millions of people), 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 liberatory process taking place in Algeria has unleashed an unequalled amount of subversive energy. The evolution of the movement’s slogans and forms of resistance is demonstrative of processes of politicization and popular education. The reappropriation of public spaces has created a kind of agora where people debate, talk strategy and perspectives, criticize each other, or simply express themselves in many ways, including through art and music. Indeed, in the movement cultural production has taken on another meaning, as a liberatory form of resistance, political action, and solidarity.

Decolonization Continues

The Hirak’s demands are for independence, popular sovereignty, and an end to the pillaging of the country’s resources and the oppressive socioeconomic conditions under which Algerians have lived for decades. In this, Algerians are making a direct link between their current struggle, the neocolonial ruling regime, and the anti-French colonial struggle of the 1950s. This connection is reflected in the popular chant on the protests, “Generals to the dustbin, and Algeria will be independent.”

As part of this process, Algerians are reaffirming their own place as heirs of the martyrs of the liberation, such as Ali “La Pointe” Ammar, who was killed in battle in 1957.  As one chant puts it, referring to the guerrilla leader, “Oh Ali, your descendants will never stop until they wrench their freedom!”

Through such words, Algerians are laying claim to the popular and economic sovereignty that was denied to them after independence in 1962. The colonialism which Fanon analyzed six decades earlier has not disappeared. Instead, it has metamorphosed, camouflaging itself in sophisticated mechanisms and forms of domination: debt; structural adjustment programs; “free trade” treaties; predatory extractivism; land grabs; agribusiness; immigration laws and deadly borders; “humanitarian” intervention, and continuing racism and xenophobia.

Counterrevolution

The last three years have thus seen a struggle by the Algerian people to tear away the interests and privileges of the ruling class.

But as with any revolution, counterrevolutionary forces have mobilized to block change in Algeria. And this counterrevolutionary campaign enjoys powerful support from abroad. At the regional level, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are using money and influence to halt contagious waves of revolt in the region. Globally, France, the United States, the UK, Canada, Russia, and China, along with their major corporations, who see a potential threat to their geo-economic interests, all support the Algerian regime. This context allows us to make sense of the regime’s regressive 2020 budget and the new multinational-friendly Hydrocarbon Law.

Within Algeria, the counterrevolution has been embodied by the military hierarchy, which has maintained its de facto authority even after Bouteflika’s overthrow. Nevertheless, protests have continued. While the brutal repression of past uprisings and the civil war in the 1990s explain the current popular movement’s reluctance to directly confront the army, the people are nevertheless determined to demilitarize Algeria, as reflected in the chant: “A republic not a military barrack.” Algerians know what the military are capable of — and despite the trauma of the civil war of the 1990s, they still insist onA civilian state, not a military one!”

Class Struggle

The Hirak has been youth-led and loosely organized. There are no clearly identifiable leaders or organized structures propelling it. It is a popular uprising using social media to mobilize mass forces from the middle classes and from the marginalized strata in both urban and rural areas.

The general strike in the first few weeks of the uprising was organized spontaneously after anonymous calls on social media. While such amorphous, nonstructured and leaderless movements can generate inter-class mobilizations — and have the advantage of eluding repression or co-option — they are nevertheless extremely vulnerable.

This reality also has clear connections to Fanon’s particular understanding of class struggle, at the center of his analysis. He clearly urges us to move from a national toward a sociopolitical consciousness when he says, “If nationalism … is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs … it leads up a blind alley.”

However, Fanon invites us to “stretch Marxism” as a way of understanding the particularities of capitalism in the colonial and postcolonial world. Fanon considered the peasantry and the urbanized lumpenproletariat as crucial agents of historical change in colonial Algeria. It is a process launched by the peasantry which embraces the proletariat, rather than the other way around, as in the European case.

It is, accordingly, crucial to determine the revolutionary classes (and their alliances) in the Algerian uprising. We need to go beyond “workerism” and embrace a broader conception of the proletariat in its contemporary expressions, namely the unemployed youth, both urban and rural working people, informal workers, peasants, etc. It is these classes that have nothing to lose but their chains.

In The Wretched, Fanon expressed his concern that the struggles of the lumpenproletariat would burn out if it was left without organizational structure. He emphasized the necessity of a revolutionary political party (or perhaps an organized social movement) that can take the demands of the masses forward and be “a tool in the hands of the people.”

For Fanon, reaching such a conception of a party/movement necessitates ridding ourselves of the bourgeois notion of elitism and “the contemptuous attitude that the masses are incapable of governing themselves.” To this end, he argues that we have to work out new concepts through ongoing political education, which is itself enriched through mass struggle. Political education is, to Fanon’s eyes, a process of “awakening [the people], and allowing the birth of their intelligence.”

For Fanon, everything depends on the masses, hence his idea of radical intellectuals engaged in movements and capable of introducing new concepts in accessible language. For him, just as culture has to become a fighting culture, so too must education become a matter of total liberation.

The Shadow of Fanon

In 2020, a global revolt against white supremacy started in Minneapolis, following the police murder of George Floyd. Like Eric Garner before him, his last words were “I can’t breathe.” Fanon’s words discussing 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.” The ensuing global solidarity with black Americans shows that we can no longer breathe under capitalism.

Revolts against this system took place on all continents and regions. However, if these acts of resistance are to succeed, they need to create enduring alliances in the face of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. Both Algeria and Fanon can, once again, be a linkage in these struggles, as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the first two decades of independence, Algeria was a powerful symbol of revolutionary struggle and a model for several liberation fronts across the globe. As Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary 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 Samir Meghelli, “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.’”

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,” which viewed their struggle for civil rights as connected to the independence struggles of African nations. The writings of Fanon 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.” Moreover, 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 revolution.

The lessons from these experiences of anti-racist and anti-colonial internationalism should be heeded today. We need to revive the 1960s projects 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 and applying its internationalist perspective to the current context is of utmost importance to Algeria, to the BLM movement, and other emancipatory struggles globally.

A Different Future

Progressive forces have the task of injecting a class analysis into the wider movement and in debates around alternatives. 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 capitalist offensive, and question the whole existing imaginary of development and modernity itself.

Fanon’s advice on the need not to blindly imitate Europe is instructive here. The struggle for decolonization, Fanon tells us, must challenge the dominance of Europe and its claims of universalism. This also means deconstructing Western notions of “development,” “civilization,” “universalism” and “modernity,” which represent a colonial order of power and knowledge whereby ideas of “modernity” and “progress” conceived in Europe and North America are then implanted in the Global South — becoming part of the “civilizing” apparatus which supports the domination of “other” peoples.

Fanon did not offer us clear prescriptions for making the transition from decolonization to a new liberating political order. Rather, he viewed this 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 revolutionary and emancipatory movements — in Algeria, among African Americans, and across the world — to continue the tasks of decolonization and breaking from the imperialist-capitalist system, in its place restoring our denied humanity. Through resistance to colonial and capitalist logics of appropriation and extraction, new counter-hegemonic alternatives will be born.