Beginning from May 2020, the unending violence of USA’s racial capitalism was brought to the fore as a Black-led movement flowed through the bloodstained paving stones of clamorous streets. The wretched masses of America united in their call for an end to police brutality and the existing apparatuses of exploitative rule. However, these protests - instead of culminating in a significant change in the dynamics of power - rewarded the revolting people with Joe Biden - a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeoisie politician who once opposed de-segregation, called on police to shoot Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the leg, rejected the smallest of concessions to the working class, vehemently supported imperialist wars and refused to commit to even the minimal reforms of the Green New Deal.
Biden’s victory in the presidential election was a direct expression of what Antonio Gramsci called a “time of monsters” - a moment in which we are fully aware of the future direction of societal forces but it is blocked at a particular point. In the American context, the corridors leading to historical metabolization were shut off on the level of formal politics, not on the stage of grassroots mobilization. In the streets, things were moving forward by leaps and bounds - a continuous subjective churning was taking place within the helical relations of domination. In spite of these explosive potentialities, Biden succeeded in initiating a process of ideological mutilation, which included the co-optation of demands from below, the forming of new political coalitions, paying lip service to the goals of leading figures of the underclass, all done while keeping intact the hegemony of the status quoist forces.
While many factors account for the defeat of the American rebellion, the strategic errors committed by the country’s Left stick out for their obdurateness toward the complex reality of oppression. Many sectors of the country’s socialist camp promoted class reductionism, remaining insensitive to the racial roots of the then ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Their exclusive emphasis on Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All reduced systemic racism to a merely economic issue. Electoral exigencies overrode the creation of robust bases of social resistance. The uncritical subsumption of racism under an ahistorical banner of class proved unsuccessful in carrying forward the militant momentum of an explicit mutiny against the structural cruelty of racist capitalism.
Frantz Fanon was a thinker who forcefully shed light on the aporias of class reductionism, arguing in favor a radical project of Black advancement. The moorings for this vibrant model of praxis were provided by G.W.F Hegel. In a famous passage of “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Hegel had written about the progression of human beings from merely self-conscious entities that are motivated by need to consume material goods into social beings who engage in recognition. The achievement of an independent self-consciousness is seen not only as an inter-subjective process, driven by a desire for recognition by the other, but also as a fundamentally conflictual one: each consciousness aspires to assert its self-certainty, initially, through the exclusion and elimination of all that is other; each thus seeks the death of the other, putting at the same time its own life at stake.
This struggle to the death can lead either to the obliteration of one consciousness (or both), whereby the process of mutual recognition will never be complete, or to one consciousness submitting to the other in the face of fear of imminent death, thus becoming the slave. The other becomes the master, the victor of the struggle. The master nevertheless depends on the slave - not only for the fulfillment of material needs, but also for his/her recognition as an independent being. His self-sufficiency is hence only apparent. The slave, by contrast, becomes aware of himself as an independent self-consciousness by means of the transformative, fear-driven labor in the natural and material world.
For Fanon, racialized colonial subjects are not in a position to sign up to the Hegelian vision of political struggle as a reciprocal structure of recognition and interdependency when colonization has denied their humanity. Race is a process in which the unity of the world and self becomes mediated by a racialized objectification of the subject. Therefore, according to Fanon, race is a form of alienation. For Hegel, the slave’s existence is an expression of the objective reality or power of the master. The master is recognized and the slave lives in a state of non-recognition. Similarly, for Fanon the alienated racial subject exists as an expression of the objective reality of whiteness. Racial existence, then, is a negation of the human character of racialized people; it is a profound state of derealization. The process of racial objectification, according to Fanon, turns people into things, identified by their skin, racial or ethnic features, as well as culture.
Hence, racialized people first need to overcome ontological denial and, in so doing, forge the basis for a positive political grouping. Thus, Fanon rejects the static Hegelian notion of the master-slave relationship - one forged among ontologically equal adversaries - and instead posits that the slave is always-already marked as less-than-being. The slave, according to Fanon, transcends that racial othering by vehemently rejecting it through what George-Ciccariello Maher - in his book “Decolonizing Dialectics” - calls “combative self-assertion” that enables the slave to reject “her self-alienation,” to “turn away from the master” and to force the master to “turn toward the slave”. The slave’s action re-starts dialectical motion and forces the master and the slave to contend with each other.
“For the racialized subject,” Maher writes, “self-consciousness as human requires counter-violence against ontological force. In a historical situation marked by the denial of reciprocity and condemnation to nonbeing, that reciprocity can only result from the combative self-assertion of identity”. In fact, it is precisely this violence that “operates toward the decolonization of being”. In this way, Fanon decolonized Hegel’s approach from the “sub-ontological realm to which the racialized are condemned,” gesturing toward the pre-dialectical and counter-ontological violence that dialectical opposition requires. Ontological self-assertion needed to identify with negritude, which, however imperfect and empirically imprecise, provided the necessary mythical mechanism through which the dialectic of subjectivity could operate. In the words of Fanon, “to make myself known” meant “to assert myself as a BLACK MAN”.
Fanon conceived of the black subject emerging in the active negation of the social relations of white supremacy. Since blackness is the objective condition of its existence in a white supremacist society, the black subject thereby establishes its own identity on this basis by inverting its objectification, effectively making the conditions of its existence subject to its own power. The existential substance of racialized people now becomes real and actual in the world by changing it to fit its own needs. In the struggle, the black subject establishes independent self-consciousness, and begins to exist as a being for itself with a liberatory aim. The self-determination of the black subject - through the forceful affirmation of black history - establishes, for the first time, the basis for mutual recognition. Blackness has now established itself, not as moral plea for admission into the liberal and idealistic world of equality, but as a material, immanent fact. Blackness remakes the world in its own image.
Here, it is important to note the two distinct but interrelated facets of Fanon’s perspective on black assertion. On the one hand, he frames the identitarian dimension of anti-colonial struggle as a social symptom of colonial alienation, on the very level of its problematic status from the perspective of more evolved forms of postcolonial consciousness. On the other hand, Fanon advances an absolute claim in favour of the black colonized subject’s right to the expression of his symptomatic alienation. In other words, Fanon wishes to underline the historical, psychological and political necessity of what he nevertheless viewed in unambiguous fashion as a defensive, repressive and narcissistic phase of anti-colonial consciousness during which the native subject constructs - out of nothing - the self-image that was simply impossible to develop in the racial context of the colonial administration.
The Fanon-Sartre Debate
The debate between Jean Paul Sartre and Fanon on the relations between class and race stand out for their continuing relevance. Sartre wrote one of the definitive commentaries on the Negritude movement for a French audience in the preface to Leopold Senghor’s important Negritude anthology, “Black Orpheus”. There Sartre argued that blackness is the “negative moment” in an overall “transition” of the non-white toward integration into the proletariat - a “weak stage of a dialogical progression,” passed over and left for dead as swiftly as it came to life. Fanon’s reply - in “Black Skin, White Masks” - was fiercely critical of Sartre:
“For once that born Hegelian had forgotten that consciousness has to lose itself in the night of the absolute, the only condition to attain to consciousness of self. In opposition to rationalism, he summoned up the negative side, but he forgot that this negativity draws its worth from an almost substantive absoluteness. A consciousness committed to experience is ignorant, has to be ignorant, of the essences and the determinations of its being”.
Fanon firmly upheld the view that racially based identity claims on the part of non-European subjects in colonized situations carried an irreducible, cathartic importance. Sartre fails to account for this dialectic of experience through the detached intellectualization of black consciousness. “[W]hen I tried,” Fanon writes, “on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me”. Sartre’s narrative of decolonization did not incorporate the properly experiential dimension of black subjectivity. With the European working class lying unconscious in the stupor of post-WWII capitalism, Sartre imagines revolutionary consciousness, in the manner of the Hegelian Spirit, manifesting itself in the anti-colonial resistance of Africa and the Caribbean. This new proletarian spirit descends from the heights of abstract dialectical theory to make use of the concrete culture of negritude as a vehicle for the reactivation of a universal anti-capitalist project.
Sartre’s dialectic of abstract universalism has a disheartening effect on the colonized subjects. By passively inserting black rebellion within a pre-determined dialectic, he robs it of all agency. As Fanon states:
“[I]t is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger’s misery, my bad nigger’s teeth, my bad nigger’s hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for that turn of history. In terms of consciousness, the black consciousness is held out as an absolute density, as filled with itself, a stage preceding any invasion, any abolition of the ego by desire. Jean-Paul Sartre, in this work, has destroyed black zeal… The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself. It shatters my unreflected position. Still in terms of consciousness, black consciousness is immanent in its own eyes. I am not a potentiality of something; I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My Negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is.”
“Black zeal” is a mythical self-discovery which by necessity refuses all explanation. After all, how precisely does one adopt an identity which is dismissed ahead of time as transitory? The Sartrean subject never gets “lost” in the negative. Sartrean consciousness remains in full possession of itself. And therefore, it can have no knowledge of itself - or the other. History, society, and corporeality recede from view and what remains is a timeless and abstract ontology. Contrary to this view, Hegel remarked: consciousness “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself...nothing is known which does not fall within experience or (as it is also expressed) which is not felt to be true”. The truth that emerges from black consciousness is possible only via a phenomenological reassembly of the self. That is why Fanon continues to push forward: “I defined myself as an absolute intensity of beginning… My cry grew more violent: I am a Negro, I am a Negro, I am a Negro”.
Fanon does not quickly pass over human suffering in the pursuit of the universal, but attends to suffering, creating space for the communication of bodily and emotional pain. In Sartre’s hands, this dialectical negation explicitly lacks positive content and, consequently, any objectivity. The rupture with racism brings forward its own content - a re-woven fabric of daily existence and new ways of organizing social life - which challenges white supremacist society. Therefore, with Sartre, the negativity expressed by this rupture is a critique of existing reality, but does not generate new conditions - a new reality - based on its own self-active negation of white supremacist social relations. In his quest to brush aside the unmediated, affect-laden, passionate dimension of the native subject of colonialism’s sensuous, lived experience, Sartre short-circuits the dialectic through an intangible leap - ignoring the necessity of slow and patient labor.
He becomes a condescending adult speaking to a child: “You’ll change, my boy; I was like that too when I was young…you’ll see, it will all pass”. In effect, the non-white is subsumed into a pre-existing, white reality. Sartre, Fanon argues, is forced to conclude that the proletariat already exists universally. Yet, Fanon states that a universal proletariat does not exist. Instead, the proletariat is always racialized; the universal which Sartre emphasizes must be built upon the foundations of mutual recognition. However, establishing the conditions of mutual recognition depends upon the dislodgment of racial alienation and establishment of the claims of a non-white humanity. Sartre misses the point that such a process unfolds within the racial relation: black existence can only become the grounds of disalienation to the extent that the specifically black subject becomes conscious of itself and the white recognizes the absoluteness of those who exist as non-white.
To summarize, though Fanon does endorse Sartre’s notion of the overcoming of negritude, he still wants to underline the necessity of re-articulating the dialectic in terms of the experiential point of view of the Black subalterns. In more general terms, the path to the universal - a world of mutual recognitions - proceeds through the particular struggles of those battling racial discrimination. While race is undoubtedly a form of alienation which needs to be abolished, one can’t subsumes the concrete, for-itself activity of black existence into a universal proletariat. We always have to keep in mind the rich process of the self-abolition of race, which develops as a series of negations. The American Left needs to valorize black consciousness, to claim it as an integral part of the emancipatory experience of revolutionary socialism, but without overlooking its basic nature as a byproduct of racial capitalism.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.