Thought and Theory with Frantz Fanon (Part 2): On Race and Class

Much of South Africa’s intellectual life, particularly in ‘progressive spaces’, has been dominated by the question: what should be the lens we use in our analysis of power, race or class? Fanon is one thinker who manages to bring race and class analysis together without losing the critical thrust of either. The task for this ‘Thought and Theory’ piece is to suggest how he does this. Because this is quite abstract, Fanon’s own ideas become clearer when put alongside two thinkers: Steve Biko and Octave Mannoni.

Biko and Fanon: To recast or invent?

Biko and Fanon are both well known for their analysis of racism and the psychological life of being racialised as black and white (in different contexts). Both remain relevant to understand what is going on between people in contemporary South Africa, but what ideas do they propose to reach a non-racial society? How did they imagine new ways of relating or living with one another?

Biko focused on changing the meaning of “black” by theoretically resting it on political rather than biological foundations as a step to combat racism. He only hints how to transcend race altogether in the final chapter of I Write What I Like – where Biko’s debt to Fanon is clear. In the previous ‘Thought and Theory’ piece, it is clear that Fanon rarely talks about changing the meaning of racial categories as a means to decolonisation. Perhaps, since Fanon links language to a kind of worldview, he did not believe an old language can create a new political culture (something he certainly believed about nationalism).

The link between language and culture is a complicated one and requires making a distinction. Fanon did claim that language has a link with forms of life in the first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks. Yet change does not arrive only from discarding old words for new abstractions but from change in the kinds of relationships which words describe or reflect. For example, suppose racial terms were replaced by ‘settler’ and ‘native’. ‘Black/native’ and ‘settler/white’ are wholly different words but describe the same kind of relationship – a Manichean one. Those words are only intuitive and conceivable in a Manichean political culture, and in Fanon’s view changing a Manichean political culture requires at least two moves.

The first is invention. To introduce invention is a feature of Fanon’s favoured traditions of thought, whose subject is political life, that leave the future open. ‘Open’ traditions presuppose the historical nature of what is being analysed and foster a sense that social reality is malleable in remarkable ways because human beings are creative. Traditions which foreclose possible futures quickly become dogmatic and their subject matter deadened (and may hint at what kind of effect they have on the lives of those who carry them and how they are carried out). Fanon sees race as one example of a deadening idea because when it becomes institutionalised then social life is marred.

Fanon’s ‘opening’ move in Black Skin, White Masks is to presuppose that race and racism are historical phenomena was a radical departure from some of the dominant views in his day. Saying something is historical is not to rhetorically downplay its significance, it just gives us the right starting point to begin imagining and relating to each other in ways the depart from the culture that we have inherited.

Stressing the need for invention is where Fanon departs, in strategic terms, from Biko. Biko sought to re-cast racial categories as a tool to foster black solidarity, “the realisation by blacks of the need to rally around the causeof their oppression – the blackness of their skin”[1]. By citing the cause of oppression as blackness, Biko frames the problem of apartheid essentially as a problem of white racism or white supremacy. Once the problem is framed this way, then it makes sense that race should be the organising concept of power and fostering black solidarity as the form of radical politics. However, apartheid was also a politico-economic system that can segregate, demean, and threaten people without the force of white supremacy. Given that white supremacy is not the ideology of the ANC yet many people still suffer from the same kind of poverty and exclusion as they did under apartheid, Biko’s analysis is incomplete by supposing a neat distinction between race and class.

This is why the second move of Fanon’s work is important, and that is his focus on relationships. I use ‘relationships’ here not just to describe how people feel about each other but how they live together. This formulation of relationship is a recognition that racism – as a virus of a social body – cannot be overcome by liberal inoculation. This sense of relationship can include practices on different scales, which may converge (even if they are not harmonious) to create something of a ‘society’ which has certain identifiable features or patterns. For Fanon, it was never a question of whether economic relations relate to race relations, or to reduce race by reference exclusively to economics, it was just a question of how they are theoretically connected.

This is more difficult to see in Fanon’s work today because much of the secondary literature on Fanon emphasises the importance of race over class. One paragraph in The Wretched of The Earth is routinely referenced:

“The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities. When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich”[2]

Some have interpreted this as a saying that Fanon effectively marks the Marxist tradition – or class analysis – as being irrelevant for societies shaped by settler colonialism because racism is the most powerful force in South African political life. Of course, there is another interpretation: Fanon is trying to fill in the gaps of what traditional Marxism did not manage to explain well – after all, an analysis of capital is not the only subject that offers an analysis of all our social ills (but that does not justify excluding it entirely). Fanon is extending Marxism to include problems related to race since the final sentence of that paragraph is: “This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem[3]. Fanon saw the Marxist tradition as an ‘open’ one, but any tradition can become dogmatic if it cannot be renewed. The experiences of 20th Century Marxisms are proof of that.  

Fanon and Mannoni: Class or Complex?

What does Fanon do to slightly stretch the Marxist tradition by analysing race?

Answering this question is easier with reference to a clear example of what Fanon is not saying, which can be gleaned from his critique of Mannoni in the fourth chapter of his book, Black Skin, White Masks:

Fanon is railing against an account for the inequality that marked colonialism with Mannoni being his target because, in Fanon’s words, “[his] opinion is dangerous[4]. Mannoni explained the colonial situation as an outcome of racial characteristics rather than the consequences of conquest. In other words, it substitutes a psychological and biological explanation for a political one (this is still quite a common tactic, though ‘culture’ has become a substitute for ‘biology’). The first part of chapter four is Fanon is being careful to delineate precisely where he disagrees, the rest of the chapter stresses that Mannoni is wrong.

This summarises Fanon’s point: “[i]n order to show us that racism does not reflect an economic situation, M. Mannoni reminds us (…) in South Africa the white labourers are as racialist as the employers and managers and very often a good deal more so”[5]. Therefore, “M. Mannoni believes that the contempt of the poor whites of South Africa for the Negro has nothing to do with economic factors [sic.][6]. However, “the displacement of the white proletariat’s aggression on to the black proletariat is fundamentally a result of the economic structure of South Africa[7]. Fanon’s words are enduring with a view of the astonishing rise of xenophobia after the migration crisis from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe and other parts of the so-called Global North. 

What we can see here, if not a clear explanation of why racism is connected to an economic situation, is that Fanon condemns approaches that separate an analysis of race from an economic edifice. If that is true, then the next question becomes what Fanon saw as the primary force behind colonialism. While Fanon did not write an academic text on political economy, he makes it clear that he does not consider racism to be the driving force of imperialism or colonialism even if it was an essential ideological feature.

There are many examples in his work where he rhetorically dismisses the idea that race is the most important concept to analyse power. In his article, ‘West Indians and Africans’ in Espirit (Paris) in February 1955, Fanon argues that “questions of race are but a superstructure, a mantle, an obscure ideological emanation concealing an economic reality[8]. In 1956 he addressed the First Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris on ‘Racism and Culture’ and declared: “The apparition of racism is not fundamentally determining. Racism is not the whole but the most visible, the most day-to-day and, not to mince matters, the crudest element of a given structure[9]. Gathering from these quotes, it is possible to say that Fanon’s voice is at one with C.L.R James (in one of the most famous accounts of the history of the Haitian Revolution called The Black Jacobins): “The race question is subsidiary to the class question on politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental[10]. To emphasise race over class, as Barbara Fields so memorably put, would be like saying that the history of slavery was about producing white supremacy and not producing sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee. Yet, to reduce an analysis of slavery to capital accumulation would mean that we do not ask necessary questions about what a humane world requires that overcomes the legacy of racism.

In the ‘race and class’ debate, Fanon has left us at least two important tools. The first is that traditions of thought which are ‘open’ are affirmative traditions, that is, they are not only critical of the ‘now’ but they chart alternatives. The second is that language reflects the character of the political culture in a given society and a new language will develop to make sense of a changed relationship. Changing relationships requires a working knowledge of political economy because it helps to understand the many forces which constrain the possible practices we can live with. A person can mine the entire canon of various theories organised around race and have no idea how to live without a market-industrial system which everyone’s livelihood depends on acquiring and spending money; how to change the exclusive ownership and benefit of vast swathes of land, crops, factories, and major institutions; how to steward over the Earth’s resources to ensure that certain people starve while others die of obesity; and what is needed to secure a viable future. Yet, without an understanding of the history and legacy of racism, it becomes impossible to imagine how people can be humane custodians of that viable future.

By Alex Pennington

Alex heads up the Student and Youth department at the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA). He holds masters degrees from University College London (UCL) and the University of Cape Town (UCT).


[1] – Biko, Steve. (1978). I Write What I Like. p.100

[2] – Fanon, Frantz. (2004). The Wretched of The Earth.  p.39

[3] – Ibid, 2. p.39

[4] – Fanon, Frantz. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. p.6

[5] – Ibid, 4. p. 81, 82

[6] – Ibid, 4. p. 86, 87

[7] – Ibid, 4. p. 90

[8] – Fanon, Frantz. (1967). Toward The African Revolution.  pg. 28

[9] – Idib, 8. p. 41

[10] – James, Cyril. (1938). The Black Jacobins. p. 283