the ladder of divine ascent, saint catherine's monastery.[0]

black skin, white charaktermasken

7 may 2022


I would be remiss to leave unnoted the continued and invaluable personal and intellectual guidance of Dr. Jessica Berry of the Georgia State University Department of Philosophy, under whose advisement this thesis was conducted.

I am surely indebted to Micah Mers, my closest friend and ablest interlocutor.

It is through the love of many others that I do and must believe that a better world is possible.


The renewed place of Frantz Fanon in the pantheon of academic philosophy brings with it questions of his theoretical lineage, and of the place of his predecessors in his system. The relative brevity of his career (his most popular work happening between 1952 and 1961) is exceeded by the comprehensiveness of his bibliography. Central to his vocabulary though are two key thinkers: Karl Marx, and through him, G.W.F. Hegel. Whereas the task of indexing and verifying Fanon’s readings of the Phenomenology of Spirit, of The German Ideology is tremendous, this paper instead intends to examine only two of the strands shared between Hegel, Marx, and Fanon: what is the nature of the (materialist) dialectic of history (the relation of historical forms to each other), and accordingly, what is the relation of humans as subjects to history? I should like to show that Fanon conducts a deficient reading of Marx and Hegel, and little completes or exceeds the systems of either. The refashioned philosophical tools of Fanon are present already in Marx, his deficits already resolved with Hegel. Fanon presents a theory of the historical human not cogent with his established premises of history, the practical output of which is a tacit acceptance of personal violence at odds with the larger strokes of his political philosophy. The goal is to learn from Fanon: to learn where he has left off, and to determine the real theoretical gulfs in critical theory still left by Marx, by Hegel.

To prevent any possible misunderstandings, let me say this. I do not by any means depict the capitalist and the landowner in rosy colors. But individuals are dealt with here only I so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests.

Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 92.


Frantz Fanon notes in The Wretched of the Earth: “… a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue.”[1]

My primary intention in this review, critique, and development of the extant theoretical positions (within Marx and Fanon, and beyond them) on the relation of the base to the superstructure – and thereby, of the subject to history – is not to provide a strict exegesis of pertinent texts. The purpose here is hermeneutical only insofar as a degree of interpretive work is necessary to our theoretical constructions. Instead, I intend to ask: where has Fanon completed the project of Marx? With that, a critical question: do the philosophical instruments of Marx at hand allow a tenable analysis of those base-superstructure, subject-history relations, or must they be “slightly stretched?” This is to plainly ask: where has Fanon moved past Marx, and why?

I should like to begin again with a young Marx, from whom Fanon draws a vocabulary. The analysis rests on an interplay of those theoretical maneuvers of Marx throughout his so-named “epistemic break” and the readings and constructions given by Fanon. I intend to first demonstrate that the “materialist dialectic” of which Fanon speaks is one which is – however clearly absent in Marx after 1859 – still yet not present in the pages of The German Ideology. Where Fanon prefaces his “stretching” of Marx with note that “… the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure,”[2] I should like to show where Marx provides an image of the necessity and self-sufficiency of the superstructure and its effects. It is the superstructure in whose episodes and interstices, even for a young Marx, the mechanisms of the base are actualized: the monism of Fanon is familiar to Marx.

From here, I should like to treat the distinct humanism of Fanon, for whom the mediation of social life through the material (central to Marx) is unseated as necessary. Fanon takes Marx’s “first premise” of economic activity as a contingency, such that the really necessary attributes of the human (as our concrete subject) are distorted, unrealized and estranged in the capitalist mode of production. By marrying the base and superstructure through his own dialectic, the economic forms of Marx – “ultimate determinations,” precedingly imperceptible in the anonymity of interpersonal moments – are now for Fanon the amalgamated clothing of autonomous persons, the permeable membranes of expressivity, read clearly in every human interaction. The scope of Träger is reduced by Fanon: no longer constitutive parts of history, no longer supporting beams, those Charaktermasken of economic relations have behind them naked persons from whom a purpose is unearthed. The whole world of economic activity is the activity of persons towards persons: the difficulties of material life are obviated.

The mutual misrecognitions of persons as according to an outlay of misnomers, borne out in masks, are denotative of real modes of activity. These are activities which happen between persons, for which material things are the instruments. These instruments are arbitrary and insubstantial for Fanon; they are necessary and substantial for Marx. The historical sediment of these misnomers, a global stage onto which the concrete person is thrown, are for Fanon such that “at the start of his life, a man is always congested, drowned in contingency.”[3] For Fanon, anterior to this thrown person is Man. The German Ideology notes: “… each [philosopher] extracts one side of the Hegelian system and turns this against the whole system […] later they desecrated these categories with more secular names such as species ‘the Unique,’ ‘Man,’ etc.”[4] For Marx, what precedes the thrown person is nothing.

History for Fanon should here be taken as “the transformation of subjective certainty into objective truth,” where “each consciousness is seeking absoluteness […] it wants to be recognized as an essential value of life.”[5] The economic (as bound up in the superstructure) is for Fanon a sequence of contingencies, his materialist dialectic the exceeding of those contingencies through the interpersonal – towards the telos of a concrete historical subject, whose activity proceeds from the positive typological necessities of the human. The tension of historical reason for Fanon lies in that tension between the person and their mask: where their misnomer is a subjective certainty, a name given from without, their person is objective truth – reason embodied. Irrationality is seated in the mediation of the concrete subject, rationality the “resumption of rightful places.”[6] For Marx, there is only the mask, itself irrational: it is not Man at odds with the identity of proletarian; it is the proletarians who are themselves at odds with their identities, the misnomer decomposing always.

“It is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom,” Fanon resolves accordingly. Marx writes: “… it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means.”[7] Liberation for Fanon is the transcendence of the economic qua contingency; for Marx, it is the unfolding of the economic qua necessity. The whole opaque nebula of history is for Fanon the handiwork of ideology, something to be decoded by the humanity anterior to it such that reason is achieved. For Marx, there is no anteriority, no outsideness: there is simply the self-activity of history, a category into which the unstable assertions of individuality are subsumed again always.

In The Wretched of the Earth and elsewhere, the “relative opacity” of historical nebulae is read everywhere in the full transparency of self-active persons, clothed in their given names, and acting upon some complex beyond them accordingly. Their economic relations are always-already malleable, modes of domination the products of thought crystallized in things after the fact. For The German Ideology, this “relative opacity” is in turn a totality: history is possible only through the economic, as inextricable from the (superstructural) thoughts formed about it, like a residue: “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”[8] The production (and reproduction) of material life is the necessary premise of history, through which these misnomers are realized and assigned. The contradiction of these misnomers with themselves (rather than with their bearers) and the economic activities to which they correspond is the forward movement of history.

The subject for a young Marx is an economic form personated, an index of attributes formulated and activated simultaneously in the base and superstructure. By personating the form, though, the person is only the form; their activity is made possible only through the whole sphere of history. They are glyphs who are their own referents, however much the two do not correspond, just as the language of salt for Hegel might inadequately capture the properties of this salt. The tension lies in the name itself, to be reformulated entirely – born out of a fundamental error in our system of categories for identifying salt to begin with.

Fanon “demystifies” the mediacies of material life by nearly removing their effects from his system altogether. He performs a fetishism of the individual accordingly: it is not proletarian as a name which is itself untenable, but instead, it is the proper name of proletarian which is at odds with the self-active subject to which the name is given. Just so, it is not our attribution of the name salt and the attributes thereto implied which fails; the failure here is born from an impossible contradiction between the thing which we intend to call salt, and the proper name of salt. The base and superstructure are for him conjoined but far offstage, assigning roles those actors are unfit to play; for Marx, however, the casting call is correct: it is not the actor who is unhappy with the role of proletarian, but the proletarian who is unhappy with themselves. The essence of their role is a series of contradictions, the presentation of their lines onstage the unfolding and resolution of unreason. There is no script to be thrown aside, no return to auditions.

Hegel writes:

The self, appearing here in its significance as something actual, plays with the mask which it once put on in order to act its part; but it as quickly breaks out again from this illusory character and stands forth in its own nakedness and ordinariness, which it shows to be not distinct from the genuine self, the actor or from the spectator.[9]

Fanon lacks a cogency in his collapse and dislocation of the base and superstructure; he takes them as a unified complex apart from the concrete person, contingent and malleable, changed only by a drop of the masks. He misunderstands a young Marx, where he critiques him – and exceeds him only where he has misunderstood. He provides a completed system not yet concordant, however much constructed “in relative opacity.”[10] As much as Fanon might work towards a maneuver outside of the parameters of his historical situation, he builds only the conditions for a future which might move beyond him: for a young Fanon, “I consider the present to be something overtaken.”[11]

Dead by the December following publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon too young writes that “the misfortune of man is that he was once a child.”[12] Where Rousseau remarks that the art of education consists in knowing how to lose time – this analysis happens accordingly, a reading with plenty of time, where Fanon had none to lose.

Fanon and The German Ideology

1845, Marx starts work on the manuscripts which would become The German Ideology. The name (mordantly) references the thought of his local interlocutors, the Young Hegelians. Though whereas his portion (among four authors’) opens with polemics, he spends relatively little time on a negative approach to his peers. Instead, Marx opts for a notably oblique methodological approach. He endeavors to demonstrate an epistemic difference fully, but by way of the introduction of a new project: to begin constructing a materialist dialectic of history. The beginnings of a system in The German Ideology were not published in Marx’s life, though the questions and formulations there posed would become some of the most confounding for his philosophy. Firstly, for us: the question of the relation between the base and the superstructure; secondarily, the question of the relation between the subject and history.

His section on “History: Fundamental Conditions” then introduces a first principle for history: “the first historical act is thus […] the production of material life itself.”[13] The “daily [remaking] of [people’s] own life”[14] is therefore our base. The way we produce our sustenance, our relations to the world of material things, as developed by contradictions among themselves – all together form a basic historical premise, the possibility of history.

The emergence and continuation of the base is then a necessary event, insofar as humans still live and breathe. Human history as here detailed is only possible through the accomplishment of that fact. Our living and breathing, however, requires the constant constitution of material life: we must produce and reproduce things, implements, such that we might produce and reproduce ourselves. The contingency of the base for Marx is a possibility become impossible, an exclusive disjunction: there could have history, or there could have been no history; we must produce, or we must die. We have not yet died though, and we speak here of history – the base is functionally necessary, as such.

The base is then, too, a principal historical determination, i.e., an event which maps to and renders the happening of other events. Taken this way, the base is a concrete mechanism atop which history sits, and according to whose general dictations (and contradictions), history is activated: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”[15] This history as most apparent to us would be the superstructure, our sphere of consciousness, a boundless sediment of thought – principally or uniformly determined by the material media through which social relations are first made possible.

The superstructure is rather the oblique concatenation of our culture, our politicking, our religion. It is the plane of our thoughts, causally transmitted from below, but bound up inextricably with its anterior causes in a circuit; the base is made possible by the superstructure, the superstructure by the base. Marx here writes: “… it is self-evident, moreover, that ‘specters,’ ‘bonds,’ ‘the higher being,’ ‘concept,’ ‘scruple,’ are merely the idealistic, spiritual expression […] within which the mode of production of life and the form of intercourse coupled with it move.”[16] He notes earlier: “it is quite immaterial what consciousness starts to do on its own”[17] – a phrase whose inversion suggests that what consciousness does not do on its own is material, is the realization of the economic. The basic representations are the movements of an actuality, however much epiphenomenal; the superstructure is a vehicle of symbols through which an economic meaning must move.

The representations, the system of misnomers which populate the capitalist mode of production for Marx are then indicative of social-regulatory realities at odds with themselves, with their extant situation. He writes towards Feuerbach: “… he develops the view that the existence of a thing or a man is at the same time its essence, [… that] the mode of life and activity of an animal or human individual are those in which its ‘essence’ feels itself satisfied.”[18] Where Feuerbach might take those “abnormalities,” those moments of misalignment between existence and essence to be necessary burdens quietly borne, Marx then writes that “the millions of proletarians and communists, however, think differently and will prove this in time, when they bring their ‘existence’ into harmony with their ‘essence’ in a practical way, by means of revolution.”[19]

Here it is not some anterior actor who has contradicted the motion of history: it those historical forms themselves, those proletarians, who take their position to be irrational. Inasmuch as they are proletarians, they seek the highest wages for the least of their work; inasmuch as they are proletarians, they are pushed to receive the lowest wages for the most of their work. The proletariat, as history, then acts upon itself: its activity is the unfolding of a world-theater of reason, masks worn throughout; their names are the possibility of their discontent.

By 1952, Marx (the man) is dead, and Frantz Fanon has published his seminal Black Skin, White Masks. An autoethnography of the French Antilles, the book is punctuated by Marx, however much formulated inside the bounds of Hegel. Where for Marx the dialectic of history is the attainment to an ineffable liberation through the self-activity of contradictions, Fanon intends to excavate a subterranean telos. He returns to the system of those Young Hegelians, where history might end by “being resolved into ‘self-consciousness’ as ‘spirit of the spirit.’”[20] He intends a New Humanism, where “genuine disalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most materialist sense, have resumed their rightful place.”[21]

Fanon should, following Hegel, like to take history as the reflexive alignment of concepts to their objects. Though where the syntax is borrowed from The Phenomenology, the content is a palimpsest of The German Ideology. Fanon takes the theater of history to be the hasty distribution of roles, costumes and masks worn by those actors whose director is the economic. Unlike a young Marx, Fanon moves to a moment before the curtains are drawn. The contradictions played out onstage are not between the assigned role and its place, like a brash protagonist placed among the chorus. They are instead between the supposed actors and the roles themselves, whose “rightful places” must be resumed not with the rearrangement of the scene, but with the dropping of masks such that the whole play might be reordered from the top.

Though his project is speculative, treating a future-anterior, Fanon here turns to a prehistory: something spatially behind, and temporally before the drawn curtains of an ongoing history, an ongoing history marked by a system of non-correspondence. For Marx, however, there is nothing apart from that non-correspondence. Our language is of the superstructure, a comingling of concepts as glyphs becoming our politics and cultures and religions and philosophies. Our doing and being, creating items and procreating people, is of the base, of the economic: a series of referents who become known only through their glyphs, and through nothing else. History as available to us for Marx proceeds directly from an immediate expressive gap, whose bursting forth coincides with the first moments of human activity: “men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.’”[22] The prehistory which precedes this is as unavailable and impossible as any other foregone contingency – there is no manifest of proper roles, no return to auditions.

Later in Fanon’s project, the assignment of roles is complicated by the absence of the director: the actors choose their places onstage, some first lot rummaging through the costume closet, all else determined by what is left to wear, determined by the exchange of costumes between leads and understudies at each reprise. He writes: “in the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”[23] The concrete mechanisms of historical motion are not offstage, arbitrarily shuffling the superstructure about. The actors take their own places, some inherited, wearing costumes provided by the previous scene, pantomiming the action they believe to be theirs. History for Fanon becomes not a system of actors delimited by some theatrical mode of existence, but instead, the activity of concrete subjects who are existence themselves negotiating the mode of existence of the play.

The relations of The German Ideology, where the personal becomes possible only through the impersonal, where “there exists a materialistic connection of men with one another […] determined by their needs and their mode of production”[24] are here substituted for distinctly interpersonal relations. The “first premise” of history is subordinate to the actors who revise it, who are estranged in it. The whole complex of history for Fanon no longer rests on the determination of modes of existence for actors, modes which come into tension with themselves. It instead rests on there being some outsideness to history, some place from without where actors are to take up their roles or reject them, to accept their recognitions and self-recognize, or to rearrange themselves accordingly. The dropping of the mask is the moment of liberation for Fanon: “we are aiming at nothing less than to liberate the black man from himself,” he notes in Black Skin, White Masks. This is not an appropriation of costumes, where “the black man wants to be white […] the white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man.”[25] It is instead a shedding of costumes altogether: “the truth is that we must unleash the man.”[26]

It is as such that this humanism, too, resolves in a degree of practical political violence. Humans do not struggle with nature, do not struggle with their assigned names and roles and the contradictions thereto enfolding. Those forms are populated for Fanon entirely by humans, each form the simple aggregate of humans such that the whole of history might be reduced to the single human qua its integument: “the colonized, underdeveloped man is today a political creature in the most global sense of the term.”[27] This in turn permits all actions to the contrary, all movements beyond the thrown situation, the most immediate imperative becoming the elucidation of alternatives through whatever means possible: “our historic mission is to authorize every revolt, every desperate act, and every attack aborted or drowned in blood.”[28] The simplest act of liberation for Fanon is not the revolution of Marx, not the alignment of a formal essence to an historical existence, but instead, the rebuke of a mode of existence itself: a movement beyond the strict parameters of being and towards something beyond them. Fanon quotes (uncited) at length from Césaire, And the Dog Weren’t Silent:

He was the master … I entered. It’s you, he said, very calmly … it was me; it was indeed me, I told him, the good slave, the faithful slave, the slave-slave, and suddenly my eyes were two cockroaches frightened on a rainy day … I struck; the blood spurted: it is the only baptism that today I remember.[29]

The slave master here knows the slave only as such; the slave only knows the master as such. The prosecution of violence by the slave is for Fanon the mode of liberation: it is the becoming of a self-consciousness from whom the mask is dropped, exiting their exigently determined attributes through the act of killing the other. The slave has here moved into their “cycle of freedom” by being something other than slave, by attaining the “only baptism that today they remember.” For Marx, the proletarian is liberated otherwise: the proletarian is liberated by the reasonable execution of its already present attributes – the proletarian has in its own nature a want for liberation. The slave must be more than a slave, for Fanon, to liberate itself. The dual unnecessity of base and superstructure is here suggested: the subject is something other than history, apart from it, active upon it from without.

The New Humanism of Fanon is both the excavation of a dialectical telos from the syntax of Hegel and through the language of Marx, and a politically active system of hermeneutics. The person is everywhere bearing a misnomer, from which a whole world of history and domination can be immediately read: there is no throughline via the commodity, via the production of material life. The seat of unreason is between the person and their far-off determined mode of existence, where “the fellah, the unemployed and the starving do not lay claim to the truth […] they are the truth in their very being.”[30] To decipher the mediacies, to act according to script towards some unraveling of contradictions is for Fanon the project of “outmoded games,”[31] where “humanity expects other things from us than this grotesque and generally obscene emulation”[32] of roles inherited, taken up from before.

The world-historical theater for Fanon is then changed only through “nothing less than [the demolition] of the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.”[33] It is the extra- or super-historical resolution of history, whose intention is an “endeavor to create a new man,”[34] properly named, autonomous, and whose existence bears out its essence. This is an essence other than, and before, that mode of existence into which they are thrown. Marx to this end writes, inversely: “’liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse.”[35] He writes earlier: “we call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”[36]

Fanon here intends something new, having little exceeded Marx: human freedom for Fanon is of a humanity yet unbecome, whose becoming happens with the conjunct evaporation of those infrastructural and superstructural exigencies, a dualism become monism. For Marx, there is a monism – it is, however, a self-active monism; it is history which determines itself, where “circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.”[37]

The New Humanism of Fanon defies the necessity of the economic forms in asserting their embodiments viz. individuals: personation of forms is the arbitrary activity of persons themselves, where the economic holds a variable mode of existence, concrete subjects without a mode – they simply are. The dialectical purpose asserted is one which intends to circumvent the philosophical difficulties of Marx by way of an omission, where the un-necessity of the material allows the “transformation of subjective certainty into objective truth,”[38] the determination of human activity become self-determination, where the economic by way of a nominal desecration is something other than the governing essence of social life.

Hegel, Marx, Fanon, Man

“It is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialistic connection of men with one another,” Marx emphasizes in The German Ideology; he continues: “… this connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a ‘history’ independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which may hold men together.”[39] The base is here for Marx a necessary event, bursting forth from natural impulses (i.e., humans must produce to live); though with its emergence as the response to physiological need is the immediate, coinciding emergence of another necessary event: social relations.[40]

Humans must eat and must sleep, should they live. This requires the production of those items which can fulfill these needs. Those items require some exertion of labor towards their production: some unfortunate deer must be slain, and venison cooked; some berry must be picked; some warm hovel dug from the soil. From the production of these items, primary needs are fulfilled. If Marx is to be followed here though, the fulfillment of these needs is only a precondition for the “production of new needs.”[41]

The ”production of new needs” – which happens with the same motion that those primary needs are fulfilled – is then the impetus for the coincidence of natural (physiological) and social relations. The individual human and their underdeveloped cognitive, physical, and material faculties have reached the outer bounds of their capabilities. Other humans are needed to sustain production: “it follows from this that a certain mode of production […] is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation.”[42]

Here in a few moments really concurrent in their happening, Marx begins the genealogy of society, and in particular, of consciousness. The base and its motion, per this flight to the abstraction of prehistory, are initially one with the language of them, as much as that language might not yet exist. It is the emergence of social relations, the development of language as such, through which our superstructure comes about: it is the negotiation of materials among persons by which places are taken. It is the first instance of economic interactivity through which the political becomes at once possible. The beginning of unreason is the negotiation of reason between persons: it is the failure of an original recognition, the incapacity with our historical and instrumental given to properly know, to properly denote, where this incapacity only comes to be with the development of our material life.

It is from here that a young Fanon, moving with a young Marx, works at a theory of the assignment of misnomers: they are born from that first moment of misrecognition, where the persons brought into relation by necessity are incapable of mutual recognition. It is the outward development of those relations to nature through which, for Marx, those relations to others become possible: the locus of misrecognition is the necessary mediation, and thus estrangement, of social relations through the prism of the economic. Here, “man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him,”[43] such that the persons do not confront each other and themselves as such. They instead enter their first relations as the proprietors of some labor, the bearers of some juridical situation: they are always-already donned in character-masks, personifications of economic forms.

The unfolding of the materialist dialectic for a young Marx would here sit in the proper existence of those personifications as essence. Here our language and names, as crystallized in the annals of ideology, are the real integuments of interactions through the economic. It is thus in the superstructure and economic both that those same immanent contradictions between the typology of the (essential) name and its existence, and between the economic existence and the economic purpose are played out, where that misrecognition is the only recognition, and freedom consists in the attainment to the type of thing one is taken to be, takes themselves to be – though that attainment is the obliteration of the unstable identity.

Fanon redirects in part from Marx here. Where misnomers are for a young Marx the vehicles of substantial contradictions, effective in the performances solicited – where the mask is the person, the mode of existence the only existence – these names are merely the delimitations of a human substance for Fanon. The activity of persons through the vernacular of representations is not for him a positive transmission of positions from below, but instead the constitution of subjective positions among persons, by persons. History for Fanon is not the director and play – it is instead only the accreted activity of extant subjects, playing out entirely personal power differentials, a ruse of language where estrangement does not happen with subordinance to the economic, but instead with the subordinance to another. The economic is not the requisite medium of possibility for social life, for Fanon: it is the instrument and product of persons and social life, a modality shaped from without.

“It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject,” Fanon notes. “The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth from the colonial system.”[44] The economic is not productive of names: it is the product of names, the self-active provision of mandates and substantiation of roles taken according to an initial robbery backstage. “As long as he [the subject] has not been effectively recognized by the other, it is this other who remains the focus of his actions,”[45] Fanon puts it. It is for him the constitution of misnomers which simultaneously makes the arrangement and assemblage of things and their production possible. Where economic forms have a contingent mode of existence for him, historical necessity is bound up only in the activity of concrete individuals, for which being has no modality: they simply are, however much dealing with that which is given apart from them.

It is those immanent contradictions of production, as made available by the superstructure – those otherwise imperceptible tensions – which for Marx are productive of history. Fanon substitutes these formal interactions, as allowed by persons, for autonomously interpersonal ones. Where the from the interfolding activity of human life a “basic historical premise” emerges as the economic in Marx, the being of history is behind those mechanisms for Fanon. The first premise is not the well-situated activity of man: it is man itself. Man constructs contingent modes of being apart from themselves, in which their once objective truth becomes distorted as a subjective certainty, a taking up of costumes onstage, behind whose affectations some objective truth still sits. The “resumption of rightful places” is here principally the obliteration of those contingencies with which the thrown person is congested: it is the allowed becoming of a “genuine” human.

The contingency of the economic and its modes of existence – i.e., the asserted possibility of their impossibility – in Fanon gives us a situation like an Epicurean beginning, distinct atoms locked in freefall before the clinamen: an immediacy of definite premises who are their own truths. Each of these atoms, for Fanon, retains embodied attributes realized in their very embodiment. It is the moment of the clinamen, of the interactivity of atoms from which an enterprise of language is birthed where those notions are unavailable through our concepts, or where these notions are afforded shapes and bounds as modes of existence which do not correspond to (or properly delimit) their being, themselves.

For Marx, in turn, this prehistory is an abstraction quickly disposed of, whose development necessarily tends again towards that production of new needs. It is a prehistory of unavailable moments, where the human has their becoming exclusively with the happening of history, with the moment of an atomic encounter, where there is no a priori subject – the constitution of subjects is the very constitution of a system of glyphs and referents. Nothing before that is knowable. That world is as unreachable, as anonymous as the private sphere of personal memories – it is the non-happening of the world, the impossibility of an historical situation already become possible. Where Fanon finds in prehistory the original homogeneity of being, Marx might here find nothing at all.

What telos is excavated by Fanon, where the materialist dialectic of Marx might be abstruse, is an historical purpose premised on some originality of being, and moreover, of the distinction of being among itself, a universal as populated by particulars. History for Fanon is not the ascription of names and places, for these exist before it -- history becomes the misalignment of those names and places, the capitalist mode of production a whole project of revision. History is for him a negative endeavor accordingly, inasmuch as those negations are of negations: “we said in our introduction that man was an affirmation […] we shall never stop repeating it […] but man is also a negation.”[46] He writes elsewhere: “the work of the colonized is to imagine every possible method for annihilating the colonist.”[47] The thrown human has as its world-historical project the restitution of an original position, the impossibility of contingencies: “it is the collapse of an entire moral and material universe,”[48] such that the world of persons anterior to history, anterior to the masks of that global stage might be “[hoisted] up to the level of the leader,”[49] the director’s chair again occupied.

Marx notes in The German Ideology: “communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself […] we call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”[50] He affirms Fanon in part here: the project of the person is the negation of those extant determinations. He has no anterior history as telos, though; he is explicitly dealing with those circumstances directly encountered, with what is possible given what is here, now: “the conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” The present historical situation delimits what might proceed from it: it is real, and denotative of a facticity. The act of negation for the young Marx is still the activity of persons really bearing always-already given misnomers, recognized and self-recognized accordingly, who do not “[go] beyond the historical and instrumental given,”[51] but instead deal with those contradictions immanent to them: that unreason seated already in their situations. The assemblage of negations for a young Marx is not the permission of fluid being to burst forth. It is the introduction of new contingencies, the construction of a new mode of being – for which our concepts might always be deficient or arbitrary, however much necessary. Marx in youth is unlike Fanon here: the outer bounds of history are not for him the beginning of man, delimited; there is no outer bound to history. It is the totality of being.

However much denying the lineage, Marx here might work better from the syntax of the Phenomenology than Fanon. Where Hegel notes that “[the estrangement of the undifferentiated fluidity is the very positing of individuality,”[52] he later confirms: “the estrangement of [life] into different shapes is at the same time the dissolution of these stably existing differences.”[53] There is no simple existence of self-differentiated being, impossibly thrown into a new system of differentiations, for Marx, for Hegel. Fanon works apart from his predecessors accordingly – and misunderstands the formal historical premises he establishes, as such. For a young Marx, the principal category, the universal is history: its bearers are differentiated by their estrangement, but they resolve always and again into an affirmation of no differences. They are bound to their necessary facticity as the economic but is behind this facticity which nothing sits – only the “gazing of the inner into the inner,” which for Hegel is “immediately no difference for me.”[54]


“Men do not therefore bring the products of their labor into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogenous human labor,” Marx later writes in Capital.[55]

“The reverse is true,” he continues: “by equating their products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labor as human labor. They do this without being aware of it.”[56] Where Fanon discovers the economic as the arbitrary mode of existence by which subjects are delimited in the superstructure, Marx instead finds the economic active in the superstructure as the real rule of a universal, a totalizing category. The essence is not the existence – but it is the immanent contradiction of an essential typology, and the mode of existence prescribed, a contradiction by which history might be developed. Just as value governs the activity of production for Marx, so it is inverted in our self-representations of that activity, where to think of the “social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor” as personal relations is to really act in that way – is to be the mode of being, is to wear the mask fully and as indistinct from the genuine self, the actor, the spectators. We discover here the “infinite weak point” of these systems: we have no insight towards a truth beyond that value-dictated surface, the whole contemporary enterprise of human activity and consciousness here a totality whose surface is not its essence, but who bears only a surface. It is a surface beholden to the outlay of rules established by a social-physical system to which no one person is the proprietor, for which no one person bears out the whole sediment, and for which no stable differences exist. But it is a system according to which we act, nonetheless.

Here is the political theory of the materialist dialectic, present in Marx though mis-excavated by Fanon: we speak and engage and interact in a capacity delimited by value, as made possible by our estrangement in the mediacies of things, in the representations of masks – and we engage value only through these delimited moments of speech, engagements, interactions. Though this value is the outgrowth of a particular mode of social relations, its possibility affords the capacity to imagine other possibilities, however bounded this imagination might be by the script given, by the masks worn. The “cycle of freedom” towards which Fanon writes is not an anterior cycle, the outsideness of being. It is the work of persons acting through really present premises, “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past,”[57] however unreadily apprehended. Where Fanon reads everywhere the telos of the world and its persons in their being, Marx has no such hermeneutical devices: he follows Hegel here more than he might allow in his admission of debt.

Marxist politics does not consist in the discovery of a sovereign route apart from the edifices of thought, a dropping of the mask such that tragedy becomes comedy, irony brought to the fore – it is not a development whereby history might unravel itself as the outlay of particulars, from which Fanon’s man might burst forth, self-distinct. To be politically Marxist is to necessarily take up positions in the conjoint base-superstructure theater, its moments the empirically available (though hastily assigned and bounded) expressions of value, of the economic as a mode of existence.

We draw from Adorno here:

The infinite weak point in every critical position (and I would like to tell you that I include my own here) is that when confronted with such criticism, Hegel simply has the more powerful argument. This is because there is no other world than the one in which we live, or at least we have no reliable knowledge of any alternatives despite all our radar screens and giant telescopes. So that we shall always be told: everything you are, everything you have, you owe, we owe to this odious totality.[58]

Fanon dies young in Algeria, 1961. He is not allowed the time to enter his “cycle of freedom,” on soil he did not yet recognize as liberated, as a person yet unbecome. He does not complete the system of Marx; in his movements past Marx lie a latent mystification. But it is perhaps only through that mask worn, through the “relative opacity” in which Fanon writes, that we are able to learn; that we are able to work towards that cycle, ourselves.

We conclude with Brecht:

You too, my friend, should have come here in disguise – as a respectable doctor of scholastic philosophy. It’s my mask that allows me a little freedom tonight.[59]

approaching masked carnival, nicky nodjoumi


[0] All images c. WikiArt.

[1] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” 206.

[4] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 40.

[5] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” 192.

[6] Ibid., XV.

[7] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 61.

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9] Hegel, “Phenomenology of Spirit,” §744.

[10] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 145.

[11] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” XVII.

[12] Ibid., 206.

[13] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 48.

[14] Ibid., 48 – 50.

[15] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1.

[16] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 51.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 61.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 59.

[21] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” XV.

[22] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 48.

[23] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 5.

[24] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 50.

[25] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” XIII.

[26] Ibid., XII – XIII.

[27] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 40.

[28] Ibid., 238.

[29] Ibid., 145.

[30] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 11.

[31] Ibid., 238.

[32] Ibid., 239.

[33] Ibid., 6.

[34] Ibid., 237.

[35] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 61.

[36] Ibid., 57.

[37] Ibid., 59.

[38] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” 206.

[39] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 113.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 2.

[45] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” 191.

[46] Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth,” 197.

[47] Ibid., 50.

[48] Ibid., 9.

[49] Ibid.,51.

[50] Marx, “The German Ideology,” 57.

[51] Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks,” 204 – 5.

[52] Hegel, “Phenomenology of Spirit,” §171.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., §164.

[55] Marx, “Capital Volume I,” 166.

[56] Ibid., 166 – 167.

[57] Marx, “18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”

[58]Adorno, “History and Freedom: Lectures 1964 - 1965,” 47.

[59] Brecht, Life of Galileo, in “Collected Plays Vol. 5,” 52.