Frantz Fanon's Engagement with Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic.

Author:Hogan, Brandon
Position:Critical essay


In Black Skin, White Masks (Black Skin) Frantz Fanon famously distinguishes the colonial master and slave from the master and slave as depicted in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (Phenomenology). (1) According to Fanon, while Hegel's master seeks recognition from the slave, the colonial master seeks only work. Moreover, for Fanon, the Hegelian slave differs from the colonial slave because the former eventually gains self-consciousness and freedom through labor, while the latter seeks to be like his master--that is, he seeks to be white--and is thus unable to find liberation through labor alone.

I divide commentators on Fanon's treatment of Hegel in Black Skin into two camps: those who take it that Fanon seeks to reject Hegel's dialectic and those who believe that Fanon is sympathetic to Hegel. Commentators in the former camp disagree about whether Fanon is correct in rejecting Hegel. Those in the latter camp, I believe, interpret Fanon correctly but do not take Fanon's position on Hegel to be essential to understanding his philosophical project. That is, these latter commentators take Fanon's treatment of Hegel to be incidental to his larger views about the nature of Black subjectivity and the necessity of violent revolution in the French colonies.

According to the first reading of Fanon, Hegel's master-slave dialectic is inapplicable because it does not accurately describe the attitudes of the colonial master and slave and does not accurately present the mechanisms through which the colonial slave can or will achieve freedom. This reading, however, attributes to Fanon a mistaken understanding of Hegel. Reading Fanon charitably requires that we read him as understanding the point of the master-slave dialectic. Hegel's dialectic is not a description or allegorical reflection of the origins and dynamics of historical slavery. The dialectic is best read as illustrating a distinct type of failure that undermines person's ability to act freely.

Fanon's point is not that Hegel's master-slave dialectic is inapplicable to the colonial situation, but that both Blacks and whites in the Francophone world will face particular challenges if they wish to overcome the failure that is colonial domination. For Fanon, Blacks and whites lack freedom just as Hegel's master and slave lack freedom, but their lack of freedom is complicated by the phenomenon of anti-black racism.

If we wish to see Fanon as offering a comprehensive critique of colonialism--one that, among other things, explains the effects of colonial subjugation and explains why this subjugation is wrong--we should read him as offering a conception of freedom. In reading Fanon as critical of Hegel, we deprive him of the Hegelian conception of freedom that he seems to implicitly rely on in Black Skin, The Wretched of the Earth (The Wretched), and A Dying Colonialism.

I contend, then, that Fanon's reading of Hegel is not incidental to his larger views, but allows us to see those views as unified by a common conception of personal and national freedom that justifies his call for violent revolution in The Wretched. While I do not claim that Fanon is a Hegelian--or that he thought of himself as a Hegelian--I argue that my interpretive suggestion allows us to make better sense of Fanon's engagement with Hegel. To be sure, this work does not purport to be the final word on Hegel's master-slave dialectic or Fanon's engagement with Hegel's dialectic. I am to offer a plausible perspective on Fanon's engagement with Hegel that goes missing in the current scholarship. Indeed, this work does not purport to be a sustained piece of Fanon scholarship, but an analytic interpretive suggestion.

In the following section, I explain the two schools of interpretation regarding Fanon on Hegel. In the following section, I reconstruct and discuss Fanon's argument in the section of Black Skin titled, "The Black Man and Hegel." I contend that Fanon embraces Hegel's abstract conception of freedom. This discussion provides a context for my discussion of Fanon's comments on the master-slave dialectic. I contend that this discussion is best understood in light of Fanon's understanding of Hegelian freedom. I next argue for my interpretation of Fanon's discussion of the dialectic, demonstrating why rival interpretations are problematic. In the final section, I briefly argue that our reading of Fanon's corpus is enhanced if we attribute to him the Hegelian conception of freedom.

Two Schools of Interpretation Regarding Fanon on Hegel

Understandably, most philosophers who write about Black Skin pay a minimal amount of attention to Fanon's commentary on Hegel. The section titled, "The Black Man and Hegel" only occupies seven pages of the 206-page book.

Several commentators have taken it that Fanon's point in discussing Hegel is that of demonstrating that Hegel's theoretical framework is inapplicable to the colonial situation. (2) Ato Sekyi-Out (1996) claims that Fanon believes that he (Fanon) and Hegel represent two "entirely different universe[s] of discourse." (3) Kleinberg (2003) takes it that Fanon's position is that the Hegelian system and the colonial system are "incompatible," and proceed to argue that "... in his attempt to distance the colonial slave from the Hegelian Slave, Fanon actually parallels Hegel's movements." (4) Against Kleinberg, Honenberger (2007) argues that Fanon successfully distinguishes the colonial situation from Hegel's discussion of mastery and slavery and thus demonstrates that Hegel's discussion "does not apply to the relation between white, colonial master and black, colonized slave." (5)

Gordon (2015) also seems to adopt this reading of Fanon on Hegel in his recent book, What Fanon Said. (6) Gordon notes that Fanon does not consider Hegel's discussion of mastery and slavery in the Philosophy of Right, where Hegel further demonstrates the necessity of a state structured by relations of reciprocal recognition. But Gordon cautions against taking this omission as evidence that Fanon believed that such a state would emerge in spite of the history of racial domination in France and in the French colonies. (7) For Gordon, Fanon believes that Hegel's conception of reciprocal recognition "fails" in the colonial context because the white master does not want recognition, but only work, from the Black slave. (8) Gordon, along with the other commentators in this first group, agree that Fanon seeks to reject Hegel. Only Kleinberg (2003) believes that he is wrong to do so.

The second group of commentators reads Fanon as embracing Hegel's dialectic, at least in part. Bird-Pollan contends that Fanon accepts Hegel conception of recognition and seeks to explain how racism distorts recognition. Bird-Pollan writes:

Fanon's reading of Hegel's theory of recognition in Black Skin immanent critique of the paradigm of recognition employed by the colonizer from the perspective of the black man for whom this paradigm has been suspended. The point is that while the story of recognition is fundamental its concrete instantiation has been thoroughly distorted by racist and colonial society. (9) While the Bird-Pollan (2015) interpretation of Fanon is largely correct, he does not argue for this interpretation or against its rivals. Additionally, Bird-Pollan (2015) does not provide a detailed account of Fanon's discussion of Hegel, nor does he explain how this discussion relates to Fanon's call for violence in The Wretched. Further, Bird-Pollan (2015) does not articulate the relationship between recognition and freedom, an understanding of which is essential to an illuminating interpretation of Fanon's engagement with Hegel.

Lou Turner (1996) occupies a liminal position in this debate, offering a nuanced discussion of Fanon on Hegel. Turner (1996) writes that Fanon's discussion of Hegel is an "evisceration" of the Hegelian view that "absolute reciprocity" lies at the base of social progress. Turner writes:

The absolute reciprocity of Hegel's dialectic is an historical presupposition of the natural, no less than human, reality from which his concept of self-consciousness is deduced. The presumed racial homogeneity of differentiated class strata presupposed in the absolute reciprocity of Hegel's master-slave dialectic is occluded as a consequence of Fanon's interrogation.... (10) For Turner, Fanon rejects the Hegelian dialectic to the extent that it does not take account of racism. Turner also believes that Fanon does not completely reject Hegel because he (Fanon) recognizes that the master-slave dialectic is a "pure form" that "necessarily breaks down into real, historical, relative forms, but that the pure form is the way in which to comprehend the historical reality of the latter form." (11) For Turner's Fanon, Hegel's master-slave dialectic is the model that we should use to understand Black subjugation.

I find Turner's position problematic. It appears odd that Fanon would both seek the "evisceration" of Hegel's dialectic but also take it that colonial subjugation should be...

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