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Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon and anti-colonial struggle

By Shahzada Rahim

Jean-Paul Sartre through his writings had elaborately explained the unbridgeable divide between postcolonial and anti-colonial struggle. But he presented a different nature of post-colonial theory and was extensively concerned with the colonial and third world issues since 1948. He also well-defined colonial violence in his famous work: “The Critique of Dialectical Reason” and became one of the founders of the epistemological revolution. It was Sartre and Algerian-born philosopher Frantz Fanon who put the anti-colonial struggle at the heart of the political agenda as part of their commitment as Marxists. Moreover, they both were influenced by ideas of extreme Bolshevism.

In “Being and Nothingness,” Sartre rejects, Marx’s argument –“consciousness is determined by life, by proposing ‘freedom’ as the central characteristic of being human.” Likewise, Sartre also rewrites Descartes Cogito as –“I am my choice. I am my freedom.”


Sartre said individuals are not fixed but in a constant state of self-transformation and self-reproduction playing an active role within the masses as conscious assortment of individuals, making history. As Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will, not under the circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

However, Sartre was not agreeing with the Marxian standpoint that individuals are wholly determined by their circumstances, but that “individuals possess responsibilities for themselves.”

Sartre repositioned his philosophy and political views after experiencing the colonial war in Morocco and Algeria when the Muslim towns of Casablanca and Satif were indiscriminately bombed. He was also a strong supporter of Negritude, the conception of African and Caribbean identity, and has critically worked on racism and tried to approach racism through phenomenology, associating racism with the ideology of colonial rule. The famous writer Richard Wright said, “The problem of racism does not lie with negros rather it is the problem with whites.”

But Sartre elucidated racism in the context of anti-Semitism saying it is the Jewish character that provokes anti-Semitism. Basically, the main problem lies in the split between the annihilated and the triumphant, and the colonial legacy of the western European empires had widened this split. Thus, anti-Semitism has not created un-assimilation of Jews. Rather, it is their strange behavior that creates contradiction. Sartre said if the existence precedes essence, then the essence of colonised subjects aspiring to a “white-mask” is one of inauthenticity and bad faith.

On the other hand, Frantz Fanon also staunchly criticised the psychopathology of the Colonial rule, which had given birth to the concepts like inferior subjects or inferiority across the colonial territories. According to Sartre colonial subjects oscillated between the two states, internalising the colonial ideology of inferiority and being less than fully human—until he or she assumes the responsibility and choses authenticity and freedom. Basically, it was Sartre’s Hegelian training that enabled him to recognise that Power is a Dialectical phenomenon that torturer and tortured, racist and victim, coloniser and colonised, and the powerful and the powerless, were all locked in symbiotic relations in which the latter could not escape the consequence of his relations with the former. What Frantz Fanon said “it is the system that has choked him and reduced him to silence”.

Hegel through his dialectics also put forward the concept of “excluded Middle”, which refers to the spectral presence of subaltern, liminal figures who slip between two antithetical categories. With this preposition Sartre argued; the racial hierarchy is the major ideological pivot of Colonial rule. Moreover, the Western discourse of “Humanism” and “Human rights” Sartre argued had worked by excluding a majority of the world’s population from the category of Humanism.