Master-Slave Dialectics (in the Colonies)

I did a complete diagnosis of my sickness.

I wanted to be typically black – that was out of the question.

I wanted to be white – that was a joke.

And when I tried to claim my negritude intellectually as a concept, they snatched it away from me.

They proved to me that my effort was nothing but a term in the dialectic.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


The conservative, and even reactionary, potential of Hegel’s philosophy has been frequently brought to the foreground. It is patent that he espoused highly detrimental views towards women, African and Asian peoples for example, and his overall philosophical project is seen by some as aiming at a justification of the status quo. It is equally indisputable, however, that Hegelian thought was quite often relied upon (if not uncritically) by thinkers eager to transform the existing social order – Marx and the Marxist tradition being arguably the most remarkable case. But the critical appropriation of Hegelian philosophy is not the prerogative of advocates of a proletarian revolution. Representatives of anti-colonialism1 and feminism, for example, have also relied upon a reshaped dialectic to formulate their own approaches to social domination and resistance. Within anti-colonialism, the work of Martinican psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon provides a remarkably rich and pregnant broadening of traditional interpretations of both Hegel and Marx.

The figure of the Master-Slave (or Lord-Bondsman) relationship, as presented in the Phenomenology of Spirit, holds a privileged place in this respect.2 In Hegel’s famous passage, the achievement of an independent self-consciousness is seen not only as an intersubjective process, motivated by a desire for recognition by the other, but also as an essentially conflictual one: each consciousness strives 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 complete annihilation of one consciousness (or both), whereby the process of mutual recognition will never be complete, or to one consciousness surrendering to the other in the face of fear of imminent death, thus becoming the slave (Knecht). The other becomes the master (Herr), since he showed no fear of death and thus has not degraded himself to the level of mere physical existence. The master however depends on the slave – not only for the satisfaction of his material needs, but also for his 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-propelled labouring of the natural and material world.

The fact that this passage has so often appealed to subversive, critical thinkers can be referred not least to Hegel’s assertion that the slave has a (potential) advantage over the master. While Marx did not address this specific passage in detail,3 a reading of such a figure inspired by Marx is certainly recognizable in the works of, among others, Kojève and Sartre, two key figures in the intellectual climate of post-war France – and for Fanon as well. Central to this approach is an analogy between the Hegelian slave and the worker under capitalism. If for Hegel the slave’s cultivating labour is what makes him an independent being, so the proletarian, analogously, can only free himself from class domination upon the realization that he is the real subject of production. Beyond Hegel, however, this approach requires that the proletariat act upon this realization, enforcing, through class struggle, the recognition of his independent being by the ruling class – hence leading to a classless, emancipated society.

For Fanon, however, “a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue” (Fanon 2004, 5). In line with this remark, his reading of the Master-Slave dialectic brings new elements to the foreground. The conflictual and intersubjective model of human subjectivity-formation developed in the Phenomenology of Spirit is recast by Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, but the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic works in his 1952 book as a contrasting foil rather than as a model for the relation between the settler and the colonized, the white master and the black slave. And this is for at least two reasons. First, Fanon notes that the black man has been freed from slavery and recognized as a person without a struggle to the death: “The black man is a slave who was allowed to assume a master’s attitude. The white man is a master who allowed his slaves to eat at his table” (Fanon 2008, 194). The black man’s recognition is merely legal, thus formal and incomplete. Solely through struggle, in Fanon’s view, will the black man achieve real recognition. The only solution for the black man working in the sugar-cane plantations in Martinique is to fight, “because quite simply he cannot conceive his life otherwise than as a kind of combat against exploitation, poverty, and hunger” (ibid., 199). Fanon thereby gives an emancipatory twist to social struggle: for Hegel, the struggle is what posits the asymmetrical relation between the self-consciousnesses in the first place; for Fanon, on the contrary, the power asymmetry is prior to the struggle that can lead to real reciprocal recognition.

If the only way to liberation is struggle, the second sense in which Fanon departs from Hegel can help in explaining what prevents such struggle from taking place. While Hegel’s slave turns away from the master and towards the object (i.e. his creative work), the black man turns away from the object and towards the master; he wants to be like his master, which makes him even “less independent than the Hegelian slave” (ibid., 195). The colonized black subject is socialized in a world where the white man is the identification model of everything that is good, pure, and active, and thus shares the collective unconsciousness of the European. Hence, “[a]fter having been a slave of the white man, he enslaves himself” (ibid., 168). Fanon thereby introduces a psychoanalytically construed ideological dimension, that he calls ‘alienation,’ which under the social-historical circumstances of colonialism blocks the dialectical movement from developing toward the struggle that could lead to reciprocal recognition.

By pointing (1) to the structural-objective inequality between white settler and black native that exists prior to any emancipatory combat, and (2) to the ideological-subjective distortion of the black man’s sense of personhood that tends to block the very onset of social struggle and dialectical movement, can Fanon be said to have solely ‘slightly stretched’ Marx’s theory?

Fanon’s criticism of Sartre in Black Skin, White Masks encapsulates, as it were, the complex relation between anti-colonial activism and Marxism, and can shed some light on what is at stake here. In his 1948 ‘Black Orpheus,’ Sartre takes the notion of race as subjective, relative and particular, as “the weak stage of a dialectical progression” that will only resolve itself in the objective, positive and universal notion of class (Sartre apud Fanon 2008 111, 112). Fanon is left exasperated with his friend, this “born Hegelian” who “had forgotten that consciousness needs to get lost in the night of the absolute, the only condition for attaining self-consciousness” (Fanon 2008, 111). Sartre forgets moreover, says Fanon, “that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man,” adding that “[t]hough Sartre’s speculations on the existence of ‘the Other’ remain correct […], their application to a black consciousness proves fallacious because the white man is not only ‘the Other,’ but also the master, whether real or imaginary” (ibid., 117).

While in his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth Sartre rejects his earlier downplaying of anti-colonial activism,4 the tensions between the latter and the official Left in France grew even stronger during the Algerian War of Independence. In the conclusion of his last and most influential book, Fanon states that workers in the metropole were reticent in supporting the liberation of the colonies because they “believed they too were part of the prodigious adventure of the European Spirit.” Fanon then exhorts his fellow anti-colonial militants to – literally and metaphorically – leave Europe: “Comrades, let us flee this stagnation where dialectics has gradually turned into a logic of the status quo” (Fanon 2004, 237). In this sense, Fanon is urging colonized peoples to turn their backs on their masters and to engage in an experiment of creative protagonism and radical imagination. His book’s last sentence hence reads: “For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man” (ibid., 239).

It is crucial to note, however, that Fanon does not argue for the abandonment, from a particularistic perspective, of the Marxist account of dialectics and class struggle. Quite the contrary: he insists that Marxist intellectuals and activists live up to their universalistic claims, expanding their scope beyond the particular experience of the European, white working class. For this reason, Fanon cannot be considered an advocate of identity politics in any narrow sense, but rather a proponent of a strong humanist universalism, which inscribes him within the broad Left-Hegelian dialectical tradition.

In any case, more than a mere ‘slight stretch’ of hegemonic Marxism, Fanon’s oeuvre shows us that racialized colonialism is an integral, and not merely incidental, part of Western capitalism – a theoretical movement that critically destabilizes any stage-like narrative of historical development. After all, capitalism without racism or colonialism has only existed in the thought-experiments of those who forget Marx’s admonitions against purely logical abstract categories. From this perspective, to decolonize Marxism does not mean to ‘add colour’ (quite literally, in this case) to an otherwise untouched framework. It means rather to be able to see that colour has played, from the outset, a key role in the very composition of that framework.