Jared Sacks | The Pitfalls of Voluntarism

The philosopher Peter Hallward has explained that Frantz Fanon’s diagnosis of colonialism is “first and foremost an immense project to break the will of the colonised people” (2011, p.109)⁠. In other words, colonialism according to Fanon, was and attempt to dehumanise anyone who was outside the preview of ‘the European’ – as defined both culturally and racially. This being a physical and mental process of subjugation that can be understood as “daily death…a death in life” (Fanon 1967, p.13)⁠. From this perspective, political theorist, psychiatrist and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon believed that the only way out of such an all-encomassing world of racism and dehumanisation, is to confront and overthrow this order. Confrontation (and this implies a certain type of violence) is a necessary prerequisite for decolonisation.


This encounter can take place in one’s personal relationships such as Fanon’s stormy confrontation with his future editor Francis Jeanson. Commenting on this, Lewis Gordon remarks, “There is no reciprocal respect without confrontation…Fanon forced a situation in which the values of the two men came face to face, and through that encounter respect enabled the production of great work” (2015, p.91)⁠. Beyond personal relationships, this confrontation is also necessary with regards to society as a whole – it is only through this process which the colonised is able to emancipate themselves both physically and mentally (Fanon 2004, pp.1–62)⁠.




How is this achieved? Fanon posited that it is only collective “political will” that is able to bring about change. One should not wait for the ideal conditions to engage in struggle. Rather, it is engagement in struggle itself that creates the possibilities of revolution. To a certain extent, he, along with many revolutionary figures, believed that it is possible to force through change by one’s sheer commitment to struggle. In other words, Fanon is embracing of the concept of “voluntarism” which can be understood as the individual acting on the “political will” and revolutionary commitment towards change (Hallward 2011)⁠.


The way Fanon understands “being “actional” and having the “will” towards it, has certain important connections with Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “will to power” (Fanon 1986, p.173)⁠. There are, of course, many ways of interpreting or using this concept. From a more Manichean perspective, the will to power is quite simply the way “every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force” (Nietzsche et al. 1968, p.340). Here, the will to power is individualistic and only acts in cooperation with others in order to further that individualism. It is not an intention to merely take control over one’s own life, but also an imperialist-like volition to dominate others as well.


However, there are many other interpretations of Nietzsche’s concept that do not necessarily embody this Manichean orientation. The way Fanon uses the concept takes it to imply a will to life and a will to meaning in the face of death. It implies a breaking of the idols of Western civilization that dehumanise the black man and the will to forge new ones (Gordon 2015, p.25)⁠ In other words, Fanon uses Nietzsche to advocate the will to push on through and against oppression and towards collective liberation. However, this Fanonian political will, while it is advocated for in a collective sense, is often not acted upon collectively. It therefore entails certain pitfalls in its practice.


In practice, for instance, the concept of voluntarism tends to have linkages to the personal ego of the revolutionary. A certain amount of self-esteem is necessary to posit oneself as a leader in such struggles – someone who can be in a key position to work with a critical mass of people to bring about change. Yet the difference between self-esteem and self-importance is often difficult to see or acknowledge. Voluntarism can therefore take many forms.


The mere act of engaging in this world as a radically oriented actor – or activist – can be either self-affirming or completely destructive to one’s self-worth depending on how one’s will is manifest. It can also impact a person somewhere in the middle or be a combination of the two seemingly opposite extremes.


To a person who has always been made to feel inferior and oppressed (by the colour of their skin, their gender or their social roots), struggles (particularly through acts of resistance and rebellion, acts of spatial occupation, of collective boycott, or of mass-based civil disobedience) are simultaneously instruments of self-empowerment and mental emancipation – as Fanon notes in both Black Skin White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth.


At the same time, a person with a certain ego, who is accustomed to personal success and over-achieving in spaces where individualism is encouraged and rewarded, can often run into a brick wall when she/he is forced to rely on other people. This is apparent, as Fanon pointed out, in the encounter between the colonized intellectual and the people where the individualist narcissism of the former is “smashed to smithereens” during their encounter with the latter (2004, p.11)⁠. Furthermore, even in instances where the intellectual is deeply committed to the struggle, there are times when no amount of commitment and sheer will can overcome the impedance of others’ alternative ways of doing things.


There are two spaces, one personal and one public, in which provide instructive examples of the question of voluntarism. Both are political even if not overtly so.


Personal relationships


In the realm of personal relationships, particularly when it comes to the love[1] and commitment of another human being, it is no cliché to recognise that it is, in fact, a two way street. This is the basis of much of bell hooks’ work on Feminist pedagogy and practice: “Love can never take root in a relationship based on domination and coercion” (2000, p.103)⁠. In other words, hooks is arguing against the figure of the masculine voluntarist and is questioning the will to power as a patriarchal construction. This is evident in her critique of the way patriarchy dominated the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s. While it is true that the feeling and act of profound love can be one-directional and therefore unconditional (ie one can love another human being without expecting anything in return), in order to build a relationship based on love there is always the requirement of reciprocity from the other person that is both voluntary and balanced.
No amount of personal will can sustain a healthy relationship if a similar level of work is not put in by the corresponding friend or partner. This, in fact, is what Fanon subtly notes in Black Skin White Masks where his examples of interracial relationships are fraught not only by the pathological conditions of anti-blackness, but also are the basis of an inherent inequality in one’s will towards such relationships. The desire to be closer to whiteness is pathological precisely because it is a will to a kind of patriarchal and European power under conditions where no amount of commitment can achieve this. A black person can never be white even if they may adopt European culture.


Fanon then, even while employing the concept of a will to power, is critiquing Nietzsche’s formulation of it. While there may be a desire to become “master” over one’s lived world, there are structural constraints to this based on social conditions of racism (and as hooks points out: patriarchy). The solution cannot be individualistic because that maintains the existing structures of oppression. One’s will is not enough. It is necessary to go beyond voluntarism.


Collective struggle


An individual’s voluntarism is not sufficient a revolutionary strategy. Going beyond this requires a collective will that tempers individualism and transforms the will to power. Fanon recognises this in his discussion of the “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” in which he, firstly, speaks to the contradictory result of revolutionary violence. While he sees the counter-violence of the colonised as cleansing and a key prerequisite towards building unity in the struggle against colonialism, he also recognises the limits of what this can achieve. He points out that “Racism, hatred, resentment, and ‘the legitimate desire for revenge’ alone cannot nurture a war of liberation…hatred is not an agenda” (2004, p.89)⁠. Violence, while a cleansing force that destroys relationships of oppression in the immediate stages of rebellion against colonialism, also builds over time a new social system which is in itself oppressive and exploitative (2004, p.94)⁠ Gordon calls this the “Moses syndrome” implying that the trauma of the violence inherent in decolonisation means that “the generation who takes on the mission of decolonization is not necessarily best suited for the next stage of liberation…The system produces monsters…even its overcoming is monstrous” (2015, p.122,124)⁠. In a similar way, the question of voluntarism links quite closely with the necessity of revolutionary violence.


In his critique of the national bourgeoisie, Fanon takes up this question. He labels them as a good for nothing and a comprador class (to use Amilcar Cabral’s term), but refers to their “willful narcissism” (2004, p.98)⁠. This, however, does not only apply to those that identify with the bourgeois class, but also to the anti-colonial leader/militant in general:

We have many times indicated the very often detrimental role of the leader…In order to avoid these many pitfalls a persistent battle has to be waged to prevent the party from becoming a compliant instrument in the hands of a leader…People are no longer a herd and do not need to be driven…If the leader drives me I want him to know that at the same time I am driving him” (Fanon 2004, p.127)⁠.

Here, Fanon is centring the people as the driver of revolution and recognising that the leader, whose political will may be important, cannot do it alone. Voluntarism is insufficient lest it degenerate into willful narcissism, self-importance, and later corruption. In fact, it is the leader that must be led. This inversion of Leninist vanguardism is also a critique of Nietzsche’s individualist and aristocratic style in which he is “discouraging the common” (Kofman 1993, p.114)⁠. Going beyond voluntarism, then, implies that Rousseau’s distinction between the will in general and the general will, is qualitative. The former being close to a will to power that involves the interests of a group of individuals whereas the latter focuses on what is collectively good for the people and the diminution  of one’s own egoism.


To give a more concrete example of the question of how voluntarism plays out in practice, I will give an example from the US civil rights movement. In Kwame Ture’s autobiography Ready for Revolution, a frustratingly slow meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that simply could not come to a consensus on the way forward becomes, for Ture, an illuminating and educative moment. He recounts how Ella Baker, the inspirational elder of the movement, took him aside and reminded him that he cannot just push forward change prematurely: “Of course it’s important that we all agree. But it’s just as important that we all understand. However long that takes. We have to work with people where they are.” (2003, p.301)⁠


In his account, it seemed that Ture took such advice to heart. When the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was not allowed voting rights at the Democratic Convention of 1964 but instead given two token non-voting seats, Ture and other SNCC organisers refused, even when asked, to advise them what to do. After relentless pressure from established political formations, the MFDP decided to decline the compromise and walked out of the convention. Ture recounts that “It seemed to me that the most important thing was that those people leave there knowing that they, and they alone, out of their own intelligence, judgment, and experience, had made their decision themselves. Autonomy. They had earned that right” (2003, p.409)⁠. Given Kwame Ture’s passion and impatience in his past organising, this is important because he had realised the pitfalls of his own voluntarism and the need to be driven. No amount of personal will can take place of the collective will of the people as key towards long-term revolutionary decolonisation.


Of course, there are questions as to the extent to which Ture actually embraced this critique of voluntarism beyond such this example – he is accused by many of acting undemocratically and against the wishes of others within his movement. Ture’s charisma and intelligence here is not in doubt. However, his privilege as an intellectual put him in a different intellectual space than those with home he organised. Fanon’s example of the intellectual being forced into hiding in the country side and being forced to embrace the socio-cultural ways of the rural peasants is instructive (2004, p.79)⁠. It is this process which tempers voluntarism while enhancing the revolutionary capacities of collective political will.


Conclusion: Against the demiurge


We must not cultivate the spirit of the exceptional or look for the hero, another form of leader…[P]olitical education means opening up the mind, awakening the mind, and introducing it to the world. It is as Cesaire said “To invent the souls of men.” To politicize the masses is not and cannot be to make a political speech. It means driving home to the masses that everything depends on them, that if we stagnate the fault is theirs, and that if we progress, they too are responsible, that there is no demiurge, no illustrious man taking responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people and the magic lies in their hands alone (Fanon 2004, pp.137–138)⁠.

Fanon, the consummate voluntarist, who according to Aimé Césaire, “was never just committed to a cause…[but] gave himself whole, undivided, without hesitation” (Gordon 2015, p.135) and who was critiqued by his own friends for taking it to the point of authoritarianism, nevertheless recorgnised the necessity of the people to transcend its own leaders.


One of the primary was in which people have misread Fanon is through the lack of recognition for the nuance in his arguments. Quite often, people will read his first chapter, “On Violence”, and fail to see how his later chapters represent a refinement of the claims he at first makes. Yet this nuance was present in the way the struggle matures as the colonised recognise that not every white person is one’s enemy and not every black person is one’s friend. This meant that as the struggle for liberation wears on, it is both necessary to retain one’s revolutionary will, but also recognise the subtlety in that struggle. This includes a refusal to rely on an individual leader’s will.


Fanon, against the demiurge, foregrounded collective struggle and thus preceded to transform Nietzsche’s call for a will to power into a collective will that deconstructed this power. This, as Hallward points out, does not mean “Fanon’s confidence in the people…[is] unconditional” (2011, p.116)⁠. So while Fanon embraces some of Nietzsche in his critique of Marx, he modifies Nietzsche through his critique of Nietzsche’s will towards individualism. For better or for worse, decolonisation cannot be achieved without or on behalf of the people. Fanon was therefore simultaneously against hegemony and critical of an elite counter-hegemony that claimed to speak on the people’s behalf. For Fanon, going beyond voluntarism meant, as the saying goes, all power to the people.







Carmichael, Stokely & Thelwell, M., 2003. Ready for revolution: the life and struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), New York: Scribner.

Fanon, F., 1986. Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto Press.

Fanon, F., 1967. The “North African Syndrome.” In Towards an African Revolution. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, F., 2004. The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Gordon, L.R., 2015. What Fanon Said: A philosophical introduction to his life and thought, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Hallward, P., 2011. Fanon and Political Will. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 7(1), pp.104–127.

hooks,  bell, 2000. Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics, Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Kofman, S., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor D. Large, ed., London: The Athlone Press.

[1]     Like bell hooks, I am here using the term love in its broad conception as embodying all forms of healthy personal relationships.