New chapter in human liberation

Andrew Coates reviews: Revolutionary History Vol 16, No4: Ian Birchall (guest editor) European revolutionaries and Algerian independence 1954-1962

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence. Revolutionary History has published a collection of essays and documents about “the largely unknown story of French anarchists and Trotskyists” who supported the successful fight against French colonialism. The editorial states that a “colonial war spearheaded by a ‘socialist politician’, a national liberation movement strongly influenced by Islam; repression and torture on one side, terror tactics on the other” has echoes in the world today. It is hoped, continues the editorial, that accounts of those who sided with the Algerian people can “educate and inspire a new generation of anti-imperialists”.

But what can be learnt? Does the Arab spring mark the “return of the Arab revolution” that shaped the Algerian struggle? Last year Alex Callinicos saw potential in the Arab world for (as Trotsky asserted) “the democratic revolution [that] grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution”. The Socialist Workers Party leader denied any repetition of the past, when the Arab revolution led to bureaucratic and authoritarian states. He hoped that independent working class politics could develop from democratic movements, above all in Egypt.1

Although Algeria has seen some unrest - over democratic rights, unemployment and food prices - le pouvoir, the army-state, remains. Its limited democracy, and the position of president Bouteflika, has been barely affected. Syria’s uprising is marked by sectarian warfare, in which repression and torture are not the monopoly of imperialists. The Islamists in power from the Maghreb to the Mashriq are unlikely to inspire many socialists, for all their ‘anti-imperialism’. At present, while struggles for social rights exist, mass protest is dominated by religious outrage at The innocence of Muslims.

The revolution

European revolutionaries publishes extensive extracts from Sylvain Pattieu’s The comrades of the brothers. This is the “first full history of the role of Trotskyists and anarchists in solidarity with the Algerian liberation struggle”. The Trotskyist Fourth International had in 1948 defended the “struggle for freedom from imperialism by the colonial peoples, even in cases where this struggle is led by nationalist and bourgeois-democratic elements” (p19). This was the benchmark for their anti-colonialism.

As a colony Algeria had specific features. Ten percent of the population (around a million people) were full French citizens. These pieds-noirs ran nearly all the industry and commerce, and cultivated the best land. Other Algerians were ‘subjects’ of France, and, despite post-war reforms, could not take French citizenship without renouncing their Islamic civil status. Few did so. As editor Ian Birchall notes, they were in an inferior position under the Code de l’indigéant (native code). The colons were determined not to leave. The French army shared their wish. It had in 1954 lost at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to general Giap’s Viet Minh forces and it resolved not to concede another defeat.

Despite these obstacles the FLN’s armed wing, the Armée de Libération Nationale, launched an uprising in 1954. On Halloween bombs went off and there were attacks on police stations and farms. A dozen people were killed. But soon guerrillas began to operate in mountainous regions and the attacks grew. The French state began a vicious response. This had escalated by 1956 to the extent that the Socialist prime minister, Guy Mollet, who claimed to embrace Marxism as well as anti-communism and pro-Americanism, passed special powers to repress the insurrection.

The historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, described opponents of the French state’s ferocious response as “Dreyfusards, Bolsheviks and third worldists”. But there were those who defended human rights against the French military’s use of torture. Others were attracted to solidarity with the anti-colonial uprisings as an alternative to an apparently stagnant European left.2 The French Trotskyists became committed to the cause of independence as part of the ‘world revolution’. New, non-Stalinist, Marxist leaderships, they thought, would emerge from anti-colonial fighting. This contrasted with the view of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), which promoted ‘peace’ and believed that some degree of ‘common interest’ existed between the Algerian nation and France.

Split during the early 1950s, French Trotskyism took different views over which wing of the Algerian nationalist movement they should support.

In 1926 Messali Hadj (1898-1974) founded the first Algerian anti-colonial movement, the Étoile Nord-Africaine, in Metropolitan France. He was then a member of the PCF. By the end of World War II, when the independence movement began to take hold in Algeria itself, Hadj had evolved away from communism. His anti-colonialism went with a democratic and social interpretation of Algeria’s Arab and Islamic identity. He spent 22 years of his life in French prisons or under house arrest. One wing of French Trotskyism, the ‘Lambertist’ Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) had enjoyedd long contacts with Hadj. They claimed his Mouvement National Algérien (MNA) was an “authentic proletarian organisation” and potentially socialist.

The ‘class struggle’ anarchist Fédération Communiste Libertaire (FCL) also argued that national liberation was a necessary and progressive, though transitory, stage. The FCL differed from the - much larger - Fédération Anarchiste (FA), which distrusted nationalism (and militarism). While denouncing colonial repression, the FA refused to back any actual liberation movement. Pattieu notes the FCL’s links with an Algerian group, the Mouvement Libertaire Nord-Africain (MLN), though not its tiny size and its largely European membership. The FCL worked with the MNA and suffered severe French state repression.

Michel Raptis (‘Pablo’), one of the most active Trotskyists who rallied to the Algerian cause, threw himself into supporting a “national anti-imperialist united front rallying all classes”, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The position of the ‘Pierre Frank’ wing of French Trotskyism, the PCI, was, Pattieu says, not to cut themselves off completely from the MLN. But the FLN was soon the main interlocutor.

European revolutionaries recounts the nuts and bolts of the solidarity work these French leftwingers carried out. They printed false papers, and FLN literature, carried suitcases of cash - the origin of the expression “les porteurs de valise” - and helped supply information. As the French army mobilised hundreds of thousands the Jeune Résistance network encouraged refusal to do military service and for others to desert. The independent left Jeanson network and the network run by the Egyptian communist militant, Henri Curiel, closely helped the FLN. They were dismantled in 1960 and Curiel spent time in jail. Pablo, and his comrade, Salomon Santan, were arrested in 1960 while setting up a workshop to print forged money for the FLN. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison.

What all these positions had in common was the principle that it was the duty of revolutionaries to assist indigenous anti-colonialist movements. Unlike in metropolitan France, Algerian communism was marginal and swiftly repressed during the conflict. Organised Trotskyism did not exist. The FLN and MNA, willing to attract this backing, would, Pattieu observes, adopt “Marxist language to win support from the French left, but took good care that French leftists should not influence their cadres” (p89).

Today we see most Trotskyist groups attempt to create their ‘own’ sections in every country they can. With the massive ‘globalised’ increase in international exchanges of all types, it would be artificial to fence off each nation. But ‘branches’ of a western left have yet to make much headway in north Africa and elsewhere.

Internecine wars

In the fight for national liberation over 300,000 Algerians and 25,000 French military died. Between 1954 and 1960 two million people were in bleak ‘resettlement’ camps and 300,000 were refugees in Tunisia and Morocco. The brutality of the police in France and the army in Algeria appeared to overwhelm the resistance. Pontecorvo’s film The battle of Algiers (1966) depicts an FLN bombing campaign that was met in 1957 by systematic repression, killing and torture. The pieds-noirs joined in anti-north African rationnades (pogroms). But in A dying colonialism (London 1959) the Martinique FLN supporter, Frantz Fanon, said that the “Algerians already consider themselves sovereign”. He predicted that they would win.

But violence did not only come from the French. The FLN announced that, since it was a ‘front’, parties could not join it - only individuals. The MLN was hostile. The FLN accused Hadj of knowing nothing about the reality in Algeria. He was said to be paternalist and reluctant to let loose a movement on the ground that would escape his control. To impose the ‘front’ it was decided to wipe out the MLN ‘traitors’.

Conflict rapidly reached intolerable levels. There was a full-scale war in France and Algeria. Fictionalised in Racid Bouchareb’s film Hors la loi (2010), this meant the FLN rooting out a whole layer of activists. European revolutionaries estimates that more than 4,000 people were killed in mainland France and 6,000 in Algeria. The FLN committed a brutal massacre of 300 MNA-supporting villagers in the Mélouza region in 1957. Less mentioned is the internal repression inside the FLN. The fate of Abane Ramdane, the author of the most political FLN document, the Soumman Declaration (1956) - which rejected claims that this was a “religious war” - is one of the best known. He was strangled in Morocco in 1958.

Some on the French left knew of these practices and kept silent. In Le lièvre de Patagonie (2009) Claude Lanzmann, who liaised between the FLN, Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre, talks of being made aware of their brutal treatment of dissenters and suspected French agents.3 This tendency to deny all criticism of liberation or anti-imperialist movements is not dead today.

Ian Birchall notes that the central argument on the pro-FLN left was that “it was the FLN which was the main leader and organiser of the struggle against French rule, and which successfully carried out the struggle for independence” (p165). But he also cites with some approval the observations of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, which stated that the FLN might be the womb for the birth of a “new class”. The militarisation of the independence struggle gave power to the army, which has had lasting effects on the development of the Algerian state.

It is unlikely that anybody would claim that the war of independence justified the Trotskyists’ hopes. Michel Raptis asserted that the Arab revolution “forms part of the proletarian revolution, by which the end of the capitalist regime will be completed and the new socialist social order will begin”.4 Pablo’s own expectations were dashed, when Ben Bella, first leader of the Algerian state and a sympathiser with many socialist aspirations, was unceremoniously ousted in 1965 and replaced by a military man, Boumédienne.

The libertarian Marxist, Daniel Guérin, who had close ties to the Algerian struggle, had by the time of independence come to the conclusion that the FLN’s leaders were “Jacobins and authoritarians”. He added: “.. the single party is a swindle.” In Quand l’Algérie s’insurgait (1979) he stated that Algeria had fallen into “a new feudalism - bourgeois, military and bureaucratic”. The FLN had been dominated by a “narrow-minded nationalism with little social reforming substance”.5

The brief experiments in workers’ self-management, largely in enterprises and on land left by the departing French (which Michel Raptis encouraged), or the longer period of state socialist third worldism have long passed. The 1965 constitution, which emphasised Islam and the Arab identity of the independent nation, and the army that became the pillar of the state after the 1965 coup, have proved enduring influences. Arabisation, and the 1970s promotion of Islam against the home-grown Algerian leftism that finally arrived, were the soil in which Islamism flourished in the 1980s.

The left’s view of Islam as a simple cultural marker, that did not pose political problems, has proved false. Inflected in the country in a reactionary and exclusive way, with Arabism it became an alternative to the FLN party-state. The 1990s civil war, which left over 200,000 dead, followed the cancellation of elections in 1992 that the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut was expected to win.

In 1989 a - tightly controlled - multi-party system was brought in. Ironically it is the Parti de Travailleurs (PT), the largest Marxist force in Algeria, which lays claim to the heritage of Messali Hadj and his call for a constituent assembly. Louisa Hanoune led 20 PT deputies into the parliament following elections this year. The PT forms part of the Lambertist Entente Internationale des Travailleurs.

Revolutionary History is to be congratulated for producing European revolutionaries. It gives a lot to think about. There is plenty of interesting material not covered in this review, such as JJ Plant’s account of the British Labour MP, John Baird, who backed the Algerians, Ian Birchall’s biographical guide, pieces on the war from far-left groups such as the forerunner of Lutte Ouvrière, and Manus McGrogan on the influence of the war on the left that developed in 1968.

Are there useful lessons to be learnt from the Algerian revolution? Some thought that it would lead to socialism. Sylvian Pattieu says that the FLN adopted Marxist “overtones” to win valuable practical backing from the French left - which had its own need to believe. It would suppress criticisms in the hope that the war of national liberation would ‘grow over’ into a socialist revolution. Even though it chose the ‘winner’, the pro-FLN Fourth International gained little from their work with Ben Bella. The Boumédienne coup expelled or imprisoned leftwingers. The Fourth International criticised the influence of Pablo in overestimating the FLN and the new state’s socialist, or ‘anti-capitalist’, character. By 1969 it also referred to a failure to “form a nucleus of a future Algerian revolutionary party”.6 This appears to be a warning in relation to future Trotskyist activity.

As for Callinicos, his wish to see the Arab spring develop along lines favourable to the socialist left has disintegrated rapidly. His small ‘nucleus’ in Egypt remains politically irrelevant. But it exists.

Perhaps the last word on Algeria should go to Daniel Guérin. Was it worth supporting the revolution? Writing in Ci-gît le colonialisme (1973) Guérin said: “The Algerian revolution, despite all its blunders and its limits, if only in proving the military impotency of a great colonial power and the inexhaustible bravery of the humblest of the colonised, has written a new chapter in the history of human liberation”.7


1. A Callinicos, ‘The return of the Arab revolution’ International Socialism No130, April 2011.

2. See D Macey Frantz Fanon: a life p347, London 2000.

3. C Lanzmann Le lièvre de Patagonie Paris 2009, pp498-501.

4. M Raptis The Arab revolution Amsterdam 1959.

5. See D Porter Eyes to the south: French anarchists and Algeria Oakland 2011, p108.

6. J Hansen, ‘The Algerian revolution from 1962 to 1969’ in SWP (US) The workers and farmers government 1974.

7. D Porter Eyes to the south: French anarchists and Algeria Oakland 2011, p146.