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Eyes to the South. French Anarchists and Algeria. David Porter. Review Article.

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Eyes to the South. French Anarchists and Algeria. David Porter. AK Press. 2011.

“..est-ce que quelqu’un peut nier qu’il y a plus de justice, plus d’ordre matériel et moral, plus d’équité, plus de vertus socials dans l’Afrique du Nord, depuis que la France a fait son conquête?”

Can anybody deny that in North Africa there is more justice, more moral and physical order, more equity, more social virtue, since France has made her conquests?”

Jules Ferry. Parliamentary Debate. 1885. (1)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence. The long fight to win self-government is the background to everything described and analysed in Eyes to the South. David Porter presents “an alternative history of Algeria, an introduction to the French anarchist movement since the 1950s, and a heavy plateful of major generic anarchist theoretical and strategic issues.” (Page 475) He is indebted to those “who courageously struggled for Algerian liberation, those in Algeria for fought for genuine workers’ self-management, and those in the anarchist movement more generally.” (Page 11) It is inspired by the “universal impulse and language of freedom”. One theme dominates. The way authority has been abused to suppress liberty in the country, is probably the most important issue still facing post-independence Algeria.

Colonialisation to Anti-Colonialism.

In 1830 Algeria was brutally colonised. Ostensibly aimed at suppressing piracy, and the thriving slave trade based in Algiers, the semi-autonomous Ottoman province was conquered ‘village by village’. By the end of the end of the century it is estimated that up to a third of the population had disappeared, through massacres, deportations, famines and epidemics.

After the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 French refugees from Alsace-Lorraine were transferred to the Algerian countryside (such as the grandparents of the philosopher Louis Althusser) and local land was confiscated for their use. Other settlers followed. European colons, or ‘pieds-noirs’ totalled a million people by 1954 (10% of the population). But even as Algeria became, in the 20th century, three French Départements, Non-Europeans were described as “indigènes” with their own – inferior – legal status.

This glaring contradiction between this and the official egalitarian rhetoric of the Republic did not go unnoticed. After the Great War L’Etoile nord-africaine (ENA) was founded in France in 1926, on the initiative of those inspired by the anti-imperialism of the 3rd International. It became the focus for demands for equal rights for North Africans, and their independence (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria). It was a public platform for the first important Algerian nationalist leader Messali Hadj (1898 – 1974). Hadj was on the Colonial Commission of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). He presented the Etoile’s programme to the 1927 Anti-Imperialist League in Brussels in 1927. When the Popular Front Government, with the support of the PCF, dissolved his organisation in 1937 (putting it in the same category as the ‘factious’ leagues of the extreme-right) Hadj set up a new party, the Parti du people algérien (PPA). This began to organise in Algeria itself. He was placed under House Arrest. (2) Small numbers of French leftists, such as Daniel Guérin (1904 – 1988), continued to work with Hadj, and sustained opposition to French colonialism.

The same period also saw the creation of the Sunni Association of the Algerian Ulema, led by Ben Badis (1889 – 1940). This promoted an Islamic-Arab identity and the teaching of classical Arabic. These principles have had a long-term influence. Hadj, and the rival Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) created in 1954, broadly agreed with this national and religious basis for an independent state.

At end of the Second World War, in which many Algerians were conscripted, or volunteered, to fight for the Free French armies, there were widespread hopes that North Africa would see its own liberation. These were crushed. The French state massacred nationalist, killing thousands in the Constantine region at Sétif. Messali’s supporters formed an underground section, the Organisation Spéciale (OS) and began carried out attacks on selected physical targets. In 1954 they created a new body, the Mouvement Nationale Algérien (MNA). The FLN and its armed wing on the ground, the Armée de Libération Nationale, launched the armed fight for anti-colonial liberation that year. Lasting until 1962, the uprising is estimated to have cost from 300,000 to a million Algerian deaths as well as between 50 to 60,000 French Algerians.

Most people exploring (the word is carefully chosen) Eyes to the South will find it is often unwieldy. It is not a smooth narrative. Large slabs of French anarchist debate are stuck next to – not always in neat chronology – the dramatic course of Algerian politics. To search through it thoroughly is often an effort. But with this in mind, it can be seen as a complement to the latest Revolutionary History. This advertises articles on the role of the “porteurs de valise” (suitcase carriers), leftists, often Marxist, and Trotskyist, who actively aided the FLN, by carrying supplies to the insurgency. Porter offers evidence for at least some anarchist help to the revolution, though with the tradition’s debt to anti-militarism and opposition to nationalism, and, critics allege, ‘Gallo-centrism’, this was not a majority stand. Eyes to the South is however not just a historical study of French anarchists and Algeria. It deals with “the critical issues of ‘national liberation,’ revolutionary violence, and collaboration with hierarchical or statist forces.” This makes it a significant study in its own right.

The French Left and Anti-Colonialism.

France, as Eyes to the South’s title indicates, is at the heart of the book. Anarchist opponents of the war were only one, small, strand on the left. “Special powers” for the French army were voted under the Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet in 1956. The Justice Minister, François Mitterrand declared that Algeria is “French”. They did not succeed in suppressing the uprising. They were unable to impose the slightest reform, starting with the unequal political representation of non-European Algerians. As Porter states, Mollet’s government began secret negotiations with the FLN – to be sabotaged by the military. (Page 32) Right-wing pied noirs continued to call for more resolute – repressive – action. 400,000 French troops on the ground-committed atrocities, often without informing the Cabinet before they carried out their operations. Governments were unable to function. This encouraged the 1958 Algiers-initiated Military Coup supported by colonialist “ultras”. In the growing chaos De Gaulle returned to power. He told European demonstrators in Algiers “Je vous au compris” and increased the armed presence to 500,000. But the new 5th Republic began the process that ended in independence.

The war in Algeria gave rise to fierce, if initially powerless, opposition. Anti-colonialism was a major issue for the French left, as France tried to hold onto its Empire, and was confronted with insurgencies in Indo-China as well as in North Africa. By the end of the 1950s fears about ‘charismatic’ Gaullist power added another factor. The febrile atmosphere of French politics, as news of the authorities’ mass “displacements” of Algerians (over a million) filtered through, and serious protests began in the French capital, is captured in Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical La Force des choses (1963). De Gaulle announced in 1958 that torture would no longer be used. But, as de Beauvoir noted, it took place, even in metropolitan France.

Official parties of the left appeared ineffective. Individuals and smaller groups filled the vacuum. The Manifesto of the 121 (1960), which denounced torture and called for resistance to the draft, as well as offering support for the ‘Jeanson network’ of FLN supporters, remains a defining moment in French political history. Porter cites the anarchist signer, Maurice Joyeaux, who said that it “effectively sensitised a public opinion that slept for six years, unwilling to hear anything,” (Page 62)

The state’s savage response is less well known in the English-speaking world than McCarthyism. It divided society. It broke many careers. Jean Pouillon from Les Temps Modernes immediately lost his job as a senior civil servant. Supporters were met with extreme hostility from the army hierarchy. The anti-independence forces, notably the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) – formed in 1961 – were not above threatening and assaulting those backing the struggle for Algerian independence. North Africans in France faced curfews and attacks. The 1961 police violence against Algerian protesters in Paris, which resulted in hundreds dead, with bodies left floating in the Seine, indicates the intensity of French domestic repression.

The political fall-out from the conflict was enormous. On the left, the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU) was formed in 1960 to oppose de Gaulle’s hold on the state and the Algerian war. It gathered together, if sometimes only temporarily, many future leaders of the mainstream French left (such as Michel Rocard, Prime Minister 1998 – 1991) and became the best-known vehicle for “autogestion” (self-management) socialism. It was the only French political party with an ‘institutional’ presence to stand for uncompromising opposition to the war (3) The less than clear stand taken by the leadership of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) deputies in the National Assembly remains a subject of controversy. However that the PCF helped with some of the protests against the war, and individual Communists aided the Algerian independent movement.

This was the context in which more resolute groups, and individuals, became more closely involved with the revolution. Trotskyists organised around Michel Raptis (‘Pablo’), helped supply arms, and false documents to the FLN – for which Pablo was imprisoned in Holland. For him the FLN and its armed wing, the Armée de Liberation Nationale (ALN) was part of the ‘Arab Revolution’, which would unite the Arab masses across countries, and was full of possibilities for revolutionary Marxism. (The Arab Revolution. 1958) The ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists of Pierre Lambert took a different position. His Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI) backed Messali Hadj’s MNA in the struggle against colonial oppression. Outside Trotskyist circles courageous individuals, from a variety of backgrounds (left Christian, humanist, left socialists), helped the Algerians and were “porteurs de valise” for the FLN.

Anarchists and Algeria.

Gilbert Meymer has noted that that there is “aucune comparaison” between the solidarity expressed by these leftists and that offered by French anarchists. Long-standing hostility to nationalism, to religion (a theme already visible in the Algerian resistance) and the anti-militarist strand in anarchism, contributed to the “deep scepticism” about the Algerian independence struggle of people like the leading anarchist Maurice Joyeaux (1910 – 1991). Happy to denounce French repression and colonialisms there was only distant “moral support” for the uprising, as well as (in hindsight justified) a wary attitude towards the FLN. Yet other anarchists played enough of a role to see the journal of the pro-independence Fédération Communiste Libertaire’s (FCL) le Libertaire repeatedly banned in the mid-1950s. Active support by the pro-national liberation FCL for the Algerian revolution, both to the FLN and the MLN, included at least some help in arms smuggling and providing false papers (Page 39) As the conflict reached its conclusion, even the anti-nationalist anarchists’ stand against the “war and fascism” came to the far-right’s attention. The OAS bombed the Paris office of Le Monde Libertaire in 1962.

Porter outlines the life of the remarkable Mohamed Saïl (1894 – 1953) an early anti-colonialist, anarcho-syndicalist, who fought in the Durruti column, was arrested frequently by the French authorities. He was an atheist who considered that “Algerians would never accept alternative nationalist yokes to replace those of the French” (Page 21). Traditional rural Algerian society “especially in Kabylia”, without being explicitly anarchist rested on “anarchist principles of mutual aid, decentralised community organisation, and individuality of expression” (Ibid).

Eyes to the South admits there were only “small numbers” of anarchists present in Algeria, almost entirely amongst the European population (linked to the French Fédération Anarchiste). A small group, the MLNA (North African Libertarian Movement) existed. Between 1950 until suppressed in 1957, it, Porter states, “collected materials” for the FLN. (Page 21) There were also up to a thousand anarchist Spanish exiles. These Porter says, took a “non-interventionist” stand, supporting, in practice, neither side. (Page 22)

Eyes to the South gives due prominence to Daniel Guérin (1904 – 1988), a long-standing anti-colonialist who wrote perceptively on Algeria, though he is better known in the English speaking world for his synthesis of the best in Marxism and Anarchism. Guérin had been a member of Marceau Pivert’s anti-Stalinist Marxisante PSOP (Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan) in the late 30s. His direct contacts with Algerian nationalists, begun in the 1930s, were renewed in the 1950s. Having visited North Africa he wrote attacks on French colonialism in leftist journals such as Les Temps Modernes. Guérin would play a role in organising post-War French support for the anti-colonial movements. He helped set up French-based campaigns, collaborating with the FCL and the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), the ‘Lambertists’ who backed Messali Hadj. Guérin was an inspiring political activist. He went on, as we will see, to make some of the first decisive criticisms of post-Revolutionary Algerian state.

During his pro-independence activism many of Guérin’s reflections have lasting resonance. Porter says, “The basic problem facing anti-authoritarians socialists from the late 19thc century to the present was that, while anti-imperialism was easy to accept, most if not all of the national liberation movements were filled with internal social contradictions, including prominent roles for the local bourgeoisie and large native property owners, intent on exploiting their own countrymen once independence was gained, with oppressive conservative and authoritarian religious dimensions of their own.” (Page 43) The answer was to offer active support to these movements, but it was not right to suppress criticisms, above all when human rights issues came up. This became a live issue as Algerian nationalists fought each other. The dispute arose over the leadership of the fight (Hadj brooked no competitors), the need for a no-holds barred armed uprising, and, to a lesser extent, the future place of French Algerians. It was soon a civil war within a civil war.

Claude Lanzmann says of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, in Le lièvre de Patagonie (2009), that they felt an obligation, born of unconditional solidarity, to remain silent, in the heat of the conflict, about the less admirable aspects of the FLN. Fictionalised in Racid Bouchareb’s film Hors La Loi (2010) one can see that not only were the French colons and the French army prepared to use callous murder, but that the FLN was capable of ruthlessly eliminated its nationalist competitors at every level. Guérin was prepared to speak out publicly on the FLN attacks against their rivals in Hadj’s Movement National Algérian (MNA). The FLN began the physical conflict, massacring, for example 315 villagers in a supposed base of the MNA at Melouza in 1957. The clash spread to France, where Haji’s supporters had majority support amongst Algerian migrants. There were at least 4,000 deaths inside the Hexagone alone. The Messalists were defeated in Algeria by 1957 and by 1960 in France. (Alain Ruscio. Messali Hadji, père oublié du nationalisme algérien. Le Monde Diplomatique. June 2012)

As this internecine warfare began Guérin joined a protest at the FLN’s murder of a leading Messalist trade unionist, Abdallah Filali, in 1957. Porter comments on his approach, “While European anti-colonialists typically refrain, out of solidarity, from criticising the contradictions of national liberation struggles, to those in the colonies themselves, it was wrong to be silent since our basic criterion is genuine movement toward human emancipation, and we are citizens of the world, not of particular nations.”(Page 48) The FLN won, by brute force. Their suppression of external rivals turned out to be part of a pattern as leadership factions used violence against each other. They not only assassinated potential dissidents at the top of the FLN-ALN command, such as Abane Ramdane, but also, according to Claude Lanzmann, carried out blood-stained purges inside its armed-wing, the ALN, not shrinking at the use of torture followed by execution.

Albert Camus looms large in any account of the Algerian war of national liberation. The Algerian-born Frenchman, and celebrated novelist and journalist had, Porter says, a “basically anarchist orientation”. (Page 67) Camus worked with the anarchist literary journal, Témoins from 1953 to 1964. His denunciation of the FLN and his ‘choice’ is well known, though it was placed within a carefully weighed criticism of the violence of the French state. Yet his call for “a just Algeria where the two populations can live in peace and equality”, with a “full democratic regime” proved irrelevant. (Page 70) By contrast Guérin grasped the momentum of the anti-colonial struggle, which he backed unambiguously. His critical judgements on the vehicle for that combat, the FLN, and its later rule, hit harder for that.


In the summer of 1962 as independence came Guérin described the leaders of the FLN as “Jacobins and authoritarians”. He added, “the single party is a swindle.” (Page 108) But the revolution did not only establish the FLN Chief, Ben Bella, and his ally, the leader of the Army of the Exterior, Houari Boumédienne, in power. There was a wave of factory and land occupations, taking advantage of the departure of French owners. Abandoned properties (biens vacants) were taken over; land was occupied. There as a wave of “spontaneous and pragmatic workers’ self-management” (Page 92) A Commission, the Bureau Nationale à la Protection et à la Gestion des Biens Vacants (BNBV) was set up – now resident in Algeria, Michel Raptis was a member – to co-ordinate this burgeoning move towards ‘autogestion’. The initially vague politics of the FLN, with occasional socialist-sounding gestures, seemed to be moving leftwards. Soon turned into a body to manage the “Secteur Socialiste” the Commission’s acts appeared to show that Algeria was becoming a socialist country. The Trotskyist Fourth International described the Ben Bella Council of the Revolution as a “Workers and Farmers Government.” Pablo went further and considered that the state itself could be transformed by self-management.

Algerian independence, won after such a hard fight, appeared to embody the hopes of the Third World. Frantz Fanon became at least internationally, as a figurehead of ‘Third Worldism’. The Mauritius born psychiatrist worked with the underground FLN, until his death in 1961. His writings contain lasting reflections on the experience of colonisation by the colonised, and the effects of anti-black racism. Fanon promoted the idea that independence through violent armed struggle would bring dignity and greater self-worth as well as self-rule. He went on to assert that the “Third World is starting a new History of Man” which would resolve the problems Europe, with its colonial oppression, could not.” (The Wretched of the Earth 1964) The book, with its Preface by Sartre, would sell well in Europe and America. Opinions differ about Fanon’s influence in Algeria itself (though there have been special conferences on Fanon in Algeria this year). David Macey’s biography of Fanon asserts that he was not a significant influence on the country’s politics and was quickly forgotten. (Fanon 2000) Porter opts for the claim that he had a “significant audience among Algerian leaders.” He believes that Fanon’s principles of “humanising labour and genuine mass participation in decision-making” could be seen to have prepared the way for FLN adoption of autogestion. (Page 91)

These ideas looked like taking a practical shape. Michel Pablo wrote in 1964 “The fight for self-management continues in Algeria, for a real socialism which inseparably links the socialisation of the economy with the effective socialisation of the management function and the state.” (Socialism, Democracy and Self-Management. Essays. Michel Raptis. 1980) Guérin, writing in the same year in L’Algérie qui se cherche observed that self-management was only at its “embryonic stage”, and riddled with problems (over, for example, how to set aside money for investment, not to mention day-to-day management responsibilities). The state and the FLN interfered in enterprises and in agriculture. The independence and role of the trade union federation, the UGTA, was never clearly defined. The army and the police were already growing in size.

Guérin also noticed the proclamation of Islam as Algeria’s official state religion, with its obligatory Puritanism, and controls over people’s daily lives. This might be designed to control “anti-social behaviour” of a traumatised population; but the most anti-social actions had been of the “political leaders in their nascent civil war.” Like Raptis, who saw Ben Bella, as the person who had the “best grasp of the revolutionary content of self-management” for Guérin the leader was “the guarantor of self-management.” (Page 112) For supporting the “world spirit” of Ben Bella he was laughed at by the Situationist International. (Page 113) Certainly the leader had begun to assume an often-imperious position.

The military coup led by Hourai Boumédienne (1965) destroyed many of these hopes. Ben Bella was arrested with only sporadic protest. Leftist ideology, European or not, was pushed aside in favour an ‘Arab Islamic’ socialism that rejected class struggle. It idealised an ‘organic’ view of the community, and equality in obeying god’s commands. The left was outlawed and went underground. State power grew. Autogestion withered. Porter comments, “gradually and haltingly over the years, the self-management sector was piece by piece transformed into state-run individual enterprises, collectivised but hierarchal state farm units, more centralised and consolidated autogestion farms, or privatised farms and factories.” (Page 131) Socialism and anti-imperialism lingered on the form of support for Third Worldism, with a commitment to the Palestinian cause.

This was a victory of the more traditionalist forces, who stood for the priority of an “Islamic Arab” identity, and those hostile to “foreign” definitions of socialism. But structures were more significant than ideology. The coup affirmed the strength of the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) now named and institutionalised as the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP). State-socialist measures, such as the oil and natural gas nationalisations of 1971 (essential now the country’s economy), and land redistribution in the same decade, were undertaken by a bureaucratic administration shaped to its needs, not the populations. One-party rule, based on the armed services, only came to an end in 1987. This, ‘le Pouvoir’ (the state-military structure) endures to this day.

Porter writes, “initial anarchist enthusiasm for at least the model of autogestion, if not its actuality in Algeria, continued to provide some inspiration and momentum for rapidly propagating the self-management theme for many areas of French society in the dynamic context of 1968.”(Page 136) That is, the anarchists’ voices contributed to a wider left-wing interest in autogestion. In France however (as already indicated) it was the PSU that, by the late 1960s, was largely identified with the principle. The moderate French Parti Socialiste, which came to power in 1981, had, for a long period, sympathies for self-management, even if for the current close to the ex-PSU Michel Rocard, this became a woolly commitment to the ‘self-organisation’ of civil society. More radical figures such as the unclassifiable Cornelius Castoriadis also propagated the idea. In Britain the principal founder of the Institute for Workers’ Control (1968), directly inspired by autogestion, Ken Coates, had links with Michel Raptis and was deeply informed about the Algerian experience.

The 1970s to the Present.

Eyes to the South succeeds, if one can trip through the digressions – or in Porter’s view, essential information – on the detailed history of French anarchism, in setting down a coherent historical narrative. The Algerian state was (and is) shaped by the Military, the victor of a ruthless war for independence. It was (and is) a conservative force that nurtured a bureaucracy whose ideology was ‘Arab Islamic’, and, to a lesser degree, state socialist. It is authoritarian, riddled with corruption, and no respecter of human rights.

The chief interest in this story, for non-anarchist leftists, will probably lie in the account of Daniel Guérin’s contribution to the anti-colonialist cause and his writings about Algeria. David Porter manages to avoid the kind of instant judgement that dogs, to take a case at random, Trotskyist accounts of the actions of Michel Raptis in Algeria. Guérin was engaged on the side of the national liberation struggle, and his sympathises for some of its leaders, honestly expressed, were not signs of ‘treachery’. Both figures learnt from their experience, Pablo placed self-management, and not providential leaders, at the heart of the struggle for socialism. His stand embodied the famous phrase, “on s’engage, et puis on voit” (get involved and then we’ll see). His Trotskyist enemies accused him of playing “essentially the role of supporting the Ben Bella tendency and carrying out he programme of the FLN” (4) Guérin, possibly because he was not engaged to that point, offers insights into the evolution of revolutionary power that make points (on democracy, self-management and nationalism) that needed to be made.

Guérin’s judgements on Algeria take note of the negative role of the single Party much more effectively than Pablo did. He wrote, in his most celebrated book, of self-management coming into being in the “framework of a dictatorial, military politics state, whose skeleton is the single party. At the helm is an authoritarian and paternalistic authority that is beyond control and criticism.” (Page 142 – from Anarchism: from Theory to Practice. First Edition 1965) Obviously written with Tito’s Yugoslavia as well as Algeria in mind, this criticism stands up well today. Quand l’Algérie s’insurgait is perhaps more severe. (1979) That after a great struggle for freedom Algeria had fallen into “a new feudalism, bourgeois, military and bureaucratic” (my translation). And that the FLN had been dominated by a “narrow-minded nationalism with little social reforming substance.” But was it worth supporting the revolution? Writing in Ci-gît le colonialisme (1973) Guérin said with great fineness, “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” (Page 146)

But what of later anarchist approaches to Algeria? Here we mark a falling away not just of engagement but the waning of any distinctive anarchist voice. The anarchist approach, we are told, is committed to “horizontalist” politics. Its narrative “is situated from below: how Algeria is experienced and perceived by people at the grass-roots level. (Page 486) Porter admits this often overlaps with other leftist accounts. Criticisms of the authoritarian Boumédienne regime, and its successors, of the ‘Arabisation’ programme that was met by the ‘Berber Spring’ in 1980, of the regressive religiously-inspired Family Code, of 1984, the rise of Islamism and the 1992 Military Coup to prevent the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) reaping an electoral victory, can be found from a variety of other leftist groups.

The left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique has, for several decades, published first-and reporting and critical articles on Algeria. It no doubt supplied much of the information French anarchists have based their judgements on. Conditions during the 1990s civil war discouraged open investigation in the country by all but those with the kind of resources the journal can depend on. Whatever the specific merits of le Monde Libertaire and Alternative Libertaire (print-runs of a respectable near 8,000 each) it is hard not to feel that their debates are echoes and responses to information and discussion expressed in the more prominent French left media.

Anarchists have nevertheless made particular contributions. A primary ‘contradiction amongst the people’ in Algeria is the desire to impose an ‘Arab’ identity on a country where not everybody identifies as Arab. The Berbers, otherwise known as Kabyles, have their own distinct language (or related dialects), Tamazight, spoken by around 10 million people across the Maghreb. The FLN’s ‘Arabisation’ programme, designed to replace French in education with classical Arabic, already ran up against the existence of a distinct modern Algerian Arabic. In this respect and in national terms the Kabyles were excluded from the definition of what an Algerian was. A series of revolts, beginning in the Berber Spring of 1980, have affirmed their own identity. In 201 there was a full-scale insurrection in the Kabyle regions.

But how does a ‘horizontalist’ perspective fare under these conditions? Robert Vasseur. In 2001 in one of two French anarchist-syndicalist union federations, the CNT-AIT’s journal, Combat Syndicaliste he discovered in the Kabyle people something that Mohamed Saïl (above) had seen: an inherently democratic self-organising culture. The committees that ran this were, he noted, “the rebirth of an ancestral organisation to fight all injustice”. These forms of organisation, in large assemblies, “aarchs”, and smaller councils, the “tejmat” were “an immediately accessible anti-hierarchical form of decision making.” One can criticise “archaic” values in this society, Vasseur went on, such as an extreme regard for ‘Honour’ and the absence of women in the organisation and protests, but on the whole it is “archaism that can shame modernism instead of the reverse.” (Pages 406 – 7)

One could go on, but this could have been written by any post-modern, colonial studies academic, and indeed closely resembles Judith Butler pontificating on the need to see the Other in her own terms. It does little to help the Kabyle cause. This is not simply about defending a traditional way of life (a complex issue) but a very modern demand for linguistic and cultural equality in the educational system and the public domain. In effect it is to fight to make Tamazight a modern language with its own high culture. Horizontalist organisation or not this can only mean an engagement with a programme to change the Algerian state, unless anarchists wish the immediate transfer of the educational system to the aarchs.

Another primary contradiction is Islamism. It would be to extend this review too much to go into this in detail. Porter has the merit of signalling that the Military power seizure in 1992 came after many years of Islamist growth. The other side of the FLN’s identity, Islam, came to the fore, as he describes, early in the post-revolutionary period. In the 1970s Islam was encouraged, by figures such as FLN Minister Mouloud Kassim, as a counterweight to student leftism. By the 1980s Arabisation opened the door to teachers – often non-Algerian – formed by rigorist Islam in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Religious demands expanded as Islamism made its presence felt in Algeria in the 1980s. This has to be placed within international Moslem enthusiasm for Khomeini’s victory in Iran, and the founding of the theocratic republic but the ideology took root domestically in a society where those educated in classical Arabic, instructed in the Qu’ranic model, resented French-speaking graduates’ preferential job access. Concessions to religious pressure were made. The 1984 family Code “established a regressive dependant legal status.” But were not only in enforcing their idea of the women’s role. Algerian Islamists in the 1980 participated in wider protests against the government (1986, 1988). The State socialism of the FLN appeared to crumble as ‘globalisation’ put pressure on them to liberalise and privatise. Islam, and the Sharia, appeared to some as the “solution” to economic and social problems.

With finance from the pious bourgeoisie Islamists organised charitable and ‘welfare’ provision. They began to enforce their moral codes on ‘Westernised’ or ‘French’ targets, drinkers, ‘immoral behaviour;’ and improperly dressed women. Porter states, “Islamists began their assassinations of women in 1989 when they burned a woman living with her son. Many women with jobs as secretaries, teachers, cleaning women, or hairdressers have been murdered.”(Page 207) This period of Islamist attacks on women and ‘miscreants’ is visualised in the film Bab El-Oued City. (Marzeak Allouache. 1994) It also recalls the Islamist attitudes described in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. (2007) An Islamist instructs his wife, “You will not make eye contact with me. You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten. You will not paint your nails. If you do you will lose a finger.”

There is not the space to more than summarise the civil war that erupted after the Military cancelled the second round of the 1992 elections, which the Islamist Front du Salut Islamique (FIS) was expected to win. An “apparently Algerian anarchist” Tarik Ben Hallâj gives perhaps the most memorable account. He stated that during this fight (up to 200,000 dead), “the Algerian people were massacred by the unified club of its enemies, and that, in effect, there were only enemies, false friends, on the political chessboard: the neo-FLN state and the Islamic counter-state at the two extreme.”(Page 479) No anarchist, or libertarian socialist, would have much time for Le Pouvoir. Its own complicity in murder is vividly described in Habib Souaïdia’s La Sale Guerre (2001). But some non-anarchists on the left fail to recognise the weight of Hallâj’s other claim: that the Islamists are a counter-state (with finance from the Islamic bourgeoisie). That is not a popularly organised ‘dual power’ but a coercive micro-power. As Yasmina Khadra’s (Mohammed Moulessehoul) GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) character puts it in Wolf Dreams (2007)” “Anyone who doubts our word doubts the word of the lord. They will witness the burning lava of hell turn his cries into eternal flames.” The GIA and the Algerian state indeed turned the country into an inferno.

Algeria Today.

Algeria has (so far) not had an ‘Arab Spring’. As turbulence spread in 2011 it has remained, puzzlingly, apart. Why did so little happen in Algeria? Despite substantial oil and has revenues the country has had slow-burning discontent for years. In 2010 alone there were 1,500 small riots sparked off the price rises, corrupt government and unemployment (Kadar A. Avderrahim Le Monde Diplomatique. February 2011). These protests have not, however, extended beyond “jacqueries”, that is violent spontaneous protest. Some argue that the continued presence of Islamic terrorism, in the form of a group with origins in the GIA and later organisations, Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) reminds people of the civil war and discourages extended revolt. The government, to stem any potential greater threat, in 2011 raised many public sector wages, legalised much ‘informal’ commerce (the black economy), lifted the 19-year-old state of emergency, and announced political reforms.

Algeria held Parliamentary elections this May These were freer than those of 1999 when the present President ‘won’, but with clear limitations. Balloting was marked by a degree of fraud and high levels of abstention, partly in response to calls for an active boycott. They saw the ruling Front de libération nationale, FLN, (the descendent of the original Liberation movement) and its ally the Rassemblement national démocratique, RND, retain power with a big majority. Islamists, in the Alliance Verte (some of whom have worked with the government in the past), have complained (though the election was sufficiently open to allow them a respectable number of seats). The Berber Front des forces socialistes, FFS, and the Trotskyists of the Parti de Travailleurs had deputies elected. “Le pouvoir”, the apparently hidden military and bureaucratic source of power nominally headed by president Boutiflika, and that runs the country regardless of Parliament, appears stable. But it would a very rash person who would predict that, given these underlying problems, this will continue. Something of what David Porter calls the “practical anarchism” – the spirit of revolt – is always present in Algeria, a country and a people beloved by many in this world.

(1) In le Nationalisme français. Anthologie. 1871 – 1914. Raoul Girardet. Editions de Seuil. 1983. Ferry held a variety of posts in the French Second republic, including, Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, and, most famously, Education Minister. Ferry was a republican and anti-clerical. He laid the basis for secular French public education. His views on French colonialism are sometimes used to suppose that French secularism is part and parcel of ‘imperialism’. However, British supporters of the UK’s ‘civilising mission’ were mostly strongly religious. So imperialism is equally religiously based. In reality it was a common in the 19th century to defend Western colonial ventures, and even Marx considered some aspects of them positive see: Imperialism. Pioneer of Capitalism, Bill Warren. NLB 1980. This, we underline, is not our view.

(2) Hadj spent 22 years of his life in detention, under the 3rd republic, under Vichy (he was a determined anti-Nazi), and under the 4th and 5th Republics.

(3) “Alors que l’extrême gauche révolutionnaire et des militants anticolonialistes s’engageaient politiquement et pratiquement, en soutien à l’insoumission des appelés et au FLN, le PSU fut le seul des partis politiques à dimension institutionnelle à être impliqué dans ce débat. Qu’un parti naissant comme le PSU et abritant une cohorte d’anciens ministres SFIO voit plus du tiers de ses membres se prononcer pour le soutien à l’insoumission des jeunes appelés est emblématique de ce que devint le PSU. ” Cinquantenaire du PSU. Jean-Jacques Boislaroussie NPA May 2010.

(4) The Algerian Revolution from 1962 to 1969. International Executive Committee of the Fourth International.Education for Socialists The Workers and Farmers Government. Joseph Hansen. SWP (USA) 1974. This is a better account of Ben Bella and, to an extent,  Pablo’s relations with him: Ben Bella : entre autogestion ouvrière et panarabisme musulman (Obituary 2012), Adel Abderrezak

On the relations between French Trotksyists and Messali Hadj (for example the ‘Lambertists’) this is worth looking at: Lanuque : Messali Hadj et les trotskystes français (1940-1958)


2 Responses

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  1. […] 16th July in radical history and on Woody Guthrie, Tendance Coatesy reviews David Porter’s Eyes to the South. French Anarchists and Algeria, Kritische Geschichte commemorates the 120th birthday of Walter Benjamin and Syndikalismus […]

  2. I don’t leave a response, but I looked at a ton of remarks here Eyes to the South. French Anarchists and Algeria. David Porter. Review Article. Tendance Coatesy. I actually do have 2 questions for you if you do not mind. Is it only me or do a few of the responses appear as if they are written by brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting on other places, I would like to follow you. Could you list of every one of your social community pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

    Schöne Männer

    November 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm

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