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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. Read the rest of this entry »