SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 162 October 2012

The struggle for Algerian independence

Fifty years ago Algerian won its independence from French colonial rule. The brutality and length of the war has left indelible marks on both countries. MANNY THAIN reviews a detailed account of this important struggle.

AMONG THE MANY independence struggles convulsing the colonial world after the second world war, Algeria’s was particularly savage. Raging from 1954 to 1962, it left an estimated one million Algerians dead. It had huge geopolitical significance. It was central to the collapse of the French empire, the Fourth Republic (1946-58), and four governments. It was a beacon to many across the world fighting to get rid of their colonial masters.

In the book, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Martin Evans charts the course from the French invasion in 1830 to independence. It is a chronological, matter-of-fact account, well researched and detailed. It is not a profound political analysis, however, and the national and international class dynamics are not fully discussed, even though all the elements are present.

In 1830, Algeria was an outpost of the Ottoman empire, and was overran by the 37,000 French troops which landed on 14 June. France was engulfed by political upheaval which saw the Bourbon monarchy replaced by King Louis Philippe. The Second Republic took over from the monarchy in 1848. Louis Napoleon’s coup in 1851 ushered in the Second Empire which was, in turn, replaced by the Third Republic in September 1870.

Army commanders in Algeria had a free hand. As resistance to French occupation grew more organised, the repression grew ever more vicious. A combination of the 1867 famine and harsh repression saw nearly a million Algerian Muslims dead – a third of the population.

The majority of the people in Algeria were of Berber origin, who had absorbed Arab culture and Islam from the seventh to ninth centuries. Although Berber identity was not the main preoccupation in the struggle for independence, it erupted onto the scene subsequently: in the ‘Berber spring’ of 1980, with mass uprisings led by the youth, for instance, and in the protests to restore the Berber language after it was outlawed in the name of post-independence national unity. Arab speakers were concentrated in the coastal towns and plains, Berber speakers in the mountains. The population was Sunni Muslim, apart from 25,000 Jews, mostly poor, living in the towns.

Under the Third Republic, Algeria was declared part of France. Jewish people were granted citizenship in 1870. The vote was extended to non-French settlers in 1889. By that stage, settlers numbered 430,000 – from France, but also from countries such as Spain, Italy and Malta. Muslims – and women – could not vote. Under the 1881 Native Code, Muslims could be imprisoned for holding meetings without permission, for refusing to provide transport or food to colonial officials, for tax avoidance and a long list of other reasons. Arabic was categorised as a foreign language.

Poverty and destitution

SETTLERS TOOK THE best land. When an uprising in 1871 was crushed, 450,000 hectares of tribal land was seized as punishment. The introduction of capitalist property relations saw 451,000 hectares bought by settlers for miserly sums between 1880 and 1908. By 1936, 40% of land possessed by indigenous people had been taken. This was concentrated in the hands of a small minority of very wealthy, predominantly French, landowners. The overwhelming majority of settlers were poor, living in the coastal towns as manual or white-collar workers, or small trades-people.

As the Muslim population grew – from two to six million from 1871-1936, and up to nine million by 1954 – it became impossible for peasants to grow enough food. Muslims suffered mass unemployment or underemployment. At the beginning of the 1950s, an average agricultural labourer worked 65 days a year. Only one Muslim boy in five went to primary school, one in 16 girls. There was an 85% illiteracy rate among Muslims.

Destitution forced people into the cities. It also drove them to seek work on the huge settler estates as seasonal workers – forced off the land to work on the land. Famines occurred in 1905, 1908, 1912 and 1920, with 1937 known as the year of the great hunger. There were few ways out. In the first world war, 173,000 Algerian Muslims were conscripted into the French army – 25,000 were killed, 57,000 wounded.

A further 120,000 worked in French armaments factories, where they participated in the workers’ movement. Sixty-eight thousand of them remained in France after the first world war. A further 21,000 arrived in 1920, 44,000 in 1922, and 71,000 in 1924, packed into the poor suburbs of the major industrial cities.

The Russian revolution in 1917 was a great inspiration. Significantly, the 1920 Tours congress of the social-democratic Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), saw over two-thirds of the delegates split away to form the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). The PCF was part of the Third (Communist) International which gave unconditional support to national liberation struggles in the colonies – discussed at its second congress, also in 1920.

Under mass pressure, the French ruling class was forced to grant very limited reforms to Algerian Muslims, given their blood sacrifice. It was made easier for certain categories of male Muslims to become (French) citizens. Access to some administration posts was facilitated. Muslim representation on councils was increased – to a maximum of one third.

Political organisation

EVANS TAKES TIME to explain the evolution of Algerian nationalism: from localised skirmishes against the French invaders to the development of national consciousness, and the movement to overthrow French rule. On 14 July 1926, the Étoile Nord-Africaine (ENA), was set up at a meeting in a trade union hall in Paris, attended by 300 people. It called for political freedom and the redistribution of land to the peasants. In November 1929, it was proscribed as a threat to French sovereignty.

The Fédération des Élus, formed in 1927, demanded increased rights for Muslims within the Third Republic. The Association of Algerian Ulema was set up in 1931. Standing for a separate state, it established Arabic schools, a press, sports clubs, etc. In 1933, its schools and mosques were closed down by the colonial authorities.

The Parti Communiste Algérien (PCA) emerged out of the PCF, becoming an independent body in 1936. It was the only force with a membership of working-class settlers and Muslims. In Algeria, its membership rose from 600 in 1935 to 3,500 in 1936, including 700 Muslims.

Evans recounts some significant events. For instance: "On 12 February 1934 [a general strike in France], a 10,000-strong demonstration in Algiers organised by the Communist and Socialist parties against fascism, as a response to right-wing rioting outside the national assembly in Paris on 6 February, included a large number of Muslims. When the demonstration was blocked by the police, more young Muslims descended from the casbah, brandishing Muslim placards and ransacking rich shops in the European quarter, an act of aggressive bravura that produced widespread fear in the settler population".

In such a situation, a revolutionary party would have advanced a programme for working-class unity. Algeria had been devastated by the 1930s depression. Demands for decent living standards for all could have exposed the failings of the capitalist economic system. The aim should have been to begin to split away the working-class settlers from the rich landowners and capitalists. A programme for national liberation which guaranteed the rights of the settler and Jewish minorities could have been linked to the need, ultimately, for the socialist transformation of society.

Popular front betrayal

THE PCF’S AUTHORITY rested, above all, on the success of the Russian revolution. The working class and oppressed expected it to fight in their interests, and provide a lead, in the same way the Bolsheviks had. But that was the last thing the PCF was going to do. Under orders from the Stalinist dictatorship, which was consolidating its power in Russia, the PCF was shifting towards the policy of the popular front and collaboration with a so-called ‘progressive wing’ of the capitalist class. In France, that meant doing deals with the SFIO and Radicals – selling-out the struggles of the working class, and of the oppressed masses in the colonies.

In the general election on 3 May 1936, the SFIO won 146 seats (2% down on 1932). The Radicals’ vote fell sharply to 14.5%, giving them 116 seats (159 in 1932). On the basis of radical, left-wing rhetoric, the PCF doubled its vote to just over 15%, giving it 72 seats (1.5 million votes). By joining the popular front, however, the PCF betrayed that vote. It did not take ministerial positions but supported the popular front in the national assembly, providing a left-wing cover for its policies.

The election result sparked a colossal wave of strikes and factory occupations in May and June. The capitalists were shaken to their foundations, forced to concede a 40-hour week, annual paid holidays, union rights, and wage increases typically between 15-17%. Their intention, of course, was to take all those back and exact revenge as soon as they could. The strength of the revolutionary wave was such that it could have achieved much more – if only it had been linked to a mass, genuinely revolutionary party.

The Élus, Ulema, PCA and ENA organised a congress in Algiers of 4,000 delegates on 7 June. It called for representation in the national assembly and other democratic reforms. On 14 July, Bastille day, marking the victory of the 1789 revolution, 30,000 North Africans took part in the workers’ march in Paris, demanding independence.

Their growing radicalisation was met with renewed repression. SFIO prime minister, Léon Blum, used the same law that outlawed the fascist Croix de Feu to ban the ENA in January 1937, a measure met with rage in ENA’s newspaper, El-Ouma (29 January): "They have betrayed us! The Popular Front is traitorous! The Popular Front has sacrificed one of its members, with the support of the communists!" In June, Blum resigned, rocked by the mass movements, economic crisis and seismic shocks from the Spanish civil war.

On 23 August 1939, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia signed a non-aggression pact. The PCF and PCA were banned. The repression intensified under the Vichy regime which governed Nazi-occupied France. The Jewish Statute of October 1940 stripped Jews of their status as French citizens (and their citizenship in Algeria, too, of course).

Declining French power

THE FAMINE OF 1945 only fed the anger. Celebrations to mark ‘victory in Europe’ turned into nationalist demonstrations. In Sétif on 8 May, 21 settlers were killed following battles with police. Over the following three days, 102 settlers were killed nationally. A state of siege was declared and a 10,000-strong force unleashed to put down the uprising. In Guelma, settler militias killed a quarter of all Muslims aged between 25 and 45 – 1,500 people.

Sétif radicalised a new generation, including the 136,000 Algerians who had fought in Europe – mobilised to fight for freedom against the Nazis. Evans writes: "Angered by the double standards, a number of war veterans, like Mostafa Ben Boulaïd, Mohammed Boudiaf and Ahmed Ben Bella, all later to become prominent figures in the war against the French, began to look towards violent action as the only way forward, enacting a process that would lead ultimately to the foundation of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in November 1954".

Under the Fourth Republic, the empire was transformed into the ‘French Union’. Algeria, however, remained part of France. But the position of France as a world power was on the slide. General Charles de Gaulle, who had pushed his way to the head of the government, had not been invited to the Yalta conference of February 1945 – attended by Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill – to carve up the post-war world. The formation of the Arab League in March further undermined France’s (and Britain’s) influence in one of its former power bases. Alongside the suppression of protests in Syria and the deployment of troops to Indochina, the clampdown in Algeria was meant to show that France was still a force to be reckoned with.

Marcel-Edmond Naegelen, SFIO governor-general of Algeria, summed up the fears of the ruling class in his party’s daily newspaper, Le Populaire: "To lose North Africa... would be to lose in quick succession all of Africa, then the French Union, it would make France fall to the level of a second-rate power and even a vassal power. It is not only our prestige that is at stake, but also our national independence". (13 December 1954)

Algeria was the key to maintaining an unbroken territory from France to the Congo, including the newly discovered oil and gas fields in the Sahara. The French ruling class was desperate to bolster its position on the cold-war stage, and in its inter-imperialist rivalry with the US and Britain.

The rise of the FLN

ON 1 NOVEMBER 1954, a series of attacks took place against settler farms and barracks. For the first time, leaflets claiming responsibility carried the name of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). A revolutionary council had been set up, made up of Mohammed Boudiaf, Rabah Bitat, Mostefa Ben Boulaïd, Larbi Ben M’hidi and Mourad Didouche. Belkacem Krim was brought on a few months later. Exiled in Cairo, Ahmed Ben Bella, Aït Ahmed Hocine and Mohammed Khider were also linked with it. These were the nine historical leaders of the FLN.

By mid-1955, the FLN and its Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) were household names. The Mouvement National Algérien (MNA) also had an armed wing, as did the PCA (Combatants de la Libération – CDL). Evans dates the start of all-out war from August 1955, when peasants led by the ALN attacked settlers and police. (The French government always referred to the conflict as a ‘police operation’, never a war, hence the title of his book.) This was met with a ferocious response, with thousands of Muslims killed, including hundreds rounded up and massacred in the Philippeville football stadium.

Elections in January 1956 saw the French political establishment cobble together a ‘republican front’ coalition of the SFIO, François Mitterrand’s Union Démocratique et Socialiste de la Résistance (UDSR), Radicals and ‘left-wing’ Gaullists. Together they had 172 seats. Right-wing parties had 214 seats. The largest single party, however, was the PCF, with 5.5 million votes and 150 seats (25%). Nonetheless, the PCF helped vote the coalition into office. The government would last a little over a year.

On 12 March, the Special Powers Act was passed by 455 (including PCF) votes to 76. As justice minister, Mitterrand signed-off the act. In Algeria, the army was given carte blanche to employ whatever measures it saw fit. The full force of the law was directed against the FLN, ALN, MNA and PCA – the sister party of the PCF!

The war escalates

THERE WERE WIDESPREAD acts of opposition to the mobilisation of reservists, including by troops on their way to Algeria, who refused to board trains or sabotaged tracks. French activists helped hide FLN members and transport money. By this time, more than 200,000 Algerians were in France, mainly poor unskilled workers, rising to 350,000 in 1960.

The PCF organised anti-war petitions and meetings. It supported 26 of its members who were imprisoned for refusing to fight in Algeria. And the women’s organisation, the Union des Femmes Françaises, linked to the PCF, was active in the anti-war campaign. But the PCF failed to offer any independent, working-class policy. Instead of linking the workers’ struggle in France, including the tens of thousands of Algerian workers, with that for independence, while reaching out to the working-class settlers, the PCF talked ambiguously about ‘peace in Algeria’ and negotiation.

The leadership of the FLN in Algeria held a conference on 20 August 1956 at Soummam, Kabylia, a remarkable feat under the circumstances. It set up a Comité de Coordination et d’Exécution (CCE – an underground cabinet), and a Conseil National de la Révolution Algérienne (CNRA – a government-in-waiting). Its aim was to win independence with the FLN as the sole representative of Algeria. The MNA was earmarked for eradication. The PCA had reached a secret deal with the FLN to dissolve the CDL, allowing individual fighters to join the ALN. The PCA continued to exist but subordinated itself to the political and military dominance of the FLN.

On 7 January 1957, General Jacques Massu launched the battle of Algiers. Mass round-ups by the French army accompanied house-to-house fighting, and an FLN bombing campaign against civilian and military targets. Massu’s men tortured thousands before incinerating the bodies or dumping them in the sea. Between 30-40% of the active male population of the casbah were arrested. The CCE fled to Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. The ALN was pushed back to its rural strongholds. The numbers of French troops in Algeria were doubled to 400,000, rising to 450,000 in July.

On 15 April 1958, the government was voted down. The next prime minister, Pierre Pfimlin, was sworn in on 13 May and resigned on the 28th. De Gaulle, who had been manoeuvring behind the scenes, stepped into the political void, forming a government which he backed up with a referendum on 28 September to establish the Fifth Republic – ratified by a vote-weary electorate.

De Gaulle instructed General Challe to smash the FLN within six months. Special Muslim units, the harkis, totalling 60,000, were set up to hunt the ALN. The ALN was decimated. Morale among the rank and file hit an all-time low. The FLN was riven with infighting, split between the leadership in exile and those fighting in Algeria.

By October 1959, more than two million people were being held in 1,242 concentration camps riddled with disease and malnutrition. Rape was used by French troops as a weapon of war. This brutality, however, further alienated the Muslim population, fuelling nationalist and pro-FLN sentiment. Revelations about torture streamed from demobilised reservists. War-weariness seeped into France.

De Gaulle backs down

THE REGIMES OF Habib Bourghiba in Tunisia and Mohammed V in Morocco – independent in 1955 and 1956 respectively – were pressuring de Gaulle, fearful that the FLN struggle was radicalising opposition movements in their countries. The US administration, which was trying to cultivate Morocco and Tunisia as allies, was terrified that French policy was pushing the FLN towards Russia. Relations between the US and France had not recovered since the Suez crisis of October 1956. Then, French, British and Israeli armed forces had attacked Egypt in response to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal. France had been seeking revenge for Nasser’s support of the FLN. But Nasser – and Arab nationalism – had emerged strengthened.

Growing opposition in France, the quagmire in Algeria and mounting international pressure began to force even de Gaulle to shift his position. On 16 September 1959, he made a speech implying a recognition of Algeria’s right to self-determination. Settlers in Algeria reacted angrily. Three days later, the FLN declared a provisional government.

On 11 December, massive demonstrations shook Algiers and Oran, uprisings of youth who, although not mobilised by the FLN, chanted their support for it. A French officer, interviewed in Le Monde at the time, made a telling observation: "On 16 May 1958, we did not have the military situation under control and... everybody shouted ‘long live France!’ Today, we have won on the military front and... everybody was shouting ‘long live the FLN!’"

Reactionary forces were mobilising. In France, the Vincennes Committee was launched by far-right nationalists/fascists, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, future leader of the Front National. In January 1961, right-wing army officers and Algerian settler activists set up the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) in Madrid.

On 21 April, OAS-supporting paratroopers seized control of central Algiers, arresting de Gaulle’s representatives. Settlers took to the streets in support. De Gaulle declared a state of emergency, stationing tanks outside the national assembly. The PCF mobilised ‘in defence of the republic’. On 24 April, there was a one-hour general strike in France against the putsch, which began to unravel. Its ringleaders in Paris were arrested.

The Paris police chief, Maurice Papon, imposed a curfew on Algerian workers on 5 October. He had a record for extreme brutality as prefect of the Constantine region of Algeria (1956-58). The FLN organised a protest against the curfew on 17 October, when 30,000 unarmed Algerians converged on Paris city centre. The police crackdown was brutal, beating people to death and throwing their bodies into the river Seine. Up to 200 were killed, while 11,538 Algerians were loaded onto trucks and deported.

On 18 November, 10,000 students marched for peace in Paris, followed by a day of action on 29 November and another march on 19 December. Then, in response to severe injuries inflicted on a four-year-old girl during an OAS attack, trade unions, the PCF and SFIO called a demo on 8 February 1962. Eight people were crushed to death trying to evade the police. On 13 February, a million people followed the coffins through the capital, backed by mass strikes in the Paris region and demonstrations throughout France.

Negotiations between the French government and the FLN provisional government reopened, the final round beginning at Évian on 7 March 1962. Eleven days later, the Évian agreement was signed. It set out the process for a referendum and ceasefire, as well as terms of future relations between France and Algeria. On 8 April, in France 65.87% voted to ratify the agreement. On 1 July, 91.2% in Algeria voted yes. July 5 was declared national independence day. By the autumn, nearly all of the settlers had left Algeria. The same went for Jewish people. The lack of a coherent, independent working-class programme had driven the majority of settlers into the arms of reaction.

An important example

ON 25 SEPTEMBER 1962, a ‘democratic’, ‘socialist’ republic was declared, headed by Ben Bella. The wholesale destruction of farmland and forests, forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, and mass impoverishment, as well as the loss of technical expertise as the settlers left, had wrecked the Algerian economy. Large agricultural holdings and other French-owned enterprises were nationalised, under ‘self-management’. Without democratic workers’ control and management, however, they became bureaucratic and unwieldy. French oil and gas assets were only nationalised in 1971.

In the throes of economic crisis, and unable to keep the lid on rising political tensions, Ben Bella was deposed and imprisoned on 19 June 1963. Houari Boumediène became head of state, ruling through a ‘revolutionary council’. Ever since, a secretive inner circle of high-ranking army officers has held control. Boumediène ruled until his death in December 1978.

Evans writes: "Revolutionary, socialist, and a leading voice in the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ which rejected the two cold war blocs, Algeria was seen to be a model of how to overcome poverty and underdevelopment". Of course, it was not socialism in the Marxist sense. There was no real workers’ democracy. There was important infrastructural development, and huge improvements in health and education, but the gains became choked up in the bureaucratic machine and rising corruption. Like many of the regimes thrown up during the colonial revolution, Algeria occupied a kind of halfway house, buffeted by the shifting global balance of forces, manoeuvring between the two super-powers.

Evans is right that Algeria was a beacon for third world revolution, backing the struggle of the Palestinians and in alliance with Cuba. The Pan-African Cultural Festival, which took place in Algiers from 21 July to 1 August 1969, attracted those fighting Portuguese colonialism in Africa, the apartheid system in South Africa, and white minority rule in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The Black Panthers sent a delegation, featuring Algeria on the cover of its paper on 9 August 1969. The singer, Nina Simone, and jazz saxophonist, Archie Shepp, performed.

The victory of the FLN had another, far-reaching political impact. Alongside other examples of colonial revolution, it led some on the left to conclude that national liberation struggles could only be led by the peasantry, backed by the most downtrodden and desperate layers in the towns. According to this theory, the workers had become a privileged layer of society, only capable of fighting for their own, narrow self-interests. This was extended globally, with the conclusion being drawn that workers in the advanced capitalist countries had also been ‘bourgeoisified’, and were incapable of revolutionary action. The falsity of these ideas was fully exposed when the biggest general strike movement in history burst onto the scene in May/June 1968 – ironically, in France.

The French army butchers of Algeria continued their careers. Massu, torturer-in-chief in Algiers, became commander of the French forces in Germany. There, he secured an amnesty for the remaining imprisoned officers who had organised the coup in 1961, as a reward for the army’s role in suppressing the revolutionary movement of 1968 – which had come much closer to overthrowing de Gaulle than the reactionary OAS putsch attempt.

In Algeria, the collapse of oil and gas prices in the 1970s brought harsh austerity, hammering the working class and poor. Following on from the Berber revolt in 1980, the whole of Algeria was rocked with demonstrations in October 1988, as youth revolted. Within days, 500 people had been killed by the security forces. This was a new generation, who had not known the independence struggle, only crisis, poverty and rule by a corrupt elite known simply as ‘le pouvoir’ (the power).

The Front Islamique du Salut (FIS – Islamic Salvation Front) was set to gain from this turmoil. About to win elections in January 1992, the army shut down the electoral process. The following spring, armed Islamist groups unleashed a terrible civil war, which cost the lives of 200,000 people in the following decade.

Many commentators point to this mass bloodletting as a key reason why Algeria has not been swept up in the revolutionary wave crashing across North Africa and the Middle East. The regime has used its oil wealth to buy (a little) time. But protests over bad housing, dire living standards and endemic corruption persist. It is only a matter of time before Algerian workers and youth rise again to reclaim the country so many fought and died to win.

Glossary of organisations

ALN: Armée de Libération Nationale. The armed wing of the FLN.

CCE: Comité de Coordination et d’Exécution. The FLN’s underground inner cabinet (1956-62).

CDL: Combatants de la Libération. The PCA’s armed guerrillas in western Algeria.

CNRA: Conseil National de la Révolution Algérienne. The FLN’s underground government (1956-62).

ENA: Étoile Nord Africaine (North African Star). Set up in Paris in 1926 as the first political party committed to independence. Led by Messali Hadj.

Fédération des Élus: A coalition of elected Muslim officials in Algeria. Led by Ferhat Abbas, it called for democratic rights, and assimilation, with an emphasis on political lobbying.

FLN: Front de Libération Nationale. Set up in 1954 with the aim of achieving independence by forcing the withdrawal of French troops.

MNA: Mouvement National Algérien. Set up by Messali Hadj in 1954, with an armed wing from 1955. It was engaged in a bitter struggle with the FLN. After independence, Hadj went into exile.

OAS: Organisation de l’Armée Secrète. Set up by right-wing army officers and settlers to stop de Gaulle relinquishing control of Algeria. Active 1961-62, it engaged in sabotage and individual terrorism, and attempted to assassinate de Gaulle.

PCA: Parti Communiste Algérien. Originally part of the PCF, it emerged as an independent organisation in 1936.

PCF: Parti Communiste Français. Formed in 1920.

SFIO: Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière, French Section of the Workers (Second) International. Founded in 1905, it became the Parti Socialiste (PS) in 1969.

UDSR: Union Démocratique et Socialiste de la Résistance. Social-democratic formation. Via circuitous routes both it and François Mitterrand would end up in the PS in 1971.

Ulema: Association of the Algerian Ulema (Jam‘iyat al-‘Ulama). Formed in 1931 under Sheikh Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis. It rejected assimilation, promoting Islamic/Arabic cultural renaissance in Algeria.

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