Six decades since Algeria’s war of independence

July 5 is the sixtieth anniversary of Algeria’s Independence Day in 1962 which marked the end of the eight-year war of independence. CLARE DOYLE looks back at a seminal struggle in the post-1945 movement against colonialism.

“The Algerian war, 1954 to 1962, was a savage colonial war, killing an estimated million Muslim Algerians and expelling the same number of European settlers from their homes. It was to cause the fall of six French prime ministers and the collapse of the Fourth Republic; it came close to bringing down de Gaulle and – twice – to plunging Metropolitan France into the chaos of civil war”. This description is carried on the back cover of an authoritative book by historian Alistair Horne, called A Savage War of Peace, published in 1977.

The Algerian war of independence lasted twice as long as the first world war and its victory marked the end of 130 years of brutal French colonial rule. But even today, six decades on, Algerians both in their ‘homeland’ and in metropolitan France, face an uphill struggle for democratic as well as economic justice.

Little is taught in French schools about the massive invasion and imperial conquest of Algeria in 1830. No fewer than 37,000 French troops and more than 100 warships were involved. Over 5,000 Algerians were killed and thousands more rounded up. For decades Algeria’s peoples were forced to carry out arduous labour for the French on the land stolen from them or in the towns and cities as servants to the settlers from France. The languages, religion, culture and welfare of Algeria’s (majority) Berber and Muslim Arab people were brutally suppressed.

Only in the last 20 years has anything appeared in the French school curriculum even mentioning the mighty struggle of Algerians for independence. In 2012, the Parti Socialiste (PS) president, Francois Hollande, ‘acknowledged’ the suffering caused by France’s colonisation but made no formal apology to the Algerian people. Nor has there been any official acknowledgement of the ghastly police atrocities committed in France against Algerians and their supporters. Today’s president, Emmanuel Macron, makes public speeches decrying the bloody police massacre in Paris in October 1961 of mainly Algerian protesters against the war, but refuses to categorise it as a state crime.

The blatant racism of France’s state forces towards second and third generation Maghrebian youth inspired the world-famous film, La Haine, set in the notoriously neglected banlieues (city suburbs) of Paris.

The French ‘socialists’

A decade of chaos in France at the end of world war two (during which most of the French capitalist class had collaborated with Nazi rule) stemmed from the failure of Popular Front governments (both before and after the war) to rid France of capitalism. Neither the leaders of the Socialist Party (then known as the French Section of the Workers’ International – SFIO) nor those of the ‘Communist’ Party of France (PCF) set out to do so, in spite of the yearnings of the workers of France.

Socialist revolutions would have spread like wild-fire across a devastated continent. They would have ignited a political revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe against Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship. The course of history would have been transformed.

The French Communist Party was part of the Third International when it emerged as a majority from the SFIO’s Tours Congress of 1920. At that time its policy would have been full support to the fight against imperialism. Yet, when the post-war anti-colonial struggle began in Algeria, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), they supported their own bourgeois and its total opposition to self-determination. The PCF even voted in 1956 in support of ‘special powers’ for the government of the ‘socialist’ Guy Mollet, to intensify repression in Algeria and send hundreds of thousands of conscripts to the battlefield.

There were many workers and conscripts on both sides of the Mediterranean – Algerian and French – who took a clear class position. They engaged in heroic strike struggles and mutinies against France’s plans to hold onto its colony. They risked being sacked, imprisoned – or worse – for their actions.

Their efforts were not matched by France’s left politicians. Despite the pro-independence activism of many of their members and supporters, only very belatedly did the left parties take the side of Algeria’s heroic freedom fighters.

A young François Mitterrand, as justice minister in the 1956 government, actually signed off the Special Powers Act. A decade and a half later, in 1969, after the revolutionary events of May 1968, Mitterrand was to found a new Socialist Party, the PS, and lead it into government in 1981. However, still not challenging capitalism’s very existence, within two years the PS’s ambitious programme of reforms gave way to counter-reforms and victory for the right.

Liberation struggle

Hardly a whimper of opposition was raised by France’s parliamentary parties to the coup d’état organised by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958. He took power into his own hands and established his Fifth Republic with its repressive laws and unique Bonapartist dictatorial powers for the head of state. He imposed partial military rule – imposing laws by decree, curtailing elections for a period, and suspending other democratic rights.

Having initially been determined to keep Algeria French, sanctioning some of the bloodiest operations of the war, de Gaulle drew the conclusion that the human and financial costs were too great and a deal must be done.

He conducted a referendum amongst French voters in January 1961 to assess support for self-determination for Algeria. Over 75% of voters in France agreed and 70% of French voters in Algeria.

Lengthy peace negotiations were taking place, but the prospect of a deal led to the establishment of the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), an outburst of brutal violence, and an attempted coup in Algiers in April 1961. The OAS was an amalgamation of various groups representing the country’s ‘pieds noirs’ – the French who had settled in Algeria, some of them generations before. It was headed by General Raoul Salan and other retired French generals and adopted the slogan ‘Algerie Francaise’ (French Algeria).

An obituary in 2017 of Jean-Jacques Susini – the ‘political brains’ behind the OAS (and the subject of the film, The Day of the Jackal) – gives a picture of the last ditch atrocities carried out by settlers fighting against independence. “In just six weeks of 1961-62, the OAS killed more people in the city (of Algiers) than the FLN had during the entire Algerian War”. It speaks of the OAS campaign reaching a climax on June 7 1962, with the burning down of the city’s ancient library (with its 6,000 precious volumes) and the blowing up of the historic town hall. The municipal library was also blown up, along with four schools. All this as the Evian agreement was being finalised.

After years on the run, this Susini was rehabilitated by an amnesty announced in 1968 by de Gaulle – the man he had tried to get killed on more than one occasion! After subsequent terms in jail for robbery, abduction and murder, Susini was granted another amnesty in 1987 by the incoming ‘socialist’ president, Francois Mitterrand. “In 1997”, the obituary continues, Susini “emerged from obscurity to stand as a candidate for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in north Marseille, a constituency of raging unemployment and high immigration”. 

There were several attempts on de Gaulle’s life as he pursued a settlement with the FLN, but ending the war consolidated support for him at home – not least in big business circles – as the French economy began to boom.

Ten years after coming to power and six years after the Algerian settlement, it was the month-long general strike of May 1968 that shattered De Gaulle’s special form of Bonapartist rule. Students and workers shouted on the streets: ‘Ten years is enough!’ After being humiliated by the ten million-strong revolutionary general strike, de Gaulle managed to win a subsequent parliamentary election, but his authority had been irreparably shattered. He retired from office the following year, dying at his country mansion at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises at the end of 1970.

When the referendum on the Algerian settlement was held in France in April 1962 more than 90% of war-weary voters approved it. In Algeria, on July 1, 99.7% of voters were in favour. The decision was officially published in France the following day and on July 3 France declared Algeria to be independent. The FLN leaders now in charge chose July 5 – 132 years to the day of the French arrival in Algiers – to become Independence Day.

Marxists and the war

The story of the Algerian war of independence is as tragic as it is heroic. Anger at the deprivation and poverty of life for the Berber and Arab Muslim population had boiled over. The victories and the tragedies, the advances and the reverses are too numerous to list in the present article. The famous film by Gillo Pontecorvo – The Battle of Algiers – shows both the unbelievable heroism and the sickening brutality involved. There was betrayal, butchery, and rape of women, babies, prisoners and old people.

The greatest tragedy was the absence of a revolutionary leadership with a clear idea of how the struggle should unfold. If the working class had been organised to play the key role in fighting to end colonial rule, the revolution could have grown over into an all-out struggle for socialism. A beacon would have been lit for the oppressed peoples not only of North Africa but internationally to finish with capitalism and war. A socialist appeal could have won support amongst some of the settlers, the ‘pieds noirs’ and Algerian Jews in Algeria and undercut the basis of support for French imperialist rule and groups like the OAS.

The leaders of the main fighting force in Algeria – the National Liberation Front and its army, the ALN – came from the impoverished non-French rural elite. Their over-riding aim was national liberation from French colonial rule. But to establish the freedom of all oppressed people from a life of poverty and exploitation, an all-out struggle against private ownership of land and industry needed to be pursued.

Lenin and Trotsky, who led the victorious Russian revolution of October 1917 and the establishment of a socialist workers’ government, had concluded that the revolution against imperialism and against landlordism and feudal relations in the countryside must be ‘permanent’. By this they meant it could not be carried out in stages, but must ‘grow over’ into a fight to end private ownership not only of the land, but of the banks, major industries and commerce. This set a clear example for the workers and poor of other countries to follow.

In Algeria, this approach was rooted in the objective needs of the masses and vital in the fight for real independence. The FLN leaders were not in favour of wholesale nationalisation but were forced in 1963 to confiscate all agricultural, industrial and commercial properties. They switched to implementing nationalisation crudely and without democratic control and management by the workers involved. The government took responsibility for the production, processing and shipping of nearly everything – agricultural produce like wine, tobacco and wheat as well as textiles and clothing, cement, phosphates and the metal manufacturing based on local ore extraction. But leaving oil and gas in the hands of the French at the time and employing bureaucratic methods of control and management across the economy led to very poor economic results.

The Fourth International

At the time of the Algerian uprising against French rule, Trotskyists in France and Britain, in and around the Fourth International, gave wholehearted support to the struggle led by the FLN. The ‘International Socialists’, the forerunners in Britain of the Socialist Workers’ Party, were less keen. For ideological reasons, deeming Stalin’s counter-revolution to have re-established capitalism, they had adopted a ‘neutral’ stance of ‘Neither Moscow nor Washington but international socialism’. They were thus indifferent to a struggle that could lead to a major defeat of French imperialism.

The ‘Mandelites’ within the Fourth International were losing confidence in the potential of the ‘metropolitan’ (European) working class to move in a revolutionary direction. They supported guerrilla and peasant forces fighting imperialism without a word of criticism of their programmes that made no mention of a fight for socialism. Some ‘Trotskyists’ went as far as supporting the regimes of Tito in Yugoslavia and Mao Tse-tung in China for whom genuine workers’ control and management were anathema, describing them as ‘unconscious Trotskyists’.

The fore-runners of the Militant and the Socialist Party, who at that time produced a paper called Socialist Fight, gave full support to the Algerian revolution. They strove not only for victory over De Gaulle – in Algeria and in France – but for a workers’ and peasants’ struggle for socialism internationally. They urged the leaders of the FLN to adopt a fully socialist and internationalist programme.

Their assistance to the FLN was not merely verbal. When skilled workers travelled from Britain to Morocco and Tunisia to make arms to assist the struggle, it was agreed to send two Socialist Fight members – John Smith, a carpenter, and an electrician, Jimmy Deane – to the Morocco/Algeria border to breach the fence and get supplies through to the freedom fighters.

At the time of the Evian talks between the FLN and the French government, Socialist Fight supported the imminent revolt amongst France’s conscripts in Algiers which hastened the signing of the deal in March 1962. In 1961 and 1962, the group was campaigning for the release of Michel Raptis (also known as Pablo) and Sal Santen – both leading figures of the Fourth International – who had been arrested in the Netherlands for forging documents and assisting the freedom fighters of Algeria.

Socialist Fight urged the FLN to adopt a full programme of socialist reconstruction to “establish control in the hands of the people and socialise the means of production – the land and its mineral wealth” (April 1962).

Ben Bella

On the 25 September 1962, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Algeria was established with Ahmed Ben Bella as its first president. Agricultural holdings and most French-owned industries were taken into public ownership but the major French oil and gas concerns were left untouched until 1971. The system of ‘self-management’ (autogestion) promoted by Ben Bella (and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the USFI) was adopted in the state-owned enterprises. However, it was far more bureaucratic than democratic.

The FLN was in charge of a vast country devastated by war but with huge potential. Ben Bella’s policies were popular but there was no strategy for establishing a democratic workers’ state and spreading the struggle for socialism from Algeria to the rest of the Maghreb and Africa, or to France, Europe and beyond.

In June 1965, as the ruling clique of high-ranking army officers moved to tighten its grip on power and block the development of movements from below, Ben Bella was ousted in a bloodless coup led by the defence minister, Houari Boumédiène. He was held for eight months in an underground prison and then forced to live under house arrest for the following 14 years. After Ben Bella’s release in October 1980, he went to live in France but was expelled from there in 1983. He moved to Switzerland where he launched the Movement for Democracy in Algeria – a moderate Islamic opposition party with little chance of successful development.

Half a century after leading his country to victory in the war of independence from France, and once more back in the country of his birth, Ben Bella died in 2012 at the age of 95.

Subsequent developments

The FLN – the party that won the Algerian war of independence – has been in power in Algeria almost without a break since that victory of 1962 and still runs the country today. However, having initially carried through genuine reforms in areas like health and education, it became bogged down in corruption and back-biting. It has used the once–revolutionary National Liberation Army to defeat all challenges. In 1980 it was the ‘Berber Spring’, in 1988 the ‘Youth Revolt’. In 1991, the army sparked a bloody civil war when the Islamic Front of Salvation (FIS) won the first round of the legislative elections. Up to 200,000 people perished.

The state of emergency lasted for 19 years. It was lifted only in 2011 as the wave of revolution swept across North Africa. The FLN government of the time escaped relatively unscathed, but is constantly under threat of new explosions against the ruling clique. It does not hesitate to deploy the usual weapons of rulers against peaceful demonstrators – tear gas, water cannon and batons. And this only serves to anger and embolden the youth.

In February 2019 the four times president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, already aged 86 and confined to a wheelchair, declared his intention to become president again. His primary concern was not providing jobs and houses for the country’s youthful population but to keep his cronies out of prison – the power-hungry oligarchs who rifle the economy at every opportunity and live in nervous luxury.

The flame of revolt inevitably flared up until the octogenarian was persuaded not to try again for the top job. Up to 14 million were on the streets on 16 March that year. Adopting the name of ‘Hirak’, meaning simply ‘Movement’, the Friday demonstrations had become the biggest ever in Algeria’s history. Millions, with a huge presence of women, continued to come on to the streets in mass protests across the country. Restrictions imposed by Covid rules cut across the movement and the people involved found no party or trade union to take up the cudgels against the fossilised FLN rule.

What future?

The current president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who came to power in 2019, was supposed to bring an end to the revolutionary upheavals of that year. But he has done nothing to improve the lives of the now 45 million strong population. Forty-five percent are under 25 and without real jobs. Anger continues to accumulate. Nothing has been done to take up the burning desire of Algeria’s mountainous and Berber populations to have their national and language rights fulfilled.

In 2021 forest fires, deliberately started in order to clear land for speculative sale, sparked a new wave of protests. Life in Algeria, on the basis of landlordism and capitalism, will continue to be plagued by major clashes of class interests.

Mina Boukhaoua writes on behalf of Yassar thawri, Thamuỿli thazelmaȡt (Gauche revolutionnaire, or CWI in Algeria) that it is more urgent than ever to sow the seeds of a new revolutionary party in her country, one that inscribes on its banner the socialist aim of nationalisation of the major pillars of the economy with democratic workers’ control and management. Nothing short of this will do justice to the sacrifices made by the heroic freedom fighters of Algeria more than sixty years ago.