From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, pp.28-29.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Algeria, Rebellion and Revolution
Ernest Benn, 27s.
Surprisingly little has as yet been written about the war and the revolution in Algeria, considering that almost seven years have passed since the first military battles were fought, considering also the far-reaching political and ideological implications of the conflict, and the strong commitments it has called forth.
Several types of literature have begun to emerge, it is true. As is natural, polemical and apologetic writing prevails. On the French side, Les rebelles algeriens by the Figaro journalist Serge Bromberger is a classic of its type. Its main concern is to rake up as much dirt as possible on the military leaders of the Algerian revolution. But, thanks to the easy access the author enjoyed to the French police and army archives, it contains interesting information that may prove valuable when checked and sifted by future historians.
On the Algerian side, the bulk of political writing has so far been produced by French supporters of the FLN. It ranges from the passionate and sometimes dishonest polemics of the Jeansons – L’Algerie hors la loi and Notre guerre – to the testimonials of soldiers who refused to fight the dirty war – Maschino’s Le Refits. These latter are the first writings by actual participants; they describe a lived experience of the war and express a moral choice, and they are valuable as such. Others, like Davezies in Le Front, have reported on the FLN in interview form.
Documentation on various aspects of the repression conducted by the French army are another valuable source. Henri Alleg’s La Question, Keramane’s La Pacification and the pamphlets by the lawyers defending FLN prisoners before French courts fall into this category. Most recently, the main documents relating to the Manifesto of the 121, advocating civil disobedience in France, have been added to this documentation.
Finally, there are the books by liberal politicians pleading the neo-colonialist case, and the case of the right wing of the FLN. Jacques Chevallier’s Nous Algeriens and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s Lieutenant en Algerie are typical.
Joan Gillespie’s book reflects a very different kind of approach from any of the above. It is not an uncommitted book: the writer is clearly sympathetic with the Algerian nationalists. The difference is in the aim of the book: its primary purpose is not to plead a case, but to analyze the background of the conflict, and to describe the social forces involved. It is the first time this has been attempted by a serious writer.
The book begins with the beginning, that is, with the colonization of Algeria in the middle of the last century. The European settler is described in detail, as is the destruction of Algerian society, the Algerian economy as an object of exploitation, the property relationships and their consequences, the mass migration of Algerian workers to France, the gradual recovery from the shock of colonization among Moslem intellectuals, the policies of the successive French governments and the always abortive attempts at reform.
In a second part, Joan Gillespie examines the beginnings of nationalism: the North African Star, the Algerian People’s Party, the Ulemas, then the development of nationalism during World War II, the revolt of 1945 and its repression, the main Algerian political parties in the post-war period.
Part III is a history of the actual war, as of November 1954. The political, military and international aspects of the war are all discussed; much space is given to a description of the structure and the policies of the FLN. The book ends with the first months of 1959; a post-script brings it up to 1960.
To understand the nature of the book, something must be said about its author. Joan Gillespie, who died suddenly in Tunis in 1959, was an American journalist with a special interest in African affairs.
She was a New Englander, and studied political science and international law in the United States and in France. She worked for two years in the American foreign service, then worked as a journalist and wrote a series of magazine and newspaper articles on Africa, as well as the book under review. Her last trip to Africa, in the summer and autumn of 1959, was to have provided material for a book on the leaders of the nationalist movements in sub-Saharan Africa. In his introduction to her book, her brother writes that
‘her great love was for ideas, particularly the idea of freedom. Similarly, her great hate was for those ideas which denied freedom. She was an idealist par excellence, and the love of her ideas, although intellectually conditioned, was a profoundly emotional thing. Above all, she was a person of action, bound and determined to do what she could in furthering the aims for which she stood.’
It may seem paradoxical, but it is actually not too surprising, that a person of this cast, an American liberal, that is a person who could never become directly involved in this fight, from the inside, should have been the first to attempt to place the Algerian conflict in its historical context. The main value of the book lies in this approach, supported by an undeniable journalistic competence.
Its weaknesses are those of the liberal point of view, that is, the inability to sympathize with or fully understand those who believe that the fulfilment of liberal values can never take place within the framework of formal democracy controlled by the native bourgeoisie. Within the nationalist camp, Joan Gillespie’s sympathies unmistakeably gravitate towards the ‘moderates’ and away from the ‘extremists’. When she writes about the early proletarian nationalism of the North African Star, she seems to blame the movement for formulating demands the French government would be likely to reject:
‘In 1933, the ENA (North African Star) again reappeared and held an important General Assembly meeting in France. Messali and his followers passed a long resolution containing demands for measures to be taken both before and after independence. Their wide scope reflected not only the Communist influence upon the movement, but also the quite utopian and theoretical framework of the few devoted militants in the early 1930s. If total independence was not startling enough for the French, the provision concerning eventual confiscation of large properties in Algeria made it almost certain that the authorities would reject the ENA demands outright.’
However, characteristically, the entire program of the ENA is reprinted in the references and is available to the reader to judge for himself.
She also quotes with approval, from Lacheraf’s article Le nationalisme algerien, that ‘the early militants of the ENA had only a vague doctrine, which has been described as “a surface Marxism, a nostalgic and sentimental Algerianism, a summary Islamism”,’ little realizing that this description is not so much the product of a historical judgement, but that of a present polemic against the ENA’s successor, the MNA, by one of the leaders of the rival FLN, and that it is meant to serve, retroactively, present-day purposes.
In the third part, dealing with the actual war, the author, understandably, seems somewhat overwhelmed by her subject.
The account is hurried, as if telescoped. Insufficient cross-checking on the available evidence may account for the fact that Gillespie fell for the official versions of the death of the leader of the FLN ‘left wing’ of 1957, Abane Ramdane (‘killed outright in a French ambush’), although it has been known for some time now that he became a victim of an FLN purge. She also writes that ‘mystery still surrounds the circumstances of the death of the ‘Father of the Aurès (Ben Boulaid)’, although in this case too it is known that he was killed by the explosion of a booby-trapped radio transmitter, following his declaration of loyalty to the MNA after his famous escape from prison. Predictably enough, she also plumps for the lie of ‘collusion between the MNA and the police in France’, one of the most infamous slanders spread during the whole period.
On the Bellounis question, however, she succeeds in largely sticking to the facts. She stresses that, although he took arms from them, ‘Bellounis did not make a political agreement with the French, and refused to rally to the cause in May 1958, when the French Army called for closer cooperation between Muslims .and Frenchmen in Algeria. Bellounis became a casualty of the colon-Army coup of 13 May. The French later claimed to have executed him.’ In actual fact, Bellounis died in battle with the paratroopers of the fascist colonel Trinquier, of subsequent Katanga fame.
The liberal point of view is also, no doubt, responsible for the insufficient attention given to the labour movement. All that is said, is that
‘In late February (1956), stimulated somewhat by the formation of a MNA labour union, the FLN founded the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algeriens (UGTA) – General Union of Algerian Workers. Up to this time, those Algerian workers who were organized had been members of unions affiliated with French unions, notably the Communist-dominated CGT. The UGTA had considerable initial success, and by the end of May, claimed 110,000 members. The UGTA asked for better working conditions for Algerians, and its political programme resembled that of the FLN. It was admitted to the ICFTU in July, and established close relations with the stronger organized unions in Tunisia and Morocco. But the UGTA has suffered severely from French repressive measures.
‘Its leaders have been arrested several times, and its activity brought to a virtual standstill. It now maintains a training centre in Tunisia and carries on social welfare work for Algerian worker refugees.’
This is a little bit thin, considering the prominent role which working-class militants have played in the Algerian nationalist movement, from its formative period up to today. It ignores, among other things, the role played by the MNA-oriented trade union centre, the USTA, which is the only organization that has so far actually succeeded in carrying out trade union functions, and which has already two congresses behind it (Paris 1957 and Lille 1960).
Small mistakes in translation from the French occur in a few places. The FLN Central Committee did not condemn Berberism as a ‘communistic’ but as a ‘communal’ deviation, and the MTLD Congress of 1953 did not reaffirm its will to follow a ‘sane’ political line, but a ‘sound’ one. These are details.
The ‘classic’ about the Algerian war has yet to be written. Neither the Harold Isaacs, nor the George Orwell of the Algerian war have so far appeared. In the meantime, Joan Gillespie’s book will be a good guide as to what actually happened. It contains the basic background information, and most of its facts are straight. It has served, above all, to mark out the field which future historians will have to cover in greater detail, armed with the wisdom of hindsight.
Last updated on 21 February 2010