Algeria, Indochina: colonial wars and the French Anarchist Federation 1945 to 1962
north africa |
imperialism / war |
opinion / analysis
Tuesday September 19, 2006 22:44 by Bikisha
This article looks at the repsonse of the French anarchist movement to the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria after 1945.
ALGERIA, INDOCHINA: COLONIAL WARS AND THE FRENCH ANARCHIST FEDERATION 1945 TO 1962
First published in "Le Magazine Libertaire," December 1984
Translation and additional notes in [brackets] by Francois Coquet, with help of Lucien van der Walt
French version at
The 1939-1945 bloodletting had just finished, when 16 years of colonial wars started for France, all lost in advance (that's not a regret). Our politicians and our soldiers - who had been thrashed within 6 weeks in 1940 - began a new adventure that would bring another defeat, in another war where people were just statistics to be disposed of by warmongers, a principle that had just caused the death of 50 million children, women and men: what a price!
Their contempt for colonised people was matched only by their level of deep stupidity: they thought they would more easily beat "Viets" or "bougnoules" [slang for Arabs] than "boches" [slang for Germans], and win new glory by saving the French empire and its interests.
Thierry d'Argenlieu (admiral and Prior of the Order of Carmes Dechauts, another meeting between army and Church, and superintendent in Indochina), De Lattre de Tassigny (who would be promoted to Marechal de France), Salan (a general who became chief of the terrorist OAS) did a "beautiful" job. [OAS: Secret Armed Organisation, a rightwing group that tried to stop Algerian decolonization.] Some high-level officers, generals, colonels, politicians and careerists took the opportunity to play with the country's money: well, it was just the question of a few spoils!
As expected, right-wing politicians favoured the reconquest. Socialists, as usual, dropped their official principles and (in both Indochina and Algeria) added to the title "faithful managers of the capitalist society," a new title: "zealous defenders of French imperialism."
As for the Communists, they participated in the government at the beginning of the Indochina war, and it is only when they were removed in 1947 that they started to oppose that war. Nevertheless, they immediately protested against the Algerian war, and their activists struggled hard - but, in order to remain close to socialists (their tactics at the moment) they supported the vote in parliament that provided the funds for intensifying the repression. [Guy Mollet was the socialist President of Council at the time, and viewed as a symbol of socialists betraying their ideas.]
What was the libertarians' reaction to these events? There was, of course, a strong condemnation of both wars. But while the Indochina war did not show any divergence inside the libertarian scene, the Algerian war led to different positions: [not on principles], no-one approved of the war! No, the controversy was on the question of tactics, as usual.
"What we are waging here is not a war, but a crusade," declared Mr de Chevigne, State Secretary of War in 1952. This was a "crusade against Communism," which conveniently denied legitimacy to the revolt, and ignored the desire of Indochina's people to get rid of the French oppressors, who had been spoiling the country for decades with the aid of their own "collabos" ["collabos": a common term for French people who collaborated with German forces during the occupation of France in the years 1940-45]
From 1946, the very beginning of the war, articles appeared rather often in "Le Libertaire." However, it was only from 1950 that the question of Indochina was dealt with more and more regularly, and with increasing virulence; the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, helped reinforce the opposition to all wars.
From 1952 to 1954, full pages of "Le Libertaire" were devoted to the events in South Asia, as well as those in Madagascar, Tunisia, and Morocco and...Algeria. These events would prefigure the conflicts that would arise as soon as the Indochina war was over.
The Anarchist Federation stated its position in a paper entitled "Long live the Indochinese proletariat's struggle!" released in the "Le Libertaire" issue of November 20th, 1952:
"In this war which is in fact a revolutionary episode (...) worker's solidarity must raise French workers and Vietnamese workers against the same enemy: French capitalism."
END OF THE FIRST PHASE OF VIETNAM WAR
On 21st July, 1954, president of council Pierre Mendes France [who is still viewed as a strong moral authority by socialists] signed the Geneva's agreements that ended 8 years of war, and the French presence in the north part of the country. Waiting for Americans...
"Le Libertaire" - at the time the newspaper of the Libertarian Communist Federation - had this title on July 29th: "Mendes France, Molotov, Eden and Bedel-Smith all agreed to improve the war footing of both blocs against the Vietnamese people."
("Le Monde Libertaire" could not write anything about the Indochinese issue, for its first number was released on October 1st, 1954).
In this paper ["Le Libertaire"] there are some questionable points. One could read, for instance, that "only extreme levels of struggle can result in the one possible condition for peace: the departure of the Expeditionary Corps," yet the Vietnamese people, themselves, had had enough after 8 years of conflict.
Still, one paragraph was very prophetic: "So, the Western bloc did not lose anything, it enforced its setting in Asia, empowered in Europe, and 'peace in Indochina' will allow Mendes France to make war in Northern Africa!" Four months later, that was exactly what took place!
[On the French side] One hundred thousand had died, one hundred and fourteen thousand were wounded, and the casualties were mostly Indochinese and North Africans drafted into the French expeditionary corps. On the Vietnamese side, there were probably hundreds of thousands of victims, and all the usual after- effects of war.
During these 8 years, many other events had held the libertarians spellbound: powerful strikes in France; the Korean War; Stalin's death and the Khrushchev report; strikes in Spain; and the decay of the 4th Republic.
And, starting in 1950, internal conflicts within the Anarchist Federation would lead to a split in 1953. The [official] Anarchist Federation became the Libertarian Communist Federation, as decided at the 1953 Congress (and attained in December 1953), and "Le Libertaire" ended in 1956. A new Anarchist Federation was created at a constituent congress held from December 25th to 27th, 1953. Its newspaper was "Le Monde Libertaire," first issued (as noted above) in October 1954.
"I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice": Albert Camus. [A famous French intellectual, Camus was Nobel Prize winner, and very close to anarchism, writing several times in "Le Monde Libertaire"; his book, "The Rebel," rejected by the Marxist left starting with Jean-Paul Sartre, but strongly supported by the anarchists.]
This statement by Albert Camus effectively sums up why the Algerian war was a tragedy that was felt far more intensively by the French in general - and by leftist and extreme leftist activists in particular - than the Indochina war.
That is not to excuse, but to understand, responses. Without paying attention to others' acts, we may fail to comprehend developments, and our actions may not fit the struggle we undertake.
One million people - mostly of French origin, but also Italians and Spaniards - had lived in Algeria for almost 150 years, and felt at home, as in any French province. "French Algeria" was an obvious fact for all. That the Muslim Algerians, generally held in contempt, had no political rights in their own country; were employed in harder and lower paid work, or were simply unable to get employment, and had lost their land at the beginning of the colonisation: all this, unfortunately, was not seen as monstrous to the
"little whiteys" who viewed the natives as inferior.
Only a few - Camus among them- rose bravely against this state of things - a state of affairs that would inevitably bring a general revolt. There had been more than a few revolts since 1830 [when Algeria was colonised]! The last one in May 1945 [exactly on the ending day of World War Two] had resulted in forty thousand Muslim casualties.
Nobody thought -the soldiers and politicians least of all - that the spate of attacks that took place on the morning of November 1st, 1954, throughout Algeria marked the beginning of a conflict that would end in independence, with France on the edge of a civil war, a new French Republic, and the return to the metropole of 800,000 "colonials".
AGAINST THE WAR
As early as December 1954, Maurice Fayolle wrote an outstanding paper (he would do many more!) in "Le Monde Libertaire" entitled "The Grapes of Wrath ripen from Tunis to Casablanca." He developed what would become the regular position of the Anarchist Federation during the 8 years of "pacification": rejection of the war, and rejection of religious ideology and nationalist movements. As Maurice Fayolle wrote:
"People of North Africa, you're right to rise up against those who enslave you. But you're wrong to do it under the aegis of a national and religious fanaticism which will generate new enslavements."
As for "Le Libertaire," it wrote on November 4th, 1954: "North Africa: one single people fighting against killer imperialism." The Libertarian Communist Federation would move towards total support of the Algerian insurrection, and then to total support of the National Liberation Front (FLN) [the main Algerian nationalist formation], a position that would disconcert many readers, and cause many seizures of the newspaper.
The act of standing libertarian communist candidates in parliamentary elections in January 1956, with the support of Andre Marty, one of the old communist leaders - infamous in the Spanish Civil War, and then expelled from the Communist Party - delivered the "deathblow" to this current. [Marty was known as "the Butcher of Albacete" because of the anarchist blood on his hands.]
For 8 years, "Le Monde Libertaire" kept fighting against the war. The "three Maurices" - Fayolle, Joyeux, Laisant - and others denounced tortures, pilloried politicians, and flayed the socialists' attitude, leading to seizures of the newspaper, and, of course, it's banning in Algeria.
The Anarchist Federation, for its part, did not remain on the sidelines. It was a member of the "Free Forces for Peace," which consisted of pacifist associations, participating in common activities as well as organising independent meetings. During one such meeting, "veterans of Indochina" broke the furniture and stole the cash before they were expelled; leaving the meeting, they threw two grenades from a car which wounded several people,
two of them seriously.
Whole nights were taken up with pasting thousands of posters and tracts were pasted, leading to activists being flattened against the walls, Tommy guns on the stomach, by nervous and racist cops, followed by a night in a police station.
On May 13th, 1958, the general government headquarters were seized by generals, colonels, and extreme right-wing groups, who supported the wealthy colonials who had pressed the "pieds-noirs" [Algerian Whites] to oppose any changes in favour of Algerian Muslims, and who had advocated a rising against the metropole since the start of the war.
It was an insurrection, but by French Algerians. The Socialist Guy Mollet called up de Gaulle, and the 4th Republic collapsed.
THE STRUGGLE GOES ON
At the initiative of Maurice Joyeux, the Anarchist Federation founded a revolutionary action committee, which was joined by the Internationalist Communist Party (Trotskyite), the Union of Steel Carpenters (CGT), and the Contact and Action Committee for Workers Democracy. Tracts, posters were published; a meeting was organised.
The revolutionary action committee participated in the May 28th, 1958, demonstration, a last-ditch struggle, where two hundred thousand demonstrated their opposition to the coup. Left-wing parties and unions were present. The revolutionary action committee had a strong and visible group, joined by many members of various organisations.
The Anarchist Federation held an extraordinary Congress in Paris on May 24-26, 1958, which passed the following resolution: "The extraordinary Congress of the Anarchist Federation ... asks its groups and its activists to make all possible efforts to fight, without mercy, the fascists backed by soldiers, who don't want to end this absurd war, which we have always denounced."
The congress urged members to strengthen relationships with the less "politicised" local resistance committees and, above all, to lead determined campaigns within the unions to prepare an immediate workers' response. "Our essential freedom lies unquestionably on the normal working and the capacities of action of democratic organisations; their defence is, for libertarians, an absolute requirement."
The 5th Republic was consolidated, and the struggle against the war in
Algeria continued, becoming more and more violent. Participants in this struggle included the Communists, some Socialists, the Christians around the newspaper "Temoignage Chrétien," many intellectuals from all sides, who wrote in magazines like "France-Observateur" and "L'Express," the extreme-left scene and, of course, the libertarians from the Anarchist Federation or elsewhere.
The "Liberte," the newspaper of Louis Lecoin, for instance, led a campaign to obtain the status of conscientious objector in the heart of the Algerian war! [Lecoin was a well-known anarchist veteran; he was granted conscientious objector status in 1962 after going on a hunger strike.] At the "Le Monde Libertaire" bookshop, on 3 rue Ternaux, Paris, the anarchists distributed banned publications like "La Question," "Pour Djamila Bouhired,"
"La Gangrene," and others.
The beginning of 1962 saw the conflict coming to an end, but violence reaching its climax. The ultra right, who had created the OAS, waged an escalating campaign against anti-war activists in Algeria and in the metropole, and its generals attempted a disgraceful putsch by April 21st, 1961. The OAS assassinated many people at this time, and March the premises of "Le Monde Libertaire" and its bookshop were completely destroyed by an OAS bomb.
There was a demonstration against the OAS on February 8th by the unions, and joined by the Communist Party and other organisations. Raging cops killed nine people. [In October 1961, hundreds of Algerians at an FLN demonstration in Paris died when Maurice Papon, head of the Paris police, ordered police to fire.]
At last, on March 18th, 1962, the Evian agreements ended the Algerian war.
DEBATES INSIDE THE ANARCHIST FEDERATION
Within the Anarchist Federation, the mainstream had taken a "classical" standpoint: struggle against the colonial war, against repression and torture, with the combatants - the Algerian FLN and the colonialist French government - seen as two sides of the same coin.
Another point of view, which I shared, was that this position was not adequate after four years of conflict, even if it fitted with the anti-nationalist principles of the libertarians. We argued that we had to take reality into account if we wanted the killing to stop, and the reality was that Muslim Algerians wanted political independence for their country, and the FLN was the force that was bound to undertake this task.
We felt that we could not simply treat the French government, and those who fought against oppressors, as one and the same, even if those fighters would, perhaps, only replace one type of exploitation with another. It has to be noted that an oppressed people always struggles to first end the foreign occupation, before it turns against its own exploiters.
In the "Internal Bulletin," #37 of May 1st, 1961, I wrote a paper, "About the 121 [Manifesto]," in response to our comrade Hem Day, who had written a paper in "Liberte," January 7th, 1961, reproduced in the "Cahiers du Pacifisme" and in issue #36 of the "Internal Bulletin" of the Anarchist Federation. Hem Day argued (among other things), in this notable paper:
"My choice between the French democracy and the government of national independence is an impossible one, as far as I am concerned, because I cannot accept the aims of either...
"So, why should I choose one camp over another? I wish for neither. "
I answered: "We reject this dilemma. If the question was simply one of choosing between Ferhat Abbas and de Gaulle, then there would, of course, be no problem. But are not choosing between two governments: we are choosing the side of the oppressed in revolt, the oppressed that, for more than a century, have been subject to ridicule and theft, and reduced to a state of dire poverty in their own country, something that must disturbs the conscience of the French people. We are on the side of those who were 'obliged' to use violence... They are not libertarians; they are waging a war of national independence. Tell me: how it could have been any other way?"
In the same "Internal Bulletin," two tracts that we had released were reproduced; they explained our position. One of them was entitled "Anarchists address Algerian revolutionaries". The other one: "It is asked of the Algerian people that its leave its revolution behind the door, like a pair of babouches" [slippers.]
It is worth recalling here that the so-called "121 Manifesto" was a "Declaration of the Right of Insubordination in the Algerian war." It was signed by 121 well-known figures from the literary, medical and union spheres. Numerous young draftees, sent to Algeria by Mendes France and Mitterrand, indeed choose to be insubordinate. Among them were libertarians.
It was mainly at the 1960 Congress of the Anarchist Federation that the Algerian question led to debate. At the end of a lengthy discussion, the congress adopted a motion proposed by the Alfortville group:
"The Alfortville group, having examined the reasons which led to the Algerian war,
"- Believes that it is only possible to end the war by acknowledging the right of Algerians to rule themselves;
"- Believes that it is not sufficient for anarchists to express Platonic wishes for an end to the conflict, or to suggest that the FLN bears equal responsibility with the French for continuing the conflict;
"In spite of the nationalism of the Algerian rebellion, which was unavoidable, we cannot stay absolutely neutral. We must increase our moral support to the fighters and get in touch with them wherever possible, which would allow us to explain that there is more at stake than building a bourgeois state.
"Therefore, we request that, in the coming weeks and months, the AF [Anarchist Federation], through 'Le Monde Libertaire' and its groups, starts a large campaign to denounce the sole responsibility of the French government in this colonial war, to awaken public opinion from its indifference in order to bring strong pressure to bear on the reactionary forces and the government to capitulate."
The text was carried in the "Internal Bulletin" of the Anarchist Federation #33, July 1960.
Twenty four thousand, six hundred and fourteen died, including twelve thousand, three hundred and eighty three professional or drafted soldiers, and three thousand, two hundred civilians in the "maintenance of law and order." That on the French side. On the Algerian side, hundreds of thousands were killed, thousands tortured, with dozens of villages burned down.
These awful figures were the consequences of the blindness, enthusiasm, stupidity, and racism of the mainstream Algerian Europeans, of soldiers, of cops, of politicians, etc. The Socialist Party added its spinelessness, and (as you are not always rewarded for betraying your principles) came close to disappearing from the political scene.
These were hard years for us activists in the Anarchist Federation. The Suez venture, the revolutions in Hungary, Cuba, Albert Camus' death [in a car crash in 1960.], the ongoing rebuilding of the Anarchist Federation.
We were, at the time, a few activists, and looking back on it, it is surprising that the Anarchist Federation could confront all of these events, and fight in each of these fights.
Fayolle wrote in "Le Monde Libertaire," March 1959: "The deaths in Algeria were deaths for nothing."
We can add: "The deaths in Indochina were deaths for nothing. The deaths in all these wars were deaths for nothing"