Tuesday, 10 July 2012

European Revolutionaries and Algerian Independence

European Revolutionaries and Algerian Independence, 1954-1962 by Ian Birchall

July 5 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence. National liberation was achieved after an exceptionally bitter war lasting seven-and-a-half years, though it was not recognised as a war by the French authorities, who treated Algerian combatants as criminals rather than as prisoners of war.

To commemorate the anniversary the journal Revolutionary History has produced an issue devoted to some of the activities of the brave individuals, in France and elsewhere in Europe, who gave practical support to the Algerian National Liberation Front [FLN]. Some of their story has already been told, in Martin Evans’ excellent oral history The Memory of Resistance [Berg, 1997], and in French in Hervé Hamon & Patrick Rotman, Les porteurs de valises : la résistance française à la guerre d’Algérie [Albin Michel, 1979]. But while the support networks organised by Francis Jeanson [a philosopher closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre] and Henri Curiel [an Egyptian Communist] are quite well-known, much less has been written about the revolutionary socialists and anarchists who backed the FLN from the very beginning. But as Mohammed Harbi – a highly respected historian and a leading FLN organiser in the early years of the war – has written that at the outset, “On the far left only the libertarians and the Trotskyists recognised the events of 1 November as the start of a war and showed themselves to be ready to respond to it in the name of the principles of universal socialism, in the name of internationalism.”

The role of the mainstream left was quite deplorable. It was while Guy Mollet, leader of the Socialist Party, was prime minister that the war was escalated and the number of French troops in Algeria rose to 450,000. The Communist Party, anxious to achieve a “Popular Front” alliance with the Socialist Party, caused consternation to many of its members by voting in favour of “special powers”, which gave the Minister-Resident in Algeria the right to rule by decree, and transferred police powers to the army, giving it the authority to detain and interrogate suspects. The Minister of “Justice”, François Mitterrand, took a hard line on authorising the execution of Algerian prisoners.

The total forces of the French Trotskyists and anarchists in 1954 amounted to only a few hundred. But they were dedicated individuals, and a number of the Trotskyists had experience of underground work during the German Occupation. So the FLN turned towards them for practical assistance. Those who gave practical support to the FLN were often known as “suitcase carriers”. The racism of the French police was aggravated by the war, and anyone of North African appearance was liable to be constantly stopped and searched. So people of impeccably “French” appearance transported documents and publications for them. And above all the FLN depended on money collected from Algerian workers in France, of whom there were over a quarter of a million. Again this money was transported by “suitcase carriers”. The French Trotskyists also set up a printshop for FLN publications and helped to provide forged identity papers. Later some [including the young Alain Krivine] were involved in organising jail-breaks for Algerian prisoners. The Trotskyist leader Michel Pablo helped to set up an arms factory in Morocco to manufacture weapons the FLN could not obtain elsewhere. Skilled workers were recruited from France and various other countries including Britain. Pablo himself was later jailed in the Netherlands for attempting to forge French currency for the FLN.

Despite the courage and determination of the FLN’s fighters, the FLN did not win a military victory. France finally withdrew from Algeria because the war was increasingly unacceptable to the French population. Although those actively supporting the FLN were few in number, their role in shifting the public mood was not insignificant, and they paved the way for the broader expressions of opposition towards the end of the war. And many of those radicalised by the experiences of the war played a leading role in the events of May-June 1968.

The new issue of Revolutionary History contains an English translations of several chapters from Sylvain Pattieu’s book Les Camarades des frères [The Comrades of the Brothers], which gives the first full account of the activities of the French Trotskyists and anarchists. This is based on extensive archival research and on interviews with many of the major activists. This is supplemented by a number of other documents from the period:

  A remarkable interview with Henri and Clara Benoîts, who worked at the huge Renault Billancourt car factory throughout the war, and who describe how they cooperated with FLN activists and defended them against state persecution.

 Letters from conscripts and reservists who tried to resist being sent to Algeria in 1955 and 1956.

Articles from Voix ouvrière [precursor of Lutte ouvrière] and the so-called Lambertist tendency, which supported the FLN’s rival, the Mouvement National Algérien [MNA], but which ran an effective campaign in defence of veteran Algerian leader Messali Hadj.

An account of the Socialisme ou barbarie group, whose leading writer Jean-François Lyotard [later a well-known post-modernist philosopher] wrote some penetrating critiques of the bureaucratic nature of the FLN – but also carried suitcases for the Curiel network.

There is also material about activity elsewhere in Europe. Austrian historian Fritz Keller has contributed a fascinating piece about Austrian activists who helped to organise desertions from the Foreign Legion. They were backed up by female young socialists who used a popular magazine to become pen friends of legionnaires. And John Plant writes about the Labour MP John Baird, a clandestine Trotskyist, who organised a publication and fund raising, and who got support from Tony Benn and Michael Foot.

For full details of the journal and online purchase see the Revolutionary History website

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