to Anti-Colonial Struggles:
Review by Andréa Schmidt
I live in a colonial state, on the edge of an imperial power engaged in occupation and neo-colonial expansion of a late capitalist variety. In this context, the need for anarchists to engage with anti-colonial struggles at home and abroad should be self-evident. In many instances, though, solidarity with anti-colonial struggles seems to imply support for the mechanisms of domination that anarchists decry. It can mean supporting movements based on nationalism or religious identity or that demand a sovereign state. And while I tend to think that the question is not one of first order importance in the current political context, the question does at some point have to be considered if not answered definitively: what concepts or premises shape anarchists’ solidarity with these movements?
French anti-authoritarians struggled with the question during the 1950s and 1960s, as the people of Indochina and Algeria fought to free themselves of French colonial rule, following the examples of Morocco and Tunisia in the preceding decades. Two recent books, Les camarades des frères: trotskistes et libertaires dans la guerre d’algérie (The Brothers’ Comrades: Trotskyists and Anti-Authoritarians in the Algerian War) by Sylvain Pattieu, and Les anarchistes français face aux guerres coloniales (1945-1962) (French Anarchists Facing the Colonial Wars (1945 - 1962)) by Sylvain Boulouque set out to describe French anti-authoritarians’ relationship to the liberation movements and participation in the wars.
The Algerian War had a particularly significant impact on French anarchists and colonial French society in general. As Boulouque describes in the initial chapters of Les camarades des frères, Algeria wasn’t simply administered and exploited by a French bureaucracy and army. Approximately 1,000,000 French colonials had settled in Algeria by the time guerrilla units of the Front de libération nationale (FLN) attacked French military posts and police stations in the early morning of November 1st, 1954. Moreover, the impoverishment of Arab and Muslim Algerians under colonial rule forced thousands to migrate to the metropolis where they were exploited in French factories, and interacted with French workers. Thus, the distance—geographic and moral—between the colonized and their colonizers was substantially less than during Indochina’s anti-colonial war. Indeed the war was ultimately fought not only in the Algerian maquis (brush-land), but in French settlers’ quarters in Algeria and in French cafés in the metropolis.
During the decades that preceded the war, Messali Hadj founded both l’Etoile nord-africaine (North African Star, 1926) and the Parti populaire algérien (Algerian People’s Party, 1930), nationalist organizations of Algerian workers that set the stage for the independence struggle. In 1947, the PPA became the Mouvement pour le triomphe des liberteés democratiques (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, MTLD). Power-struggles developed and one faction within the organization remained faithful to Messali. Another faction formed the Comité révolutionnaire d’unité et d’action (Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action, CRUA) in 1954 which in turn split several months later to form the FLN and its military organization, the Armée de libération nationale (National Liberation Army). In response, Messali founded the Movement national algerien (National Algerian Movement, MNA), an organization also oriented to armed struggle for the purpose of national liberation. The FLN and the MNA engaged in a deadly “café war” for control over the struggle for Algerian independence, in which bombings and shootings caused 5,000 casualties. By 1957, the FLN more or less predominated.
On March 12, 1956, the French government voted to give itself “special powers” to subdue the guerrilla war, which the army set about doing by means of torture and collective punishment as well as standard counterinsurgency measures. But the FLN persisted and the fighting went on, requiring that increasing numbers of French troops be sent to Algeria. Movements of draft-dodgers and conscientious objectors sprang up in France. The FLN escalated the cost of war by bringing the conflict out of the mountains and into urban centers with the Battle of Algiers in 1957, set off by the bombing of an Air France office and two other locations in the downtown center. French civilians’ support for the war waned after 1958. In spite of colonial uprisings attacking the French administration in Algeria in 1960, the Gaullist regime signed a cease-fire treaty with the FLN in 1962, thereby ending the war and granting Algeria independence. Estimates maintain that between 350,000 and one million people were killed during the eight years of the conflict.
Both Les camarades des frères and Les anarchistes français tell us more about the shifting political terrain of the far-left in France during the generation that fell between the Second World War and May 1968 than they describe the Algerian War or the national liberation movements per se. Pattieu, in Les camarades des frères, offers a detailed account of the ideological and organizational disputes that raged between various tendencies within the Parti Communiste Internationale (PCI), and that caused schism after schism within various anarchist organizations, publications and collectives.
The picture Pattieu paints of French anarchists during this period is relatively bleak, and consequently, relatively brief. The Fédération anarchiste (FA), was a synthesist group that was made up of pacifists, anarcho-communists, individualists and anarcho-syndicalists. While it condemned the repression of Algerian militants in the colony and at home in the metropolis, it was skeptical of the “progressive nature”(1) of the revolutionary forces in Algeria. In fact, it deemed the FLN to be a nationalist and bourgeois movement that, once having taken power, would go about exploiting its own proletarian class. The FA therefore published exhortations to the Algerian people to join “the only valuable struggle”: an anarchist struggle to free all men from all forms of exploitation and tyranny.(2) Pattieu observes that the FA’s wariness of the FLN was justified in many ways;(3) the FLN was a nationalist movement, and one based in a religious faith. Its leadership did ultimately want control of a state. However, the FA’s skepticism prevented it from engaging in any active form of support for the anti-colonial struggle, and with this attitude “condemn[ed] itself to passivity during the entire Algerian war.”(4) (This leaves little for Pattieu to write about the FA, and the organization drops out of sight for the last half of the book.)
The platformist Fédération communiste libertaire (FCL), in Pattieu’s assessment, was more pragmatic. It articulated an official position of “critical support” for the MNA. It also cultivated links to the small anarchist movement that existed in Algiers in 1954. And it avoided condemning the FLN. Members of the FCL, like the Trotskyists, invested real hope in what they perceived to be a workers’ revolution which they believed would spread beyond Algeria, and Pattieu suggests that in spite of their official “critical” stance, this enthusiasm prompted their more or less unconditional support for the revolution. This support seems to have mainly taken the form of propaganda: flyers, posters, and newspapers. Members of the FCL used their paper, Le Libertaire, to publish articles and communiqués in support of the anti-colonial uprisings in Algeria from 1954 onward. Consequently, the state seized issues of Le Libertaire seven times between 1954 and 1956. The five editors of the paper were repeatedly prosecuted by the Ministry of the Interior. FCL activists were detained and interrogated on numerous occasions by French police in relation to the publication. Anarcho-communist Pierre Morain, for example, was prosecuted on charges related to the distribution of pro-revolutionary flyers and to the publication of two pro-MTLD articles in Le Libertaire. As a result, he spent a year and a half in jail. Ultimately, the criminalization and surveillance of the FCL activists contributed significantly to its dissolution in 1956, well before Algerian independence.
If his account of anarchist support for the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria is accurate, Pattieu is justified in devoting most of the book to describing Trotskyist activities instead. And these were substantial. Members of the PCI of the Frank tendency, 4th Internationalists, were officially “critical” but mostly staunch supporters of the FLN. Their familiarity with printing presses permitted them to broadcast their open support for the uprisings in their newspapers—for which a number of individuals were charged and jailed in repeated government attempts to silence them. But they were also willing and sufficiently trusted by FLN leadership to undertake more clandestine tasks such as printing and distributing outlawed FLN pamphlets, printing fake IDs for FLN militants, and even setting up an FLN munitions factory in Morocco. When they were charged and jailed for their involvement in the anti-colonial struggle, Trotskyists were able to mobilize significant and effective shows of solidarity by appealing to their international branches for support.
Les anarchistes français face aux guerres coloniales doesn’t paint a radically different picture of anarchists’ capacity to support the Algerian anti-colonial struggle, but it does elaborate and offer a more nuanced account of the positions they took. As such, it provides a more thoughtful foundation for specifically anarchist theoretical musings than does Les camarades des frères read on its own. As the title suggests, the book is entirely devoted to describing French anarchists’ attitudes toward the colonial wars and anti-colonial uprisings. Boulouque cites Les anarchistes français as valuable attempt to shed some light on anti-authoritarian support for the anti-colonial movement in Algeria. But he also suggests that Pattieu fails to draw the full diversity of positions held during this period of the anti-authoritarian movement’s history because he concentrates on the activities of the FCL, thereby giving the impression that there was no anti-authoritarian participation in the anti-colonial movement after its dissolution in 1956.(5)
Boulouque sets out to correct this impression. In the first section of the book, Boulouque attempts to lay out the plurality of French anti-authoritarian (anarchist and anarcho-communist) groups active through the colonial wars. He describes the anarchist movement as made up of about 400 people spread out across the country. Small groups of anarchists tended to regroup around the FA. Many were also involved in union activities with the Confédération Nationale du Travail (CNT) or the Confédération générale du travail-syndicaliste (CGT). He briefly traces the evolution of groups through a range of ideological and organizational debates, including the synthesist versus platformist debate that raged between the FA and FCL. These debates, Boulouque maintains, contributed to the diversity of positions taken vis-à-vis the anti-colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria.
In the second and third sections of the book, Boulouque examines a wide-range of anarchist and libertarian communist broadsheets and journals. He cites them at length in order to describe the range of reactions to France’s colonial wars and to the anti-colonial movements and uprisings themselves. Boulouque ultimately arranges these anti-authoritarian reactions into three typologies, which constitutes the final and most theoretically interesting section of the book. First described is the position taken mainly by individualist anarchists, and some anarcho-syndicalists, who on the basis of their anti-statism, refused to get involved in supporting, even critically, the anti-colonial movements. Their anti-statism was reinforced in some instances by pacifism, which made them adverse to supporting armed struggle, and in others by a xenophobic version of syndicalism. The same principles that grounded their opposition to colonialism (primarily understood and rejected as a form of capitalist exploitation) and to the war make them unable to support a anti-colonial movement that in any way demonstrates a pre-state structure. “Their attitude,” writes Boulouque. “above all a moral position, makes all action impossible.”(6)
The second “ideal type” of reaction was one of unconditional support for the anti-colonial movements, which Boulouque ascribes to the FCL in their support for the MNA, and to some members of the Groupes Anarchistes d’Action Révolutionaire (GAAR) in relation to the FLN (despite of the fact that the FCL’s official stance was one of “critical support” for the anti-colonial uprisings). The FCL’s active rejection of colonialism rested on the view that it was the most severe manifestation of the logic of state rule. But more than that, the FCL’s publications suggest that its members perceived in the anti-colonial uprisings a valuable point of intersection between anti-authoritarians and anti-colonial movements. This assessment assumed a three-step model of revolution in colonial countries (overthrow the army and the government; expropriate the means of production; instate a free, communist and anarchist social order) that FCL members convinced themselves had begun in Algeria. It also relied on an idealized perception of the anti-colonial movements in both Indochina and in Algeria and the organizations that played key roles in them. It is striking and somewhat disturbing, however, that it was proponents of this position who developed and maintained the most tangible links with those movements, and who actually engaged in solidarity work at considerable risk to their own safety.
The third position Boulouque presents is that of genuinely critical support. “Critical supporters,” according to Boulouque, made up the majority of the anti-authoritarian movement, and he uses the term to describe the position taken by the Fédération anarchiste. They condemned colonialism, war, and militarism. They sympathized with the anti-colonial uprisings. But they remained wary of the religious and nationalist elements that helped fuel those uprisings, and repeatedly cautioned against them in their papers and pamphlets. On this basis, they could not maintain that the national liberation movements were revolutionary, even if they hoped that they might surpass their own goals and become truly liberatory movements capable of instantiating an anarchist social order. Thus, this position, though rhetorically supportive of the struggles of the Algerian people (if not their leaders), took a “wait and see” approach to the always concrete and immediate work of solidarity, which essentially exempted them from dirtying their hands in the war at all.
Boulouque’s effort to theorize the reasons for this “polyphony” of French anti-authoritarian responses to the anti-colonial movements in the post-war period is so brief it appears to be an afterthought to this already slender study. But it does serve to highlight a number of interesting theoretical questions raised in the course of the book: questions of the impact of generational differences on French anarchists; of theories of revolutions; of moral purity and principle versus engagement and solidarity; of the “theological” and “messianic” approach to social revolution that Boulouque perceives in a purist anarchist tradition.
The greatest limitation of Les anarchistes français is Boulouque’s methodology. The book, adapted from his Masters’ thesis, is essentially a literature review, and describes anarchists’ positions with regard to the anti-colonial struggles in Indochina and in Algeria based on a careful survey of various anarchist newspapers and periodicals published between 1945 and 1962. This is a useful strategy for uncovering the various anti-authoritarian rhetorical positions taken at that time. But it doesn’t give us much sense of what day-to-day support work for the MNA undertaken by members of the FCL was like, what compromises or reevaluations, both ideological and otherwise, it required or sparked. Nor does it allow Boulouque to broach the interesting subject of those anarchists he mentions in passing who, as individuals or in affinity groups, joined support networks for the FLN or the MNA, support networks that were sometimes included anti-authoritarians, but were often comprised of a much broader array of progressive Christians, intellectuals, and Trotskyists. People operating within these networks helped the FLN move funds and documents between the colony and the metropolis, assisted FLN militants in escaping from prison, and housed them. Because they did not have an “organization” with a paper, or because they chose roles other than that of pamphleteers, they are de facto excluded from the study. Boulouque, who bases his book on interviews with people active during that era as well as a literature and press survey, provides a more substantive and more satisfying description—at least in regard to the activities of the Trotskyist supporters of the FLN.
Both books are critical of the limitations of the anarchist positions with regard to the anti-colonial movements in Algeria. Pattieu goes so far as to say that anarchists tended to resort to slogans or apply old theoretical concepts to the new historical situation at hand, and consequently faltered when that method failed to produce an analysis that allowed them to engage the most pressing political questions of their time and place.(7) Yet neither author ventures further to ask what sort of theoretical concepts could have served as a more solid base for engagement. Restating classical anti-statist and pacifist positions was immobilizing. Appealing to a true anarchist-revolution-to-come acted as an excuse for disengagement. Idealizing anti-colonial struggles as the sparks of a global proletarian revolution was clearly inadequate for assessing the potential and the limitations of an organization like the FLN. To what concepts could French anti-authoritarians have appealed in their struggle to respond adequately to colonialism as a specific mode of domination and to ground tangible solidarity with anti-colonial struggles?
One answer to this question might lie in the notion of self-determination, a concept that has (re-) appeared to play a central role in much anarchist discourse of late. Appeals to the right to self-determination of individuals and communities seem suddenly to justify much contemporary North American anti-authoritarian and anti-colonial solidarity work. Complemented by a well-developed analysis of the ravages and rewards of colonialism and neo-colonialism, appeals to the right or the capacity for self-determination of both communities and the individuals who live in them seems to allow anarchists to ground a “critical support” for anti-colonial movements that may be based on nationalist or religious claims, that may be demanding statehood, that may even be led and manipulated by a strata of more or less power hungry elites.
The notion of self-determination is a useful one because it can be deployed to critique hierarchies and systems of domination operating on a number of levels simultaneously. It can be used to assert the right of a national liberation movement to rise up against military occupation and economic coercion. At the same time, it can take on despotic movement leadership or proto-state structures to assert the rights of the most exploited or ignored people within the community. The concept also functions a persistent reminder that it is not up to those of us extending our solidarity from the vantage point of colonial or neo-colonial centers of power to determine the best strategies and tactics for people fighting daily to resist the colonial and neo-colonial usurpation of their land, their cultures, and their freedom. As such, the concept of self-determination doesn’t allow us the comfort of watching passively from the sidelines if we opine that their strategy does not have an anti-authoritarian society as its logical conclusion or plausible end. What it might do instead, though, is privilege the possibility that there are many (bloody, winding) trajectories toward a multiplicity of free societies.