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(en) The New Formulation* Vol.2, #2 - Anarchist Approaches to Anti-Colonial Struggles: French Anarchists and the Algerian War - book Review by Andrea Schmidt

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 14 Sep 2004 07:32:54 +0200 (CEST)

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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‚??alg√©rie (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 caf√©s in the

During the decades that preceded the war, Messali Hadj founded both
l‚??Etoile nord-africaine (North African Star, 1926) and the Parti
populaire alg√©rien (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‚??unit√© 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 ‚??caf√© war‚?Ě 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‚?Ě 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‚?Ě(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‚?Ě: 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.‚?Ě(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‚?Ě 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‚?Ě 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

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‚?Ě 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 fran√ßais 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-√ -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,‚?Ě writes Boulouque. ‚??above all a moral
position, makes all action impossible.‚?Ě(6)

The second ‚??ideal type‚?Ě 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 R√©volutionaire (GAAR) in
relation to the FLN (despite of the fact that the FCL‚??s official
stance was one of ‚??critical support‚?Ě 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,‚?Ě 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‚?Ě
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‚?Ě 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‚?Ě and ‚??messianic‚?Ě 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‚?Ě 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‚?Ě 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.


1. Sylvain Pattieu, Les camarades des frères: Trotskistes et
libertaires dans la guerre d‚??Alg√©rie (Paris: √?ditions Syllepse,
2002), 58.

2. Ibid., 58-59.

3. Ibid., 59.

4. Ibid., 59.

5. Sylvain Boulouque, Les anarchistes français face aux guerres
coloniales (Lyons: Atelier de création libertaire, 2003), 8.

6. Ibid., 92.

7. Ibid., 110.

* [Ed. Note: an antiauthoritarian initiative of the Anarchist studies

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