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(en) ALBERT CAMUS AND THE ALGERIAN LEGACY

From "esperanto" <lingvoj@mailhost.lds.co.uk>
Date Sat, 31 Jan 1998 01:54:19 +0000
Comments Authenticated sender is <lingvoj@mailhost.lds.co.uk>
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Many FREEDOM contributors have some sympathy for Camus (a kind of 
French Orwell or Hemingway). Personally I feel they dismiss Sartre 
too readily (when the split came Jean-Paul wrote to Albert: 'I valued 
our friendship and will miss it' -- too strong perhaps but 
understandable).

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ALBERT CAMUS AND THE ALGERIAN LEGACY

One of the penalties of being old is that you  are obliged to remember
people and  events that have dropped out of common  knowledge. The
excellent Ipswich Film  Theatre was showing a new print of Gillo 
Pontocorvo's 1965 film The Battle of Algiers,  and my partner was
obliged to see it again  since members of the next generation of our 
family demanded from her some explanation  of the struggle for
independence in Algeria.  

On the very next Saturday, 11th October, BBC2's Bookmark programme
devoted ninety minutes to the life and loves of Albert Camus, the
French-Algerian writer who is also the subject of a new biography,
Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd (Chatto, #20). Both occasions led
me to my old press cuttings from this joumal to discover that in
Freedom for 16th January 1960 I wrote not only the front-page report
"Tortured men and starving children of Algeria" but also on an inside
page an appreciation of Camus who died that month.  

Decades later I find the first of these reports appalling to read,
precisely because 35 years after the French government conceded
Algerian independence in 1962, the international pages of the press
has reports like that of David Hirst in The Guardian of 18th October
1997, writing from the Mitidja Plain under the "cloudless North
African sky" but now known as the "triangle of death". He explained
that: 

"It is here, on the outskirts of the capital, that the most extreme
and barbarous of Algeria's insurgents, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA),
are most strongly entrenched. Here, almost daily, they axe and burn to
death men, women and children, making what one of their commanders
reportedly described as 'offerings to God'." 

Now, all these years since Camus died in a road accident at the age of
46, there are anarchists whose first response to his name is thathe
was one of those pieds noirs opponents of Algerian independence. There
are immense ironies about this. One is that Camus was reared in
poverty. His father, who he never knew, was a farm labourer killed in
the first months of the First World War. His mother was an illiterate
and deaf Spanish immigrant who slaved as a cleaner to keep her
precious son at school. Another is that Camus was a campaigner for the
social and political equality of the Arab population in his journalism
for Alger Republicain before his critics had discovered where Algeria
was. (He had joined the French Communist Party in 1935 but was
expelled as a 'Trotskyite agitator' in 1937 because of his support for
the radical Muslim nationalist Messali Hadj.)  By 1939 he was editing
an Algerian newspaper which was first censored and then banned, and
Camus, already plagued by tuberculosis, was obliged to leave for
metropolitan France. Then, after the collapse of 1940, he went back to
North Africa, returning in 1942 to participate in, and later edit, the
clandestine paper Combat, which became an important left-wing journal
after the war.  

His series of articles Neither Victims nor Executioners appeared there
in November 1946, and I remember being thrilled by it when Dwight
Macdonald translated it in the July-August 1947 issue of Politics.
This (even though it reads in a rather dated and opaque way in the
1990s) was a repudiation of the Cold War and a refusal to take sides.
It alienated him from the French communists like Sartre, who had
concluded that it was okay to ignore Stalin's slave state since, in a
metaphysical way, the world's communist parties then represented the
future.  

Camus went on to write his most celebrated book The Plague in 1947 and
his most anarchic book The Rebel in 1951. There he claimed that all
modern revolutions have simply enlarged the power of the state, and
from this he moved on to the themes of his last gloomy novel The Fall
in 1956. In the 1950s Camus was drawn ever closer to the struggling
journals of the anarchists.  

I don't know how Olivier Todd describes this period, but the earlier
biographer, Herbert Lottman, comments on the association between Camus
and Pierre Monatte, who published Revolution Proletarienne, and with
Giovanna Berneri of Volonta, Jean Paul Samson who published Te'moins,
Maurice Joyeux of Le Libertaire and Le Monde Libertaire, and with the
Spanish exiles who produced Solidaridad Obrera until, according to
Lottman, "the paper was eventually banned by the de Gaulle government
to avoid giving offence to General Franco". In his political isolation
he had recourse to "the men and women of political movements with
which he could still sympathise, those of the far-out left, who on
their own chosen terrain were often as lonely as he was".  The new
biography was discussed very interestingly by R.W. Johnson in the
London Review of Books (16th October 1997). Johnson comes from South
Africa, where he is now director of the Helen Suzman Foundation in
Johannesburg. He reckons that it was "almost lucky" that Camus was
killed in a car crash, because he could not have borne the mass
killing that accompanied the end of the Algerian war, nor the
subsequent history. Yet he finds that Camus remains a contemporary
figure, while Sartre and the other French intellectuals of those days
do not: 

"In my own corner of Africa in the early '60s I was part of a
communist group which dreamed of armed guerrilla action to avenge the
Sharpeville massacre. We were children of the '50s and Camus was one
of our icons. Although we read The Rebel and L'Etranger, we were more
gripped by the fact that, at the other end of the continent, a similar
revolt against white minority rule was taking place but at a stage far
more advanced than our own.   We supported the FLN unconditionally -
taking its socialism seriously and disregarding its authoritarianism
when we should have done the opposite. I could say now that we were
simply unaware of the brutal measures it took to enforce its hegemony
but, had we known, we would certainly have rationalised them as
necessary. We were, however, bitterly aware of the measures taken
against the FLN ..." 

He goes on to explain that he now sees Camus as more right than wrong:


"His cause was never that of the racist pieds noirs - he had
campaigned all his life for universal suffrage and Arab emancipation.
That blending of peoples and civilisations on the North African
littoral was, despite the cruelties and deformations of colonialism, a
precious thing and the victory of the FLN destroyed it utterly. The
messianic promises of socialism, revolutionary democracy and all the
rest were simply false. Women were forced back into the veil; there
was corruption, authoritarianism, social regression and, for thirty
years, no free elections were held. The present civil war - the
aftermath - has already cost at least sixty thousand lives." 

Indeed, I find that in 1960 my obituary of Camus in Freedom quoted
from his Chronique Alge'rienne of 1958 where he observed that: 

"When violence reacts to violence with a frenzy which exacerbates and
makes impossible the simple language of reason, the role of the
intellectual cannot be to excuse from afar one of the violences and to
condemn the other. This has the double effect of working the condemned
violence up to a fury, and encouraging to further violence the
violence which has been exonerated." The meaning is clear, despite my
clumsy translation, and subsequent history around the world has shown
him to be correct.                   

Colin Ward

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