[ed. Originally published by MRZine on August 12, 2005 this piece is now posted on Swans, having been removed from their site due to the author's disagreement with MRZine's editorial perspectives.]
Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of "The Battle of Algiers," the film that in the late 1960's was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.
Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director's sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria's National Liberation Front. Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city's old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.
The Pentagon's showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film -- the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.
—Michael T. Kaufman, "What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?" (The New York Times, September 7, 2003.)
(Swans - April 11, 2011) At a press conference dramatized in The Battle of Algiers, the captive FLN leader Larbi Ben M'Hidi is asked what chance he has of defeating the French. He answers that it has a better chance than the French have of defeating history. M'Hidi's reply was probably lost on the Pentagon audience since every imperial power in history seems utterly convinced of its own invulnerability. The film has an entirely different significance for the left. We watch it to become inspired, all the more so at a time when Americans are facing our own version of the battle of Algiers.
Although there are real differences between Algeria and France in 1958 and the United States and Iraq today, there are a number of crucial similarities. To begin with, the Algerians saw their struggle in religious terms just as many insurgents do today. The very first communiqué of the FLN -- heard in voice-over in the film -- calls for "The restoration of the sovereign, democratic and social Algerian state, within the framework of Islamic principles." Then, as now, the outside power saw itself as rescuing people from feudal and theocratic backwardness. During the height of the battle, the FLN resorted to terror just as elements of the Iraqi insurgency are doing today. When M'Hidi was asked by a reporter at the press conference whether he thought it was "cowardly to use women's baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people," he replied:
And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.
Another important similarity is the resort to torture, justified by the colonizers as a necessary evil. Today, after the growth of human rights activism, it is more difficult to mount the same brazen and open defense that the French did. Instead, you have references to "excesses" at Abu Ghraib, always the subject of review but never abolished. Liberal Joseph Lelyveld wrote a lengthy New York Times Magazine article on June 12, 2005, that amounts to a casuistic justification of "soft torture." Sleep deprivation is okay; electrodes are not. He writes:
Here I have to admit to what may seem a moral debility. As a journalist who had reported on torture and torture victims, and who therefore thought he knew something about the subject, I was surprised that I was finding it harder than most commentators and most people I knew to take a fixed view of coercive force in interrogation.
The Battle of Algiers is a documentary-like, day-by-day, and even hour-by-hour, chronicle of the siege of the Casbah in 1958, which ended in a bloody rout of the FLN. However, just as was the case with the Tet Offensive of 1968 or the assault on Falluja in 2004, this was a pyrrhic victory. The political costs to the French far outweighed the tactical gains. As France grew isolated internationally, it found itself forced to deal with the FLN on its own terms, just as surely the United States will in Iraq.
The confrontation between the French and the FLN involves real and composite characters played nearly entirely by nonprofessionals. Director Gillo Pontecorvo once explained his preference for nonprofessionals. When he has a face in mind for a certain character, he will not rest until he finds the person who has just the right appearance. When he was meeting with studio executives during the initial stages of the filming of Burn, they proposed that Sidney Poitier play the leader of the slave revolt. Pontecorvo stood his ground and insisted that Evaristo Marquez, a Colombian cane cutter who had never seen a film before working on Burn, be cast in the role instead.
Ali La Pointe is the pivotal figure in The Battle of Algiers. He is an Algerian everyman who represents the unquenchable and violent appetite for freedom described in Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth. (Brahim Haggiag, who plays Ali La Pointe, was a peasant Pontecorvo discovered in the Algiers market.)
When we first meet him, he is operating a Three Card Monty game on the sidewalk. While being pursued by the cops, he is tripped by a young Pied Noir man. After rising to his feet, he punches him in the mouth before being hauled off to jail. There he meets members of the FLN, who recruit him. After being released, we follow him on his daily rounds of armed assaults on French cops, paratroopers, and civilians. We also see him in one of the most memorable scenes in the film. After a pimp ignores his warning to get out of the Casbah, Ali shoots him down with a machine gun concealed under his burnoose.
Ali La Pointe was a street urchin who sold gum and combs on the street before becoming a card sharp, pimp, and amateur boxer as a young adult. On his chest was the tattoo "Go forward or die" (Marche ou crève) and on his foot "Shut up." The scenes based on his arrest, incarceration, and recruitment to the FLN are faithful to his history.
So is the scene in which he is instructed to kill a French cop with an unloaded gun. When he discovers that he had been tricked, he rages at Saadi Yacef, his organizer. Yacef explains that this was the only way that it could be determined that he was not a police plant. As is not the case in Iraq today, French cops had managed to penetrate the FLN with its agents. Yacef, who survived the battle of Algiers, saluted Ali La Pointe in his memoir Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger:
I met him for the first time around the end of December 1955, in the middle of the Casbah of Algiers. I found before me a handsome brown-haired man with the build of an athlete who, without big words, made known to me his calm resolution to fight and die for the independence of the Algerian fatherland.
His first armed action in the ranks of the soldiers without uniform of the FLN took place at the beginning of 1956. It was directed against a police informant and was crowned with success.
This confirmed me in my first impression, that is, that I was dealing with a truly elite personality. I decided to take him with me and install him in my own hideout, which was situated on the rue des Abderames. I myself was already being sought by the police. Ali's presence at my side contributed to the strengthening of the security conditions of our small group of leaders.
In fact, it was he who first suggested to me the idea of a hidden passageway that would permit us, in case of alert, to rapidly find ourselves on the terraces of the houses situated near our hideout of the moment. The idea was often put into practice, and it was often its use that allowed us to escape and thus save our lives. At these moments Ali remembered all the techniques of his skill as a mason.
In the most stunning casting decision made by Pontecorvo, Saadi Yacef plays the character El-hadi Jaffar, a thinly disguised representation of Yacef himself. Yacef was one of fourteen children in the household of a Casbah baker, who began working for his father at the age of fourteen. He was released from prison as a goodwill gesture by de Gaulle in the waning days of the war of independence and became a member of the Algerian parliament and a film producer. Indeed, he is credited with the co-production of the film and suggested the project to Pontecorvo to begin with.
Although they have no lines in the film, the three female characters who set off bombs in the privileged French section of the city are crucial. After cutting their hair and donning makeup and French-style clothing, they pass undetected to their destinations.
One of the real life bombers was Zohra Drif, who -- like Yacef -- became a parliamentarian in liberated Algeria. Drif was a law student at Algiers University and the daughter of a respected cadi, or Islamic judge. During World War Two, her parents told her that Hitler's invasion of France was "God's revenge on the Frenchmen for their treatment of the Muslims." Drif was moved to take desperate action by the spectacle of the guillotining of Ahmed Zabane and Abelkader Ferradj in Barberousse Prison in Algiers, an event that was dramatized in the opening scenes of Pontecorvo's film.
When she was in high school, Drif became aware of the massacre of peaceful Algerian demonstrators in Sétif at the end of World War Two, an event that many historians describe as one of the main causes of the war of independence. In many respects, however, the Algerian revolt that began in 1954 was a continuation of a struggle that began in 1830 with the initial French colonization.
The Algerians had always been resentful of outside control. Dominated by Arabs and Berbers, who fought with each other when not confronting the invaders, it was more of a hodge-podge of tribes than a country. In 1832, the indigenous people rose up under the leadership of Abd-el-Kader, who said his leadership was a "means of uniting the great body of Moslems, of preventing dissensions among them, of according general security to all dwellers in the land, of checking all acts of lawlessness on the part of the disorderly against the well-disposed, and of driving back and overcoming the enemy who has invaded our country." His affinity with both the FLN and the Iraqi resistance is striking. In North Africa and the Middle East, nationalist struggles always tend to have a religious dimension.
It took forty years for the French to suppress the revolt. Once French rule became unchallenged, the floodgates were opened for a massive settlement of the land, including many from Alsace-Lorraine. With a settler population at its height of over one million, the national struggle in Algeria took on added complexity. Unlike Tunisia or Morocco or even Indochina, from which France had just been ejected, Algeria was viewed as a territorial extension. This meant that the battle would be much more like a civil war and would have a far more intransigent quality, not unlike Northern Ireland or Palestine.
Ferhat Abbas, who was born to a wealthy land-owning family in 1899, was one of the fathers of modern Algerian nationalism. After Léon Blum's Popular Front government failed to implement a tepid reform program for Algerian Moslems, Abbas founded a new reform-oriented party called Union Populaire Algérienne (UPA) that would serve as a training ground for FLN leaders, including Ben Bella. When Abbas became radicalized during the war of independence, he joined the FLN and became a prominent spokesman.
Abbas had a rival in Messali Hadj, a shoemaker's son born in 1898, who joined the French CP while living in France after World War One. Messali was much more of a firebrand than Abbas, a Malcolm X to Abbas's Martin Luther King Jr. As founder of the Paris-based Étoile Nord-Africaine, he inculcated a mixture of socialist and Islamic beliefs to his followers. His teachings were absorbed by the FLN leadership, despite their bitter and often violent rivalry during the war of independence. Messali quit the CP in disgust immediately after the party backed the crackdown at Sétif.
On May 8, 1945, Moslem residents of this nationalist stronghold decided to march in favor of Algerian independence. Timed to coincide with V-E Day, they hoped that a free world that had just defeated Nazism would welcome their own bid for self-determination. The demonstration called for the freeing of Messali -- now a political prisoner -- and raised the slogan "For the Liberation of the People, Long Live Free and Independent Algeria." Although it is impossible to establish who fired the first shot, the march broke down into a violent confrontation between a few armed demonstrators and a much better-armed French constabulary. Around 100 Frenchmen were killed, and the death toll for Algerians ranged from 6,000 to 45,000. The Communist ministers in de Gaulle's government supported the repression, while their Algerian comrades condemned the Moslem combatants as "Hitlerian." A party leader, despite being of Algerian ethnicity, wrote in Liberté, the party journal: "The organisers of these troubles must be swiftly and pitilessly punished, the instigators of the revolt put in front of the firing squad." Clearly, there are some antecedents here for the kind of relationship that the Iraqi CP maintained with American occupation forces.
Dogmatic Marxist hostility to the aspirations of Islamic peoples in North Africa and the Middle East has long antecedents. In a January 5, 1898, article titled "The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution," Eduard Bernstein made the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham's travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:
There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before. . . .
In its paternalistic stance toward the "backward" natives, there is a strong sense of mission around the need to eradicate all sorts of irrational religious practices. Perhaps nothing aggravated the colonizers more than the veil that shielded Algerian women from their gaze. (Although there is no explicit reference to this in The Battle of Algiers, the veil does figure as a symbol of the impenetrability of the indigenous population.) Just as was the case in Afghanistan and now in places like Falluja -- supposedly in thrall to Iraqi versions of the Taliban -- force is seen as necessary to liberate women.
In A Dying Colonialism, Franz Fanon drew attention to the colonizer’s bid to "liberate" woman:
Beneath the patrilineal pattern of Algerian society, the specialists described a structure of matrilineal essence. Arab society has often been presented by Westerners as a formal society in which outside appearances are paramount. The Algerian woman, an intermediary between obscure forces and the group, appeared in this perspective to assume a primordial importance. Behind the visible, manifest patriarchy, the more significant existence of a basic matriarchy was affirmed. The role of the Algerian mother, that of the grandmother, the aunt, and the "old woman," were inventoried and defined.
This enabled the colonial administration to define a precise political doctrine: "If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight." It is the situation of women that was accordingly taken as the theme of action. The dominant administration solemnly undertook to defend this woman, pictured as humiliated, sequestered, cloistered. . . It described the immense possibilities of woman, unfortunately transformed by the Algerian man into an inert, demonetized, indeed dehumanized object. The behavior of the Algerian was very firmly denounced and described as medieval and barbaric. With infinite science, a blanket indictment against the "sadistic and vampirish" Algerian attitude toward women was prepared and drawn up. Around the family life of the Algerian, the occupier piled up a whole mass of judgments, appraisals, reasons, accumulated anecdotes and edifying examples, thus attempting to confine the Algerian within a circle of guilt.
With all of the arrogance of the colonial administration staffed by socialists or left-leaning Gaullists like Jacques Soustelle (an acclaimed authority on the Aztecs), it was virtually impossible for the voice of the Algerian resistance to be heard. It came across as "Hitlerism" or religious backwardness. One can understand why the epithet Islamofascism is hurled about today in the same manner.
Another charge made against the FLN, and which figures heavily in Pontecorvo's film, is that of terrorism and the bombing of civilian restaurants and cafés in particular. The war in Algeria was an early version of the war on terrorism today. Of course, the outstanding contribution that Pontecorvo makes is to debunk these claims by showing that the French instigated the terror themselves. In the film, a group of cops organize themselves into a death squad, drive into the Casbah late at night, and set off a bomb that levels a tenement.
After several months of rising violence in 1957, a huge explosion rocked a building allegedly housing FLN terrorists in the Rue de Thèbes on August 10th. Three neighboring houses were also destroyed and the Algerian death toll reached seventy. No Frenchman was ever arrested for the Rue de Thèbes bombing.
This prompted Saadi Yacef to organize the bombing campaign that is dramatized so effectively in Pontecorvo's film. While it is unstinting in its representation of the human toll, the perspective is very much in line with that of French leftist supporters of the FLN. Dr. Pierre Chaulet, who was sheltering FLN leader Ramdane Abane, observed: "I see hardly any difference between the girl who places a bomb in the Milk-Bar and the French aviator who bombards a mechta [village] or who drops a napalm on a zone interdite."
There were members of the French left who saw otherwise. The most prominent of these was Albert Camus, who was born in Algeria and who identified strongly with the pied noir. It should not come as a very great surprise that Camus has become something of an icon for left intellectuals defending the war in Iraq, especially Paul Berman. This long-time supporter of U.S. foreign policy wrote Terror and Liberalism in 2003, an assault on Islamic radicalism that starts with a quote from Camus and includes a long exegesis of The Rebel.
In Camus's view, there was no such thing as an Arab "nation." For him, the salvation of Algeria was in the formation of Swiss-like cantons that would allow each nationality (Arab, French, Berber, Jew) to live in peace. The main obstacle to such an arrangement was extremism on either side. In "A Letter to an Algerian Militant" written in 1955, long before the battle of Algiers, Camus advises:
You Arabs must spare no effort to show your people that, when they kill civilian populations, terrorism not only raises justifiable doubts as to the political maturity of men capable of such acts, but also strengthens the anti-Arab elements, reinforces their arguments, and silences French liberal opinion which might find and put through some solution leading to reconciliation.
As the war intensified, so did Camus's moralizing tendencies. In an obvious political statement, the Nobel Committee named Camus in 1957. At a Stockholm press conference, an Arab student denounced him as an agent of French repression no different from paratroopers. His reply to the student was broadcast around the world:
I have always condemned the use of terror. I must also condemn a terror which is pursued blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.
Fortunately, Camus spoke for very few French intellectuals on the matter of Algeria. Jean-Paul Sartre was far more representative. Along with Simone de Beauvoir and other notables, they demanded freedom for a group of jailed activists led by Francis Jeanson, a colleague of Sartre's at Les Temps Modernes. Jeanson and a network of activists dubbed the porteurs de valise (valise carriers) transported arms, men, money, and papers for the FLN. On September 6, 1960, the day of their trial, a Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the War in Algeria was circulated by 121 French intellectuals. It stated:
For the Algerians the struggle, carried out either by military or diplomatic means, is not in the least ambiguous. It is a war of national independence. But what is its nature for the French? It's not a foreign war. The territory of France has never been threatened. But there's even more; it is carried out against men who do not consider themselves French, and who fight to cease being so. It isn't enough to say that this is a war of conquest, an imperialist war, accompanied by an added amount of racism. There is something of this in every war, and the ambiguous nature of it remains.
It should be obvious that these sentiments resonate with the antiwar movement of today. Sartre and his co-signers did not allow imperialist propaganda from muddling the real issues in 1958, just as we should not be deterred from our solidarity with the Iraqi people today, no matter the failure of the insurgency to play by the colonizer's rules.
Finally, the common thread that runs through the battle of Algiers and the occupation of Iraq today is the widespread use of torture. The Battle of Algiers begins in a torture chamber, where an FLN captive has been coerced through repeated doses of electricity to reveal the hideout of Ali La Pointe.
After the arrival of French paratroopers into Algiers, led in the film by a Colonel Mathieu presumably based on General Massu, torture is put into practice without regard for professed French democratic standards. At a press conference, Mathieu explains his procedures euphemistically:
The word "torture" doesn't appear in our orders. We've always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies. As for the FLN, they request that their members, in the event of capture, should maintain silence for twenty-four hours, and then they may talk. So, the organization has already had the time it needs to render any information useless. What type of interrogation should we choose, the one the courts use for a murder case, that drags on for months?
Henri Alleg, a journalist and French Algerian CP member (the party had reversed its earlier stance and had affiliated with the FLN), wrote about his own torture in a famous book titled The Question that was banned in France.
Alleg was arrested by paratroopers on June 12, 1957, and detained for a month in El-Biar, an Algiers suburb, where he was tortured systematically in order to reveal the names and locations of FLN militants. The Question includes an introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre that reverberates today, especially these words:
Anyway, if he accepts the Moslems as human beings, there is no sense in killing them. The need is rather to humiliate them, to crush their pride and drag them down to animal level. The body may live, but the spirit must be killed. To train, discipline and chastise; these are the words which obsess them. There is not enough room in Algeria for two kinds of human beings; they must choose the one or the other.
I am certainly not suggesting that the Algerian Europeans invented torture, nor even that they incited the authorities to practise it. On the contrary, it was the order of the day before we even noticed it. Torture was simply the expression of racial hatred. It is man himself that they want to destroy, with all his human qualities, his courage, his will, his intelligence, his loyalty -- the very qualities that the coloniser claims for himself. But if the European eventually brings himself to hate his own face, it will be because it is reflected by an Arab.
In looking at these two indissoluble partnerships, the coloniser and the colonised, the executioner and his victim, we can see that the second is only an aspect of the first. And without any doubt the executioners are not the colonisers, nor are the colonisers the executioners. These latter are frequently young men from France who have lived twenty years of their life without ever having troubled themselves about the Algerian problem. But hate is a magnetic field: it has crossed over to them, corroded them and enslaved them.
Indeed, the French anti-imperialist left was just as disgusted with the effect of the occupation on French society as by what it was doing to the Algerians. A good part of the revulsion over Abu Ghraib today has the same sort of dynamic. We are appalled that young Americans have been transformed by a decaying culture into torturers. Whether the government that is responsible for this is staffed by "socialists" like Guy Mollet or by right-wing Republicans, the effect is the same. We feel debased.
Alleg spares nothing in describing these torture sessions:
J - - , smiling all the time, dangled the clasps at the end of the electrodes before my eyes. These were little shining steel clips, elongated and toothed, what telephone engineers call 'crocodile' clips. He attached one of them to the lobe of my right ear and the other to a finger on the same side.
Suddenly, I leapt in my bonds and shouted with all my might. C -- had just sent the first electric charge through my body. A flash of lightning exploded next to my ear and I felt my heart racing. I struggled, screaming, and stiffened myself until the straps cut into my flesh. All the while the shocks controlled by C -- , magneto in hand, followed each other without interruption. Rhythmically, C -- repeated a single question, hammering out the syllables: 'Where have you been hiding?'
Alleg is now 84 and still being heard on the questions of torture and injustice. Gen. Paul Aussaresses, one of General Massu's torturing paratroopers protected by the amnesty laws of 1962 and 1967, published Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957 in 2001. This book was a defense of torture.
Anti-racist and human-rights groups as well as torture victims filed seven lawsuits for crimes against humanity but a French judge decided that Aussaresses was "merely" guilty of war crimes and pardoned him. By contrast, General Pâris de Bollardière asked to be relieved of his command in Algeria in 1957 because of his opposition to torture. For this act, he was confined to quarters for 60 days. In 1961 he retired from active duty and began to speak out against militarism, especially nuclear weapons.
The Irish Times reported on November 28, 2001:
"We put electrodes on the ears or testicles of prisoners," Aussaresses wrote. "Then we turned on the current, with varying intensity . . . The summary executions were an integral part of our task of maintaining order. No one ever asked me openly to execute someone -- it went without saying." Aussaresses recounted ordering the slaughter of 60 prisoners at one point, 100 others a week later.
Gen. Aussaresses cheerfully admits killing 24 men with his own hands -- murders covered by amnesty laws.
After Aussaresses and his publisher were charged with apologizing for war crimes, they were confronted from the witness stand by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, author of Torture: Cancer of Democracy, France and Algeria 1954-1962, and Henri Alleg. They wanted to know what ever happened to Maurice Audin, a young mathematician and Communist who was "disappeared" in 1957. When Aussaresses confessed ignorance, Alleg replied, "He was tortured in the house where Aussaresses was commander -- the idea that he doesn't know is an unbearable lie. Aussaresses knows very well who killed Maurice Audin and how."
Although The Battle of Algiers ends on a positive note, we know that the hopes of ordinary Algerians like Ali la Pointe were never fully realized. In a development that bears an eerie resemblance to the plot of Burn, the FLN emerged into a new elite whose class interests overlapped with imperialism’s.
This evolution took place because the revolution temporized with French capitalist interests. Despite the socialist rhetoric of the FLN, it never fully broke with capitalism. The Evian agreements of 1962 marked the formal end to the war of independence with France. The FLN allowed France to maintain naval and air force bases for fifteen and five years, respectively. A more insidious legacy of the colonial era, however, was the persistence of the bureaucratic machinery of the old colonial state. It was not to be smashed but preserved and modernized. Seventy-seven percent of the new Algerian state personnel holding managerial positions owed their appointments to the colonial administration. This layer was augmented by FLN officials from exile in Tunisia and Morocco whom the Evian agreements recommended be trained in France.
The state firms in Algeria that came into existence with the victory over the French became reliant on money advanced by European and American banks. Imperialism used those debts as leverage to accelerate the bourgeoisification of Algerian society. In 1975, foreign debt amounted to $504 per Algerian citizen, approximately half the per capita income of the urban population and the equivalent of the peasantry's. The World Bank has fostered Algeria's dependence on imperial powers. At the end of 1982, it agreed to fund eleven big development projects, as well as provide nearly a billion dollars for various social projects in Algeria. Private banks have also taken advantage of investment opportunities. In 1979, Sonatrach, a big state enterprise, borrowed one-half billion dollars from a consortium that included Chase, Citicorp, and United California Bank. Algeria's dependency on the United States has not only been tied to financing of major state projects. It has also been reflected in foreign trade.
After class divisions became more and more pronounced in Algeria, Islamist radicalism emerged as a response to perceived injustices in the same fashion as it has in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The government's response was to repress it out of existence.
None of this should be understood as an ex post facto excuse for colonialism. It has become fashionable in recent years to blame anti-colonial revolts for the frequently dismal conditions of newly independent countries. The Niall Fergusons of the world look back nostalgically at the British Empire and muse whether Africa would be better off ruled from the outside.
The only response to this is to deepen the revolution so that emancipation takes place on the social and economic level as well as the political level. Unless a revolution breaks with imperialism economically, it will be impossible to enjoy full national sovereignty. As Fidel Castro put it, "The anti-imperialist, socialist revolution could only be one single revolution, because there is only one revolution. That is the great dialectic truth of humanity: imperialism, and, standing against it, socialism."
Although it is entirely possible that a radical or Marxist history of Algeria exists in English, I could not find one. This article relied on a number of sources that, taken in their entirety, begin to make sense of the drama of the country featured in The Battle of Algiers. While this list is by no means authoritative, it is a reasonably decent start.
1. Henri Alleg, The Question. A good companion to this work is Gangrene, an account by five Algerian students who were tortured in France. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find outside of university libraries.
2. Edward Behr, The Algerian Problem. Despite his employment by Time Magazine in 1957, Behr is sympathetic to the Algerian cause.
3. Martin Evans, The Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the Algerian War (1954-1962). Testimony by and commentary on French support for the FLN.
4. Franz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism. Originally published in France as L'An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne.
5. Alister Horne, A Savage War of Peace. Horne's history of the Algerian war is over 600 pages and very well-written. However, it fails to pay proper attention to the motivations and activities of the rebellion at the grass roots level.
6. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Torture: Cancer of Democracy, France and Algeria 1954-1962.
7. The Marxists Internet Archives has a section on the war in Algeria that is very good. Go to www.marxists.org/history/algeria/ where you will find communiqués from the FLN, statements by the French CP, etc.
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