Workers Vanguard No. 1091
3 June 2016
History of Bloody French Colonialism
The following presentation, excerpted for Workers Vanguard to focus on French imperialism’s role in the Levant (Syria and Lebanon), was given at a 7 November 2013 forum in Paris of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). The full presentation originally appeared in the LTF’s publication, Le Bolchévik No. 206, December 2013.
Our December 2012 article “Syrian Civil War: Legacy of Imperialist Divide-and-Rule” [translated from WV No. 1009, 28 September 2012] discussed the Sykes-Picot agreement. Signed secretly in 1916, the pact was between the French imperialists, represented by [François] Georges-Picot, and the British imperialists, represented by [Mark] Sykes. The two parties agreed on a plan to dismember the Near East for their mutual benefit. All of it was promptly whitewashed with humanitarian phrases and a mandate from the League of Nations, which today would be called a United Nations Security Council resolution.
French imperialism was originally supposed to get not just Lebanon and Syria, but also the oil-rich area of Mosul, which today is in Iraq, as well as an equal share in the international administration of Palestine. In the end, France only got Lebanon and Syria. What actually happened was that British troops invaded the region in 1918. Great Britain thus reinterpreted the Sykes-Picot agreement in a way that more closely corresponded to the military reality on the ground. If the British continued to negotiate with the French, it was because they were facing nationalist unrest in Ireland, Egypt and India, and because they didn’t have the means, after World War I, to open a fourth major front. So French imperialism gave up Mosul as well as its share of Palestine, but in return it got 23.75 percent of Iraq’s oil. That was the beginning of the Compagnie Française des Pétroles, which today is more widely known by the name of Total. And French imperialism became master of Syria. France was supposed to get a piece of what is now Turkey, roughly corresponding to the southwestern part of the Kurdish area, but because of the consolidation of Kemal Atatürk’s regime in Turkey, it was forced to abandon that plan.
As we have emphasized numerous times, it was the Bolsheviks who, after the victory of the revolution in Russia, published all these secret treaties. This action contributed to strengthening national liberation movements against the imperialist powers. We do not know what we will find in the safes of Quai d’Orsay [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and the Elysée Presidential Palace when the French workers take power, but we too will publish the infamous secret machinations that the Hollande government is conducting right now, and those of his predecessors.
The French occupation of Syria in 1920 was no walk in the park. Arab nationalism in Syria had already taken hold toward the end of the Ottoman rule. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, one of the sons of the Hashemite dynasty, Faisal, proclaimed himself king of Syria and a congress met in March 1920 to proclaim the country’s independence. The French launched a military expedition that chased out Faisal and the independent government. In 1921, the French had 70,000 soldiers in the Levant (Syria-Lebanon), later reduced to 15,000. The “pacification” of Syria between 1920 and 1925 would leave 6,000 dead on the side of the colonial troops, and a number far higher on the Syrian side. There was especially strong resistance in the territory dominated by the Alawite religious sect, with support from the Kemalists. This resistance was not crushed until 1921, after a Franco-Turkish agreement in which France renounced its claim to Cilicia (in southeastern Turkey).
The French imperialists, from the beginning, pursued a divide-and-rule policy that has marked Syria to this day. They split off Lebanon, combining it with a Sunni community large enough that the Maronite Christians would be eternally dependent on the imperialists for their security. They separated the Druze territory from that of the Alawites, and they granted a special status to the Alexandretta administrative district, which was 40 percent Turkish. They ended up ceding this territory to Turkey in 1939.
In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin explained that “an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony.” The history of the French Mandate is thus also, in a fundamental way, that of the rivalry between French and British imperialism. In fact the French imperialists were quite obsessed with “perfidious Albion,” whose hand they saw in all their troubles in the Levant, especially during the great revolt of 1925. These two imperialist powers could only form an alliance to prevent a third thief from muscling in on their territory or to undercut Arab nationalism, which threatened them both.
The Great Druze Revolt of 1925
Even after years of “pacification,” French imperialism was far from having permanently subdued its colonial subjects. In 1925, a great revolt broke out in the Jabal al-Druze, or Druze Mountain, in the south of the country, which won the enthusiastic support of Syrian nationalists. What must be noted here is that the French colonial abuse, which was the last straw and provoked the revolt, took place under the banner of the Cartel des Gauches [left-wing coalition] that ruled France at that time. It was a government of the bourgeois Radical Party supported by the SFIO (Socialist Party). The new high commissioner to the Levant, General Sarrail, was not a far-right nut, but rather a “progressive,” typical of the Third Republic. He was a Radical Party member and a Freemason, an anti-clericalist who aroused the hostility of the Lebanese Maronite Christian clergy.
The revolt was provoked by the heavy-handed policies of a local representative of France, a certain Captain Carbillet. He began to build roads to open up the Druze Mountain, but at that time the overwhelming majority of the population did not have vehicles. There were presumably military reasons for this sort of operation: to facilitate access for tanks and military convoys. The fact that Carbillet accomplished such tasks by resorting to forced labor, as was typical in the French colonial empire until at least 1946, did not make him a hero of modernity in the eyes of the peasants. Colonial violence against the Druze increased, but the last straw was the fact that he proclaimed himself governor of the Druze country by taking advantage of a quarrel among the leaders of a Druze clan. Sarrail, the left-winger, imprisoned the Druze dignitaries who had approached him to complain about Carbillet’s behavior.
The revolt began in July 1925 on the Druze Mountain over local claims but then spread well beyond. Circassian colonial troops committed abuses under the direction of Captain Collet, of whom I will speak later. When insurrection broke out in Damascus, French troops savagely bombarded the city in October. On 17 November 1925, L’Humanité, newspaper of the French Communist Party (PCF), reported more than 1,400 killed, including 336 women and children.
The PCF and Repression
in the Levant
It is nice to read what L’Humanité wrote at that time, especially when one compares it to today, with the PCF now a mere social-democratic shadow of its former self. Despite an information blackout in the French bourgeois media, the PCF ran articles starting in early August on “the revolt, 100 times justified, of the oppressed masses of Syria” (L’Humanité, 3 August 1925). It strongly condemned French colonial terrorism and demanded the end of the French Mandate, continually comparing it to the colonial Rif War (in northern Morocco), which was going on at practically the same time in the summer of 1925. [PCF leader] Gabriel Péri called for “mass fraternization with the oppressed in revolt” (L’Humanité, 9 August 1925). The next day, L’Humanité reported 200 French soldiers killed at Soueïda and declared:
“It is the duty of the French proletariat to use all its power to help the indigenous masses in the colonies to shake off the yoke of French imperialism. It is their duty and it is in their immediate interest, as it will spare the proletariat the blood sacrifices that capitalist society will demand.
“Just as the Syrian and Malagasy troops refused to fight their brothers from Druze Mountain on August 4 and 5, so the French soldiers, sons of workers and peasants who are or will be sent to Morocco, to Syria, and perhaps to Indochina, should refuse to fight for the imperialist enemy and should extend a fraternal hand to the oppressed of the colonies! True peace will be the result of the defeat of our imperialism.”
A lot of colonial troops were in fact used at that time. It is clear in L’Humanité’s coverage that the struggles against colonial plundering in Morocco and Syria were part of the same picture. We often cite an exemplary action by the dock workers in Marseille, who took the loads of arms they were supposed to ship to Morocco and dumped them in the sea. This heroic gesture of internationalist solidarity is a concrete example of what it means when we call for taking up the defense of a neocolonial country against imperialist intervention. The proletariat must really be mobilized for class struggle actions that can have an impact on military operations.
On the other hand, L’Humanité on 10 August 1925 polemicized against the socialists of the SFIO, who at best demanded that the French government defer to the League of Nations. As the PCF pointed out, the League of Nations would not fail to entrust France with a mandate to re-establish capitalist order.
In 1925, the fraternization that L’Humanité called for did happen, at least in a few cases. For instance, in an issue dated 25 August 1925 the newspaper salutes the “magnificent” behavior of colonial Algerian troops in Beirut. Another article (1 February 1926) reports:
“During a four-day battle in which 1,330 Druze fought against 3,800 French (Spahis [colonial cavalry] and Armenian volunteers), the battalion entrusted with defense of the Rashaya Fortress refused to continue a fratricidal struggle.
“A second battalion, sent in great haste from Riyaq, joined the first, threw down their weapons and fraternized with the Syrians.
“After three days, thanks to the landing of fresh reinforcements at Beirut, the French command finally managed to bomb the Rashaya neighborhoods, with the help of asphyxiant gas.
“These are the brutal facts, without embellishment.
“‘Fraternization’ is an idea that has come a long way; it is now becoming reality.
“The example shown by two battalions in Rashaya, refusing to fight against their oppressed brothers, will be understood.
“Now more than ever, fraternization must become one of the most effective means to stop fratricidal struggle between French proletarians and Syrian peasants!”
Undoubtedly to stamp out this sort of fraternization, French officers encouraged soldiers to loot when they didn’t do it on their own (L’Humanité, 17 November 1925 and 17 November 1926).
According to L’Humanité (20 September 1925), two million French workers (probably an exaggerated figure, but even so) declared themselves against the war in Morocco and Syria, and the PCF talked about preparing a 24-hour general strike. In fact, on October 12, a large strike took place in France against the war in Morocco, during which a worker was killed (L’Humanité, 17 October 1925).
Thus far, we have not managed to find many documents on the PCF’s work regarding the Syrian insurrection. The historian Charles-Robert Ageron wrote in one of his books that the PCF had kept a low profile around Syria compared to the Rif War, but Ageron does not provide any evidence that the PCF’s Syrian work was any different than what it did around the Rif War. A report by the PCF’s 1926 Colonial Commission indicates that it had worked very successfully within an Armenian regiment (French imperialism used a lot of Armenian and Circassian troops against the insurrection in Syria). However, after the dissolution of the regiment the PCF was unable to carry out any other work. It had established relationships with representatives of the insurrection and sought to create a legal union movement. It had relatively limited means and thought one of the main things it could do was to establish a bimonthly newspaper and distribute propaganda among the French troops.
Thus we have a leaflet in French and Arabic calling on French soldiers to fraternize and help the insurgents liberate themselves. The leaflet also addresses the colonial troops, reminding the Moroccans, Tunisians and others of their own colonial oppression in their home countries. In early 1927, a report from the Colonial Commission, I assume a report to the Communist International (CI), also indicates that the PCF was not in a position to offer material assistance to the insurgents, nor even to send a party member to serve as a liaison with the Palestinian communists. Nonetheless, this shows that they considered these questions.
The PCF’s local connections were tenuous. The Communists had to overcome the reluctance of Armenian and Arab militants to fuse into one organization and struggle against repression (18 of their comrades had been arrested, and in fact at that point the Syrian and Lebanese Communist Party had been shut down by the colonial police). Just a few words about the Syrian Communist Party. The ground was prepared for founding the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon in October 1924, when a Jewish militant from Palestine, Joseph Berger, met some young militants in Beirut. The group initially had a strong Arab Christian component, and in 1925 it fused with an Armenian youth group, the Spartak Youth, led by Artin Madoyan, who remained an important leader of the party for at least 30 years. In January 1926, the Communist Party was shut down by the colonial police and did not begin to reconstitute itself until after the amnesty in 1928.
The actions of the PCF at the time were in many respects heroic, even if they were not without political problems—for example, their perspective of a “democratic republic in all the Arab countries.” In fact, it was around this time that the Stalinists concretized their position that before struggling for socialism, it was necessary to achieve the bourgeois stage of national liberation.
By 1928 Trotsky would generalize the theory of permanent revolution, which had proven its correctness in Russia in 1917, to all countries of belated capitalist development. He emphasized that for these countries it was an illusion to seek a stage of real national liberation under capitalism. The local bourgeoisie was too weak to accomplish the tasks historically linked to classic bourgeois revolutions like the French Revolution: it would find itself squeezed between its imperialist bosses and a rising proletariat. Only the proletariat has the historic interest and the social power to take power in its own name and resolve the unresolved tasks by expropriating the bourgeoisie and struggling for the international extension of the revolution.
The 1936 General Strike
and the Popular Front
I do not have time this evening to give a detailed history of all the crimes committed by French imperialism in Syria during the bloody period of the French Mandate, but I would like to talk about an important period around 1936. In response to a period marked by particularly murderous imperialist plunder, a general strike shook the country for more than a month, from 20 January to 6 March 1936. Martial law was declared and the repression was ruthless (more than 3,000 were arrested), but French imperialism was finally forced to retreat by the determination of the Syrian masses. The nationalist leaders were freed and the French began negotiations with the nationalists of the National Bloc, which would eventually lead to signing a treaty with France in the fall.
The Popular Front was elected in France in May 1936. Though the French negotiator understood that it was in France’s interest to make some concessions, the Popular Front government led by Léon Blum remained intransigent. In particular, it refused to replace the high commissioner, de Martel. Finally a Syrian delegation to Paris put together a draft treaty with the French in mid September 1936. The treaty included a clause for the protection of religious minorities, which had been the cover for French aggression in the Levant since 1860. The French also got to keep some troops in place, within a certain framework. The nationalists prevailed, but in fact the French were stirring up trouble in the Druze and Alawite areas against the formation of an independent government in Damascus which was inevitably predominantly Sunni. Furthermore, the treaty was subject to a probationary period of three years. The French soon obtained exorbitant supplementary concessions, which were refused by the Syrian parliament, and the treaty remained a dead letter.
What is important in this story is that there are reports that the Syrian Communist Party, which had been founded more than ten years previously, supported the treaty. The PCF, and above all the Communist International, had told it to do so because in 1936 Stalin favored an alliance with the French imperialists against Hitler, even if it meant sacrificing revolution in France and the Communist parties of the colonial countries.
The striking contrast here is with the PCF’s determined struggle ten years earlier for the independence of Syria and Morocco and for the unconditional withdrawal of French troops. This change was the result of internal pressures within the PCF to become nothing more than a reformist party, and of the degeneration of the CI. In Lenin and Trotsky’s time, the CI had led the fight against the pro-colonialist positions among French Socialists. But the isolation of the Soviet Union, aggravated by the defeat of the German revolution in 1923, made it possible for a parasitic clique led by Stalin to usurp political power in the Soviet Union.
The CI was transformed little by little into an appendage of Stalinist foreign policy. After Hitler took power in 1933 without a single shot being fired, none of the CI’s parties called into question the Stalinists’ catastrophic policies in Germany. The CI’s degeneration was complete. The CI adopted the line of the popular front, which meant rejecting the independence of the working class from the capitalists by allying with bourgeois “anti-fascists.” In France, this meant uniting with the Radical Party, the historic party of the colonialist Third Republic. The PCF thus betrayed the possibility of a socialist revolution in France in 1936, and at the same time abandoned the cause of independence for Syria and for Lebanon.
The head of the Syrian CP, Khalid Bakdash, was even part of the wheeling and dealing as an advisor to the Syrian delegation that negotiated the neocolonial treaty in 1936. The most radical fringe of the nationalist movement opposed the neocolonial treaty. As a result, the Ba’ath Party emerged from this milieu little by little and became dominant among radicalized youth, with the Communist Party tailing behind. In a sense, the 1936 treachery of the PCF, which pushed for a liberal neocolonial solution to the Syrian question, prepared the rise of the Ba’ath Party and the dictatorship of the Assads, father and son.
Independence at Last
The struggle in Syria continued for several more years before independence could be wrung from the French. During World War II, the French administration in the Levant remained loyal to Vichy [the Nazi-collaborationist French regime]. The British ended up intervening militarily in the summer of 1941 to drive out the Vichy regime when their interests in Iraq were threatened by German imperialism, which was gaining strength in the region. Some of [Charles] de Gaulle’s troops were involved; this was in fact one of the only cases in which Gaullists physically fought against troops from Vichy. But, as in 1918, it was the British who had military supremacy in the Levant, and they seized the opportunity to marginalize the French.
De Gaulle, with the PCF in his pocket, fought like a lion, including against the British, to preserve French imperialism’s foothold in the Levant. To underline Gaullist intentions, Colonel Collet, the butcher of the Druze in 1925, was named representative of “Free France” in Damascus. De Gaulle had to accept more or less free elections in 1943, which resulted in pro-independence governments in Beirut and Damascus. The French high commissioner, Jean Helleu, had witnessed the crushing of the Moroccan nationalists at Meknes in May, 1934. When the Lebanese parliament ratified independence, he simply had the government imprisoned! This provoked an outcry, and the French backed down after fierce pressure from the British, who feared that the anti-colonialist upheavals might extend into their own area of influence and/or that a third thief, U.S. imperialism, would seize the opportunity to supplant them.
But the French government still kept troops in the Levant. This led to a new massacre, with Damascus once again bombarded by France in May 1945, although the war was officially over in Europe. And, just like the French massacres in Sétif and Guelma in Algeria a few weeks earlier, these massacres were committed with the complicity of the PCF, which was part of de Gaulle’s government. Independence did not go into effect until 1946, with the withdrawal of French and British troops. Syria was the first country to have successfully achieved its independence from French imperialism. Obviously the imperialist shenanigans did not stop after independence, but that is a story for another day.
The Results of the
The Mandate did not result in capitalist development in the Levant. On the contrary, it led to a constriction of economic development in the region occupied by France. Syria had been one of the most advanced regions in the Arab world and it was a cradle of nationalism. But in multiple ways, it regressed under French occupation.
At the economic level, this occupation led to the establishment of multiple customs barriers in areas where merchandise previously circulated freely, from Basra on the Persian Gulf to Sarajevo in the Balkans. Aleppo, which is the biggest city in Syria, followed by Damascus, stagnated for many years because it had been cut off from its economic hinterland, Anatolia, which had become Turkish (and with which it had historically closer relations than with Damascus). These customs barriers worked in favor of the importation of French products and ruined local semi-artisanal production. In 1913 the production of merchandise in the traditional (preindustrial) sector employed more than 300,000 people. By 1937, there were no more than 170,000. Meanwhile, only 30,000 industrial jobs had been created.
The country was crushed by taxes whose essential function was not to build schools but to finance the occupation and colonial apparatus. Moreover, the objective was explicitly for the operation to be self-financing, which is to say that the expenses incurred by French imperialism would be levied from the occupied country itself. In 1931, after more than ten years under the Mandate, only 28 percent of the population in Syria was literate and only four percent had received a secondary education. In 1932, 82 percent of women in Lebanon were illiterate.
Initially the colonialists expressed hostility to the families of large absentee landlords who comprised the core of the nationalist movement. The colonialists declared that they would carry out an agrarian reform that would make Syria into a nation of conservative small property owners in the image of France. This was a common perspective of the French Radical Party. But the reality was completely different. The banks, which were in large part financed by French capital, quickly found it safer and more profitable to lend to the large landowners, who in turn would then make loans at usurious rates to small peasant farmers. Thus, the expropriation of small peasant farmers for the profit of the large landowners quickly accelerated, contrary to the official Radical ideology. The retardation of industrial development meant that job prospects were few indeed for the exodus of people from the country to the cities.
In Algeria, the colonial regime rested on a large European community and had, at least initially, the intention of exterminating part of the Arab and Berber population. But in Syria, as in Morocco, colonial rule depended partly on relationships with prominent locals instead of an administration that was French from top to bottom. (Of course the real power in Syria also remained in the hands of the French.) This implied an alliance with some of the large Sunni property owners and the more backward rural elite, instead of the urban and educated elite.
Last but not least, there was the policy of divide and rule, which I mentioned previously, and whose effects are still being felt today. The intended purpose of this division and the protection of regional privileges was to weaken pan-Syrian nationalism as well as pan-Arab nationalism, which was potentially threatening to the French strongholds in the Maghreb.
We are unconditionally opposed to French imperialism’s neocolonial adventures, regardless of the pretext, humanitarian or otherwise, that may be invoked. Capitalism cannot be managed in any way except against the workers and the oppressed, and against the peoples of the neocolonial countries. It is not a question of electing a better president or taking to the streets to pressure the current president and the state, but rather of sweeping away the capitalist state through workers revolution. The proletariat in power, having expropriated the bourgeoisie, will struggle to extend this revolution internationally and reconstruct the world economy on the basis of rational planning. This will include particular efforts to redress the crimes of imperialism and accelerate development in the countries that until now have been retarded by the imperialist domination of the world.
I will end with a few words published in L’Humanité during the Rif War and the great Druze revolt (5 November 1925):
“Alongside the liberation movement of the colonial masses, the mass movement for the liberation of workers and peasants in France must be pursued, implacably and mercilessly, until the day when proletarians from the colonial world and proletarians from the imperialist centers exercise all their strength to form one and only one government: the government of the workers and peasants of the whole world!”