The Algerian War—How French Imperialism Was Defeated

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 821, 5 March 2004.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 classic, The Battle of Algiers, has recently been re-released in American theaters. Originally released during the Vietnam War, global anti-colonial revolts, and the ghetto explosions against racial oppression in America, the film was a must-see for leftists, Black Panthers and fighters for social justice. Curiously, as U.S. imperialism switched from the “shock and awe” aerial bombardment of Iraq to the brutal military occupation of Baghdad and other key cities, the Pentagon organized a private screening of The Battle of Algiers, to learn from the bloody French colonial experience in Algeria.

Pontecorvo’s film movingly depicts the utter inhumanity of the French colonial forces as they inflicted a devastating defeat on the Algerian independence fighters in the 1957 Battle of Algiers. The film then fast-forwards several years to the mass upsurges that heralded the victory of the Algerian people over French colonial rule. Unanswered by the film is the question: how, in the face of such overwhelming military might, was the Algerian national liberation movement able to prevail?

We reprint below an article by WV Editorial Board member Bruce André which outlines an answer to that question. Comrade André’s document was originally written as a contribution to an internal discussion in our party and was published by our French comrades in Le Bolchévik No. 152 (Spring 2000). This document debunks the imperialist myth that the Algerian War was a “stalemate” with no victors.

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The idea that France was not defeated in the Algerian War is the almost universally accepted “received wisdom” in France, including by much of the left. Virtually every academic history of the Algerian War explicitly states that French forces won “militarily” and that de Gaulle then “granted” independence to Algeria. Likewise, the Pabloites [the followers of the pseudo-Trotskyist Michel Pablo, whose revisionism destroyed the Fourth International by the early 1950s and is represented today by the United Secretariat (USec)] wrote at the time that the war “is ending with a ‘compromise peace’ that reflects the relationship of forces on the military terrain” (Quatrième Internationale, April 1962). This document summarizes the results of research I did in tracing the origins of that myth and the lies and distortions used by the bourgeoisie and its ideologues to further it.

The origin of the myth is easy to pinpoint, since it comes straight from Charles de Gaulle himself. The general had already been crucial to the French bourgeoisie’s myth that it had “resisted” Nazism when, in fact, it had actively rounded up French Jews to be sent to the gas chambers. Here is how de Gaulle wanted the history of Algerian independence to be told: “It is France, eternal France, who, alone in her strength, in the name of her principles and in accordance with her interests, granted it to the Algerians” (Mémoires d’Espoir, Vol. 1 [1970]).

This line has been repeated by virtually every comprehensive history of the Algerian War. The most widely read history of the war in France is journalist Yves Courrière’s four-volume La guerre d’Algérie. Courrière states that French forces won a “military victory” over the FLN (National Liberation Front), which he describes in the later years of the war as “moribund” and “at the end of its rope.” British historian Alistair Horne, in the main English-language history of the Algerian War, writes that the FLN leadership refused to “recognise military defeat and the advantages of sensible compromise” (A Savage War of Peace [1977]).

The Pabloites also embraced the myth that the FLN failed to achieve a “military victory.” Their French group wrote of the accords by which France recognized Algerian independence: “The Evian accords are...a compromise corresponding to the relation of forces and not a total overall victory of the Algerian revolution over French imperialism” (La Vérité des Travailleurs, April 1962). When an Algerian Pabloite group was set up in the mid 1970s, its first publication was a pamphlet retailing the bourgeoisie’s myths—and adding some of their own. They claimed that, during the Algerian War, there was a “total military failure of the FLN” (La crise du capitalisme d’Etat et du bonapartisme en Algérie [April 1978]) and that the Evian accords went so far in guaranteeing “imperialist interests in Algeria” that “the state structures bequeathed by colonialism were not modified in the slightest”! In its entire 62 pages, this pamphlet never hinted that, at the time, the Pabloites, politically capitulating before the Algerian nationalists, had characterized Ben Bella’s regime as a “workers and peasants government” and USec leader Michel Pablo had been a member of his government.

Actually, the myth that there was a military “stalemate” and that France then withdrew voluntarily is accepted by many Algerians—a circumstance for which Algerian nationalists are largely responsible. Here is what Ferhat Abbas, a prominent bourgeois politician who became president of the FLN’s Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), wrote of the man who was, more than any other, responsible for the deaths of more than one million Algerians, the carrying out of torture on a mass scale, and the driving of two million people—one quarter of the country’s population—into “regroupment centers” (concentration camps):

“By turning his back on ‘the spirit of empire,’ by breaking the vicious circle of the colonial concept, General de Gaulle was able to impose a solution to a problem which seemed insoluble. His courage, his lucidity, his firm determination, overcame the many obstacles in his path. He recognized our demands and the heroism of our fighters. Thus, he brought an end to the Algerian War.”

— Ferhat Abbas, Autopsie d’une guerre (1980)

Even FLN supporters who do not revere de Gaulle are blinded by nationalism to the profound social crisis that accompanied the Algerian War. At the Museum of the Army in Algiers, the dominant theme is the overwhelming disparity in firepower between the FLN and the French colonial army. Counterposed to a piece of a downed French plane and an unexploded 700 kg bomb are the FLN’s weapons—all light arms, including homemade mortars and grenades. Several displays represent the electrified fences that ran the length of the Tunisian and Moroccan borders, which prevented the FLN from bringing in artillery (which had been key to the 1954 Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu). Large paintings on the wall depict isolated groups of guerrilla fighters being destroyed by French helicopters, tanks, armored cars and artillery. It is a moving testament to those who kept up the struggle under horrendous conditions. But presenting it in this way as a purely military face-off begs the question of how the FLN was able to achieve victory over French colonialism.

Precisely that question came up at a November 1984 historians’ conference on the Algerian War sponsored by the Algerian government (see colloquium proceedings, Le retentissement de la révolution algérienne [Algiers, 1984]). There, British historian Michael Brett challenged the view that “by 1958 the French were winning, and by the end of 1959 they had effectively won,” and that de Gaulle then “withdrew” from Algeria “because he had other ideas of national grandeur.” Brett noted that “the sharp contrast” which historians have drawn “between military defeat and political victory for the F.L.N.” seemed a “paradox,” and he cautiously suggested that the explanation might be “dependent upon the course of events in France set in train by the war.” No historian took up the challenge, and none has done so since.

As in most colonial wars, the Algerian people were victorious in large part because their struggle provoked a deep social crisis in France and crushed the bourgeoisie’s will to fight. Yet that history is almost totally absent from the history books—and both the Stalinists of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Algerian nationalists contribute to the cover-up.

French and Algerian Workers in the Algerian War

The first explosion of class struggle provoked by the war was a wave of mutinies by soldiers refusing to be sent to Algeria, often backed up by workers strikes. Starting in September 1955, less than one year after the FLN’s first guerrilla attacks, and lasting until about June 1956, these protests hit dozens of French cities and towns, often involving hundreds of workers in running battles with the police.

One of the first, and largest, soldiers’ revolts took place in Rouen. On 6 October 1955, 600 soldiers bivouacked at the Richepanse barracks in Petit-Quevilly rebelled as they were to be transported to Algeria. They threw out their officers, ransacked the barracks and barricaded the entrance. The next day, dockers, railway and other workers from neighboring factories, responding to leaflets distributed by PCF youth and CGT trade unionists, struck in support of the soldiers. When riot cops tried to overrun the barracks, several thousand workers surrounded them and showered them with bricks. The fighting continued late into the night. As scores of wounded cops were carried from the scene, 60 busloads of riot police from other cities had to be rushed in as reinforcements.

By the spring of 1956, one-day strikes against the war began to hit entire cities and regions, especially in mining areas, where Algerian workers were an important component of the workforce. On April 30, striking workers demonstrating against the war shut down the mining city of Firminy for 24 hours. On May 9, 9,000 miners throughout the Loire region struck for one day against the Algerian War and for higher wages. On May 20, Saint-Julien was shut down by a one-day strike against the war. And one week later, some 10,000 miners in the coal fields of Gard in southern France struck for 24 hours, also calling for a “cease-fire” in Algeria in addition to their wage demands.

Almost the only book to even mention that unprecedented movement is the PCF’s three-volume La guerre d’Algérie (1981), edited by former Algerian Communist Party leader Henri Alleg. But Alleg cites the protests only to argue that they had nothing more than “a symbolic value,” were “of limited scope,” “often lasted a very limited time,” mobilized “often limited” forces, and were “all told, rather limited” in number. In reality, the Stalinist leaders did everything possible—as part of their support to the Socialist-led popular-front government, which was brutally escalating the war—to keep the soldier-worker revolts against their officers from becoming a conscious fight against the government, which could have opened up a revolutionary situation. The PCF’s daily L’Humanité mainly limited itself to publishing a sort of box score on the inside pages containing a terse summary of the previous day’s revolts. PCF members often learned of protests in neighboring towns only by being arrested and meeting comrades in jail.

With the working-class leaders either directly carrying out the war or supporting the government, the soldier-worker protests trailed off, but strikes over economic demands continued to skyrocket. By 1957, the number of strikes was greater than at any time since 1936, the year of the general strike (Edward Shorter and Charles Tilly, Strikes in France 1830-1968 [1974]). They included heavy participation by Algerian workers, who numbered almost half a million in France by the end of the war and represented a potential human bridge to class struggle in Algeria. Even a PCF newspaper admitted, “Algerian workers are among the most combative in the common struggles” (L’Algérien en France, October 1956).

Meanwhile, Algeria was being swept by an unprecedented wave of class struggle, especially by the powerful dockers, which several times shut down the country. (Except for some references by Alleg, this is virtually absent from all histories of the Algerian War—including those written by Algerian nationalists.) In December 1954, six weeks after the FLN’s initial guerrilla attacks, dockers in Oran—including a strong minority of workers of European origin—refused to unload arms shipments for the French military. When the Oran dockers were locked out, Algiers dockers struck in solidarity. In June 1955, French police attacked a union meeting in Philippeville (today Skikda) and arrested three union leaders, provoking a national dockers strike that shut down every port in the country for several days. In July 1956, the FLN and the newly formed FLN-led UGTA trade-union federation called a one-day general strike to mark the anniversary of the 1830 French colonial intervention. Despite the terrorist bombing of UGTA headquarters and the arrest of the entire UGTA leadership, it was the biggest strike Algeria had ever seen, clearly demonstrating the social power of that country’s proletariat, despite its relatively small size. Interestingly, this strike also mobilized a significant number of workers of European origin. Thousands of workers were fired for participating in the strike, including scores of Jewish and European-derived workers (L’Algérien en France, August 1956).

Powerful working-class struggle in Algeria continued throughout the fall of 1956. An August 10 strike by Algiers dockers against a terrorist bombing in the Casbah lasted for several days and grew into a general strike of the capital. On the 1 November 1956 anniversary of the start of the FLN uprising, a general strike called by the UGTA shut down much of the country (and was joined by Tunisian workers). Then in January 1957, the FLN initiated a catastrophic one-week general strike in an illusory (and vain) attempt to influence a scheduled United Nations debate on Algeria. Coming just after Socialist prime minister Guy Mollet had turned over full powers in Algeria to the French army (using the Special Powers Act, which had been passed with PCF support), the strike was brutally smashed. In the months-long wave of terror that followed, known as the Battle of Algiers, thousands of people were arrested, beaten and tortured. The FLN, though temporarily uprooted in the capital, would continue the guerrilla struggle in the countryside. But the UGTA was crushed. In the remaining years of the independence struggle, the Algerian working class participated in a number of national strikes called by the FLN, but only as a sector of the “people” under petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership—no longer as a separate class force with its own mass organizations.

By setting up a bonapartist regime under de Gaulle in May-June 1958, the bourgeoisie temporarily checked the social crisis in France. De Gaulle rammed through austerity measures, ripped up collective bargaining agreements, and savagely stepped up the repression in Algeria. By 1959, the French army’s vast military sweeps of the Algerian countryside had forced the FLN to break down into small, isolated units which expended much of their effort just trying to survive. This is the period when the French bourgeoisie claims it achieved “military victory.” But while the general staff constantly repeated that the war was in its “last quarter of an hour,” they denounced any suggestion of withdrawing French soldiers from Algeria as treason.

The Pabloites, adapting to the bourgeoisie’s triumphalism, proposed a “transitional solution” that deserves to be quoted at length:

“Imperialism’s interest in oil and other Saharan riches is now undeniably the basis for its desperate eagerness to keep Algeria under its effective control.

“In order to facilitate its disengagement from this position, the Algerian government could envisage, for an extended period, the setting up of a joint company to exploit the Sahara, with participation by the Algerian state, [and] French capital,...the sine qua non being that the Algerian state hold the absolute majority of shares. Furthermore, the profits of this exploitation could cover the foreseeable indemnification of the European agrarians and industrialists to be expropriated in Algeria.”

Quatrième Internationale, May 1959

This was an undisguised proposal for an explicitly capitalist neocolonialist regime in Algeria, serving as compradors for the imperialists’ plunder of the country.

Defeat of the French Bourgeoisie—De Gaulle Calls It a “Victory”

The fact that the French bourgeoisie did not suffer a single crushing defeat on the battlefield as they did at the hands of the Vietnamese in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu was a factor, of course, in allowing it to rewrite history. But that battle was almost unique in the history of anti-colonial struggles. What really gave the bourgeoisie a free hand in its myth-making was, above all, the fact that the Stalinists fully participated in the fraud. When de Gaulle first evoked the possibility of “self-determination” for Algeria in September 1959, the French Stalinists denounced it as “a maneuver” to cover a policy of “all-out war” (at the time, they were calling de Gaulle a “fascist”). But while the Kremlin bureaucracy couldn’t have cared less about the fate of Algeria, it was keenly interested in perpetuating the tensions between de Gaulle and Washington. Khrushchev seized the occasion to dramatically declare his support for de Gaulle’s position and organized an official visit to Paris. The PCF leadership was obliged to make a shamefaced self-criticism of their “error” which had “disoriented the party” (quoted in Jean Poperen, La gauche française [1972]).

Meanwhile, just as the Gaullist regime was claiming “victory” in late 1959, a wave of defeatism was beginning to engulf the bourgeoisie, as even the unparalleled savagery under de Gaulle showed no signs of bringing the anti-colonial struggle to an end. By 1960, the signs of this shift in bourgeois public opinion were unmistakable. An antiwar student movement had erupted, symbolized by the UNEF (National Union of French Students), the staid, corporatist student association, being transformed into a mass movement dominated by competing left groups. Meanwhile, the liberal intelligentsia began openly siding with the Algerian independence struggle. The September 1960 trial of a group of “suitcase carriers” (those who helped the FLN by transporting money) prompted a support declaration by 121 prominent intellectuals. Signed by an entire cross section of the country’s cultural elite—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Boulez, André Breton, Marguerite Duras, François Truffaut, Vercors—it declared that it was “justified” to carry out acts of “insubordination, desertion, as well as protection and aid to the Algerian combatants” (Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Les porteurs de valises [1979]).

In the French army, the growing demoralization of the officer corps paralleled the defeatist mood of the bourgeoisie. As one historian summarized it: “As the year 1960 progressed, certain currents of conviction in the Army were perceptibly changing.... Few officers relished the thought of relinquishing Algeria to the GPRA, but an increasingly large number realized that the end of their adventure was in sight and silently submitted to the imperative” (George Kelly, Lost Soldiers: The French Army and the Empire in Crisis, 1947-1962 [1965]). A French battalion commander wrote in a November 1960 letter: “The army has had enough! The army wants an end to the war! Of course, this refers to the army of the djebels [countryside], the fighting army, that is, the overwhelming majority and not the military bureaucracy of the chiefs-of-staff” (La Nouvelle Critique, January 1961).

Yet despite the government’s increasing vulnerability—in fact, because of it—the Stalinists and social democrats persistently sought to head off major working-class battles. The Wall Street Journal (22 November 1960) noted: “The country’s labor unions, which have shown unusual patience during the Fifth Republic’s two-and-a-half years of austerity, are preparing to press for long-deferred wage increases as soon as current tension over the Algerian crisis is abated.”

A key turn in the war came in December 1960, when de Gaulle’s tour of Algeria was met by mass demonstrations under the FLN banner. The enormous turnout—surprising even the FLN leadership—shattered de Gaulle’s hopes for a pro-French “third force” with which he could negotiate a settlement on his terms. French troops joined fascistic colons [European-derived population in Algeria] in murderous assaults on the crowds. But as the wave of demonstrations continued, de Gaulle finally ordered the army to halt the massacres. One historian summarized the significance of that order:

“The happenings of December, 1960, presaged the end of the war.... By forbidding the Army to suppress the adversary, the government had chosen to talk with him. Less than six weeks later the first meeting took place between the accredited representatives of the French government and of the provisional government of the Algerian Republic.”

— Paul-Marie de la Gorce, The French Army, A Military-Political History (1963)

Military historian George Kelly noted that the mass pro-FLN demonstrations “shook sentiment in the Army badly and dissipated the tenacious dreams of an ‘integrated’ Algeria.... The FLN had won the ‘second battle of Algiers’.”

But de Gaulle put a very different spin on it, one which historians have overwhelmingly repeated. Several days after the December 1960 pro-FLN demonstrations, de Gaulle declared that he would “consent” to Algeria “choosing its own destiny,” but only because of France’s “genius for freeing others when the time comes.” In his memoirs, he adds: “The war was practically finished. Military success had been achieved.” And: “It was not the military results obtained by the FLN which made me speak as I did.”

In April 1961, the tensions building up in French society under the pressure of the war exploded when French rank-and-file troops in Algeria mutinied en masse. This was provoked by an attempted putsch by French officers, seeking to head off negotiations with the FLN. French draftees spontaneously revolted within hours of their officers’ putsch; they took over military bases, arrested their officers, sabotaged vehicles, cut communications and refused to carry out orders. Rank-and-file troops seized the country’s main military air base in Blida, arrested the officers and reportedly raised the red flag of revolution. After driving out the paratroopers, the draftees celebrated by singing the French national anthem and the “Internationale.” Defense of the base against French elite paratroopers was assured by propping up the planes so that their machine guns pointed at the entrance gate. Meanwhile, other draftees took over the Orléans barracks in Algiers, blocked the entrance with trucks and faced down the paratroopers with arms at the ready. Units at the Ouargla air base set up self-defense committees, blocked the runway with trucks and posted guards on the approach roads.

Here, too, the bourgeoisie—with vital assistance from the Stalinists—has blotted out the historical record by cultivating a mythical version of events. In this myth, rank-and-file soldiers are said to have revolted against their officers because de Gaulle appealed directly to them for support in a radio address. It’s called the “Battle of the Transistors.” But an attentive reading of the chronology of events shows that when de Gaulle delivered his radio speech, rank-and-file troops had already been mutinying for a full two days. Journalist Henri Azeau admits this fact: “Truth obliges us to recognize that, at the moment when the head of state spoke..., most of the units of the army whose officers had not remained loyal to the republic were in open or latent revolt” (Henri Azeau, Révolte militaire: Alger, 22 avril 1961 [1962]). De Gaulle’s call on the ranks looks very much like a desperate attempt to regain control of the French army in Algeria—although no historian has stated this obvious fact.

De Gaulle’s speech gave the draftees’ revolt fresh impetus by “legitimizing” it and removing the enormous risk individual soldiers had run of being punished for sedition. Soldiers everywhere refused to go out on military maneuvers or follow orders. In the words of one of the few historians to write about this key event: “It was a time of strikes: strikes against [military] operations, against [radio] transmissions, against driving trucks” (Jean-Pierre Vittori, Nous, les appelés d’Algérie [1977]). Across Algeria, soldiers arrested officers who supported the putsch, sometimes beating them and locking them up. As Azeau noted, with the French soldiers’ revolt, “de facto solidarity was established for several days between the draftees and the Muslims” which was “born of the fact that the draftees and the Muslims found themselves for several days ‘on the same side of the barricades’.”

The importance of trade unionists and leftists in leading the soldiers’ revolt has been widely noted. But with de Gaulle’s speech, the pro-capitalist politics of the leaders came to the fore. Leaflets appeared in Algeria with the slogan, “One leader: General de Gaulle.” The cross of Lorraine, the Gaullist symbol, was painted on hangars in the occupied air bases. In France, the PCF called a “strike” (at 5 p.m.!); 12 million workers participated in the mass protests, many of them, like the miners and dockers, striking for a full day. But the Stalinists kept the slogans entirely directed against the “insubordinate generals” in Algiers, so that even the Gaullists supported the demonstrations. The illusions among rank-and-file troops in Algeria—but also the potential for linking the soldiers’ revolt in Algeria with working-class struggle by French and Algerian workers in France—were reflected in a draftee’s letter: “On the evening of Monday 24 April, our transistors were tuned to hear the magnificent protest strike.... Emotion was at its high point when the guys from Renault spoke” (Maurice Vaisse, Alger le Putsch [1983]).

The French soldiers’ revolt, coming on top of the officers’ putsch, sharply undermined the ability of the French bourgeoisie to pursue the dirty colonial war. Within a year, almost 2,000 officers were forced out of the armed forces, several elite regiments in Algeria were dissolved, others were shipped to outlying areas and deprived of enough fuel to reach Algiers. Rank-and-file soldiers streamed into police stations, offering to testify against their officers. In units throughout Algeria, soldiers refused to serve if their officers were not replaced. Arrested putsch leader General Maurice Challe declared: “The unity of the Army can now be found only in its hopelessness.”

Alistair Horne concluded: “The breaking of the army in Algeria and its subsequent demoralisation deprived de Gaulle of any tool for ‘enforcement.’... It was abundantly clear that de Gaulle had now no option but to negotiate purposefully to end the war.” Nevertheless, de Gaulle dragged out the war for yet another year, desperately proposing scheme after scheme to avoid conceding full independence—splitting off the oil-rich Sahara, creating a mini-state on the Mediterranean coast for pro-French colons—and being forced to abandon each in turn. Yet throughout all these retreats, de Gaulle assiduously cultivated the myth that France had achieved a “military victory” in Algeria. In July 1961, three months after the officers’ putsch and the rank-and-file mutiny, he still proclaimed (Mémoires):

“In Algeria, it was necessary for our army to win in the field so that we would have full freedom of our decisions and acts. This result has been attained.... Thus, France accepts without reserve that the Algerian populations institute a completely independent state.”

Lately, there have been a flurry of “balance sheets” by Algerian nationalists, tracing the roots of the regime’s obvious bankruptcy to the fact that from the start it was “bureaucratic” and “undemocratic.” This is basically the position of the Algerian Pabloites, who center their program on the suicidal illusion of pressuring the army-backed regime to institute “democracy.” But the FLN petty-bourgeois nationalists simply aspired to become the capitalist rulers of “their” country. It is a reactionary utopia to imagine that stable parliamentary democracy—or any significant bourgeois-democratic gains—can be achieved while Algeria is crushed under the boot of imperialist exploitation and plagued by poverty, national antagonisms and medieval sexual oppression. However, it was far from inevitable that the victory of the Algerian people over French colonialism would place power in the hands of the nationalists. The history of the Algerian War is a dramatic confirmation—in the negative—of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, in which the prospect of the proletariat leading all the oppressed in a revolutionary assault on the capitalist order was subverted by one thing: the crisis of proletarian leadership.

The heroic victory of the Algerian people over French colonialism is itself ample refutation of the bourgeoisie’s insolent claims to have achieved “military victory.” Yet as the “memory of the working class,” we Trotskyists of the International Communist League have the responsibility to wage a ceaseless fight against the bourgeoisie’s efforts to bury the history of struggle by the oppressed under a mountain of myths and distortions. The history of the proletariat during the Algerian War is vital because, uniquely, through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the working class can resolve the bourgeois-democratic tasks in Algeria and provide a living link between socialist revolution in Europe and the African continent. The fight to retrieve that history is part and parcel of the political fight against both the reformist leaders of the working class and bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists in the struggle to forge a revolutionary international party.

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