Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Algerian Revolution [Ahmed Ben Bella (25 December 1918 - 11 April 2012)]

Printed below is an excerpt from Workers and Farmers Governments Since the Second World War, an Education for Socialist bulletin published by Pathfinder Press. The bulletin contains articles by Robert Chester on the anticapitalist revolutions that established workers and farmers government in Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, and Algeria, as well as historical background drawing on the lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
In addition to the section reprinted here, Chester describes the evolution of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the emergence of a revolutionary leadership headed by Ahmed Ben Bella. In the wake of agreements with the French government, the FLN met in May 1962 and adopted a revolutionary document. That program pointed to the mass participation in the struggle against French colonialism as opening a new phase in Algerian history. Among other measures, it pointed to the need to deepen the mobilization of the masses of workers and peasants in order to carry out a sweeping agrarian reform, the nationalization of basic industry, and the widening of education throughout the country.

Reacting to a French nuclear test in the Sahara, Ben Bella issued decrees in March 1963 making permanent the status of the nationalized sector of the economy; establishing rules for the organization of worker and peasant self-management in industry, agriculture, and commerce; and stipulated how profits from the enterprises were to be distributed. Land ownership by the French was eliminated by the following October. These actions marked the emergence of a workers and farmers government in the country, Chester writes.

The author describes how the new government ran into increasing conflict with French imperialism, as well as bourgeois and petty bourgeois wings of the movement. Over the next two years, due to underdevelopment, shortages of skilled workers and administrative personnel, and indecisiveness on the part of the leadership, a stagnation of the mass struggle set in, Ben Bella's popular support declined, and the "peasantry on whose support [Ben Bella] had relied became impassive." Ben Bella was overthrown in a coup by Houari Boumedienne, the Algerian military leader, on June 19, 1965. Copyright © 1978 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


The Algerian revolution rose on the wave of a colonial upsurge that swept Asia and Africa after World War II. The first action of the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale--FLN) was a guerrilla attack on November 1, 1954 against the French in the Aures mountains of Eastern Algeria. This took place just six months after the French defeat at Dienbienphu [in Vietnam]--a defeat that accelerated the disintegration of the French colonial empire.
The economic causes for the movement were clear. In 1954 the colons (French settlers, also knows as pieds noirs) comprised only 11 percent of the population, yet they held 42 percent of the industrial jobs. Ninety percent of industrial and commercial activity was in European hands. The best agricultural areas were controlled for the most part by the colons, who owned large, modern estates.

In contrast, the Algerian people were exploited and repressed. Undernourishment was the norm for the majority of the native population. Ninety percent of the population was illiterate and only one Moslem child in ten went to school. All "dangerous" Algerian leaders were either jailed or subjected to house arrest while Algerian representation in the legislative bodies and in the civil service was of a strictly second-class character. In 1955 the independence struggle began to grow rapidly.

Against this liberation struggle, France threw the full weight of its modern army, supplied with the latest weapons from NATO. In the seven-and-a-half-year war more than 400,000 French troops--including almost two-thirds of the air force and half the navy--engaged in the war. The French also used the most refined counterinsurgency methods. In addition to planes, tanks, and naval blockade, they used electrified barriers to seal off the borders of Tunisia and Morocco, operated dragnets to isolate the rebels, and wiped out more than 8,000 villages in a scorched-earth program. They employed the most sophisticated and diabolic methods of terror, espionage, and torture in the attempt to smash the liberation movement.

Casualties were extremely high. Two-and-a-half million persons were displaced as a result of the war, and more than a million deaths were directly attributed to it. More than 300,000 orphaned children flooded the cities, while 300,000 other Algerians were driven into Tunisia and Morocco, where they became an additional base of the liberation struggle.

In spite of all these measures, the French controlled much of the country only by day. The rebels controlled half of it by night.

The war produced severe economic and political strains on an already weakened France. Its repercussions caused the downfall of the "socialist" government of Guy Mollet and the Fourth Republic, bringing the Bonapartist government of De Gaulle into power in 1958. De Gaulle saw that a military solution to the Algerian problem was not possible and he sought to resolve the conflict through a political settlement. He offered the Algerians ostensible political equality in a so-called "peace of the brave" that still maintained French hegemony over Algeria. The response of the FLN was to set up a provisional government in exile in September 1958, and step up the fight for independence.

Mass demonstrations for independence
The pieds noirs, who comprised the main base for French rule in Algeria, violently opposed any concessions. When De Gaulle offered the Algerians three choices--integration with France, independence, or independence in cooperation with France, (in each case requiring assurances that French capital would continue to play the dominant role)--the pieds noirs called for the overthrow of De Gaulle.

The FLN was far from a united organization. Among the original groups that began the liberation action, there was little agreement on policy beyond the goal of independence. There were differences between the radicals in the cities, the bourgeois nationalists under Fehat Abbas, the leaders of the feudalistic tribes, and the religious Arab intellectuals who wanted to maintain the old Islamic traditions. Even the most advanced leaders, who considered themselves socialist, spoke of socialism only in a broad general sense. They had no ties with any international tendency in the world radical movement. Ahmed Ben Bella's ideas, for example, were summed up in his statements, "I am a believer in socialism, short of Marxism," and "No socialism without Arab-ization."

The decision of the pieds noirs to engage in a bloody struggle to prevent independence created a highly explosive situation. Organized in the Organisation l'Armée Secrete (Secret Army Organization--OAS), they engaged in every form of terror, sabotage, and disruption. Their murderous attacks took hundreds of Algerian lives and intensified the bitterness that French rule had engendered.

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