The death last week of Ahmed Ben Bella (surprisingly sympathetic Telegraph obit here), leader of the Algerian war against French colonialism and first president of independent Algeria, is an appropriate moment to consider the politics of ‘anti-imperialism’, particularly as applied by sections of the left to contemporary Islamism and the Israel/Palestine issue.
Above: Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 (Photo: AFP/GETTY)
Clive Bradley discussed these issues in the Decemeber 2002 issue of Workers Liberty magazine:
The Algerian war of independence, which ended in 1962, lasted eight years. It was bitter and bloody; according to some accounts, over a million people died. French colonialism considered Algeria to be part of France, although only the European settler colonists, the so-called pieds noirs, had full rights. The majority Arab and Berber population were second-class citizens facing brutal racism. The nationalist movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, (FLN), from the beginning of its military campaign launched terrorist attacks on civilian as well as military targets, and sometimes also on the French mainland (although they did not attack cafés and so on, as they did in Algeria). The French army responded with utter brutality: massacres were carried out (and then massacres in retaliation by the FLN); torture was common.
One of the scandals of the Algerian war was that the mainstream French left failed to take an internationalist stand. The Socialists formed governments which continued colonial rule and all that went with it. The Communist Party did not support the struggle for independence; at times it supported the idea of it in the abstract, but certainly it did not support the FLN. All of this was unforgivable, and was sharply criticised by more radical forces (including Trotskyists), who supported both the aim of full independence and those fighting for it.
There is no doubt that the FLN were ruthless and frequently brutal, for instance in their attacks on civilians (dramatised in the film Battle of Algiers, below).
Yet to equivocate on solidarity with them was to fail to fight oppression. Frantz Fanon, the Martinician theorist of “Third Worldism” who was closely involved in the FLN, also rightly denounced those liberals who opposed French oppression, but in the name of what it was doing, morally, to the French, rather than its Algerian victims.
The FLN, incidentally, although it had some links with Arab nationalists elsewhere, especially the Egyptian government, was more self-consciously “Islamic” than many other such movements, and the regime it installed in 1962 declared itself ”Islamic.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine do not, as yet, command the levels of support the FLN had in Algeria. But they are growing, and in principle they could eclipse Fatah (the main faction inside the PLO). They have already eclipsed the old PLO and Stalinoid left like the Popular and Democratic Fronts and the Communist Party. Even before then they had widespread support, and it seems their most dramatic contribution to the struggle, the suicide bomber, has very considerable support amongst the Palestinian masses. A generationof youth wants to be martyrs. Isn’t the basis of an internationalist stand as clear as it was for Algeria – and the same? Shouldn’t we support Hamas, defend the suicide bombers (or at least their right to do them, even if we question their tactical wisdom)? Isn’t our sharp opposition to Hamas just an abdication of revolutionary duty as bad as the failures of the French left over Algeria? (And wouldn’t this judgement be even more true of Israeli socialists?).
This is not a small matter. If Workers Liberty is wrong about Hamas, it is a very serious error. I think it is worth teasing out the ussues in some detail.
The immediately obvious distinction between Algeria and Israel/Palestine is that Hamas’ actions are not just chauvinistic towards Jews, but are aimed at the destruction of the Israeli Jewish entity. The FLN may or may not have been chauvinistic towards the French (or towards the colonists), but either way the existence of France was never in question in the Algerian revolution.
But this in itself is not, I would argue, decisive. Hamas’ attitude to the existence of Israel by itself might be be only a chauvinistic expression of Palestinian nationalism – reprehensible, no doubt, but not much of real political weight. For onething, whether Hamas would like to destroy the Israeli Jewish national entity or not, it does not possess the power to do so. Maybe some people in the FLN wanted to destroy France, whatever that might mean, but even if they did, it was outside their power to do so. Someone refusing to support the FLN against the French army on the grounds that some people in the FLN wanted to destroy France would have been odd, not because it would be reasonable to want to destroy France, but because nobody in their right mind would think it could be achieved.
Hamas’ programme has a different significance, however, because of the history of the region and because of previous attitudes towards Israel on the part of the Arab bourgeoisies (in particular on the part of the non- Palestinian Arab bourgeoisies who have armies). Also its significance depends upon an assessment of Islamism. And has an extra significance, for us, because of the attitudes of the British left. But in and of itself, that a section of the Palestinian national movement has a chauvinistic programme towards Israel, could not determine our overall attitude.
The PLO did not formally support a “two states” programme for Israel/Palestine until the late 1980s (in practice it was for two states since the 1973 war). But even when the PLO was fighting for a “democratic secular state”, i.e formally for the destruction of Israel, I think socialists could reasonably have said they “supported” the PLO. (WL did say this, and at then time we weren’t for two states either). The PLO had the support of the big majority of the Palestinian people. If there was to be any short-term settlement, it would require Israel to negotiate with the PLO. Socialists would not “support” the PLO in a more specific sense, but in the same way that we would not support any bourgeois nationalist movement,, rather than because of its programme regarding Israel. It was in a more limited sense that the PLO deserved our support – including for many of its military actions. Like the FLN, it was a bourgeois nationalist movement.
If we are right about Hamas, then, our opposition to it can’t be purely because of their programme regarding Israel.
Is making the parallel with “France” making things a bit easy for ourselves?
Well, it is not a priori, and beyond argument, that the pieds noirs in Algeria constituted a national minority whose collective rights deserved to be protected against the chauvinistic programme of the FLN. If that were the case, then terrorist attacks on cafés, massacres of civilians, etc, rather than essentially legitimate expressions of the nationalist, anti-colonial struggle, were outrageous attacks on the democratic rights of French-speaking people in Algeria.
Certainly, the pieds noirs were a sizeable population, by definition native to North Africa rather than Europe. If you can argue that the Jewish population in Palestine could be considered a nation by 1948 even though most of them were refugees, perhaps you could argue that the far more indigenous European-origin population of Algeria was a national minority.
Perhaps you could also argue that the wholehearted solidarity with the FLN advocated by the most radical voices of the day was based on a romantic, “third worldist” view of the world. In retrospect, the FLN, like other nationalist movements, had profoundly limited progressive potential. Socialist solidarity needed to emphasise the independence of the working class, and socialist organisation. (The mainstream Trotskyist movement was so enthusiastic in its support for the FLN that it saw them, like Tito, Castro, etc, as incipiently Marxist).
Is our attitude to Hamas just more hard-nosed and realistic? No these arguments do not stand up.
In Algeria, millions of Algerians were denied their right to self-determination – and denied in a particularly brutal and muderous way. (Straight after World War Two, French colonialism ushered in the new order by a dreadful massacre of Algerian nationalists. Perhaps 40,000 people were slaughtered in May 1945 in the town of Setif). Algeria was a seperate country forcibly controlled by France. The rights of a minority of colonists could not, by any democratic standard, be placed above the rights of the huge non-European majority. Moreover abstract considerations of whether or not the pieds noirs were a national minority aside, the French in Algeria did not at any point demand minority rights, or a seperate connection to France which allowed Algeria its independence. Their demand was for Algeria to remain incorporated into France – but denying the Arab and Berber majority any political rights.
In any case there was no way in which the French minority’s national rights, if you argue they had them, could be territorially expressed: they were an elite, defined by race and language, within the general population, not a territorially distinct group – in other words they were sociologically closer to the whites in South Africa than to Israeli Jews, although with even less claim to distinctness, as they considered themselves French and Algeria to be part of France…
…read the full article (there’ s plenty more!), here (pdf)