Solidarity: remembering Algeria and Fanon


The Algerian war of independence probably provides the starkest archetype for the kind of arguments thrown up around acts of solidarity with victims of imperialism. The war dragged on for eight years, exacting perhaps over a million Algerian dead and bringing down the French fourth republic. In France itself, resistance to the war took many forms, from letter campaigns against torture, to refusal to serve in the military, to smuggling weapons and money for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). It may be worth reviewing that experience in the context of what is happening in Iraq, Palestine, Colombia and other places whose peoples sustain determined anti-imperialist resistance against vicious military force.

Many moral and political obstacles made it hard for French citizens to define what they were prepared to do to resist the Algerian war. The French Communist Party supported the government on the 1956 vote giving the army “special powers” – in effect, blanket authorization to torture and murder Algerians at will. Religious and political opposition to the war coalesced most strongly around the routine use of horrific torture which took place both in Algeria and in France itself.

Anti-colonial critics of French opposition to the war tended to focus on that opposition’s nationalism – the war was bad because it hurt France, not because it annihilated hundreds of thousands of Algerians. For a limited number of resisters, the adoption by the French Republic of policies used against World War Two resistance by Nazi Germany – torture, massacres, concentration camps – tipped them over into active resistance on Algeria. This was a prominent defence theme when members of the resistance network organized by Francis Jeanson were arrested and tried in 1960.

Moral dilemmas, practical action

Against that defence, mainstream opinion in France argued that support for the FLN was a betrayal of French troops, especially the conscripts and reservists. Torture was glossed over as a policy inevitable when faced with “terrorist” tactics. The war was never acknowledged as such at the time by the French authorities. So Algerians arrested by the army had no protection under the Geneva Conventions. Rather like the Bush regime’s “unlawful enemy combatants”, they suffered all the savagery of the “special powers”. But in contrast to Guantanamo, US prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq and clandestine US detention centres elsewhere, individuals who survived interrogations in Algeria usually ended up in civilian courts.

The spiral of terror made it hard for most French people to sympathise with the FLN, who were thoroughly demonized in the French national media. Lack of sympathy for Algerians caused by the ferocity of FLN tactics was sharpened by the bitter civil war between the FLN and its rival the MNA. Many Algerians died in France during that power struggle. Likewise, many Algerians died during internal FLN purges in Algeria itself.

People’s solidarity response to the moral dilemmas posed by this terrifying reality varied. Tasks undertaken ran from organizing protests and public meetings against the war to providing shelter for Algerians at risk and carrying out of the country money to fund the war, collected from the Algerian immigrant community in France. Some French opponents of the war became so alienated from their own country they moved to independent Algeria, being dubbed “pieds rouges” in opposition to French Algerian settlers, the “pieds noirs”.

Fanon – relentless inquisitor

The most widely influential figure who symbolised the multi-faceted anguish of French solidarity with the cause of Algerian independence was the Martinican psychologist, Frantz Fanon. A decorated World War Two veteran, Fanon was working as a psychologist in Algeria when the war began in 1954. By 1956, he had resigned his post and moved with his French wife and their child to Tunisia. Based there, he worked for the FLN until his death from leukemia in 1961. Among many other things, his final book “The Wretched of the Earth” defined fundamental questions relevant to solidarity with movements in resistance to imperialism.

The power of Fanon’s arguments derived from his experience of and reflections on racism and its role in imperial domination. The timely cooperation of Jean Paul Sartre with its clearly dying author helped extend the reach of “The Wretched of the Earth” to a large international readership. Sartre’s preface to the book is one of his most controversial pieces of work, because he made a determined effort, unprecedented for a leading European philosopher, to put imperialist realities remorselessly from the side of a resisting, oppressed and dehumanised majority. (Subsequently his preface was repudiated by Fanon’s widow, Josie, because Sartre supported Israel during the 1967 war.)

The book made people all over the world rethink the way they defined themselves and others. For some, the emphasis on the cathartic role of violence against oppression was overstated and repulsive. For others, the work suffered too much from over-generalisation and vagueness. Still others, argued that decolonization need not be accompanied invariably by violent insurrection, as Fanon was interpreted to argue. The fundamental move Fanon made was to place the colonial oppressors at the periphery and to focus on the humanity and the revolutionary political and moral potential of their victims.

From Algeria to Iraq – doubletalk and legitimacy

In France, it was not until after six years of the Algerian war with the “Manifesto of the 121″ in 1960 that influential public figures made a collective statement of opposition in terms that recognised the primacy of the needs of Algerians. It declared the cause of the Algerian people to be the cause of all free people. It insisted on the right of individuals to refuse to serve in the army and on respect for the conscientious actions of those who helped and protected Algerians resisting French military aggression. The Manifesto caused outrage in France and made signatories targets for murder by the pro-French Algeria Secret Army Organization, the OAS.

What French governments did in Algeria is being variously repeated now by the US and its allies and their proxies in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Over the last two years United Nations forces have used brutal, colonial-style murder and terror against people in Haiti. Constant threats and menaces are sustained by the same imperialist bloc against countries, like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, that defend their national interests. Blatant intervention in countries with weak national governments is routine. International norms like the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremburg principles, human rights covenants as fundamental as that on the Rights of the Child, all have been effectively trashed.

But the criminal politicians who have wrecked those protective covenants and agreed rules declare constantly they are acting to defend the highest ideals of freedom, democracy and “civilization”. They do this at the same time as they massacre civilians and pollute targeted countries with their poisons, be it depleted uranium in Iraq or glyphosate in Colombia. In the case of depleted uranium, they know very well they are slowly murdering their own troops who use such munitions and genetically damaging those troops’ future children. Little compassion can be expected from such politicians and their military commanders for the occupied populations and none is shown. In accordance with the sadistic traditions of past colonialism, the contradiction between the rhetoric used to justify their crimes and the horrific barbarism of what they do is total .

Even so, the hypocrisy of politicans like Georeg W. Bush and Tony Blair and their colleagues is still capable of debilitating resistance in their own countries. Outright international solidarity support for the Iraqi resistance is rare, despite their legitimate fight against their country’s brutal occupation. So is such support for the FARC guerrillas fighting the narco-paramilitary government of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, although the FARC satisfy the conditions necessary for them to be recognised by national states as a legitimate party to an armed conflict. Both countries suffer terrible levels of violence that derive from deliberate policies of the United States and its allies. So does Palestine, now more than ever.

Solidarity with people resisting aggression or intervention from the US and its allies in these countries generates the same kinds of dilemmas as those facing French people during the Algerian war. Most people impelled to express that solidarity will work out for themselves what seems best to do. Sufficient normative structures, like the numerous international rights instruments, exist to provide clear guidance as to what previous generations have formulated by way of legally binding protections and remedies. That huge body of consensus implicitly condemns the terrorist aggression of the US government and its allies and legitimizes effective resistance to their crimes.

Implications for solidarity

The many varieties of conscientious resistance by individuals and networks in other conflicts, like the independence war in Algeria, are worth trying to remember and recover for solidarity purposes. Resolving contradictions between personal moral and political convictions and aggressive terrorist and interventionist policies enacted by governments and legislatures is usually painful and complicated. Working out differences and arguments, uncovering and rectifying mistakes, takes care, time and patience.

This process is made harder by the vast propaganda advantage enjoyed by governments and their collaborationist media. As in France over Algeria, criminal aggressor governments in the US and the UK have been able to set the terms in which their aggressions and interventions are defined and argued over. Even beyond the mainstream corporate media, solidarity and protest organizations commonly operate within that generally accepted framework. Non-governmental organizations necessarily do so because they aim to influence government policy by advocacy, generally assuming with little reason that their government is capable of acting in good faith.

Few people want to be accused of supporting “terrorism” which has replaced “communism” as the all purpose bogey-label applied to people resisting imperialist crimes. In the case of the FARC, they are doubly tainted as targets of both the “war on terror” and “the war on drugs”. People in solidarity can all too easily be lulled into adopting the bogus mantras of their governments, especially “democracy” or “democratic sectors” as if the words floated free of circumstances and conditions imposed by imperialist aggression and intervention. Solidarity-inspired interventions can readily assume the very characteristics of the imperialist interventions they seek to counter.

“…les zombies, c’est vous.”

Most people involved in solidarity activities find them a liberating and enriching experience that helps us realise our potential as we work in support of people elsewhere who are determined to realise theirs. Sometimes the need to define ourselves can elide into a selfish assertion of our identity. We can be all too anxious about who we can work with and glib about what we really do. So we end up trying to identify who are suitable candidates for our solidarity and defending our choices rather than focusing on tasks we can usefully carry out to reject complicity in the crimes of our governments and resist them.

That variety of narcissism is both seductive and anaesthetic. It dulls critical faculties with reveries reflecting deceptively agreeable self-portraits. Efforts at solidarity are far from immune to complacency’s all-too-human inhumanity. The self-evident fact that people in wealthy countries are better off than the people with whom they seek to demonstrate solidarity creates an inherent class relationship. The contradictions that class relation can provoke are usually compounded by the difficulty of translating assumptions from one cultural and political context to another.

When narcissism combines with the kinds of managerial structures generally adopted to mobilize resources collectively, the results can run even more deeply counter to solidarity motives. These dilemmas and contradictions are common, especially when the kind of anti-imperialist vision sketched out by writers like Frantz Fanon becomes merely ornamental. Current circumstances make his insistence on the centrality of peoples resisting imperialist aggression as vital and relevant as ever.

toni solo is an activist based in Central America – contact via www.tonisolo.net

Main sources for this article were :-

“The Memory of Resistance”, Martin Evans, Berg, 1997 (ISBN (Paperback) 1 85973 927 X) “Frantz Fanon : A Life” David Macey, Granta, 2000 (ISBN (Hardback) 1 86207 168 3) “La Force des Choses”, Simone de Beauvoir, Gallimard, 1963 (Translated as “Force of Circumstance” by Richard Howard, Penguin, 1968)

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