Our latest edition is out in print and online this month. Subscribe today and start reading.

The Algerian Revolution Changed the World for the Better

The Algerian struggle for freedom from French imperialism was absolutely central to the political landscape of the twentieth century. We should remember its heroic history and honor its legacy today.

A celebration to mark the independence of Algeria in the summer of 1962. (Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History)

Algeria today presents the world with a closed, distrustful face. Although its revolutionary state survived the tumultuous ruptures of the late twentieth century, it has been plagued by border conflicts, Islamist insurgencies, and, most recently, widespread youth protests. However, the legacy of the Algerian people and their liberation state is as dynamic, internationalist, and courageous as any in the world — the proud equal of a Cuba or a Vietnam in revolutionary heroics.

A century ago, Algeria stood at the heart of the French empire, as central to the French imperial project as India was to the British. Algeria was partly settled by white colons, who considered it their homeland and did not view themselves as a caste of imperial administrators. France maintained a legal fiction that Algeria was an integral part of the nation, just like any other domestic province, split from the mainland by the Mediterranean like Paris was split by the Seine.

The large majority of the Arab population had second-rate status as subjects, not citizens. Although a tiny minority were allowed to “evolve” into full French citizenship by renouncing Arab culture, in particular their Muslim faith, the majority were of no interest to the French settlers. As such, they were kept as segregated as possible and were not seen or heard from beyond their utility as domestic servants, farm laborers, or cannon fodder in times of war. Even the industrial working class in French Algeria was overwhelmingly composed of white settlers, allowing the vigorous French labor movement to remain distant from the economic destitution that blighted the majority Muslim population.

Early Nationalism

The Algerians had waged a long and furious struggle against colonization at its onset in the 1830s, but by the late nineteenth century, all traces of this resistance had been quashed. However, as in other parts of the old empires, the experience of serving in the imperial armies during World War I and II, as well as migration in and out of the industrialized heartlands, exposed Algerians to new ideological perspectives. Wilsonian liberalism, Soviet socialism, and reformist currents within Islam combined to bring about a renewed Algerian national self-consciousness.

By the 1920s, liberal currents within Algerian politics responded to Woodrow Wilson’s anti-colonial declarations and began to argue for equal citizenship and limited autonomy. However, they rapidly found themselves frustrated and persecuted, failing to find their hoped-for ally in the United States. “Wilsonian” self-determination was intended only for the white peoples of Europe. Resistance to Muslim participation in democratic life was particularly strong among the colons, who had no intention of allowing the conquered natives to coexist on equal terms.

On May 8, 1945, the day of Victory in Europe, a mass demonstration broke out in the town of Sétif. With France now liberated, the expectation was that colonial reform would follow. The colons who, during the war, had decisively sided with the Vichy fascists increased their resistance to reform of any kind, and the demonstration was met with immediate and brutal recrimination. Soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowds, triggering rioting and resulting in five days of intense repression, including the aerial bombing of nearby villages and the organization of ratonnade (rat hunt) pogroms of the local Muslim settlements, leaving up to thirty thousand people dead.

The Sétif massacre sent shock waves around the country, radicalizing the liberal independence movement. A new generation of independence leaders soon emerged from the ranks of the demobilized Muslim soldiers of the Free French Army, many of whom had served France with distinction and had no intention of returning to a life of violent subjugation in their own land.

A War on Two Fronts

The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) that then emerged was an organization that valued action over theoretical nuance, and unity over distinctiveness. On November 1, 1954, the FLN unilaterally declared war on France. The war began before the FLN had even taken concrete political shape, and the core leadership gambled on attracting immediate popular support for the struggle. It was a wager based on the desires of the FLN leadership, mostly soldiers rather than scholars, to turn ineffectual rhetoric into decisive action — and it worked.

The French reacted to the challenge as they had always done in the past: with swift, brutal repression. However, in the new international context, the old methods produced diametrically opposite results. Sensing the winds of change blowing across the colonized world, Algerians flocked to the banner of the FLN, first in their thousands, and then in their millions. The French responded with an intensified anti-insurgency campaign in which the use of torture, concentration camps, and the murder of civilians became nothing short of official policy.

The FLN were quick to recognize the importance of the new international dynamic and opened a war on two fronts. On the ground, they adopted a Leninist-Maoist party organization suitable for waging a protracted guerrilla war. They made use of assassination and terror, singling out French administrators and Muslim collaborators in particular, deliberately deepening the polarity of the conflict and forcing the population into a binary choice between sides. They also made intense use of political agitation, especially among the rural populations they relied upon for shelter and support. The FLN’s political commissars emphasized the social revolutionary aspect of the war and established the movement as a shadow state under the noses of the French. Much like the Viet Cong, from whom they drew inspiration, the FLN set about providing health care, welfare, and education services to a rural population of subsistence farming peasants.

The second front was international, with a diplomatic cadre fronted by charismatic revolutionaries like Ahmed Ben Bella. The struggle was transposed from the open bled to the debating chambers of the United Nations. Despite not yet representing a state of their own, the FLN had sent delegations to internationally significant gatherings, including the Bandung conference in Indonesia. In the United Nations, at Bandung, and elsewhere, they pressed their case to the superpowers, as well as to the great and the good of the emerging Third World, including India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

At the Center of the World

Nasser, a pan-Arabist who styled himself as the political figurehead of the whole Arab world, was particularly keen to show his support for the FLN. He, in turn, was held in high regard by the Algerians, who saw him as living proof that revolutionary self-liberation was possible in the Arab world. The Cairo-based radio Voice of the Arabs amplified FLN propaganda across the Middle East and North Africa, giving them an outsize global presence and reinforcing the legitimacy of their revolution in the eyes of Arabs and Africans everywhere.

The Egyptians also acted as a broker for arms sales to the FLN, funneling Czech, Yugoslav, and Chinese ordinance to the Algerian mujahideen. These were put to use alongside guerrilla military tactics learned from the Chinese and North Vietnamese communists, with whom the Algerians maintained close contact. Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria’s neighbors to the west and east, allowed the FLN to use their territory as bases of operations for their military high command.

Former president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Saudis, who detested Nasser, viewing him as a godless socialist and a direct threat to their own claims to leadership in the Arab world, competed to offer financial support. They also offered the use of Saudi passports with which to travel freely around the world, including to New York to attend summits of the United Nations, where the FLN set up a permanent office from which to press their claim for independent statehood.

As the savagery of the war continued to escalate, the FLN’s high-profile diplomatic team did everything in their power to keep the eyes of the world firmly focused on the conflict. Even as the military situation in the country worsened, the diplomatic pressure on France intensified and, as a result, the FLN began to place their hopes on a politically mediated end to the conflict.

Abane Ramdane, commander of the Algiers section of the front and one of the FLN’s foremost ideologues, attempted to resolve the war on two fronts by launching a spectacular, all-out insurrection in the capital city. The Battle of Algiers, though much mythologized afterward, did not have the desired effect and resulted in the near total destruction of the underground organization in the city. Ramdane, fleeing to Morocco shortly after, was assassinated by his own peers in the high command.

Even as global fascination with the Algerian struggle reached its apex, tensions were escalating within the secretive FLN leadership. Rural section commanders, camped out deep in the bled, resented the heavy losses they were expected to bear while the diplomatic campaign was waged by their rather more luxuriantly accommodated comrades. When France fortified both the Moroccan and Tunisian borders and began rounding the rural population up into resettlement camps, the ability of the armies in the field to access reinforcement and resupply was dramatically reduced. However, even as the French began to reap military advantage from these tactics, their indiscriminate violence, including the bombing of Tunisian villages across the border, stoked fresh outrage on the world stage.

The terroristic methods employed by the FLN in return were given theoretical rationale in the writings of Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a psychiatric doctor from French Martinique who, while working in Algeria, had joined the ranks of the liberation forces. Fanon eloquently framed imperialism in terms of stark racism, describing the dehumanization of the conquered people, and strongly advocated revolutionary violence as a form of mass redemption. Fanon’s views intersected with the liberation movement’s prevalent socialist and nationalist currents, to help define the ideological field of the entire Third World project.

Within the FLN camps in Morocco, Tunisia, and Mali, revolutionaries from across the African continent — including Nelson Mandela — received military and political training. Before they had even liberated their own homeland, the Algerians had already placed themselves at the center of pan-African and global Third World politics.

Tabula Rasa

In France, public opinion was war-weary. Undergoing an era of dramatic domestic economic progress, the average Frenchman was increasingly disinterested in the colonial aggrandizement of the ruling class. The diehard pied noirs (the name by which colons were often referred to) had become an embarrassing and destabilizing force in domestic politics, even attempting a coup against President Charles de Gaulle, who was elected with a democratic mandate to bring the war to a close.

In 1962, despite overwhelming military superiority in the Saharan interior, the French position collapsed. The French were caught between the FLN’s relentless diplomatic assault, which had succeeded in creating continuous urban unrest in both Algeria and in France, and a well-equipped Algerian army under the command of the ruthless Colonel Houari Boumédiène, massing behind the border fences.

Newly released from a French prison, Ahmed Ben Bella rapidly established himself as a popular and energetic national leader supported by Boumédiène and the military establishment. The war had swept away the old French colonial state along with the traditional Algerian way of life, so Ben Bella and the FLN set to work translating their revolution into a new nation state.

Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria.

Ben Bella fit perfectly into the mold of a Third World revolutionary statesman. Personally charismatic and ideologically nimble, Ben Bella committed Algeria to social revolution at home and an activist policy abroad. As the pied noirs voted with their feet and left the country in droves, their vast agricultural estates, factories, and businesses were occupied by the Arab population. Recognizing that worker control was de facto establishing itself across much of the agricultural and industrial sectors, Ben Bella kept the FLN at the crest of the revolutionary wave by formally recognizing and endorsing these popular takeovers.

The rapid transition to a fully socialized economy delighted the Soviets, who saw Algeria following in Cuban footsteps on a developmental path that bypassed capitalism altogether. It also caused great excitement among the intellectual left more broadly, who saw Ben Bella’s recognition and encouragement of popular control of industry as a fulfillment of socialism’s more democratic aspirations.

Algiers was also rapidly becoming a thriving diplomatic hub for all the revolutionary currents of the wider world. The close relationships the FLN had fostered with other liberation movements during their years of struggle were formalized, with groups like the Viet Cong, the African National Congress, and even the Black Panthers opening offices and embassies. The Algerians made no secret about aiding subversive forces across Africa, facilitating the exchange of everything from ideas to armaments. Algiers in the 1960s was a place where Arab nationalists, Angolan guerrillas, French Trotskyists, and Yugoslav diplomats passed in the streets, rubbed shoulders in cafés, and made covert assignations in hotel bars.

Endgame

On June 19, 1965, the population of free Algiers awoke to the sight of tanks on the streets. For the last several weeks the city had been gearing up to host a high-profile Afro-Asian heads of state conference. Heralded as Bandung 2, the summit would set the tone for the next phase of the world revolution in the Global South. With just days to go, even as foreign dignitaries were arriving, Boumédiène struck out against his erstwhile ally Ben Bella.

The reaction from the population was muted. The coup came as a fait accompli, with Ben Bella abducted from his humble city residence while still asleep. The highly visible military presence on the streets dissuaded any attempt at spontaneous protest.

But what exactly had happened? Despite the exuberance of the Algerian revolution, like all revolutions, it simmered with contradictions just below the surface. Ben Bella’s ambitions to foster genuine popular control of industry had faltered against the demands of state-led modernization. Peasant farmers who had only just begun to exercise genuine autonomy found themselves pushed by demands to implement rapid mechanization of production — and pulled by equally powerful demands to produce large quantities of surplus to plow back into industrial development, particularly in the oil and gas sector.

Further, the cosmopolitanism of the Ben Bella government was increasingly viewed with hostility by conservative elements in Algerian society, including within the FLN coalition itself. Although Ben Bella espoused a brand of revolutionary nationalism that claimed to harmonize the Arab identity with socialism, it was clear enough that the modernism of the regime viewed Islamism as a reactionary force to be suppressed. The foreigners who poured into the country, whether ideological fellow travelers, journalists, or representatives of the fraternal governments, were referred to contemptuously as “pied rouges,” first behind closed doors but later more openly in the conservative sections of the press. Most significantly, nationalism was taking on an increasingly xenophobic character within the ranks of the army.

The scheduled Afro-Asian summit brought these underlying tensions to a climax within the Algerian power system. From Ben Bella’s point of view, the conference would solidify his position as a truly international statesman and allow him to imprint his authority over both the Algerian revolution and his opponents within it. For Boumédiène, Algeria’s de facto second in command, it represented the last moment at which Ben Bella could be challenged before he acquired a Castro-like godhead status.

The same year Ben Bella was toppled, Kwame Nkrumah was removed from office in Ghana, and coups also felled governments in Nigeria, Congo, and several other African nations. Shortly afterward, Nasser was humiliated in the disastrous 1967 war against Israel, announcing foreclosure on the Third World’s most idealistic and pluralistic era.

Although many in the Third World feared that Boumédiène’s military coup represented a dramatic turn toward counterrevolution and Western alignment, this was not, in fact, the case. Socialization of the economy continued, but with the emphasis shifted further toward Soviet-style central planning, oriented around developing the country’s enormous hydrocarbon reserves. On the international field, Algeria remained committed to Non-Alignment, arguing forcefully at the United Nations for a global economic reconfiguration in favor of the developing world. However, even this internationalism took on increasingly statist forms, culminating in Algeria’s participation in the formation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The OPEC cartel succeeded in crippling the global economy through manipulation of crude oil pricing, inadvertently triggering the wildfire spread of neoliberalism in the suddenly deindustrializing West, but rapidly spreading to the Third World and the communist bloc.

The Algerian revolution was absolutely central to the political landscape of the mid-twentieth century. Within it, the dynamics of decolonization and the Cold War played out in a visible spectacle. Geographically at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and holding out politically between the communist and capitalist world systems, Algeria’s international status greatly surpassed what anyone expected from a war-torn country with such a small and impoverished population.

Although it has faded away from the global limelight in recent decades, it remains one of the most modern states in the Arab world, both in terms of its infrastructure and culture. Algeria’s struggle has been long and grim, but not less heroic for it.