Isaac Deutscher 1960

Uneasy Allies in Algeria

Source: The Reporter, 10 November 1960. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

While the Soviet premier was busy making speeches in New York, a significant political plot was played out behind his back between Peking and Moscow. This plot has given a new turn to the controversy between the two Communist capitals, and as a result the Algerian war may well become the international crisis of 1961. Repercussions of this development reached Khrushchev in New York and accounted in part for his behaviour at the General Assembly.

Only a couple of days after Khrushchev had landed on Manhattan, Ferhat Abbas, head of the provisional government of the Algerian Republic, accompanied by several of his ministers, set out from insurgent Algeria on a journey to Peking, whither he had been invited by Premier Chou En-lai to attend the celebrations of the eleventh anniversary of the Communist victory against Chiang. On the way, Ferhat Abbas and his companions stopped in Moscow. There they were received almost like ordinary tourists. No red carpet was spread out for the Algerians, no welcoming speeches awaited them, no flowers. Even the whereabouts of Ferhat Abbas in the Soviet capital was obscure. Official Moscow, its eyes glued on reports of Khrushchev’s doings in New York, ignored the head of a dubious and tiny government and his Chinese pilgrimage. Incidentally, no Soviet bigwig attended the Peking celebrations.

On 29 September Ferhat Abbas and his party landed in Peking. At once a dizzying change occurred around them. Outlaws in their own country and ‘clandestine travellers’ in Moscow, they were welcomed at Peking airport by the Chinese premier and were cheered by large crowds. From the airport, amid the beating of drums and gongs, Ferhat Abbas and Chou En-lai rode in an open car along the flag-draped streets of Peking, where hundreds of thousands of troops, militiamen and civilians lined up to hail them. There was no end to the waving of Algerian and Chinese flags and to the beating of drums and gongs.

Another visitor in Peking was U Nu, the Burmese prime minster. His visit marked the end of the boundary dispute between his country and China, and he had arrived to sign a boundary treaty. In the absence of any top leaders from the Soviet-bloc countries, U Nu and Ferhat Abbas were to be the two principal guests of honour at the anniversary celebrations. Ferhat Abbas, however, stole the show. At the great anniversary parade on 1 October he stood at Mao Tse-tung’s right hand between Mao and Chou to receive the popular acclaim and the salutes of the armed militiamen.

This was not a matter of mere pageantry. From the moment of his arrival Ferhat Abbas found himself at the very centre of Peking’s political interest. He was closeted for hours with Mao Tse-tung and the other party leaders, and with the deputy chief of staff of the Chinese Army. He was guided all the time by the Gallicised Chou En-lai, who, as a member of the French Communist Party during the years of his exile in France, is more conversant with French-Algerian affairs than anyone else in Peking.

The Chinese were obviously attaching extraordinary importance to this visit. Many Algerian delegations had been received in the Chinese capital in the last few years and had departed with advice, supplies, medical equipment and assurances that they could count on more direct military assistance as well. (Algeria had also received such supplies and medical aid from the Soviet Union and even from Yugoslavia.) But until recently the Algerians had taken only what they wanted even though the Chinese had offered more. Ferhat Abbas was still hoping to obtain his objectives through negotiations with President de Gaulle. But since the failure of the French-Algerian talks at Melun last spring, he had been looking for fresh means towards a more vigorous prosecution of hostilities. Having been more or less cold-shouldered in Moscow, he turned to Peking.

From the moment of his arrival in China, Ferhat Abbas became involved in the controversy between Khrushchev and Mao. The Chinese made no bones about it that they considered Moscow’s Algerian policy ‘disgraceful’ and that they were going to put strong pressure on Khrushchev to change it.

The reserve which Khrushchev has until quite recently shown towards the Algerians (and which he has not altogether given up even now) has been dictated by a variety of motives. To side with Ferhat Abbas against de Gaulle was, in Khrushchev’s eyes, tantamount to driving de Gaulle into Eisenhower’s arms; and Khrushchev was more interested in playing de Gaulle against Eisenhower than in using Abbas against de Gaulle. He has also feared that any form of Communist intervention in Algeria would defeat his policy of relaxing tension. When some time ago Peking urged Moscow to grant the Abbas government de facto recognition, Moscow replied rather formalistically that this would be premature because Abbas held no definite territory under administrative control.

A Pawn in Peking: Mao and Chou En-lai decided to use the occasion of Ferhat Abbas’ visit for a concerted attack on this Khrushchevite policy and for confronting Khrushchev with certain accomplished facts. On the first day of Abbas’ visit, in a speech in his honour, Chou En-lai recalled the ‘century-old struggle of the Algerian people against French domination’ and stated:

The establishment of the provisional government of the Republic of Algeria... signifies that this struggle has entered a new phase. We are glad to see that the Algerian National Liberation Army has already freed vast areas in Algeria inhabited by more than half of its population, and has established there its own organs of state power.

This was meant to dispose publicly of the official Soviet argument against the recognition of the Abbas government. Chou went on:

This tremendous change in Algeria proves once again that a situation in which our enemies are strong while we are weak is only temporary – it is bound to become reversed. Decadent imperialism can be strong only in outward appearance; actually it is weak. Its temporary rampancy is merely a deathbed struggle.

The controversial undertone of Chou’s words made it clear that the major issue between Moscow and Peking was the evaluation of the strategic power of the West, which Moscow refused to see as being a mere ‘paper tiger’. According to Chou En-lai, then, the impotence of French arms in Algeria was just another particular illustration for the general Chinese contention that the Communist bloc need not be afraid of the military power of the West and that Khrushchev approached the ‘paper tiger of NATO’ all too timidly and feebly. The burden of Chou’s argument was that Algeria constitutes one of the West’s weakest spots and that Communism must adjust its tactics to this fact. Moscow was not prepared to accept this view, still less its implications.

Ferhat Abbas, though a mere ‘bourgeois nationalist’, found himself drawn into this inner-Communist controversary. Guided by his own interests, he sided with the Chinese against the Russians, that is, with the extreme left wing of Communism against ‘the opportunists in Moscow’.

Up to the last moment Moscow had advised the Algerians to seek a renewal of negotiations with de Gaulle. ‘In this era of the great retreat of imperialism’, it was said in Moscow, ‘when so many colonial peoples are obtaining independence, de Gaulle will have to honour his promise of self-determination for Algeria. In any case, the Algerian conflict must not be used to estrange Gaullist France from the Communist bloc and to cement the solidarity of the Atlantic Alliance.’

Abbas, acclaimed by his Chinese hosts, now countered this Soviet argument point by point: ‘To the Algerian people, suffering and dying each day, the vast controversies of the Cold War are of no interest unless they concern the real solidarity of free men...’ Unless, that is, Moscow sides openly with Algeria.

Aiming at Khrushchev’s notion of peaceful coexistence based on the international status quo, Abbas continued: ‘Similarly, peaceful coexistence is not compatible with territorial partition, with the status quo, with palliatives, and with spheres of influence that would perpetuate any form of colonial servitude.’ It was a mistake, he went on, to imagine that the war in Algeria was only a French war (as Khrushchev suggested it was). This was NATO’s war, for without American equipment and aid the French would have long since been defeated. He who wants to weaken NATO, Abbas pointed out, must strike at it in Algeria; and it was foolish to imagine (as Khrushchev imagined) that one could weaken NATO by appeasing de Gaulle. It was time to stop lulling the ‘peace-loving’ and colonial peoples with tales about the era of the retreat of imperialism, in which colonial peoples can gain independence more or less peacefully, by way of negotiations. The truth is, Abbas asserted, that Western imperialism has embarked on a great war of colonial reconquest and is waging it ‘within the framework of the Atlantic Pact’. The Algerians, he concluded, have therefore given up all idea of negotiations. Henceforth they will, on principle, refuse to parley with de Gaulle’s government. Instead they will now work for ‘the internationalisation of the Algerian conflict’.

All this fitted in well with the Chinese attitude and with Chinese arguments against Moscow’s ‘opportunism’. But what were the ways and means towards the ‘internationalisation’ of the Algerian conflict? This question loomed large in Abbas’ talks with Mao Tse-tung and the other Chinese leaders. At first Abbas had intended to press the appeal to the UN for an all-Algerian referendum conducted under UN auspices, and he had apparently received some encouragement from Moscow. This idea did not, however, commend itself to his Chinese hosts, who held that in taking this initiative Abbas might be preparing the undoing of his own government. Had he learned nothing, they asked, from Lumumba’s fate? Had not Lumumba been destroyed by the same United Nations force that he had summoned to the Congo?

Ferhat Abbas became hesitant, and the discussion proceeded to alternative methods of ‘internationalisation’. The Chinese had been ready for some time to send volunteers to Algeria, with an eye to the eventual formation of an International Brigade similar to that which fought in Spain in 1936-38. However, Khrushchev and the Soviet Presidium had vetoed this project; and unless they changed their minds, the project could not be taken up again. The main thing, then, for the Chinese was to try and force Khrushchev’s hand. But how? It was agreed in Peking that in any case Ferhat Abbas should seek to ‘spread the Algerian war’, and that he should continue to appeal to all Arab countries for direct military assistance – the Algerian struggle must be proclaimed a Pan-Arab holy war. It was further agreed that on his return journey Ferhat Abbas should stop in Moscow and openly confront the Russians with his demands.

Reports about these developments reached Khrushchev in Manhattan during the intervals between the meetings of the General Assembly.

Lecture in Moscow: On 6 October Ferhat Abbas was back in Moscow. In the course of his week in Peking he had learned to ‘speak Chinese’. ‘The hour of active solidarity has struck’ was the cry with which he left the Chinese capital and with which he arrived at the Soviet capital. ‘Active solidarity’, he explained, meant ‘total aid’ for ‘the intensification of the armed struggle in Algeria.’

In Moscow, Abbas went straight from the airport to the Tunisian embassy, where a reception was given in his honour. Of the three men who in Khrushchev’s absence have the most authority in Moscow, Mikoyan, Kozlov and Suslov, none apparently considered the reception important enough to attend; but two other members of the Presidium, AN Kosygin and DS Polyansky, were present. Ferhat Abbas made a speech that set political and diplomatic Moscow agog. He read the Presidium a sermon on revolutionary morality, the like of which no one had dared to preach in Moscow for decades.

I would like to tell you [he exclaimed passionately, turning to Kosygin and Polyansky] that the greatness and power of the Soviet Union imposes special duties on you. Until recently you were busy changing social conditions in your own country. Now it is time for the Soviet Union to turn its eyes towards those who suffer and die for freedom. You must not let the Algerian people down... The world is becoming one. No people can afford to say, ‘We are enjoying peace; the rest is of no concern to us.’ In Algeria it is hot war that is being waged.

From Algeria, he went on, the fighting may spread to the whole Mediterranean, and it may yet disrupt the peace of the world. The Russians must not imagine that they would be able to insulate themselves and go on ‘building socialism’ all for themselves: ‘I am asking the leaders of the Soviet Union to ponder deeply the Algerian problem and the fate of all colonial peoples and to help us effectively.’

The two members of the Soviet Presidium sat as if dumfounded, not knowing whether to join in the applause with which Moscow’s Arab colony greeted Abbas’ fervent plea.

In Manhattan, Khrushchev felt that he was being outflanked by Mao and Chou, and he did his best to regain the initiative. He was already aware that a shift in his own Algerian policy was overdue: just before his departure for New York he had ordered a thorough overhaul of the African department of the Soviet ministry of foreign affairs. Vague talk about the need to ‘internationalise’ the Algerian conflict had also been going on for some time. In New York, however, Belkacem Krim, Abbas’ envoy, newly arrived from Peking and Moscow, made it clear to Khrushchev that things had gone much further in Peking than he had feared, and that Mao was giving ideological battle over the Algerian issue.

Khrushchev decided to forestall and counter Mao’s moves. He announced (without, it seems, consulting the Presidium in Moscow) that the Soviet Union was recognising the provisional government of Algeria, a step he had hitherto refused to take despite strong promptings from Peking. However, the recognition was vague in form; and when the announcement reached Moscow, the Soviet foreign ministry, which was obviously taken by surprise, put the most noncommittal interpretation on the act, saying that it did not amount to normal de facto recognition but only to permission for an Algerian diplomatic agency to be installed in Moscow. Khrushchev’s next step was to adopt the slogan about ‘the internationalisation of the Algerian conflict’, but also to take some of the sting out of the slogan. While yielding on some points to pressure from Peking, Khrushchev informed Peking that he would yield no further, that the Algerians must leave the door ajar for negotiations with de Gaulle, and that this must be reflected in the joint Chinese-Algerian communiqué. At the same time Khrushchev promised Belkacem Krim to step up Soviet aid for the Algerians but left no doubt that Moscow would uphold its veto on the sending of volunteers to Algeria from the countries of the Soviet bloc.

Whether Moscow also objects to Abbas’ plan to ‘spread the war’ by pressing his appeal to all Arab states is less clear. Khrushchev may well reckon that neither Nasser nor Bourguiba would wish to respond to such an appeal, and that this lack of support from Moslem nationalists may free him from the need to take embarrassing decisions. But he can have no certainty about this. In any case, the cry for the spreading of the Algerian war, raised with new ardour from Peking, accounted for much of the feverish nervousness with which Khrushchev consulted the Algerians and the other North Africans in New York, all too evidently doing his best to please them and less evidently striving to prevent Communist policy in North Africa from getting out of Soviet control.

After Moscow: Which one will set the pace – Mao or Khrushchev? This is the question, and Khrushchev’s performance in New York may well have a bearing on the answer.

The fact that the call for a UN-sponsored referendum in Algeria has so far evoked little response in the Assembly must add to Khrushchev’s difficulties in withstanding pressure for more radical forms of pro-Algerian action. Also, since he has failed to achieve any of his proposed changes in the organisation of the United Nations, he will find it hard to argue against the Chinese, who have always viewed it as a ‘mere tool of American imperialism’, that the Algerian conflict should be put under UN jurisdiction. The distinct possibility of the spread of the Algerian war must have been at the back of Khrushchev’s mind during the latter part of his stay in New York, when he so often startled the Assembly by references to the danger of war, references that to his audience sounded gratuitous and overdramatic.

Until Khrushchev’s departure from New York, official Moscow remained confused and bewildered about the ‘new line’ on Algeria. In vain did Abbas try to pin down the Russians about further aid and the mode of diplomatic recognition. All that Moscow’s officialdom knew was that they could no longer treat the Algerian with the condescension they had shown him before the latest turn of events. When Abbas was taking his leave of Moscow, on 10 October, the red carpet was unrolled at last, but rather sparingly and grudgingly. Kosygin, who attended the farewell ceremony on behalf of the government, assured the Algerians of Soviet sympathy for their ‘heroic struggle’, but he did not go beyond such laconic generalities. It was left to Abbas, in his farewell address, to interpret expansively the meaning of Khrushchev’s statement on recognition, to remind the Russians of promises of aid, to restate that the Algerians were fighting against NATO and not just against the French, and to proclaim once again that ‘peaceful coexistence is unthinkable without the final liquidation of all colonial rule’. The Russians did not adopt these formulas officially. But Abbas left Moscow in the knowledge that henceforth he could appeal against Soviet half-heartedness to Chinese militancy.

Algeria is clearly going to claim much of Khrushchev’s attention in coming weeks and months. It is already the focus of the controversy between Moscow and Peking; and in 1961 it may become the focus of an international crisis far more inflammatory that the Congo has been in 1960.