Source: Socialist Fight, vol. 3 no. 4 (June 1961)
Transcription: Francesco 2009
Proofread: Fred 2009
Markup: Manuel 2009
Using the familiar cloak of “anti-Communism” four French Generals tried to seize control of Algeria, as a preliminary to the capture of power in France. The immediate cause of the attempted counter-revolution was an attempt to prevent the French Government from negotiating an end to the Algerian War.
The French Army since 1945 has been waging continuously a series of colonial wars, in which the French Imperialists have been forced in the end to withdraw or make concessions to the movement for national liberation from foreign oppression. Thus in the eyes of the officer caste and the toughs of the Paratroops and Foreign Legion, professional mercenaries, all their sacrifices and struggles have been in vain. In every case they have been forced in the end, despite superiority of weapons, to give ground to the desire for national freedom. In their eyes the “politicians” in Paris have “betrayed” them. Hence their hatred for “democracy” and “the whore of a republic” which has had to give way before the pressure of the colonial peoples and the war-weariness of the French people, at the endless series of wars.
The uprising of 1958 had brought de Gaulle to power. He had been supported by Big Business as a means of centralising power in their interests, pushing parliament to occupy a secondary role. But the liberties and rights of the workers remained largely intact.
Now the army generals reason, why should they not be able to repeat the trick of 1958? In the last few years it has been a “secret” to nobody that a continuous series of plots has been evolved by the officers and generals in the French Army. The Lagaillairde uprising in Algiers was based on the assumption that the “Army,” i.e. the officer caste, would support it.
As in the Spain of 1936 before the Franco uprising warnings of conspiracy appeared in the workers’ press in France. Of course the “Security Services” and de Gaulle himself have been well aware of this. “Postings” of generals, colonels and other officer ranks from Algeria, principally to the army in Western Germany, have been de Gaulle’s answer. So the Popular Front Government had behaved in Spain when faced with a similar problem. Franco was moved from one of the military posts in one of the principal Spanish towns to his command in Morocco. There in this game of “musical chair” reshufflings he had prepared for the fascist insurrection.
Why did the Government as the pre-war Popular Front Government in France and Spain do nothing decisive to prevent the insurrection? Against the whinings of the leaders of the Socialist Party and the so-called Communist Party in France one can only counter-pose the arguments of Marx and Lenin on the nature of the state. They have pointed out that the state, in the last resort, can be reduced to armed bodies of men and their appendages. The ruling class relies on the officer caste, specially trained and selected, to ensure its dominance in society. For the Government, which in capitalist society must always be the executive of the ruling class, to take action against the officer caste, would be like to saw off the branch of a tree on which one was supported. It would be to leave them at the mercy of the masses.
The “patriotic” Generals, as with Franco who used the Moors and foreign troops against his own people, did not hesitate to use foreign mercenaries to try and gain control of the French state. So much for their “national” feelings.
The uprising collapsed ingloriously after a few days. The total casualties were 10 wounded and two killed.
Why was the attempted counter-revolution so feeble? The French masses reacted with the demonstration strike of one hour. Twelve million people responded. It was the biggest general strike in history. Not only the industrial workers came out, but the teachers, postmen, civil servants and even the bank clerks! The overwhelming majority of the French people were against this attempt of the French generals to take France over on a programme of dictatorship and colonial war.
However the overwhelming majority of the French people were against the insurgents in 1958, but that did not prevent the handing of power to de Gaulle by the “Republican” Government.
In the first hours of the uprising it was obvious that the de Gaulle Government was not sure of the loyalty of the “Army” not only in Algeria but in Western Germany and even of the officers commanding the garrisons in France. The French people showed an immense élan and willingness to resist. The general strike was supported by the Socialist, Catholic and Communist unions. The unorganised workers responded as magnificently and unanimously to the strike appeal as the organised members of the unions. The spectre of civil war hung over France. This, of course, would have stayed the hand of the generals, as little as it did Franco.
But in spite of the mortal peril of the first days it is significant that the de Gaulle Government was afraid to arm the workers for fear of losing control out of the hands of the capitalist class. In the first hours, some Ministers in the Government issued an appeal for volunteers. Thousands responded, and the workers in the factories were clamouring for arms. The volunteers on the first night of the uprising were issued with uniforms but… no arms! Debre the Prime Minister appealed to the unarmed population, in the event of paratroops dropping on Paris to “reason” in mass with the tough thugs and cut-throats of the Foreign Legion paratroops! Hardly an effective resistance!
The second day of the uprising saw a countermanding and second thoughts at the idea of issuing arms to “unauthorised people”. The correspondent of The Times revealed the real fears of the ruling class, whether it be French, German, British or any other of any armed force not under its direct control. In its issue of April 26th it said, “Not the least of the spectacular and disquieting events in France in reaction to the Algiers mutiny has been the confused and fervent formation over the past two days of what are officially known as ‘civil defence Groups in support of de Gaulle’.” According to The Times the volunteers were predominantly “manual workers”.
The real reason for the collapse of the insurrection was the reaction of the French masses, especially the conscripts! Challe was threatening Paris with a non-existent army! The overwhelming majority of the conscript soldiers were against him. Almost from the start they began to organise resistance.
Reports and letters later published in the press both Conservative and Communist indicate this. Le Monde, the Times of France, wrote on May 5th, “We are beginning to learn of the major role played by the conscripts, not only in openly demonstrating their loyalty, but in paralysing the entire military machine…” L’Humanite, the organ of the Communist Party, published many extracts of letters from soldiers to their relatives.
“Conscripts organised strikes and sit-down, organised united refusal to obey fascist officers, sabotaged communications, vehicles, and in some cases even of military operations…In many units the conscripts organised their own discipline and replaced the traitor officers by men from the ranks…Conscripts occupied the aerodrome of Ain-Amat and struck work for a whole day to prevent officers from joining Challe. Paratroops were chased, from Telergama Airfield…Setif…Many officers, including a general wanted to turn traitor. Discovering this the conscripts of the 69th refused to obey their orders…Algiers…The presses printing Army propaganda were stopped to print leaflets prepared by us calling on the men to disobey the fascists.”
A leaflet issued by the soldiers in Blida Air base, “Sunday morning when the commander called us together to tell us that he was going over to Challe, we all left the hail. We forced the paratroops who had occupied the headquarters to leave, drove them out of the hangars and put in their place our own protection groups. On Monday we prevented the departure of any plane…” Bone. “The officers, having shown they were in agreement with the rebellion, they were placed under arrest by the soldiers and a conscript Second Lieutenant took command.”
These incidents could be multiplied a thousand times. The pilots refused to fly the planes to carry paratroops and many deserted with their planes to France. Even the Daily Telegraph, arch-Conservative paper, was forced to admit “Many of them (conscripts) sabotaged the paratroopers’ supplies and transport, putting water into fuel tanks…”
That was the decisive factor in the revolt which turned it into such an inglorious fiasco.
The main lesson for active layers of the Labour movement lies in indicating that even at a time of “prosperity” capitalism still shows the barbarism and reaction lurking within its depths. The inevitable onset of “hard times” will once again bring out all the reactionary aspects of capitalism. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were not accidents but expressions of capitalism in decline. So Challe is not only a French phenomenon. Under difficult conditions British Challes can also arise.
In all this the complete impotence and treachery of the French Communist party “leaders” is manifest. Lenin wrote that an incident like the Dreyfus affair, demonstrating the rottenness and corruption of the French Army and State, could be the occasion of revolution. Events like these could shake the masses out of their customary torpor and show them the need for the Socialist Revolution. In France the soldiers have formed committees or to call them by another name Soviets. The French Army Officers in Germany remained passive only for fear of the reaction of the ranks. The ruling class thus had a broken stick on which to lean if the masses moved into action. If the leadership of the working class, understanding the situation, exposed the rottenness of French capitalist society offered a Socialist alternative, France would now be in a pre-revolutionary situation.
R. Palme Dutt the “theoretician” of the Communist Party has compared the revolt, correctly, to the revolt of Kornilov in Russia, in 1917. But that prepared the way for the Socialist Revolution in Russia. If that is not so in France the reason lies in the degeneration and betrayal of the leadership of the French Communist Party.
However, events in France, as elsewhere, will teach the masses that there is no final solution of their problems other than the taking of power by the working class.