The Algerian Communist Party in the War

By Mitchell Abidor

During the years before the war for independence, the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) was a vital part of Algerian life. Founded in 1924 as a section of the French Communist Party (PCF), in 1935 it became an independent organization. It had a role in the governing of major cities like Oran and Sidi Bel Abbes, where Communist mayors ruled in coalition with nationalists, and its quasi-official newspaper, Alger Républicain included among its writers the young Albert Camus.

Though not connected to the FLN, the PCA joined the liberation war in its early days. Almost immediately after the start of the war, the PCA worked together with the Communist-led union, the CGT, to get dock-workers to refuse to unload arms from French ships. The PCA had taken a stand for independence for Algeria in 1952, and in the Spring of 1955 it set up its own fighting groups: by September of that year the Party was banned. Its stand for independence, as well as its acceptance of armed struggle, placed it far from the position of the French Communist Party, which stressed a desire for peace in Algeria. As many commentators have pointed out, calling for peace was fairly meaningless: everyone wanted peace, from the furthest right fanatics of Algerie française to the FLN. The real question was, what kind of peace?

The PCA’s armed group, called Les Combattants de la Libération, (CDL) initially carried out actions in the main cities; Algiers, Oran, Constantine and Blida. Abandoning this tactic for tactical and logistical reasons, they established a “maquis rouge” (“red guerrilla”) in the Chelif Valley, between Oran and Algiers. In April of 1956 PCA member Henri Maillot, in an action coordinated with the CDL, deserted from his military unit, taking with him an important stock of arms and ammunition for the guerrillas. Algiers’ main daily, “L'Echo d'Alger” headlined that this was “new proof of the collusion between the Communist Party and the terrorists.” Maillot himself was described as the “former accountant of Alger Républicain.

The CDL was never a large group, but its mixed Arab-European membership — the most notable of whom was Spanish Civil War veteran Maurice Laban — carried out a number of actions in towns in their area of operation. Less than two months after the arms hijacking, on June 5, an informer gave away their location. The group was ambushed by a French unit, and Maillot and Laban were killed.

At the time of these events negotiations were already under way between the FLN and the PCA, the FLN represented by Ben Khedda and Abban Ramdane, and the PCA by Bachir Hadj Ali and Sadek Hadjeres. After two months of negotiations, on July 1, 1956 an agreement was signed, integrating the PCA into the FLN.

Members of the PCA received the same treatment as captured Algerian fighters. Indeed, there was a particular venom directed at the Communists of European origin, who were considered traitors. The most notorious and scandalous case was that of Maurice Audin, who taught mathematics at the University of Algiers. On June 11, 1957, Audin was arrested in his apartment by members of a Parachutist regiment. It was the last time his family was to see him.

Tortured for over a week at the El-Biar Centre de Triage, he died sometime after June 18. In order to hide the killing, the Army spread the story that Audin had taken advantage of an accident while being transported from one prison to another and escaped, managing to avoid the machine guns being fired at him. Audin became one of the 3,024 detainees who “disappeared’ at the hands of the Paras during the first nine months of 1957.

The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet set out to inquire into the true fate of Maurice Audin, and, revealing the countless inconsistencies in their story, proved that the government story was a fabrication. Nevertheless, despite public outcry, all of his widow’s attempts to get the government to admit the truth of her husband’s death and to penalize the killers were in vain.

Arrested at the same time as Audin was Henri Alleg, editor of the banned newspaper Alger Républicain; both were arrested on the same day on suspicion of manufacturing bombs for the FLN. Alleg was tortured for days, tortures that only ended when Audin disappeared, the authorities obviously fearing negative repercussions if two Europeans died while in their hands. Alleg remained in prison until his escape in 1961, when he published La Question, an account of his treatment at the hands of the military.

These were the most notorious, but certainly not the only, cases of members of the PCA suffering horribly at the hands of the French military. Two years after the Audin and Alleg arrests, Raymonde Peschard, a nurse, was captured, tortured, raped and killed.

Algeria’s liberation enabled the PCA to return to public activity, and Henri Alleg resumed the editorship of the now-legal Alger Républicain. The circle around the newspaper, which reappeared on July 17, 1962 — just two weeks after Algeria gained independence — defended the idea of a progressive, socialist Algeria. Tolerated under Ben Bella, the Boumedienne coup of 1965 found the newspaper again banned, the editors arrested and, finally, deported to France. The epic of the Algerian Communist Party had come to an end.