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Ian H. Birchall

Revolution Against the Revolution

(Autumn 1968)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 34, Autumn 1968, p. 37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Algerian Insurrection 1954–1962
Edgar O’Ballance
Faber, 36s

Major O’Ballance, an expert on revolutionary war whose sympathies lie firmly with the forces of ‘order,’ has written a military history of the Algerian war of national liberation. As such, it may serve to illuminate the complex relationship of political and military factors.

O’Ballance’s main point is that at no stage of the war did the French come anywhere near military defeat. The National Liberation Army lost ten times as many killed as the French forces during the war, and at many times were forced back on to small areas of territory.

Nonetheless, the Algerian Revolution was able to topple the Fourth Republic and force de Gaulle to break with the ultras who originally brought him to power. The reasons were of a political nature.

Firstly, in Algeria itself, the FLN was able to gain support of the mass of the Muslim population. O’Ballance attributes this largely to terror. Certainly torture and indiscriminate terrorism were used (and may be criticised by those who wholeheartedly align themselves with the Revolution). But he seriously underestimates the work of propaganda and the new social institutions created in the liberated areas.

Secondly, the war heightened the contradictions of French society. The war was deeply unpopular; unlike Vietnam, it demanded conscript forces. While citing some of the antics of the French Communist Party, O’Ballance overestimates their influence (the Party actually expelled members for sending arms to the FLN). But he ignores the fact that by 1958, the big bourgeoisie (aware of the changing place of under-developed countries in the world economy, and of the possibility of separating political oppression from economic exploitation) were quite willing to give Algeria political independence. The first years of the Fifth Republic in fact saw a struggle between large and small capital, with both sides trying to win workinp-class support.

In a sense, writers like O’Ballance present the obverse face of the Regis Debray school, for both attempt to define the confrontation of social forces in exclusively military terms. There is no magic about ‘guerilla warfare,’ independent of the historical conjuncture. The difference between Guevara’s failure in Bolivia and Giap’s success in Vietnam is not one of military strategy, but of the whole political complex.

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