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Ian Birchall

During the Algerian War


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4, 2004, pp.294–6.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sylvain Pattieu
Les camarades des frères: trotskistes et libertaires dans la guerre d’Algérie
Editions Syllepse, Paris 2002, pp. 292, Є19.50

THE ‘civilising mission’ of an imperialist power pitted against Islamic nationalism; a treacherous and arrogant social democratic leader spearheading a colonial war; guerrilla warfare, terrorism and torture. The Algerian war for national independence (1954–62) has many parallels with our own day, as is shown by the impact which Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers still has on audiences born long after the events it depicts took place.

There have been a number of studies of the courageous French men and women who gave material support to those fighting for independence, notably Hamon and Rotman’s Les Porteurs de valises and Martin Evans’ The Memory of Resistance. But Pattieu’s is the first full account of the rôle played by the French Trotskyists. It is a thorough and well-balanced account, based on extensive documentation as well as on interviews with a number of the key survivors. It thus provides an important addition to our knowledge of anti-imperialist struggles in metropolitan countries.

In 1954, French Trotskyism was scarcely in a position to meet the huge challenge presented by the Algerian insurrection. Of the 500 or so members of the main grouping in the immediate postwar period, a half were lost in an unnecessary split in 1948. The usual wear and tear of a difficult period took more, and in 1952 these was a major international split. That left two tiny groups, which for the sake of convenience we can call after their main leaders, the Frank group (‘Pabloites’) and the Lambert group. In the early years of the war, the total number of organised Trotskyists in France was around 100.

In the first year or so of the war, it was therefore the anarchists, with perhaps over 300 militants, who made the running. One of their activists, Pierre Morain, served a jail sentence for articles he published in opposition to the war. The conscript revolts of 1955, when there was a genuine possibility of large numbers refusing to fight, got no significant support from the organised left. The Communist Party (PCF) failed to support such action, invoking the allegedly ‘Leninist’ principle that revolutionaries should work inside the army. But while the Leninist tradition did oppose individual desertion and ‘conscientious objection’, mass revolt against war was a different matter; as long ago as Eugène Pottier’s Internationale (‘Appliquons la grève aux armées’) revolutionaries had called for mass disobedience in the armed forces.

There was a further complication in that the independence movement was split. The National Liberation Front (FLN) which launched the 1954 insurrection was a newly-formed organisation, challenging the more long-standing Algerian National Movement (MNA), led by the veteran Messali Hadj. The FLN, though hardly itself homogenous, was determined to impose its hegemony on the struggle, and there was a savage internecine struggle between the two movements.

While the Frank group backed the FLN, Lambert’s supporters lined up with the MNA, at least during the earlier part of the war. This was not some lambertiste aberration, as is often alleged; the MNA had an honourable history, a working-class base, especially in metropolitan France, and some sort of commitment to socialism. It was backed, not only by Lambert, but by the anarchists, the Shachtmanites and by such knowledgeable individuals as Daniel Guérin. The Frank group were justified by history, in that the FLN led the independence struggle to victory, while the MNA was increasingly weakened and politically disoriented. But the FLN’s campaign of brutality and murder against its rival is hardly the most glorious page of its history.

An additional problem for the Frank group was that, in accordance with the Pabloite perspective, many of its members were doing entry work in the Communist Party. Entrism in a Stalinist party was not like the same strategy in the British Labour Party, where one can say more or less what one likes provided one has no influence on policy. It required absolute clandestinity. An additional hazard was the rôle of the poisonous Michèle Mestre, a former Trotskyist leader from the 1940s pursuing her own entry tactic which would end up with enthusiastic support for the Russian tanks in Prague in 1968; she happily fingered to the bureaucracy any Trotskyist entrists she discovered.

In 1957, the 16-year-old Alain Krivine, a loyal and enthusiastic Communist Party member, was surprised that when he arranged a meeting with FLN representatives he was reprimanded by his own party (which had recently voted in favour of ‘special powers’ to pursue the war). What he didn’t know was that his two brothers (including his twin Hubert) were already secret Trotskyists working in the PCF.

The question of strategy led to a further split. After the Hungarian events of 1956, a small number of PCF members made a break with Stalinism. Other individuals were being drawn towards opposition to the war. Some members of the Frank group felt a broader organisation was required and joined with ex-Communists to form the journal La Voie communiste. This enjoyed some success in providing a public focus for opposition to the war as well as offering practical solidarity to the FLN. However, this involved a breach of discipline in the Frank group, and Denis Berger and others were expelled.

The Frank group had only a handful of industrial workers, but these played a specially noteworthy role, since they had to win support for opposition to the war among their fellow-workers, as well as giving what assistance they could to their Algerian comrades. Many Algerian militants worked in large factories, and the authorities found it easier to locate them there than in their homes, since they moved around constantly. Henri Benoîts, a member of the Frank group working at Renault-Billancourt, was able to give assistance to the FLN organisation within the factory. When an attempt was made to arrest a leading FLN militant at Renault, various trade union activists succeeded in causing a work stoppage which confused matters, and then hid the militant in the factory, later enabling him to escape … after collecting his pay! Later Benoîts was advised by his group to join the newly-formed Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU), since this party contained many well-known journalists and politicians, and it was far harder for the authorities to victimise its members than isolated Trotskyists. Benoîts succeeded in winning over the PSU branch at Renault to support Algerian independence and practical support for the FLN, policies which the PSU majority rejected. When a group of intellectuals produced the Manifesto of 121, calling for support to the FLN, the Trotskyists gave out copies at the factory gates, often meeting physical violence from PCF members.

Nonetheless there were contradictions inherent in solidarity work. That revolutionaries should shelter Algerian militants on the run was an elementary act of solidarity. That they should ‘carry suitcases’ was equally natural, since white French people were far less likely to be searched and manhandled by the police than those of North African appearance. (The suitcases generally contained, not weapons, but money collected by the FLN from Algerian workers in France.) But such tasks could run counter to what should have been revolutionaries’ main priority, winning support in the workplaces for withdrawal of French troops.

The weakness of the Frank group’s strategy became clearer when other more ambitious solidarity actions were undertaken. Workers engaging in clandestine activity obviously had to make themselves inconspicuous, and this detracted from the primary task of campaigning publicly against the war. Pablo and Santen were jailed for forging money for the FLN. As practical aid to the FLN, this was legitimate if adventurist; but the hope that it might help to destabilise the French economy was pure fantasy. Later a group of Fourth International militants moved to Morocco to work in a factory making weapons for the FLN. Again a worthy action, but one which diverted from the main responsibility, especially when several of those concerned were skilled workers who could have played an important rôle in trade union activity. At the same time, Pablo and his associates nurtured illusions that there was a real and immediate socialist potential in the Algerian revolution.

The one serious omission from Pattieu’s account is the Socialisme ou barbarie group, which is dismissed as merely a grouping of intellectuals. But the group’s leading industrial militant, Daniel Mothé of the Renault factory, describes in his book Journal d’un ouvrier (1956–1958) how he attempted to organise against the war, meeting opposition from both employers and the PCF-dominated trade union. Meanwhile in the pages of Socialisme ou barbarie, Jean-François Lyotard was developing the most thorough analysis of the FLN and its potential to become a new ruling bureaucracy. (His writings are reprinted in the book La Guerre des Algériens.) A fuller treatment of this Trotskyist-derived group would have been very welcome.

Pattieu notes that the last years of the war produced ferment among students and the PCF youth, leading to the emergence of a new generation of revolutionaries. Just six years after the end of the war they were to become key cadres in the events of May–June 1968, helping to spark off the biggest general strike in human history. Let us hope that in this respect, if in no other, history repeats itself.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021