France History Archive

demonstration in favour of Algerian Independence in 1960

Algeria and the defeat of French Humanism

Source: Chapter six of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, by James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam University, 2002. Reproduced by permission of the author.

The founding of the modern French state is unique in history. The state is created in the name not just of the French citizen, but of all mankind. The document adopted by the Constituent Assembly in June 1789 is headed Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The declaration is a sincere expression of the sentiments of the revolutionaries who created the state. It was also a beacon to liberals across Europe,[1] and as far afield as Haiti in the West Indies, where the ‘black Jacobin’ Toussaint L’Ouverture was inspired to lead a slave revolt.[2] The most adamant of the French revolutionaries deplored slavery as they deplored feudal privileges. ‘The moment you pronounce the word “slave” you pronounce your own dishonour’, said Robespierre, who also defended the civil and voting rights of free blacks in the West Indian colonies.[3] Even after the restoration of a more centralised power under Napoleon Bonaparte’s military leadership, France remained a beacon of the universal rights of man to radicals and liberals across Europe. Napoleon’s army swept through Europe welcomed by some as an army of liberation. The Jewish ghettoes were emancipated. The Code Napoleon is, to this day, the basis of many countries’ civil law. Revolutionary France represented the hopes of the Enlightenment, of reason and of humanism for progressive Europe.

The extent of French humanism, though, found its limits. The German middle classes came to resent the French monopoly on universal civilisation, and jealously guarded their own, more grounded Kultur. England regarded France’s challenge as a threat. In Russia, Napoleon was defeated less by the winter, than by the sheer otherness of Russian society. Russia lacked any comparable enlightened middle class to those who had welcomed Napoleon in Austria and Prague. Napoleon’s army did not liberate Russia, but was reduced to a mere army of occupation, without supplies or support, and was defeated.

Revolutionary France’s moral mission to realise the ‘eternal rights of man’ was compromised, but by no means exhausted. French civic republicanism combined with scientific rationalism to exemplify the Enlightenment ideal. There were many setbacks, from the reactionary repressions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 to the anti-Semitism that split French society when Captain Dreyfus was charged with treason. In 1940, the reaction of the French middle classes, resentful of Leon Blum’s Popular Front government, to the German Occupation — ‘better Hitler than Blum’ — cast a dark shadow over France’s claim to represent the best in humanity. But the communist-dominated French Resistance kept the honour of French liberty intact. As long as France resisted France was occupied, and could avoid the shame of collaboration with Fascism. Much as the post-war French establishment loathed the communists and radicals, they had played a large part in saving France, while much of the upper class had collaborated. French Humanism, as an ideal, lived on in the ‘socialist humanism’ espoused by the communists, and in Sartre’s existential philosophy. ‘Existentialism is a humanism’ wrote Sartre. If the bourgeois elite had momentarily let go of the banner of humanism, the French left had taken it up.

If French humanism survived the occupation it found its severest test in Algeria’s struggle for national liberation. France’s empire, its colonies in Indo-China, the Middle East, Africa and the West Indies were always profoundly corrosive of the ideal of the universal rights of man. Colonial rule degraded the indigenous natives of those countries. It also degraded the ideal of a universal humanity. Where real living men and women were denied liberty, in the name of France, then ‘French liberty’ was reduced to an ideological cover for enslavement. The French Army under Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. The Emperor had been at great pains to pose as a liberator come to free the oppressed natives from the Turks. Napoleon also took on the role of defender of the annual caravan to the Holy Places and even expressed a willingness to convert to Islam.[4] However, Bonaparte’s pro-Islamic policy was not taken seriously by his officers. A contemporary Egyptian observer recalls: ‘They treated books and Quranic volumes as trash, throwing them on the ground and stamping on them with their feet and shoes. Furthermore they soiled the mosque, blowing their spit in it, pissing, and defecating in it.’[5] French rule in Algeria and Egypt remained tied to the demeaning corvée system of forced labour that prevented any substantial extension of civil freedom to the Muslims annexed to the French empire.[6] France’s enlightened social scientists were tempted into subdividing the human race into advanced and lesser breeds.[7]

The contradiction between humanism and imperialism reached its apex in Algeria. Algeria was also occupied in 1830 at a tremendous human cost. The population of Algiers was reduced from its eighteenth century peak of 75 000 to just 30 000. The status of the Algerians and the French settlers was complicated. Under the constitution of 1848 Algeria was officially designated French territory. Algeria was divided into two sections, one civilian, and the other military. The civilian section was largely European, centred on Algiers and the ports. The military section was the countryside and almost wholly native, Arabic and Berber. Divided into three provinces the Algerian natives were ruled through local chiefs recognised by the military governors, rather more liberally than the settlers would have preferred. The rationalist ambitions of Emperor Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon III for Algeria were to be seen in the Imperial Decree of 1857 for a network of railways, and in the support for the Saint-Simonian socialist Prosper Enfantin’s plans to industrialise the region. Enfantin raised funds to extract iron ore in Bone, but French industrialists torpedoed his proposal for a local smelting industry.

The new Emperor disliked the European settlers who had voted against his accession, and listened favourably to native complaints of oppression and land-grabbing. In 1863 Napoleon III wrote to Arabs that: ‘Algeria is not strictly speaking a colony, but an Arab kingdom. The natives and the colonists have an equal right to my protection and I am no less the Emperor of the Arabs than the emperor of the French’. Constitutionally that position was unsustainable, but Louis Napoleon kept up his support for native rights as a counter-balance to the fervently republican settlers. The two laws voted by the senate on 22 April 1863 and 14 July 1865, known as the ‘Senatus-Consult’, defended first the native’s land rights and second granted them the right to citizenship. However, in their application, the Senatus-Consult laws ended up discriminating against Arabs and Berbers. In formalising land rights, the courts reduced traditional land-holdings precipitately. Intended to grant citizenship by a ‘well-meaning Emperor’[8] the second Senatus-Consult allowed Algerians to apply for French nationality but only if they allowed their Statut Personnel to be French, so subjecting themselves to French courts in such matters as marriage and inheritance.[9] Between 1865 and 1 November 1867 only 56 Muslims and 115 Jews made applications. However, under the terms of the law, all Algerians were subjects of the Empire, and therefore subject to its taxes. Similarly, the Imperial College, open to Algerians, but with the goal of assimilating them into French culture, taught its lessons in the French language, and recruited just 99 Algerian pupils in 1865, 81 in 1866. In 1870 the Algerians under the military zone revolted. French repression re-doubled, and the ideal of assimilation was exposed more openly as a lie. The Algerians were not to be treated as equals with equal rights to the French, but inferiors. That same year the Crémieux decree granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews, in a policy of divide and rule, consolidating a loyal intermediary layer of Jews between the natives and the settlers. In fact the French republicans had recreated a system that was, according to Governor General Gueydon ‘the serfdom of the natives’.[10] In 1881 the Code Napoleon was supplemented with a special ‘native code’, which listed 27 imprisonable crimes. These included, most extraordinarily, refusal to carry out corvée labour, an insulting attitude in the presence of French officials and travelling in Algeria without a permit. The flag hanging over the colonial office was the same tricolour that Marianne used to lead the revolutionaries against the King, but the policy imposed under it was closer to the restitution of feudal servitude. According to General Hanoteau, an officer of the bureaux arabes: ‘What our settlers dream of is a bourgeois feudalism in which they will be the lords and the natives the serfs’.[11] In May 1898, in the heady atmosphere of the anti-Dreyfus campaign, Algeria elected four anti-Semitic deputies to the National Assembly after a week of anti-Jewish rioting that January. Governor Laferrière bent to the colonists’ demands for autonomy, granting financial independence and the creation of an elected colonial assembly. Algeria became a ‘small French Republic’ in which ‘the voter’s card became the title of nobility in this novel feudal system’.[12]

In truth, though, the Algerian economy was not a throwback to a feudal past. Rather, its limited development was an entirely modern consequence of its subordinate relationship to the French economy. Algeria exported grain and surplus labour to France. In the early twentieth century the colonists, swelled with poorer Spanish immigrants, made wine, while the most ambitious of Algerian manhood crossed the Mediterranean to find work in Paris. Underemployment was the curse of the growing class of landless labourers, the Fellaheen, who would become the grass roots of the Algerian resistance in the 1950s. Industrialisation was at a minimum, and the director of agriculture wanted it kept that way: ‘Is it really in our interest to proletarianise future elements of the population, when social stability presumes an inverse development?’[13]

The political leaders of the Algerians had been committed to reforming the French Republic by winning equal rights for Algerians within it. In 1924 the grandson of the national hero Abdel Kader, emir Khaled, set up the Étoile Nord Africaine among immigrant workers in Paris, with the assistance of the French Communist Party. In 1926 Messali Hadj became its leader. As Messali organised the migrant labourers, Ferhat Abbas organised middle class Algerians in the Fédération des Élus, founded in 1927 around the demand for equal rights with the settlers.[14] Abbas’ moderate demands were based on his own intuition that there was no coherent national sentiment to awaken. ‘If I could find the Algerian nation, I would be a nationalist, and I would not blush from it as a crime ... I will not die for the Algerian fatherland, because this fatherland does not exist’, he told Entente on 23 February 1936. Messali disagreed. That year l’Étoile organised mass demonstrations and published a manifesto demanding independence. The French Communist Party (PCF) attacked Messali for playing into the settler’s hands by supporting their demands for secession. Without PCF support, l’Étoile was easily suppressed by Leon Blum’s popular front government in January 1937.

Algerian nationalists of a new kind led the war of 1954. The rural fellaheen were being made into a surplus population by agricultural improvements. They gravitated towards shantytowns on the outskirts of the major towns. ‘The formidable erosion of the peasantry is not balanced by a complementary industrialisation’ wrote a young Jean-François Lyotard, then a teacher and Marxist agitator in Constantine. ‘The peasants do become industrial workers, but only in France’.[15] Migrant labour was an escape valve for the social pressures building up in Algeria, but in the fifties, an economic downturn shut down the valve. The national struggle erupted and found its social basis in the underemployed landless labourers, men who were called by the FLN’s most eloquent spokesman, Frantz Fanon, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’.

The Algerian commanders of the Army of National Liberation (ALN) were older veterans of l’Étoile and the struggle of a previous generation. The commandant of the first battalion of the Eastern Base confided to a Western journalist ‘Those under twenty are the most intransigent. For my part, I certainly do not have much sympathy for the enemy I am fighting. But I know another face of France: Voltaire, Montaigne, the Rights of Man, the Commune, Sartre, Camus — in a word, the best there is to know of the enemy.’ The commandant might have learned the classical canon of French humanism at one of the few state schools for Arabs, or working amongst communist militants in Paris. But even those narrow avenues for the inculcation of French humanism had been blocked off for the younger generation of Algerians. Only two per cent of the Algerian population was educated in 1950, and whatever influences the French left had on the Algerian national movement were thrown away.

In their reaction to the Algerians’ aspiration to freedom and equality, the French establishment rejected the essence of humanism. They denied the common humanity of the Algerians. They denied the Algerians their freedom. They rejected the Algerians own wishes and substituted what they thought was best. If France had merely torn up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as a public demonstration that would have been bad enough. But what they did was even more destructive. They denied Algeria its freedom in the name of the Rights of Man. The republican sentiments of the revolution, universal in their aspiration were tied down to the narrow and particular interests of French rule. What was truly human was debased into a narrowly chauvinistic ideology that denied the humanity of the Algerians, even as it pretended to represent all humanity. In Algeria, France debased humanism, and made it into a sham.

Georges Bidault was president of the Council of National Resistance during the German occupation of France and a minister in de Gaulle’s first government. ‘A choice has to be made: either we believe in the inequality of the races, we consider that democracy, the Rights of Man and parliamentary government are acceptable on one side of the Mediterranean but not on the other — and I would understand if we abandoned the Algerians,’ he said.[16] Bidault’s meaning is so forced that it is not at first clear. He means that a respect for equality, democracy and rights demands that France maintain its occupation of Algeria. Only if one had no respect for such things would it be right to ‘abandon [i.e. liberate] the Algerians’. On the other hand, he says, if ‘we are humanists, universalists to the end, and we consider that parliamentary democracy, the generalised right of habeas corpus, and the rule of law are preferable for Algerians as well’, then we will prefer the assimilation of Algeria into France, as Brittany was assimilated. Another French resistance fighter Jacques Roustelle said, ‘we would be arrant swine to abandon to their own destiny people who count on us to liberate us from their own ancestral and religious dependency.’[17] In these justifications of the continued occupation, the meanings of humanism, universalism and liberation are twisted to mean their opposite. People are to be liberated from themselves. The defence of universalism is perverse when substantially Algerians have been denied the rights enjoyed by settlers and by French citizens. But no such contradiction existed in the minds of the supporters of French colonialism. On the contrary, Algeria was occupied in the name of humanism and universalism. The occupation was enlightened, the Algerians backward. Le Corbusier’s model for a reconstruction of Algiers, never built, provided an astonishing example of such thinking. The plans attempt to integrate modern apartment buildings with the Arab souk. The meeting of enlightenment rationalism and social exclusion is painfully explicit. The Arab dwellings are medieval and chaotic, a ‘warren’, as the soldiers hunting FLN fighters would say, running down the hill. At the brow of the hill rise great apartment blocks for settlers to look down on the subject race of Algerians. On stilts a great whiplash motorway hovers over the Arab houses, so that settlers do not have to drive through the souk. It also offers a platform for observation or sniper fire. Corbusier’s architectural rationalisation of Algiers could not change, but only make explicit the racial domination on which it was founded.

Georges Bidault’s claim that the occupation was a defence of parliamentary democracy and habeas corpus rings hollow. On 22 October, 1956, after negotiations with the French government broke down, the leaders of the FLN were intercepted while flying in a Moroccan plane on the orders of Max Lejeune, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces and imprisoned in France for the duration of the conflict.[18] In January 1957 General Massu led the tenth Parachute Division into Algiers to smash the FLN in what became known as The Battle of Algiers. They began a systematic policy of detaining and torturing suspected FLN members to identify and break the organisation and its militants. Henri Alleg an Algerian Jew and Communist was arrested in 1957 by paratroopers. He was subjected to torture by electric shock — la gégène — with electrodes attached to all parts of his body. In his account of the torture, Alleg recalls the taunts of the paratroopers: ‘You’re going to talk! Everybody talks here! We fought the war in Indo-China — that was enough to know your type. This is the Gestapo here! You know the Gestapo?’[19]

Many of the tenth division had fought with the free French. General Massu later protested: ‘the left wing in France, intellectuals and communists, all compared my paras to the SS, which was absurd’. And he went on: ‘Anyway, I tried la gégène on myself; it was not so terrible.’ ‘To which part of the body did you attach the wires’ he was asked by Simon Cortauld. ‘I don’t remember — it gives you a shock, but I didn’t make a tragedy out of it. The gégène had been used in other parts of Algeria. I was surprised, but then I was told that it had been in general use since Indo-China. The Battle of Algiers was not something that we enjoyed; but we carried it through with a certain style [élègance].’ On 1 January 1958 de Gaulle sent Massu a letter sending his best wishes ‘à vôtre si belle et brave Division’.[ 20]

France’s military and political establishment cast themselves in the role of the Gestapo. They suspended such niceties as habeas corpus and parliamentary democracy to use torture and mass detention. Frantz Fanon, the West Indian who joined the FLN editing the underground paper El Moudjadid, passed judgement on French Humanism. ‘Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men wherever they find them’.[21] The disaster was that Fanon was not just passing judgement upon France, but upon humanism itself. So pointedly did the European rulers of Algeria claim the authority of liberal humanism, that it seemed evident to Fanon that talk of Man was a sign of practical inhumanity.

But what of the left? In 1940 much of the French elite had been similarly disgraced by their collaboration with the German occupation. Then it was the resistance, and in particular the French left that had saved France’s honour. Not this time. According to Fanon, socialist prime minister ‘Guy Mollet ... explicitly stated ... France wants the war’.[22] Then minister of the interior, François Mitterand, who went on to be France’s socialist president in 1980, gave a solemn warning that Algeria, centre and heart of the French Republic, guarantee of France’s future, would be defended by all possible means[23] — including, it seems torture, detention without trial and summary execution.

Nor was the French Communist Party’s record on Algeria any better. From the PCF’s original positive involvement in setting up the Algerian immigrant labourers’ organisation L’Etoile du Nord Africaine it was all downhill. The PCF described the revolt in Constantine as ‘fascist’, even after the natives had been bombed into submission. In 1956 it voted special powers to Guy Mollet’s socialist government to repress the Algerian revolution.[24] The PCF had opposed Algerian independence since Massali Hadj first proposed it in 1937. In 1955 the PCF complained against charges of disloyalty to the Algerians: ‘Have we not already shown that we support a policy of negotiation with the peoples of North Africa for the creation of a true “Union française"?’[25] — as if the Algerian people were demanding a true Union française! But with the outbreak of war, the PCF faced some criticism for this uncomradely betrayal of the Algerian people. Rather than take responsibility for the policy outright, they sought to deflect responsibility by shifting the blame onto the working class. In a speech to students, the PCF spokesman Laurent Casanova asked them to take into account ‘the spontaneous attitude of the French popular masses on the question’.[26] Writer Francis Jeanson, who undertook clandestine work for the FLN, remembers Casanova speaking more bluntly. ‘He used to say, “The working class is racist, colonialist and imperialist.”’[27] In fact it was the Communist Party above all that was responsible for spreading chauvinist attitudes towards the Algerian struggle amongst working class people. ‘Victims of the myth of French Algeria,’ wrote Fanon, ‘the parties of the Left create Algerian sections of the French political parties on Algerian territory’. The truth was that it was they, before it was the working class, who assumed the right of France to rule over Algeria. In fact, the Communist Party of Algeria (PCA) recruited heavily amongst white settlers in Bab el Oued and Belcourt, according to Michael Farrell, who also charges that many PCA members were later active in the reactionary OAS.[28]

Both left and right had failed to recognise the Algerian claims to independence. And both left and right had sought to justify their stance in the received language of humanism. From Fanon, they received the obvious reply: if that is your humanism, you can keep it. Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth had an electrifying effect on France, as it continues to compel readers throughout the West. Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote an introduction, said that it was ‘a classic of anti-colonialism in which the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself though his voice’. Clearly the FLN were delighted to have found as pungent a polemicist as Fanon, a valuable editor for El Moudjhadid and trusted comrade (named FLN ambassador to Ghana before his death). Fanon was not, though, a part of the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ by upbringing, though, but by identification. Born in the French colony of Martinique, and trained in psychiatric medicine in France, Fanon came to Algeria as part of the staff of a French-run hospital — all of which makes his identification with the Algerian cause the more impressive. But generationally, Fanon was closer to the Commandant of the Army of National Liberation who knew Voltaire, Sartre and Camus, than he was to those uneducated Fellaheen that he spoke for. Indeed, Fanon formulates his idea of race discrimination with reference to Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.[29] What Fanon takes from Sartre is an idea of the irreconcilability of colonialism and the natives, ‘the union of all against the natives’, as Sartre has it, or ‘the principle “it’s them or us"’ in Fanon’s version. As we have seen (in chapter three) Fanon applies Sartre’s anti-Hegelian logic of otherness to the relation between Algeria and France. ‘The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity [as would be the case in Hegelian dialectics]. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian [i.e. non-Hegelian] logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity.’[30] Here Sartre’s theory takes up into itself the empirical content of the Algerian revolution, as articulated by Fanon, for its verification. In the face of the spurious unity proposed by the French right, a ‘universalism’ in which one party has no rights, or the ‘Union française’ that the PCF wishes to negotiate (with whom, exactly?), the ‘Aristotelian’ opposition appears to make sense. Between European and Algerian, Sartre’s ‘reef of solipsism’ is a more compelling reality than it is embodied in a sulky couple in a Left Bank cafe.

Furthermore, in his introduction, Sartre recognises his own themes in Fanon’s work. His embrace of Fanon is — ironically, given its substance — the mutual recognition of a fellow proponent of the critique of humanism. ‘Chatter, chatter, chatter: liberty, equality, fraternity’, Sartre writes in his introduction, ‘all this did not prevent us from making speeches about dirty niggers, dirty Jews and dirty Arabs’.[31] Sartre understands that on the solid ground of Fanon’s exposure of the pretensions of French democracy, he can say those things that in other circumstances would be over the top. ‘In the notion of the human race we found an abstract assumption of universality which served as a cover for the most realistic practices,’ he wrote, parodying Western humanism: ‘On the other side of the ocean there was a race of less-than-humans ... in short we mistook the elite for the genus’. Armed with this exposure of the lie of humanism, Sartre can be bold: ‘With us there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters’. Here, thirty years before Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe wrote it, is the basic argument that ‘Nazism is a humanism’. The point is that France only achieved its humanity, by denying the humanity of the Arab.

In the consideration of the Algerian war, reality is stood on its head. Oppression takes on the cloak of universalist humanism, and liberation is made into a polemic against such humanism. This angry polemic against humanism is what fascinates Sartre. The war is compelling precisely because it illustrates the exhaustion of humanism, its reduction to an ideological cover. Sartre is drawn to the way that the war corrodes the claim of universal humanity. Sartre did not only write an introduction to The Wretched of the Earth in 1961, but also a long review of Henri Alleg’s account of his tortures, The Question in L’Express, in 1958. In that essay, too, we can see Sartre picking away at humanism and its claims. Of the torture he writes: ‘if patriotism has to precipitate us into dishonour, if there is no precipice of inhumanity over which nations and men will not throw themselves, then, why, in fact do we go to so much trouble to become, or to remain, men? Inhumanity is what we really want.’[32] In the struggle between the torturer and his victim, Sartre suggests that a new situation has emerged, in which common humanity is impossible. ‘Man has always struggled for his collective or individual interests. But in the case of torture, this strange contest of will, the ends seem to me to be radically different: the torturer pits himself against the tortured for his “manhood” and the duel is fought as if it were not possible for both sides to belong to the human race.’[33] Having discussed in academic terms the dialectic between master and slave, Sartre is here confronted with a real-life equivalent. And, in this version, the Hegelian resolution of mutual recognition and respect is unimaginable. The abstraction ‘humanity’ cannot contain both Alleg and Massu. In the conflict between native and Frenchman, Sartre recognises the force that challenges the most cherished values of European humanism. ‘They asked for integration and assimilation into our society and we refused ... When despair drove them to rebellion, these sub-men had the choice of starvation or of re-affirming their manhood against ours. They will reject all our values, our culture, which we believed to be so much superior’.[34] Three years later in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Sartre found the rejection of ‘all our values, our culture’ poignantly expressed. Jean Christianson, though, remembers that Sartre was not always so drawn to the purifying violence of the oppressed. Around 1955 ‘he always used to say to me: “Oh, your Algerians are violent people, they’re violent!"’[35] Cornelius Castoriadis describes Sartre’s relationship to Fanon perceptively: ‘What was specific to Fanon, and what Sartre emphasised in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth, was obviously not the anti-imperialist struggle but Third World messianism and the virtual obliteration of political and social problems, over there as well as over here.’[36]

It should be said that Fanon’s own work is one thing, and its reception amongst French intellectuals another. Fanon does polemicise against the hypocrisy of a humanism that accompanies inhumanity. With great subtlety Fanon shows that even the values of the Enlightenment can become inverted to be carriers of oppression. In L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algèrienne Fanon writes perceptively about ‘the campaign of Westernising Algerian women’: ‘Servants under the threat of being fired, poor women dragged from their homes, prostitutes, were brought to the public square and symbolically unveiled to cries of “Vive l’Algèrie française!"’.[37] As Fanon astutely says the colonialist’s ‘methods of struggle were bound to give rise to reactionary forms of behaviour on the part of the colonised’,[ 38] in other words the defence of the veil. However, Fanon does not endorse this rejection of women’s equality. Rather he hopes that it can be overcome in the struggle against the occupation. Similarly Fanon explains sympathetically the Algerian distaste for ‘immodest’ French radio shows, as a rejection of that Western culture and technology that was associated with the occupation. But when the FLN starts its own broadcasting station, he notes, the dislike of this technology vanishes. Rhetorically, Fanon rejects humanism, specifically where it has been reduced into a defence of French interests. But his active and future-oriented sense of building a new society cannot be accomplished in the name of the Other. Rather, Fanon aims to ‘start a new history of Man’ and even ‘try to set afoot a new man’.[39]

In the European (and American) reading of Fanon, though, there is a kind of inversion of his meaning. Where Fanon is concerned to initiate a new humanism, that is free of the hypocrisy to which humanism had been reduced in the mouths of the French occupiers, his interpreters have read something else. For them, Fanon, and the Algerian revolution, is the disproof of the claims of humanism as such. So, for example, Jean-François Lyotard’s (contemporary) assessment of the Algerian conflict is ambiguous. He wrote in 1961 ‘those who have been objects in world politics, in the history of humanity have achieved subjectivity’.[40] On face value, this is a wholly positive statement of the new emergent subjectivity. However, its context is a disappointment with the role of the ‘French working class [which] has not in all honesty fought against the war in Algeria’ suggesting that ‘the solidarity between the proletariat and the colonised remains [a] sacred cow’.[41] In this respect, Lyotard, supporter of the Algerians, stands on the same ground as Laurent Casanova of the PCF, who refuses to support the Algerians. For both the starting-point is the presumed failure of the working class to make solidarity with Algeria. Like Sartre, Lyotard makes the Algerian revolution into a bonfire of old certainties and illusions. This is an attitude that the European leftists Lew and Garnier describe well: ‘The lyrical power of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth — and the title as well — is a perfect expression of the pathos of an inverted universalism, of the belief that the East was going to enlighten the West. It also expresses the desire for a new historical subject to replace that of the socialist tradition, with its belief that a new liberator would come from a humiliated world that had become a storm zone’.[42] Fanon here is cast in the role of the exterminating angel who blasts all the pretensions of a tired European humanism away. And, as Lew and Garnier wisely suggest the dramatics cover up an underlying disappointment with the possibilities of a more mundane advance.

A surprising number of France’s leading intellectuals were in some sense connected to Algeria and the Algerian war. Some like Sartre chose the connection. Lyotard was a teacher in French Algeria, who sided with the Algerians. Pierre Bordieu did anthropological field studies there. Others, like Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Albert Camus (who played in goal for the Algerian football team) came from French-Algerian stock. The war was a seismic shock for France’s humanist tradition, and the beginning of its involution. The intellectuals were the focus of that involution of humanism only because it was a tradition that was founded upon the intellect, since the Enlightenment and its Encyclopaedists had first enthroned reason in France. In Britain, a comparable conflict, the war with Ireland had different consequences, wrecking English traditions of liberty, of the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, free speech and the right to silence. Such principles were difficult to sustain in the face of internment without trial, and a succession of miscarriages of justice. The central pillar of France’s special claim was its rationalist tradition and it was this that suffered most by the repression and eventual revolt of Algeria.

That said, the conflict was by no means restricted to the realm of ideas. On the contrary, the conflict threatened to tear French society apart. Right wing students seized government buildings in Algiers on 13 May 1958. The French Algerians and the army colluded in the creation of a military regime in Algiers, forming a Committee of Public Safety. General Massu joined it (later he said he had been coerced[43]). The French government dithered, and General Salan, the Algerian Commander-in-Chief called for de Gaulle to take power. The army was threatening a coup d’êtat and on 24 May seized control of Corsica, installing a military governor. When the government ordered its immediate recapture the navy mutinied.[44] Communist Rajani Palme Dutt, wrote that ‘the war against the Algerian people with half a million troops has now rebounded against French democracy’.[45] The Socialists voted de Gaulle into power.

Once de Gaulle realised that the only solution was withdrawal, he was faced with an unenviable conflict with the settlers and their supporters in the French military. General Massu publicly criticised the betrayal of French Algeria. Unwilling to accept defeat, elements of the military organised a terrorist campaign as the OAS. De Gaulle took advantage of the situation to propose a new constitution with sweeping presidential powers to face down the challenges to the state. The right was humiliated, the army purged and the establishment rocked by crisis. The enhanced authority of de Gaulle shocked the left. Looking back at the creation of the Fifth Republic, the PCF realised too late that they had missed an historic opportunity to change the course of events.

‘While the conflict continued at anything like peak intensity — which it did for another three years — the Left, like the rest of France, was mainly conscious of the sheer fact of crisis and the terrifying possibility of civil war which lurked behind it. This in turn produced a certain ambivalence on the Left towards de Gaulle’s new regime. The PCF had been thunderstruck by the events of 1958. A revolutionary situation along classically Leninist lines had existed — the ruling class had been unable “to live and rule in the old way” — and the revolution had duly taken place. But it had been de Gaulle’s revolution, not theirs — indeed, everything had taken place almost as if the Party had not existed. For a few months the PCF tried to rally the masses in defence of the fallen Fourth Republic, but quickly gave up as it realised that that cause was now for ever lost.’[46]

As the subject of revolutionary change, the PCF had unquestionably missed its moment.


1. ‘The taking of the Bastille, ... made manifest to the entire world a revolution which had begun in France over two years before and had been latent throughout the Western world for the previous twenty’ Jacques Godechot, The Taking of the Bastille, July 14th 1789, London: Faber and Faber, 1970

2. CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, London: Alison and Busby, 1980

3. M Vovelle, The Fall of the French Monarchy, Cambridge, 1987, p148; George Rudé, Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat, London: Collins, 1975, p102

4. Magali Morsy, North Africa 1800-1900: A Survey from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic, New York: Longman, 1984, p78

5. Tarikh Muddat al-Farnsis bi-Misr, quoted in Magali Morsy, North Africa 1800-1900: A Survey from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic, New York: Longman, 1984, p79

6. Magali Morsy, North Africa 1800-1900, p174 and p286

7. See for example, the discussion of the philologist and orientalist Ernest Renan, in Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1991, esp. pp 130-4. ‘The very category of “race” — denoting primarily skin colour was first employed as a means of classifying human bodies by François Bernier, a French physician, in 1684.’ Cornel West, ‘Race and Social Theory’, in Mike Davis et al (eds), The Year Left 2: An American Socialist Yearbook, London: Verso, 1987

8. Magali Morsy, North Africa 1800-1900, p160

9. Charles-Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present, London: Hurst and Company, 1990, p39

10. in a letter to the Minister of the Interior, 1877, Magali Morsy, North Africa 1800-1900, p286

11. Charles-Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria, p39

12. Charles-Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria, p53

13. In a letter to the government of Algeria, quoted in J-F Lyotard, Political Writings, London: UCL Press, 1993, p173

14. Ian Clegg, Workers’ Self Management in Algeria, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, p32

15. in 1959,J-F Lyotard, Political Writings, p248

16. quoted in Bernard Henri-Lévy, Adventures on the Freedom Road: French Intellectuals in the 20th Century, London: Harvill Press, 1995, p287

17. quoted in Bernard Henri-Lévy, Adventures on the Freedom Road, p286-7

18. Charles-Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria, p114; Ian Clegg, Workers’ Self Management in Algeria, p37

19. Henri Alleg, The Question, London: John Calder, 1958, p 47

20. London Spectator, 25 June 1994

21. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971, p251

22. Frantz Fanon, Towards the African Revolution, London: Writers and Readers, 1980, p78

23. Charles-Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria, p108

24. Roland Lew and Jean Pierre Garnier, From the Wretched of the Earth to the Defence of the West’ in Ralph Miliband et al (Eds)Socialist Register, London: Merlin, 1984, p 311

25. L’Humanité, November 5, 1955

26. Paris, March 17, 1957, quoted in Frantz Fanon, Towards the African Revolution, p 85

27. in Bernard Henri-Lévy, Adventures on the Freedom Road, p311. Jean François Lyotard makes the correct point that ‘solidarity between the proletariat of the old capitalist nations and the liberation movements of the young colonised nations does not appear spontaneously, because European workers do not have an active awareness of the shared goals of the colonial nationalist struggle’. Political Writings, p205. But Lyotard’s mistake was in thinking that any class-consciousness would appear spontaneously, without people arguing for it.

28. Michael Farrell, The Battle for Algeria, Belfast: Peoples Democracy, circa 1972, p15

29. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971, p67

30. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p30

31. Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction, Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p22

32. Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction, Henri Alleg, The Question, London: John Calder, 1958, p13-14

33. Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction, Henri Alleg, The Question, p23

34. Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction, Henri Alleg, The Question, p24

35. in Bernard Henri-Lévy, Adventures on the Freedom Road, p313

36. Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘The Diversionists’, originally published in Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 June 1977, reproduced in Political and Social Writings Volume 3, Minnesota: University Press, 1993, p274

37. Frantz Fanon ‘Algeria unveiled’ in, Studies in A Dying Colonialism, London: Earthscan, 1989, p62

38. Frantz Fanon ‘Algeria unveiled’ in, Studies in A Dying Colonialism, 1989, p46

39. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p254, 255

40. J-F Lyotard, Political Writings, p278

41. J-F Lyotard, Political Writings, p198

42. Roland Lew and Jean Pierre Garnier, ‘From the Wretched of the Earth to the Defence of the West’, Socialist Register, London: Merlin, 1984, p311

43. ‘The New Battle of France’, Labour Monthly, July 1958, p305

44. Michael Farrell, The Battle for Algeria, Belfast: Peoples Democracy, circa 1972

45. ‘The New Battle of France’, Labour Monthly, p304

46. RW Johnson, The Long March of the French Left, Macmillan, London, 1981, p.52