On the fifty year anniversary of Algerian independence, Solidarity looks at the limits of Algeria’s national liberation struggle and change within the framework of capitalism
Fifty years ago Algerians won independence after a long war of national liberation against France. But the hopes of change then stand in stark contrast to today, as revolt continues to rock North Africa and the Middle East against authoritarian regimes.
Algeria became independent in 1962. But the Front de Liberation National (FLN) led this nationalist revolution by establishing elite militant forces in the countryside, rather than focusing on mobilising the mass of Algerians.
Today the FLN is a military dictatorship that has welcomed savage neo-liberal restructuring and ruthlessly oppresses its own people.
The degeneration of the FLN reveals the limits of national liberation, and the similar process that took place after independence in other post-colonial countries like Egypt, Indonesia or Zimbabwe. This points to need for a fight capable of truly providing a just society in these parts of the world.
In 1830 colonial France invaded Algeria, taking almost two decades to crush local resistance. During the French occupation more than half of the indigenous Muslim population were killed in bouts of mass violence, starvation and disease.
The French seized Algeria’s fertile land and used it for the production of luxury goods for export to France. European settlers grew to around 10 per cent of the population, and excluded the Muslim Algerian majority from jobs and education.
The French government claimed it was on a “civilising mission” in Algeria, but in fact their rule was anything but civilised. Before the invasion literary stood at 40 per cent, but in 1950 only 25 per cent of the population was literate in Arabic, and only 10 per cent in French.
The liberation of Europe at the end of the Second World War signalled hope among Europe’s colonies about the potential for their own liberation.
On Victory Day in 1945 the police opened fire on 5000 peaceful Algerian demonstrators who dared to carry their national flag.
Reacting to the shootings and decades of accumulated bitterness, violence and arrogance from the settlers, the local population rebelled against the colonists. An uprising spread across the region involving over 50,000 people.
The settlers retaliated with brute force, bombing Algerian villages indiscriminately. The attacks on the civilian population were random punishments rather than targeted towards the initial rioters, and were designed to teach the Algerian masses a lesson. The French released German and Italian prisoners of war especially so they could participate in these massacres.
Even by the most conservative estimates the settlers killed 50 Muslims for every one European killed in the initial riot.
The crackdown sent a very clear message that French colonialism planned to continue ruling with an iron fist. It also showed Algeria’s developing national liberation movement that a peaceful transition to independence would be impossible.
Algeria in revolt
The FLN soon grew to be leading force in the nationalist movement. Its emergence came on the back of France’s 1954 defeat at Diên Biên Phu in Vietnam, signalling the beginning of the end for French colonialism.
Within the FLN there were competing ideas about how to win independence. Revolutionary leader Abane Ramdane argued at the FLN’s 1956 Soumman Congress that they needed not only military tactics but a political strategy. He stressed the need to mobilise in the cities and towns.
In 1957 the Battle for Algiers, the Algerian capital, began. The FLN combined guerrilla warfare with support from urban workers, who staged an eight-day general strike.
But the French brutally smashed the uprising, with settlers hunting down the FLN leadership, either executing or exiling them. This, combined with the FLN’s political confusion on how to move forward, led them to shift their focus away from urban areas to rural guerrilla warfare.
Their military campaign drew in thousands of ordinary Algerians. Over 11,000 women joined it, transforming the perception of women in Algerian society and relationships between men and women.
The FLN suffered continual military defeats at the hands of the French. But the ongoing war created a serious political crisis for the French ruling class, and it became clear that the FLN would continue to fight. The war became increasingly unpopular amongst the army and in France itself.
But it was overwhelming opposition amongst the entire Algerian population that made continued French rule impossible. This was proven again in December 1960 when a visit to the country by French President Charles de Gaulle was met by protests, riots and strikes.
The FLN’s leadership was made up of European-educated intellectuals like first Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella. Like many other national liberation organisations of the time, the FLN saw their role as winning national independence on behalf of the masses, rather than them playing an active and leading part.
British socialist Tony Cliff described organisations like the FLN: “They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self-conscious and freely associated people result in a new world themselves.”
Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born revolutionary and post-colonial theorist, was heavily involved in the FLN. In his book The Wretched of the Earth Fanon pointed to the weakness of these FLN leaders who were, “only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial power hands out to it. This get rich quick middle class shows itself incapable of great ideas or of inventiveness. It remembers what it has read in European textbooks and imperceptibly it becomes not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature.”
The FLN followed the top-down “state socialist” ideas modelled on Russian Stalinism that stressed national economic development. Although it had wealth and land redistribution aims, once in power the FLN focused on rapidly building up heavy industry and strengthening the Algerian economy. This reflected the aspirations of the FLN’s middle class base and their desire to replace the French as an Algerian ruling class.
The liberation of the Algerian working class became secondary to economic growth. This led the FLN to develop a state bureaucracy to squash working class resistance whenever it conflicted with national economic growth. This set them on the path of making peace with capitalism and imperialism and becoming the hardened dictatorship of today.
When the French settlers withdrew they left Algeria in economic chaos. Under French rule Muslims were excluded from all but the worst jobs, so the departure of the European workforce left a skills chasm. Seventy per cent of Algerians were left unemployed.
The FLN’s Ben Bella government took ownership of the remaining private property and nationalised industry and social services. He pursued “l’autogestion”, redistributing land to poor farmers with a level of self-management.
In 1965 General Houari Boumédiènne ousted Ben Bella, shifting the FLN’s focus away from the countryside and towards heavy industry, nationalising Algeria’s vast oil and gas reserves. But the dividends remained in the hands of the FLN elite.
Boumédiènne consolidated state power and crushed any opposition. The Communist Party was banned and the General Union of Algerian Workers collapsed into the government.
Two decades of state-led development failed to provide a better life to the mass of Algerians. Yet Algeria has huge natural gas and oil resources, supplying the majority of Portugal, Spain and Italy’s gas, and a quarter of the EU’s gas overall.
“Algerian Socialism” was replaced with a Five Year Plan of trade and industry liberalisation. In 1986 oil prices dropped and the food queues grew, prompting a wave of savage privatisations beginning with agriculture and moving up to the banks. Between 1987 and 1996 household income dropped by 36 per cent and unemployment rose well over 30 per cent. Further neo-liberal restructuring under the auspices of the IMF and the EU threw half a million people out of work.
The consequences of a middle class-led “revolution” that attempted to compete within the system of global capitalism had become clear.
In 1988 Algerians fought back against the FLN’s one-party neo-liberal rule with a series of strikes, demonstrations, riots and student walk-outs. The army brutally repressed the rebellion, killing 500 and arresting over 3000. Afterwards the government granted some formal democratic reforms and legalised opposition forces.
In particular the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) grew in the 1980s and 1990s. Much to the dismay of the FLN the Islamists made sweeping victories in local and national elections. The FLN declared these elections void and civil war between the two forces lasted a decade.
The FIS filled the political chasm left by years of suppression of opposition movements. But the FIS faces the same basic contradictions as the FLN. Both aim for the unity of all Algerians, whether on national or religious grounds, and neither recognise the incompatibility between the interests of the mass of Algerian workers and the rich.
The struggle today
Today Algeria is still ruled by the FLN. Rigged elections, state violence and unemployment are rife.
In 2011 as revolution rocked neighbouring Tunisia, Algerians led their own protests against he FLN’s authoritarian rule. One protester said:
“We’re rioting because we do not trust the government. The next ten years will be the same as the previous ten. Our choices are to move to Europe or go to prison”.
To defeat the FLN’s military dictatorship and put Algeria’s oil and gas wealth into the hands of ordinary Algerians will require a socialist revolution led from below by the working class.
The strike waves that have followed the Egyptian revolution and the ongoing upheavals across the region show the possibilities for this round of Arab revolutions to grow into a struggle for a socialist society run in the interests of the majority.