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Impossible Opposition: The Magic of the One-Party Regime

[Larbi Ben M'Hidi, Mohamed Boudiaf, Hocine Aït-Ahmed, Ahmed Ben Bella, Fathi Dib after a meeting on weapons transfer. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [Larbi Ben M'Hidi, Mohamed Boudiaf, Hocine Aït-Ahmed, Ahmed Ben Bella, Fathi Dib after a meeting on weapons transfer. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

[This is one of six pieces in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the anniversary of the Algerian Revolution. Moderated by Muriam Haleh Davis, it features contributions from Ed McAllisterJames McDougallMalika RahalNatalya VinceSamuel Everett, and Thomas Serres.]

Politically, 1962 represents the birth of an independent Algeria, under the leadership of an organization – the National Liberation Front (FLN) – that had been victorious in its competition against all other political parties. In fact, the only political party to avoid total defeat and disbanding in the competition against the FLN was the Algerian Communist Party (PCA).

The PCA went underground in 1955, after French authorities banned it. It created its own (small number of) combatant units, the Combattants de la Libération. The PCA-FLN agreement of June 1956 involved integration of the PCA combatant force into the National Liberation Army (ALN), and the interruption of any organic links with the party leadership that remained in Algiers.[1] By the end of the war, this leadership was composed of only a handful of activists including Sadek Hadjerès and Larbi Bouhali. Their project was to maintain various forms of non-armed mobilization to support the revolution. In a sense, in so doing, they were opposing the idea that the only thing that mattered was in fact armed struggle.

Obviously, the study of the PCA in relation to the FLN raises many questions about the nature of the FLN, about plurality and unanimity within the Algerian nationalist movement during the War of Independence. These questions are no longer new. However, because of its continued existence, looking at the communist movement after 1962 raises similar questions about the post-independence period: What is the nature of the FLN? Is it a party, a Front, or perhaps a vanguard party? It also raises questions pertaining to the nature of the Algerian regime in the first years of independence: Was it in fact a socialist regime? And if so, why were communists repressed? And finally, it raises questions about the strength of the unanimity surrounding the FLN, and therefore about the very possibility of opposing the FLN-regime.

After being banned, the PCA progressively came back to open activity in the intermediary period following the Evian agreements of March 1962. Communists were successful in attracting new members to the party, and in re-publishing the communist paper Alger Républicain. Their success was striking enough to worry the new and still shaky FLN authorities; as early as November 1962, only five months after independence, the PCA was banned again, though communists themselves were “tolerated.”

It was the military coup of 1965 bringing Boumediene to power, that changed things. Part of the PCA leadership chose to create an opposition organization to the coup, the Organization de la résistance populaire (ORP), in alliance with the left wing of the FLN. As a result, ORP leaders – most of which communists – were arrested, tortured, and put into house arrest for several years, bringing the PCA to its end.

In 1966 however, they created a new communist organization, the Parti de l’avant garde socialiste (PAGS) that was, and remained, underground until the establishment of a multi-party system in 1989. 

“Les Tâches d’Édification Nationales” 

When questioned about his past communist involvement, Salim* tells the story of how he came “back” to Algeria – a country he had never visited – from Marseille where he was born to an emigrant family.[2] He arrived by boat in the fall of 1962 and immediately started teaching in a school because teachers were so desperately needed after the departure of the French. He was later employed in the industry of tourism, where strategic decisions needed to be made as to how to manage the existing infrastructures (often abandoned by their French owners), and what type of tourism to develop in the future. He became a staunch advocate of national popular tourism, but was not able to prevail against the proponents of more luxurious international tourism. Salim* was arrested and tortured in the wake of the 1965 military coup, remaining in Boumediene’s prisons for several years. When he was finally freed, he (perhaps surprisingly) went back to working in yet another state administration.

Like Salim,* most former communist activists insist on the importance of their involvement, based on a strong sense of duty - a duty which was both political and professional, i.e. the construction of the state. In his memoir, Henri Alleg highlights the tasks that awaited the patriots after the end of the war and the internal conflicts of 1962:

Algeria as a whole was turning resolutely towards the future, to the point where the bloody events that followed independence appeared now only a distant nightmare. Everyone felt a form of elation, and felt it a moral duty to answer the call of the leaders to roll up their sleeves and take part in the work of rebuilding the country. Within a few months, abandoned land was plowed, three million hectares were sown. Destroyed villages had been rebuilt, we tackled the elimination of shantytowns, questions of education, health, and unemployment. To thwart drought, a massive reforestation program was launched and, in a festive atmosphere, hundreds of thousands of Algerian men and women, young and old, all of them volunteers, went to plant trees on lands stripped by the desert wind with the exulting feeling they were bringing life back to the land.[3]

The tasks listed by Henri Alleg are similar to those underlined by the other PCA and PAGS activists I have interviewed: agriculture (with a particular sense of urgency since if plowing was not organized in the fall, the production of an entire year would be lost with catastrophic consequences), rebuilding after the destructions of the war, education, health, and reforestation were the main focus in the “tâches d’édification nationale” (tasks of national construction).

At the core of these tasks was state-building. And indeed, many communists activists’ professional itineraries are a maze of acronyms referring to the many administrative bodies of the state in which they worked. Many of them were highly educated, others had been instructed by and in the party and were able to reuse in their jobs skills acquired through their activist experience. They always reported their professional activity to the party, and generally awaited party instructions – especially when it came to strategic decisions. As a result, in a one party regime, PAGSists took part in state administration, sometimes at a very high level. This raises the question of whether, despite arrests and torture, they really were in opposition to the regime.

Impossible Opposition

Jacques Choukroun was a communist who left Algeria in 1967. I asked him whether he had had the feeling of being in opposition to the regime, or to the FLN. His first answer was quite simple: “We were all revolutionaries.” He continued enthusiastically referring to Algeria’s first (FLN) president, Ahmed Ben Bella: “I was Ben-Bellist, of course. Every youth was Ben-Bellist. Ben Bella gave the most amazing speeches. He would say: “the train of revolution on the tracks of socialism!”

More specifically, he mentions leftward leaning members of the FLN, such as Mohammed Harbi, insisting on how similar their political views were, “we couldn’t see him as an opponent!” He adds: “We were under the impression that we were moving towards a fusion of all revolutionaries,” thus describing the political rapprochement later theorized by the PAGS leaders, who dubbed the left wing of the FLN the “démocrates revolutionnaires.”

Surprisingly, this connection between the FLN-state (or the state and the FLN) was rekindled even after the military coup of 1965 (despite repression, imprisonment and torture), when president Boumediene relied on the PAGS to promote his more left-leaning reforms such as the Agrarian revolution and the nationalization of oil and gas in 1971. For instance, the “Comités de volontariat” (the volunteer brigades), who were sent to the rural areas in order to support the peasants in their chores and spread the ideology supporting the Agrarian revolution, were organized by the PAGSists. Those were also the years when communists who had been detained in jail since 1965 sent letters of support (for the Agrarian revolution and Boumediene’s staunch attitude towards Israel) to the president.

But if the FLN leftwing and the PAGSists were so close, was there anything specific in being a communist? Ali,* a former activist in Algiers, explained: “Il faut que les gens sachent ce que c'est qu'un communiste: un communiste ma israqch, ma ikhtefch, ma ikhda‘ch, ma ihaggarch, voilà ce que c’est qu’un communiste. Izid min ‘andu drahm, ijri ‘ala en-nass.” (“People must know what a communist is: A communist is someone who does not steal, is not greedy or contemptuous of people, that is what a communist is. Someone who uses his own money [for the collective good], who goes out of his way to help people.”) Further in the conversation, Ali* added: “Socialism for me is compulsory education, work, to live well, and to eat well, and most importantly, equality.”

The absence of theoretical references to Marxism is striking in many narratives, though it is likely an effect of the collapse of the communist regimes at the end of the 1980s. And the innuendo behind the insistence on the moral aspects of past political involvement is obviously a critique of the present political situation in Algeria. With an emphasis on education, dignity, and equality, the vision of communist activism that comes across today is very close to the (nostalgic) vision of the Algerian state under Boumediene in the 1970s. In other words, formers activists’ narratives are not so much a reference to communism as a theory then a reference to a given period in time: the post-independence and the Boumediene period.

The Revolution of 1962

Referring to the first years (or even months) of independence, Jacques Choukroun told me about organizing film-clubs, watching and discussing films, books, and politics in the 1960s:  “It was constant effervescence. We lived three lives in one, we didn’t sleep much. It was a time of unbelievable excitement: we were convinced we were going to create something.”

If we go back to Henri Alleg’s quote, mentioned earlier about the list of state-building tasks awaiting patriots, there is something else happening in the text:

Algeria as a whole was turning resolutely towards the future, to the point where the bloody events that followed independence appeared now only a distant nightmare. Everyone felt a form of elation, and felt it a moral duty to answer the call of the leaders to roll up their sleeves and take part in the work of rebuilding the country. Within a few months, abandoned land was plowed, three million hectares were sown. Destroyed villages had been rebuilt, we tackled the elimination of shantytowns, questions of education, health, and unemployment. To thwart drought, a massive reforestation program was launched and, in a festive atmosphere, hundreds of thousands of Algerian men and women, young and old, all of them volunteers, went to plant trees on lands stripped by the desert wind with the exulting feeling they were bringing life back to the land.[4]

What Henri Alleg is describing is a similar festive atmosphere, the excitement, the over-activity, and under-sleeping, the sense of living more lives then one.

Arriving in Algiers, in the fall of 1962, Salim*, the man from Marseille, was immediately struck by a strong sense of belonging: people, he explained, were astonishingly nice and fraternal. “It was what I was dreaming of, you know, in our utopias. The society we were seeking for, it was here.”

Putting all of these elements together, the hope for the future, the elation, the excitement, the vitality of these first years, I was strongly reminded of work by sociologist Henri Desroche in the 1970s. Discussing Émile Durkhein, Henri Desroche described the emergence of millenarian movements (and political utopias which, he argues, function in similar ways).[5] They always emerge, Desroche claims, in periods of great excitement, effervescence, intellectual and spiritual agitation, times of political invention, imagination and great energy, which are very similar to what is describes by interviewees about the 1960s and 1970s in Algeria. Émile Durkheim himself wrote how he longed to experience such a period of time, when gods are invented, ideals are born, and utopias keep you awake: “A day will come when our societies will experience again the hours of creative effervescence during which new ideals will arise.” Durheim’s longing here echoes the nostalgia that so many people – beyond communist circles – express about the Boumediene period.

We historians have often explained that the FLN constructed its political legitimacy by embodying as completely as possible the experience of the bloody War of Independence. What I am arguing here, is that – while this remains perfectly true – there is something else that fortifies the FLN, and made it extremely difficult (and transgressive) to oppose it head-on, as few organizations did. How difficult it would have been to oppose a party (and indeed a regime) that managed not only to represent the war, but also to be at the heart of the moment. A moment marked by extreme enthusiasm for independence in the international context of socialism, Third-Worldism, and pan-Africanism. A moment that is – in and of itself – revolutionary, in the sense that it is, in fact, millenarian.

This begs the question of when this revolutionary period ended. When did this millenarian ointment, protecting the FLN, began to wear off, making less difficult for men and women “doing politics” to perceive themselves as opposing the regime? Was it after the coup d’état of 1965? Or after Boumediene’s death in 1978-79? Or during the revolts and riots of the 1980s?

Jacques Choukroun tells the story of Kateb Yacine, also a PAGSist, was asked to write in the French press following the repression of the October 1988 riots by the Algerian army. For a long time, Kateb refused. Despite being very critical of the regime in private, he talked to Choukroun about the impossibility of ever writing anything against the Algerian state. In the end he did write an article for Le Monde, a short, ambiguous and strange text, entitled “the FLN was betrayed.” “I have already said and written what I think,” he wrote, “a conscious Algerian can never be against the FLN, to whom we owe our independence.”[6] Unlike the youth who took to the streets in October, for men of his generation, the magic was still working.


[1] Hafid Khatib, 1er Juillet 1956: L’accord FLN-PCA (O.P.U, n.d.). How the Communist combatants were in fact integration in the National Liberation Army is too long a story for this contribution; but it is necessary to mention that a number of them were in fact physically eliminated by the FLN.

[2] First names bearing an asterisk have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people involved.

[3] Henri Alleg, Mémoire algérienne: Souvenirs de luttes et d’espérances (Paris: Stock, 2005), 361.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Henri Desroche, Sociologie de l’espérance (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1973).

[6] Yacine Kateb, “Le FLN a été trahi,” Le Monde, October 26, 1988.

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