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This book recovers the lost history of Algeria's communist movement and its complex relationship with Algerian nationalism. The movement's shifting fortunes reflected both Algeria's largely rural class structure and the country's complex national and international dynamics. Algeria's de facto colonial relationship with France was critical. Algeria's Communist movement began in 1920 with a virtually all European membership as a region of the Parti Communiste Franҫais (PCF). The Parti Communiste Algérien (PCA) formed in 1936 remained close to the PCF during the Popular Front and Second World War years. But from the late 1940s growing numbers of Muslims joined the PCA, attracted by its concern with social justice and alienated by the nationalist movement's factionalism. This demographic change compelled the PCA to address the issue of national liberation. With the launch of armed struggle in November 1954, the PCA faced a classic socialist dilemma – organisational autonomy or dissolution and merger into the broader Front de Libération National (FLN). Increasingly independent of the PCF, the PCA maintained its organisational autonomy, while participating fully in the war of independence. Despite suffering severe repression during the war, at independence Algerian Communists refused to disband, seeing themselves as part of a long-term socialist movement that could be rebuilt. While the FLN promoted a one-party socialist state, the PCA promoted a pluralist political system. The PCA's hopes for political pluralism were shattered when it was banned by the one-party state in November 1962. The June 1965 military coup shut down all public political space.
The French military conquest of Algeria was ruthless. Dispossessed of their land, peasants were pushed ever higher into mountainous areas. Many became agricultural workers on European-owned farms, migrant workers in France or moved to urban slums in search of work. By the early twentieth century urban Europeans had fused into a Catholic, albeit often secularised, pied-noir [black-foot] community of manual and whitecollar workers, artisans and shopkeepers. Racist contempt for the indigenous Muslim majority and Jewish minority was intrinsic to pied-noir identity. Thus, the urban proletariat reflected colonial dynamics − rigidly divided between European and Algerian, Christian, Jew and Muslim, living in proximity to and even alongside each other, yet never together. It was this class − as part of a French nation − that Algeria’s early socialists saw as their imagined community.
Communists necessarily proclaimed internationalism, but first and foremost they had to come to terms with the societies in which they lived and worked. Assessing their national conditions and proposing solutions to national problems were prerequisites for building a socialist movement. They faced a fundamental tension, however, between the Comintern’s declared project of applying uniform policies across all of its national sections and the specificity of their own national conditions, which necessitated the application and adaptation of Marxist ideas to very diverse environments. The introduction traces the PCA’s tentative and tardy efforts to imagine the Algerian nation – albeit a reflection of the country’s complex class, national and geopolitical circumstances – which inevitably impeded its ability to attract Algerians.
Energised by the December 1960 protests, the PCA increased its propaganda, aiming at Muslim youth. Against the backdrop of negotiations and terrorism, the PCA published its independence programme in April 1962. It envisioned an Algerian nation that was democratic, pluralist and multicultural, yet predominantly Arabo-Berber, and it called for an opening of public political space to be filled by Algerian voices. The PCA’s socialist ideas presumably influenced the FLN. However, the two organisations presented two opposing notions of socialism: while the FLN promoted a one-party socialist state, the PCA supported class struggle within a pluralist political system.
When the FLN launched armed struggle in November 1954, Communists were divided over participation in the guerrilla war. Rural Communists who worked with peasants and agricultural workers welcomed armed struggle from the start. But increasingly autonomous vis-à-vis the PCF, the PCA committed itself fully to the national liberation struggle. In June 1955 the PCA’s central committee agreed to form armed units – the Combattants de la libération [liberation fighters]. A minority of Communists argued that the Party should dissolve and that its members should join the FLN, but the majority agreed on the need for an independent communist party. The French state, concerned about communist-nationalist collusion during the Cold War, engaged in the fierce repression of communists. When the first Communist maquis was smashed, the Communist armed units merged into the FLN’s Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN). However, the PCA was caught between the French state’s fear of Soviet expansion and the FLN’s intolerance of Communism and political pluralism. Despite the merger of Communist fighters into the ALN, they often remained suspect in the eyes of ALN leaders, a suspicion that deepened after the 1956 Soummam Congress.
Algeria’s close geographic proximity to war-torn Europe meant that war-time conditions debilitated the tiny PCA, which was illegal from September 1939 until July 1943. As the war unfolded, and especially under the Vichy regime, the public political space that had opened up during the Popular Front period contracted. The PCA’s policy on independence changed substantially over the war years. From September 1939 until June 1941, the Comintern saw the war as the product of inter-imperialist rivalry. The PCA called for independence as a means of weakening French imperialism. But from June 1941, and especially after Algiers became the capital of Free France, French Communists succeeded once more in promoting their agenda within the diminished PCA, prioritising the anti-fascist struggle over independence. The PCF’s key role in the anti-fascist struggle meant that it emerged strengthened from the war. By contrast, the PCA’s back-pedalling on independence and its vitriol against organisations that rejected its priorities led Algerian nationalists to view it with suspicion and mistrust.
With the prestige of its role in the Resistance, the PCF might have briefly felt close to state power. But the PCA’s relationship to the state was profoundly different. For the PCA, the war’s end raised the prospect of again prioritising the anti-colonial struggle, whose marginalisation had alienated nationalists. The departure of French Communists for France facilitated the PCA’s autonomy, which increased as the PCF became increasingly concerned with Cold War politics. In 1945 the PCA wrongly blamed Algerian nationalist provocations for the Sétif massacre in which French troops and European settlers killed many thousands of Muslims. But from 1946 the PCA pursued an aggressive policy of indigenisation that significantly increased Algerian membership while European membership declined. As prospects for electoral reform proved barren, Communists and nationalists faced the same dilemma: how to fight against colonialism and for democratic rights from within an increasingly authoritarian system. The PCA pursued a multi-pronged campaign for democratic rights. This vision reflected a dual notion − freedom from repression and freedom to develop.
The vast terrain, limited infrastructure, rigidly-divided urban working class and overwhelmingly rural population made the diffusion of socialist ideas extremely difficult. When the PCF’s Algerian region was launched in 1920, its European membership felt that revolution in France was a prerequisite for a socialist Algeria that would remain part of France. Under pressure from the Comintern, which saw anti-colonial and national liberation struggles as means of weakening imperialism, Communists in Algeria eventually adopted a policy in support of Algerian independence. However, their call for independence and their anti-colonial opposition to the Rif War precipitated the wrath of the French state, which subjected them to heavy repression, with prison sentences of up to two years. Together with purges resulting from the Comintern’s New Line, the Algerian communist movement was decimated by 1930.
In the 1930s impoverished rural Algerians swarmed into already densely-populated urban areas. The traditional medina became both ruralised and Europeanised. The new urbanites maintained tight networks with their rural relatives, linking town and countryside ever more closely, while urban public space expanded. Initially, in the late 1920s, the Communist demand for independence had led to their severe repression. However, as public political space expanded in the mid-1930s, the Party attracted Algerian members precisely because of its call for independence; an autonomous Algerian Communist Party was launched in 1936. Although most Algerian nationalist leaders were not then calling for independence, appeals to fight colonialism and to demand independence struck an emotional chord with politicised Algerians. Nonetheless, the Comintern’s popular front strategy, developed in France, had an inherent European bias. This partiality was seen both in the focus on an anti-fascist struggle based primarily in a Europe dependent on colonial resources and in the damping down of the demand for Algerian independence to avoid alienating European settlers concerned with fighting fascism. Thus, the PCA’s organisational autonomy did not mean political autonomy.
Reflecting Comintern pressure, in the early 1930s the urban-oriented Communist movement began organising peasants and agricultural workers in the Mitidja and other rural areas against expropriation and used electoral campaigns to promote their ideas. The Mitidja case signalled the importance of alliances, both for peasants and for Communists, who were most successful when they engaged in with land, national and religious struggles that reinforced each other. But by the mid-1930s the overwhelmingly European Communist movement, predisposed to prioritise urban workers and with little desire to traverse the rough roads and mountainous terrain by bus or donkey, refocused on the towns. Nonetheless, the political triangle of city – countryside – mountain was in place.