Recently Le Monde carried a story of a controversy that had broken out in France with the publication of the memoirs of a retired General who had fought against the FLN during the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s. In the book, Services Speciaux, Algerie 1955-1957, General Paul Ausaresses makes no apology for his "clinically detailed" accounts of the many "terrorists" he tortured and murdered. Such practices were authorised by ‘special powers’ passed by the French parliament in 1956. They have been suppressed or explained away in French schools as the response to "terrorism". They have been justified politically as ‘excesses’ which did not negate the positive achievements of French colonialism. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin as recently as December 2000, said that these atrocities were the acts of "deviations involving a minority". (Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2001)
While these confessions have raked over old scabs for many French people today, the use of torture was well documented during the war, by a Commission for the Protection of Individual Rights and Liberties in 1957, and by Franz Fanon a West Indian psychiatrist who observed the effects of torture and wrote condemning the practice while at the same time calling for an Algerian revolution of national liberation. Fanon is famously accused of advocating the use of violence against the colonial powers. Fanon recognised that the French would never hand over real power unless defeated. Fanon’s books Black Skin, White Masks, Wretched of the Earth, a Dying Colonisalism and Toward the African Revolution have become classics of national revolution. Fanon died at the age of 36 in 1961 the year before Algerian independence.
Torture was also featured in the film The Battle of Algiers made by Gillo Pontecorvo in the 1966. The film re-enacts the heroic urban insurrection in Algiers in 1957. The film portrays the liberation struggle from the colonised standpoint and counters the usual imperialist propaganda that colonials are backward, ignorant terrorists. It shows that the use of terror by the rebels was in response to the official terrorism of the French. The French used torture to extract information from suspects about the FLN leadership. Despite its mass following, the leadership was tracked down and ruthlessly eliminated by the military. The film demonstrates that unlike Vietnam where the French forces were defeated by a guerrilla army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in Algiers in the following years, the urban guerrillas were separated from some 30,000 guerrillas in the countryside by massive floodlit barbed wire fences, isolated and defeated.
France agreed to a Provisional Government in Algeria in 1958 and Muslim Algerians were granted full French citizenship. In 1959 De Gaulle accepted the right of Algeria to independence. The white settlers formed a terrorist force (the Secret Army Organisation or OAS) to oppose independence. They were defeated and on July 1 1962 a referendum on independence was won 6,000,000 votes for to only 16,000 against. The price of independence was more than 250,000 Muslim dead and over 10,000 French dead.
The price of colonisation is still being paid. Algeria has been riven by civil war and over 100,000 have been killed since 1992. As Fanon warmed the nationalist leaders are only interested in getting rich from independence. The so-called ‘socialist’ regime of the FLN became the basis for a rich ruling class exploiting a growing impoverished mass that became ripe for recruitments to Islamic fundamentalism. The army opposes the Islamic militants but both still employ the terrorist methods of the war of independence.
What the scandal over torture in the 1950s shows clearly is that it is imperialism that must be held responsible for terrorism and violence. It is a lie to claim that today’s terrorism is the product of a backward Islamic state that must be guided by the West through a process of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ towards standards of democracy and human rights that are the achievements of Western civilisation.
No! The truth is that Imperialism is the cause of systemic violence. Justice will not come until there is a Socialist Republic of Algeria, in a Federation of African Socialist Republics!
From Class Struggle No 39 June-July 2001