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The Colonial System and Algerian Nationalism.

“[A]nd each day hundreds of new orphans, Arabs and French, awakened in every corner of Algeria, sons and daughters without fathers who would now have to learn to live without guidance and without heritage”
– Albert Camus, ‘The First Man’.

In the early months of 1958, Hneri Alleg’s La Question was published in France and caused an immediate scandal for its first-hand description of torture by the French military in Algeria. For Alleg, the scourge of institutionalized torture not only afflicted the native Algerians, but functioned as “a school of perversion for young Frenchman”. In the long course of the war (1954-1962), dehumanization of the enemy led to increasingly brutal manifestations of violence. Albert Camus bemoaned the war for its extreme tactics and for severing two interconnected communities. However, these two communities, the indigenous and the European, had never constituted an organic whole. Part of the strategic logic of Nationalist terrorism was to provoke a heavy-handed French response that illuminated and reinforced the schism between the French setter and the suspect ‘Arab’, thereby provoking greater collective self-consciousness. The instance of Algerian nationalism, of the struggle for independence can be interpreted as an instance of social imagination postulating a new societal form. In a limited sense this is accurate, but in the stronger sense employed by Cornelius Castoriadis it is not. Algerian nationalism was determining, but it was also determined, and it yields to rational explanation. To understand the violence of the Algerian war, the birth of Algerian nationalism, one must understand the logic of colonialism and the Algerian experience of colonial domination.

The initial step toward Algeria’s experience of colonial domination came in 1830, when a fleet of five hundred French ships landed an army near the peninsula of Sidi-Ferruch. The rationale for the invasion was largely based upon domestic concerns and the need to solidify the July Monarchy. From the outset there was no overall plan to the conquest and debate ensured between those who advocated total occupation of Algeria, and those who merely wanted to maintain a limited foot-hold along the Mediterranean coastline. Those whom advocated total occupation finally won the day and the French army took to the task and fought a protracted war against the emir Abd al-Qādir, who employed tactics similar to those used by Jugurtha against Marius in the Jugurthine War. Ultimately, the Emir’s strategy succumbed to the same fate of Jugurtha’s campaign. French troop numbers increased to 107,000 in 1847 (the year Abd Al- Qādir was defeated), and by 1857, the Kabyles were subdued and in 1871 the last revolt was suppressed. It wasn’t until shortly after 1900 that the area now known as Algeria was completely under French control . Nevertheless, the era of colonial rule, and the process of colonization was ushered in well before the finalization of French conquest of ‘Algeria’.

From the commencement of French colonization there were deliberate efforts to destabilize and undermine the social structures of indigenous tribal society. Central to this endeavour were two key manoeuvres; the destruction of the indigenous elite and the introduction of private property in lieu of communal ownership and its complex arrangement of interconnected rights and obligations. France’s dispossession of Algeria’s traditional elite had the unintended result of depriving France of an easy means to control the population at large. Victorian Britain maintained its rule in India, a population of approximately 250 million, with 900 civil servants and 70,000 British soldiers . In part this was achieved by the integration of indigenous elites into the re-organized power structures. For the most part France maintained control with overwhelming force and the denial of political rights, this was immensely inefficient. Moreover, France’s inability or unwillingness to integrate Algeria’s educated elites on an equitable basis would prove a key failing in their colonial policy. Concurrent with the elimination of the indigenous elite, and perhaps more important, was the introduction of private property.

Two pieces of legalisation, the Senatus Consulte of 22 April 1863 and the Senatus Consulte of 14th 1865, were instrumental in instituting private property and further administrative integration of Algeria into metropolitan France. An advocate of 1863 Senatus Consulte, A. De Broglie said the legalisation aimed “to cause a general liquidation of the land” by individualizing property where possible and in consequence freeing up of land for potential emigrants from Europe. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that these laws had the express logic of enabling land-speculators to buy up indigenous land piecemeal . It was relayed that the Ouled Rechaich upon hearing the news that the new laws of 1863 applied to them were thrown into frightful despair, for they knew, wrote Captain Vaissière, that it amounted to the “death sentence of the tribe” . Indeed, economic ‘liberalization’ was to have grave repercussions for the tribal system and the development of the colonial system.

With the destruction of tribal social structures, and the further penetration French colonizers (colons) with their new forms of agricultural production the natives were dispossessed of their lands in droves and transformed into a rural proletariat. The Historian Alistair Horne reiterated the French statistics on land ownership in 1954, which stated that 25% of land was owned by 2% of the population . The average size of farm land owned were 123.7 hectares for European settlers and 11.6 for Muslims. European settlers often occupied the more fertile regions, and therefore average earnings per hectare were much higher. In 1880, large sections of the French wine industry were affected by the Phylloxera disease which allowed for the development of wine vineyard in Algeria . With the European colonizers concentrated in the costal regions and areas given to the production of highly profitable crops (such as wine) and with the natives pushed further and further out of these areas, there accordingly developed a “geographical form of segregation”. Moreover, there developed a wide disparity between average wage earnings between each community, by 1955 the average Muslim earned 16,000 francs per year, compared with 450,000 francs for the average European in Algeria . In March of 1955, Messali Hadj leader of the Mouvement national algérien (Algerian National Movement, or MNA) placed economic concerns above the issue of political rights, for Messali economic marginalization was the unavoidable result of the colonial system.

The roots of indigenous marginalization lay in the unequal distribution of land, but it was also compounded by unemployment and underemployment. In 1954, 90% of industrial and commercial activity was run by Europeans, Europeans which amounted to 11% of the population held 42% of all industrial jobs. Combined with this limited and diminishing economic foundation, the Muslim population where driven further still into poverty by an exponential birth-rate. The logic of colonialism had led to the pauperization of the indigenous population. Albert Memmi has noted that, despite the obvious economic structures that condition the lives of the colonized, the colonizers developed a “mythical” conception of the colonized that explained their plight by reference to their indolent dispositions. In turn, this validates their own privilege and wealth by reference to their own industry and superior character. While Memmi acknowledged that “the essence of colonization was not the prestige of the flag, nor cultural expansion”, and asserted the primacy of economic profit and privilege at the heart of colonialism, he also acknowledged the importance of colonial mentalities that shape the daily interaction between colonizer and colonized.

For Memmi, the colonizer and the colonized comprise a dialectical nexus, in which one is defined by the other. The colonizer and the colonized are diametrical opposites, situated upon either side of the same circle. Memmi relays a series of binary opposition to elucidate his point: “If his” - the colonizer - “living standards are high; it is because those of the colonized are low” and so forth. He comes to the conclusion that: “the more freely he” – the colonizer – “breathes, the more the colonized are choked”. This inverse relation, between the usurper and the subjugated, or to use Memmi’s terminology, the colonizer and the colonized was not the symbiotic relationship imagined by the defenders of the imaginary of “Algérie française”. For whom, French Algeria represented the unique creation of a cultural synthesis, that merged two historically distinct communities into the equivalent of a gestalt. However, this vision proved problematic given the inherent logic of colonialism and the marginalization of the indigenous population. French Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu argued, functioned more like a caste system than a unified totality.

For Bourdieu, French Algeria was reminiscent of a caste system in that its two “communities” were marked out at birth into two distinct categories, which took on the appearance of relations between superiors and inferiors. This categorization was based upon ethic background and therefore the physical appearance of the individual was a key determinate in their status. The migration from the inferior status to that of superior was all but impossible. Given the historical construction of these two communities, there inevitably developed a feeling of natural superiority among the Europeans and some have argued more controversially, inferiority among the colonized. Memmi argued that there was an element of truth in the notion of the “dependency complex” and “coloizability”, in that the colonized would often comport themselves to the situation of colonization and fulfil the role assigned to them. The important point here is that the colonial mentality, both of the colonizer and the colonized, is the result of the colonial experience.

In 1930, on the centenary of the French invasion, there were a series of celebration to commemorate the assimilation of Algeria into France, and moreover, to celebrate the accomplishment of Europe’s introduction of culture and industry to the native population. The eminent Algerian nationalist Ferhat Abbas, some time later, characterized the preceding as “organized in the best of racist styles”. alternatively, Professor Gautier of the University of Algiers, in 1931published a pamphlet that outlined the great works of France and liken them to the civilising influence of ancient Rome who had conquered the same territory generation upon generation before. Professor Gautier’s self-congratulation, along with that of the entire colonial establishment was profoundly missed placed. The 1930’s saw the rapid growth in Algerian nationalisms and by 1935 there were laws drawn up to prosecute anyone who provoked the colonized to civil disobedience . The irony of French self-congratulation and the gradual growth of Algerian nationalism is that the latter resulted from the hollowness of the former. It was the denial of substantive integration that led to the rejection of ‘Algérie française’.

Within the political currents of the indigenous population there were two distinct threads, an Islamic traditionalism that asserted the importance of cultural integrity and Muslim identity and those who agitated for greater equality and assimilation. The liberal politician Ferhat Abbas, while he maintained the pretence of links to his Islamic heritage, was an advocate of integration and assimilation, but only upon more equitable grounds. In 1936, Abbas made the statement that: “Had I discovered the Algerian nation, I would be a nationalist and I would not blush as if I had committed a crime…one cannot build on wind” . That same year, with the collapse of blum-viollette bill, that aimed to further integrate Algeria into metropolitan France, Abbas became disillusioned with the policy of assimilation and France’s repeated rebuffs of the reform movement. With this turn of events, Abbas discovered his Algerian nation, and his Algerian nationalism.

Ferhat Abbas’s shift from advocating assimilation to independence was emblematic of a generational shift in Algerian politics. However, those who advocated the use of violence to gain independence were differentiated from those who supported peaceful means to attain equalitarian assimilation or national self-determination in many respects. Most importantly, there were differences in terms of both, socio-economic strata and levels of education . The militants that would comprise the leadership of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) were not members of the professional elite; neither for the most part did they originate from the illiterate peasantry. The liberal and radical politicians, who maintained the importance of legality and the use of peaceful method to attain their ends, were often highly educated and occupied, like Abbas, converted administrative positions where often suspected that their open disapproval of French rule, belied there attachment to the colonial establishment that satisfied their own interests. William B. Quandt has argued, in his study of the socialization process and psychological dispositions that what commonly differentiated the militant’s of the FLN from the traditional Algerian politicians was a greater sense of personal injury and indignation with regards to the colonial system . Of course, as Bourdieu noted: “individual conflicts were based on objective situations which conditioned all the dramas that went on in men’s consciousness” . Indignation and sense of injury derive from the objective conditions of the colonial situation. It is a misapprehension of the roots of the Algerian conflict to place the onus of explanation, or non-explanation upon the manifestation of individual aggression and inner turmoil. Algerian nationalism was result of the colonial situation that denied the native population substantive engagement in political life. The colonized imagined national conflict, Memmi posited, because it was a form of conflict from they could not be excluded.

The repeated attempts to reform the colonial system from within the systems mechanisms had proved futile. In the aftermath of the Second World War, all routes of advancement of the Algerian concerns seemed obstructed by colonialist opposition. The Professional elite were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political process and the ideals of assimilation and the imaginary of Algérie française. This imaginary vision of the colonial system had proved bankrupt. French Algeria and its two communities did not constitute a harmonious whole, in actuality the dialectic that tied the colonizer and to the colonized functioned by their mutual exclusion and inverse condition. If the French colons benefited it was by the dispossession of the Algerians. In Bourdieu’s terms, the colonial situation was characterized by a caste system; it marked out individuals by birth and consigned to them the status of superior or inferior. For many, this situation was unbearable and Politicians agitated for the realization of greater equality. But this was contrary to the logic of colonialism and Algerian marginalization was to be overcome it required definitive breaks with the colonial situation. It required the ability to imagine beyond the confines of the colonial system. In essence the violence of the Algerian struggle for independence reflected three things: the deepening material deprivation of the native population, the obstinate colonial establishment and the ability of the Algerian nationalists to imagine French Algeria without the French.

Written by Mathew Toll.


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