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Michael Harrington

Magazine Chronicle

The Algerian Revolution

(Summer 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 3, Summer 1957, pp. 199–201.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

FOR SOME TIME NOW, THE European socialist press has been involved in a sharp conflict over the various tendencies in the Algerian resistance movement. The question is not so much one of which program is better, that of the Front of National Liberation (FLN) or the Algerian National Movement of Messali Hadj (MNA); rather it turns on the facts themselves. Which tendency is the strongest?

The June 6th issue of France Observateur carried a long article by Giles Martinet on the relative strength of the two organizations. According to Martinet, 80 per cent of the forces in Algeria itself are under the control of the FLN. At the same time, he points out that among the ranks the distinction between the FLN and MNA is not as marked as in the leadership: many who fight in units of the FLN look to Messali as the great leader of the Algerian revolutionary movement. Still, Martinet feels that he can speak of the “incontestable supremacy of the National Liberation Front.”

Yet Martinet nevertheless reports some of the facts about the Front which he finds disturbing. He notes, for example, that the Front claims the exclusive right to negotiate with the French on the question of independence; also that a majority of Frontists are cool to the plan put forward by Bourguiba of Tunisia which places a significant emphasis on holding free elections as soon as possible. The MNA, on the other hand, has been more forthright in its willingness to call for immediate free elections, and to guarantee the political rights of minorities within Algeria.

But one recent fact is embarrassing to Martinet’s estimation of the weakness of the MNA. In his discussion (published in early June), he wrote that the influence of the Messalists had declined precipitously in France itself, a traditional center of backing for the MNA. Unfortunately for Martinet’s point of view, the first Congress of the Algerian trade unionists took place during the very month that his article was published. The USTA (Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Algériens) is not only pro-Messali; it is apparently a viable organization with mass support among the Algerian workers in France.

Another view, which agrees with Martinet’s estimation of the actual relationship of forces in Algeria but works on different premises, is that of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). According to Werner Plum, writing in the German trade union publication, Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte, the Messalist tendency is “anarchist” and has little or no importance in Algeria. This article makes it plain that the official support of the ICFTU is to the Front in Algeria. It is all the more interesting when one considers that the French Communist Party, and the Communists in Algeria, are also partisans of the Front as opposed to the MNA. (Jay Lovestone, that ubiquitous figure who stands on the far anti-Communist right of the American trade-union movement, is also pro-Front, a fact which stands in interesting relation to his super intransigence on the Communist issue.)

On the other side, the strongest support for the MNA in France has come from the left socialists. The Trotskyists of La Verité have been outspoken in their defense of the Messalist tendency. And in the June issue of La Commune (organ of the newly formed Liaison and Action Committee for Worker’s Democracy), there are two articles which argue the case for the MNA. One of these, by Yves Dechezelles, includes a biting and incisive attack upon Giles Martinet and his reporting on France Observateur.

According to Dechezelles, Martinet and France Observateur have been involved in a sort of conspiracy of silence on the subject of the MNA. They feel that the Front is the “wave of the future” in Algeria, and as a result, they are prepared to ignore the MNA altogether. In particular, the whole question of Melouza (the Algerian town where a massacre took place; according to the MNA, it was an action of the Frontists against the Messalists) has been passed over without any real concern being shown. At the same time, Dechezelles recognizes that the refusal of the ICFTU to admit the MNA trade union, and its siding with the Front, was a blow to the Messalists. But he holds that it was not a final or decisive one.

More importantly, Dechezelles goes into the question of democracy and the FLN at greater length than Martinet. For him:

“The anti-colonialism of the Messalists is based upon democratic principles. It is opposed to racism and fascism. For the MNA, the Europeans of Algeria are Algerians just as much as anyone else. The MNA is opposed to blind terrorism which attempts to create a general sentiment of insecurity among the Europeans ...”

On the other hand, he finds that the FLN has attracted all kinds of elements, from the bourgeoisie to the Communists, and that it is unwilling to come out and make an authoritative, principled statement on the question of democracy.

It is always difficult to determine the complex interaction of tendencies at a distance. And the European press, as can be seen from the above, is literally a babel of voices on the question of the relative merits and strength of the MNA and the FLN. And yet, the information which is available has the general effect of confirming the independent socialist support of the MNA. It is not simply that Messali, and his followers, have put forward a social, and socialist, program, though that is significant. But the undeniable and controlling fact which is immediately present is the difference between the two programs on the question of free elections. A sympathizer of the Front, like Martinet, is forced to admit that the Frontists regard themselves as having some kind of exclusive right to negotiate, and that they are, at least, cool to the proposal for immediate free elections.

At the same time, it should be obvious that the Front has rallied considerable support and from the strangest and most antagonistic quarters: from Nasser; from the Communists; from the Algerian bourgeoisie; from the ICFTU. Such a catch-all front can only unite on the basis of suppressing serious differences. The forthright stand of the Messalists is far superior to such a situation.

The tragic part of this whole development is, of course, the fact that the internal struggle within the Algerian movement has aided the cause of French imperialism in Algeria. And yet, a policy of simply forgetting the profound antagonisms based on very real differences – a policy which Martinet tends toward – is ruled out of the question The Algerian revolution is not simply a question of freeing the land from France; it also raises the issue of how this will be done, of what form the newly independent nation will take. And given this problem, the position of the MNA, despite the arguments of Martinet and the ICFTU, remains clearly superior to that of the Frontists

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