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Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria

It is held in some circles that anarchism, like Marxism, is a form of thought and praxis that originated in nineteenth-century Europe and as such is inseparably related to this social milieu; interventions and mobilizations taken outside of this geographical-historical intersection, however strongly critical they be of patriarchy, the State, and capital, are in patronizing manner considered not to be anarchist.

“It is time to destroy the prisons and the world that goes with them.”

– L’Organisation Communist Libertaire, commenting on Kabylia’s Black Spring, 2001

It is held in some circles that anarchism, like Marxism, is a form of thought and praxis that originated in nineteenth-century Europe and as such is inseparably related to this social milieu; interventions and mobilizations taken outside of this geographical-historical intersection, however strongly critical they be of patriarchy, the State, and capital, are in patronizing manner considered not to be anarchist. This raises the question of ethnocentrism among self-identified proponents of anarchist social philosophy—a concern that is not without its historical basis, given that even the Spanish anarchists of the CNT and the FAI refused seriously to consider emancipating Spain’s colonies in Morocco as part of the radical socio-political program it would counterpose to feudalism and capitalism in the Iberian peninsula.1 These glaring trends are ones that anarchist academic David Porter confronts and challenges strongly with his Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria, an extensive work that examines the various dramas of modern Algerian history and the engagement by French anarchist observers of this. In broad terms, it can be said that Porter in this work seeks to advance a mutual enrichment between established Western anarchist perspectives with the effectively anarchist practices seen in the Algerian context after the military defeat of Nazism in Europe, in addition to challenging the reactionary tendency of residents and workers of core Western societies to identify with the colonial projects promoted by their ruling classes as well as showing the potential of anarchism’s relevance to the lives of the social majorities of the world—following in the example of the CNT-FAI in Spain.

As Porter’s volume explores, Algeria’s case is one that in the main largely followed the trend observed since formal independence in many formerly colonized societies, this despite the explosive antiauthoritarianism that seems to have motivated much of the dramatic independence struggle itself against French military rule. Put simply, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), which in Leninist style organized armed struggle against French rule, developed after independence into an exploitative, capitalo-feudalist and misogynistic dictatorship that is the very negation of the liberty and solidarity of anarchist philosophy, let alone the radical-reconstructive expectations that underpinned the sustained insurrectional resistance of the Algerians during the independence war of 1954 to 1962). Notwithstanding this regression to a neo-liberal comprador elite supported by the West that would dedicate itself above all else to perpetuating its privilege and dealing with its challenges to its rule in much the same way that Israel treats the Palestinians, however, and as with the example of Yemen’s becoming the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic after freeing itself from British domination in 1967, Algeria’s history since formal independence has been marked by an impressive myriad of counter-hegemonic and anarchistic social efforts, embodying the dialectical hopes for egalitarianism, solidarity, and social freedom expressed by Algerian Arabs and other ethnic minorities—particularly the Kabyles (Berbers) residing in Algeria’s eastern Kabylia region—during the independence struggle and thereafter, and as observed by French onlookers of the events in Algeria from 1954 onward. Examples of these compelling social forms examined by Porter in Eyes to the South are the emergence of the mass-democratic autogestion movement for workers’ self-management following the exodus of French settler-capitalists after 1962; women’s autonomous struggles against Islamist patriarchy; and the federated, insurrectional resistance among the Kabyles in opposition to to Arab chauvinism and the post-colonial Algerian State—especially the aarch movement which arose through the Black Spring of 2001.

Beyond considering the various affirmations and negations of Algerian post-independence history, Porter with Eyes to the South explores self-identified French anarchist intellectual and collective engagement with developments in France’s former North African colony, as with modern realities in France directly related to Algeria (immigration, for example) and less so (May 1968): this exegesis of the trajectory of certain strains of the post-war French anarchist left could perhaps be termed Porter’s second pole in the work—one that is reminsicent of his work on Emma Goldman’s engagement with the Spanish anarchist revolution of 1936, Vision on Fire. Eyes to the South is very well-written, and a compelling and intruiging read to boot; beyond being of great historical interest, though, many of the arguments it presents are also direly important, given the dire present need to “decolonize anarchism,” as Maia Ramnath writes in her recent eponymous book examining the antiauthoritarianism seen in the drama of India’s independence. As she argues, and as we can readily see in reflecting on global society’s prevailing hegemonic forms, there is presently a dire need to destroy all forms of colonialism—to decolonize everything—given the grim considerations that cannot be far from our minds: principally, that the “vast peripheries” of the world are the sites of “disaster, massacre, war, and mass displacement,” as the French anarchist grouping No Pasarán has it, and moreover considering that capital and the State continue to threaten humanity and life itself with the specters of environmental destruction and nuclear war, as Noam Chomsky and other serious commentators have rightly warned.2

To turn, then, to Porter’s work: as is well-known, the beginning of the Algerian insurrection against French rule in 1954—a development the French Communist Party would infamously never welcome or endorse—provoked a brutally repressive response on the part of the French imperial military, one that would in sum kill up to a million Algerians and displace 3 million others, with fifty to sixty thousand deaths among French soldiers and settlers. The famous left-wing intellectual Daniel Guérin, a former Trotskyist who later would become an anarchist, is right, as Porter cites him as arguing, to compare the crimes of French colonialism against Algeria and its peoples with those of fascism on the European continent a mere decade previously—thus linking liberal capitalism with totalitarian imperialism, as other thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Herbert Marcuse have done, and as Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers does clearly.3 However reasonable this association would seem to be, Porter shows this critical-humanist spirit to have been largely absent among most French persons at the time, including intellectuals nominally dedicated to social critique. The average French citoyen seems not to have wanted to know of the extent of barbarity that her government’s military was committing in Algeria—the very reason for which Norman Finkelstein identifies the mainstream French response to the Algerian war, like that of U.S. society faced with the genocidal war on Vietnam, as not having been terribly different from German indifference to the Nazi destruction of European Jews.4 Indeed, many of the anarchist analyses of French society’s response to the Algerian events Porter shares include criticisms of the failure of French workers to intervene radically against the violent military response undertaken by the State, as Jean-Paul Sartre and other Marxians for example might have wished they did. For his part, world-renown playwright Albert Camus is portrayed in part as Eurocentric for his rejection of Algeria’s bid to leave the empire, and many other anarchists are criticized for having dismissed the Algerian struggle against colonialism as merely being a question of exchanging one set of masters for another—with the periodical Noir et Rouge as advancing the former position, and the Federation Anarchiste approximating the latter in its anti-clericalism and its concern over the class society that could be expected to be reproduced in post-independence Algeria, with its central roles for investors, bosses, and so on. Porter gives light to French anarchists’ denunciations of French State terror in its war, their direct financial aid to the FLN, their efforts to organize resistance in the form of desertion and conscientious objection among French soldiers, and their attempts to warn of the very real threat that the military could have engaged in a coup in France itself, but he also gives voice to these thinkers’ deploring of the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by Algerians against French settler-civilians—a far cry from the selective violence employed by past anarchist actors against tsarist ministers or feudal lords in Spain, for example. These considerations, which as Porter’s sources argue inhibited solidarity with the Algerians among the French themselves during the independence war, thus anticipate later French criticisms of the nihilist terorrism for which Algerian Islamists would be responsible in the country’s civil war three decades later. Moreover, Porter highlights the brutal internecine war among Algerian organizations themselves, one that saw the FLN crush the alternative Movement Nationale de Algerie (MNA) opposition group—similar in a way to the purging by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party purging of non-Stalinist resistance movements in Vietnam.5 One French anarcho-pacificist activist cited by Porter locates his demand for the realization of the revolutionary dreams of the oppressed as not being built “on piles of bodies,” Algerian or French, as follows from his hopes for the victorious institution of a “non-violent, international libertarian socialist ideal”—one that many contemporary anarchists observed as being advanced dramatically in the mass-communal resistance taken up by Algerians at the base in the independence struggle, however non-existent were demands for social revolution beyond formal independence in the wartime ideology of the FLN leadership.

The autogestion movement that emerged among hundreds of thousands of Algerian workers and peasants as they took over the fields and factories left behind by fleeing French settler-colonialists after 1962 is clearly another example of a significant social-anarchist intervention, one the Federation Anarchiste finds as belonging to the tradition of a “libertarian socialism, social anarchism, egalitarianism with solidarity, [that is] fraternal and respectful of different cultures.” This decentralized, effectively socialist experiment which would see the establishment of democratic workers councils amounted to a retaking of the economic system built on the past brutalization and dispossession of Algeria and its peoples, now redirected toward more constructive ends; as Porter notes, it was unprecedented in scope for its time as a social-revolutionary development resulting from independence from formal colonialism. This model, which was appropriated after a few years by the maturing FLN bureaucracy (“Jacobins,” in Guérin’s estimation), stimulated a great deal of interest among French anarchist observers, given their belief in proletarian self-management as a means of overturning capitalism and the State, as well as an end itself. Indeed, the autogestion experiment seemed to confirm the philosophical views of many French anarcho-syndicalists, who theorized that there lie latent potentially devastating revolutionary passions in all those subordinated to capital, ones that can, as the Situationists and the theorists of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory would argue, be accelerated in certain contexts. The problem, as French anarchist onlookers concluded, analyzing the fate of the movement, was a total lack of an organized anarchist movement among Algerian workers and peasants that could, like the CNT-FAI in Spain in 1936, have served as a counter-power to developing FLN rule; without such organization, autogestion could be readily integrated into the State apparatus, as in fact it was by Ben Bella’s administration by 1964. Their contempt for the FLN regime and its progressive employment of an anti-Marxist Arabo-Islamist hegemony aside, French anarchists like Guérin saw in autogestion a opening toward the development of a fully self-managed society—one different than the contemporary dominant models of the Soviet Union on one side and the U.S. on the other—and many of them hoped that the developing critical consciousness of those participating in autogestion could unite with that of Algerians throughout the country to topple the State altogether—like Iran a decade and a half later, without the takeover by the mullahs. Its recuperation of autogestion aside, the FLN’s bankruptcy could readily be seen already in this early post-independence period, given its proclamation of Islam as the national religion and its introduction of religion into public schools, to say nothing of Ben Bella’s eagerness to make deals with European banks and oil corporations.

For the French anarchists to whom Porter dedicates much of his attention in the text, the May 1968 evénéments in Paris and elsewhere through France proved deeply inspiring, serving as a moment of historical rupture that presented to generations then existing another set of orienting series of actions that, as with the Algerian indepedence struggle, yet again confirmed anarchist optimism about the radical potential of the subordinated multitudes. In language reminiscent of Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope, contemporary French anarchists viewed these historical interventions as giving rise to a “new image of life and happiness [which] surges forth”; taken together with consideration of autogestion, reflection on these historical developments confirms the “permanent presence of liberation and humanistarian thought in heart of humanity.” In more dystopian terms, though, in Algeria following Ben Bella’s deposition by Houari Boumedienne, the FLN leadership further promoted official Islamism as a means of suppressing the social-revolutionary sentiments and action previously exhibited by the Algerian masses, beginning with a mass-construction campaign of mosques in the country. On the other hand, though, the regime would at this point also use petroleum revenues in part to finance free quality education and health care for the general populace, following in the Castro regime’s example and foreshadowing similar policies as later undertaken by Algeria’s erstwhile neighbor, Mu’ammar Gaddafi. During this time, the Federation Anarchiste continued its agitation in favor of an “Algeria sans tyrants”—one freed from Islamism, nationalism, State terrorism, Leninism, and capitalism—in opposition to the prevailing trends overseen by Boumedienne and Chadli Bendjedid after him. In an attempt to appease the developing Islamist movement, the latter dictator, indeed, introduced a highly repressive Family Code in 1984 that effectively established Algerian females as inferior to males in legal terms. In this way are writers of Alternative Libertaire correct to comment that the Front Islamique de Salvation (FIS), a reactionary band of Islamist fundamentalists that would go on to launch a civil war against the military regime after being banned following its electoral victories at the municipal level in 1990, is the child of the FLN—itself an Islamist-nationalist grouping, one responsible, among other crimes, for the torture of labor activists and a brutal anti-feminism. During this period of civil war—or rather, as one commentator has it, a “war on civilians” waged by the Islamists on one side and the junta on the other—European anarchist observers generally held less hopeful views of the situation in Algeria, in light of the similarities in social program advanced by the two sides in the conflict: capitalism, traditional social relations, and bloodshed. During the very prosecution of the barbarous civil war, indeed, the military came to accept IMF-imposed neo-liberal reforms, in a dramatic illustration of Naomi Klein’s posited Shock Doctrine; in this sense, the FA is right to view the devastating violence of the civil war merely as background noise for the smooth functioning of the capitalist machine, in particular as regards the flow of the hydrocarbons possessed by Algeria. Beginning in the 1990′s, relations grew closer between the FLN regime and the U.S. government, and after 9/11 the regime began to enjoy a major military relationship with the U.S. in its War on Terror; in 2011, indeed, the U.S. was Algeria’s largest export market. And so against this Scylla and Charybdis—a choice between an Islamist “plague” on the one hand and a militaristic “cholera” on the other—only the “strong medicine” of “social and anarchist revolution” could be thought to yield a rational and humane resolution for Algeria’s peoples, argued the FA. In the analysis of Algerian social critic Tarik Ben Hallaj, the butchery of the civil war pointed to the necessity for a true civil war of the people against the regime and the Islamist insurgents both—one reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s vision of a “true state of emergency,” instituted by the oppressed against the reign of oppression, negation, and malice.6

Fortunately for the prospects of this end, and continuing in the tradition of drastic antiauthoritarian mobilizing against social domination, the massive, acephalous (non-hierarchical) resistance undertaken by Kabyles starting in March 1980 in response to the FLN government’s banning of a conference on the Tamazight language spoken in Kabylia saw spontaneous attacks on police stations and the institution of general strikes. These dramatic interventions from subjugated Kabylies would return in 1988 in the form of direct action in opposition to the continued attempt to progressively Arabize the region, as in the 2001 Black Spring protests that began via mass-defiance of the murder by police of a Kabyle student. This latter event, an ongoing insurrection, gave birth to the aarch movement, a series of inter-related networks of assemblies directing resistance to the Algerian State; delegates to the assemblies, true to anarchist form, were controlled by the movement at the base. In the evaluation of the Organisation Communiste Libertaire, this aarch movement was “egalitarian, durable, and universal”—yet another social form that stimulated the passions of many French anarchists, and one that certainly bears more contemplation than it has provoked to date. As with Karl Marx’s analysis of the Russian mir system representing an alternative path to communism,7 the communitarian traditions and explosive social praxis observed among Kabyles in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries could perhaps be considered another means to emancipated social relations, one not tied to capitalist industrialism: due to the existence of strong mutual-aid institutions among the Kabyles, material poverty is seen to be less devastating in this region of the country, as compared to Arab-majority areas, and the society seems generally more secular, with the FIS gaining very little following among Kabyles. Moreover, Kabyle society traditionally has been governed by village councils based on decision-making principles of unanimity. Hardly everything is perfect with the aarch movement and Kabyle resistance in general, though, as many French anarchists would warn: Kabylies’ anarchistic social interventions are seen to have been largely male-dominated, as boldly confirmed in the aarch movement’s refusal even to consider negotiating in favor of a nullification or reform of the 1984 Family Code. In this sense, the Kabyles unfortunately follow in the patriarchal traditions of the CNT-FAI as practiced in Spain during the early twentieth century.

None of this is to say that there have not been efforts among Algerian women to oppose the patriarchal domination they confront; the opposite is rather the case, as Eyes to the South makes clear. Autonomous women’s organizations in Algeria have struggled for decades to oppose endogenous patriarchy, with these efforts reaching one of their climaxes in the mass campaign of 1997 calling for the suspension of the 1984 Family Code. As Porter relates, the various interventions and mobilizations undertaken by autonomous Algerian women, indeed, served as yet another source of inspiration for French anarchist onlookers in the post-independence period; this is particularly the case for those women’s organizations who, like the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), explicitly identify Islam as an oppressive form to be overcome. French anarchists are seemingly more attracted to these strains, given anarchism’s opposition to the irrationalities and hierarchies perpetuated by religions—the expectation that women wear hejab thus constitutes “male chauvinist trash” for one French critic, the very negation of mind—not to mention Islam’s philosophical support for capitalist relations, concurring here with its fraternal religions Christianity and Judaism. It is such views that lead some self-identified French anarchists to intervene severely against traditionalist-multicultural responses to the headscarf controversy in French public schools, while other such anarchists stress that the point is to struggle against oppressive institutions rather than direct one’s frustration against those who, being subjected to them, reproduce these. Clearly, both Algerian and French feminist commentators would say that progress toward women’s emancipation in Algerian society would demand a profound transformation of all social relations. Beyond this, female liberation is naturally tied up with the struggle against domination in all its manifestations—the work of the multitude, against all forms of negation.8 As Theodor W. Adorno writes in negative terms: “No emancipation without that of society.”9

Concluding comments

As should be clear from the argument presented so far, David Porter’s Eyes to the South is a hugely important work. The need for considering historical anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist thought and practice should be self-evident, as should be the need for its mass-application in the present. Combined with feminism, anti-capitalism, and ecological concerns, this antisystemic philosophy can perhaps be employed toward the end of developing social-revolutionary political movements that seek radically to rearrange existing global power relations, following the numerous examples Porter examines in his work, in addition to those of the Spanish anarchists, the 1871 Paris Commune, May 1968, and the Yugoslavian model, among others.

Taken as a whole, Eyes to the South makes the critical point that anarchism should in no way be considered the monopoly of select associations and individuals of European origin. Instead, anarchism is to be seen as a critical set of social relations observed in numerous aspects of life in many traditional and “pre-capitalist” societies, such as those of Arabs, Berbers, and Kanaks—the last being the residents of the French colony of New Caledonia, a group of peoples who have lived without the State or capital for thousands of years. Porter’s work constitutes yet more evidence in favor of Rosa Luxemburg’s thesis regarding the widespread existence of “primitive communism” among non-European societies in the historical periods pre-dating the dissolution of such by expanding European imperialism. The work is a bold protest against the reigning negations of mass-deprivation and climate-devastation for which global capitalist system is responsible—a blow against Max Weber’s iron cage, and a plea against the threat that Earth descend into becoming the Planet of Sadness about which Kim Stanley Robinson recently has warned.10 In Porter’s intimation that all social institutions should come to operate along principles like those seen during Algerian autogestion—participatory, self-managed, rational, self-determined—is the volume’s value most clearly seen. With this model, all oppressions are to be addressed simultaneously, just as ties are to be constructed among all the disinherited and dispossessed: Tuaregs, Kabyles, Kurds, and Chiapanecs, as Porter suggests, together with the rest of the world’s deprived and subordinated.

Humanity must come generally to exercise its compassion, solidarity, and reason by means of instituting an internationalist praxis commensurate with the vision of an ecological anarcho-syndicalism—concretely within the North Africa and Middle East region, to abolish State borders, socialize production for human welfare and ecological conservation, and extend the famous cultural traditions of Arab and Kabyle hospitality into generalized movements, as per Ben Hallaj’s recommendations. The FA is right explosively to claim “anarchist society [to be] the only society that opens the prisons where the privileged classes have held the exploited classes,” in addition to dominated nature. The point is to denounce all exclusions and to disobey and rebel toward the end of overturning existing relations, as writers associated with No Pasarán advocate, or generally to denounce domination and concurrently to highlight emancipatory social alternatives from below, as Porter critically does with Eyes to the South—to establish a new set of anti-hierarchical social relations that are determined consciously and communally, against the merely existing presently hegemonic institutions which threaten destruction and oblivion.


1 Emma Goldman, Vision on Fire, ed. David Porter (AK Press, 1983/2006).

2. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Owl Books, 2004).

3 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; repr., San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1968); Herbert Marcuse, Negations:Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

4 Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (New York: Henry Holt, 1998).

5 Ngo Van, In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (Oakland: AK Press, 2010).

6 “On the Concept of History” (1940)

7 Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

8 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2001), Multitude (2005), Commonwealth (2010).

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974) 173.

10 Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (New York: Orbit, 2012).

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