Eyes To The South French Anarchists and Algeria by David Porter and Decolonizing Anarchism by Maia Ramnath

Tue, Apr 9, 2013


Eyes To The South French Anarchists and Algeria by David Porter and Decolonizing Anarchism by Maia Ramnath

Is Anarchism viable or relevant in relation to a nationalist struggle, to the outgunned battling under a colonial rule? Through the filter of Anarchism, by definition alone, nationalist resistance could be deemed anathema to the very core principals of libertarianism. David Porter and Maia Ramnath offer two perspectives on how the anarchist relates to, critiques, opposes, and supports a nationalist struggle for independence from colonial oppression. Porter offers a sprawling, epic history of French Anarchism as it relates to the Algerian struggle, using what seems to be an infinite supply of anarchist journals to narrate the story of an ever-expanding (and splintering) French anarchist movement and its perspectives on the Algerian independence movement. Forests of primary sources are to be had in Eyes To The South. Ramnath approaches the Indian struggle for independence from the British through an Anarchist lens, attempting to ferret out Anarchist ideas in the writings and ideas of revolutionaries, thinkers, spiritual gurus, and ideological soldiers of the Indian nationalist resistance.

French Anarchists found themselves in an intellectual bind in the early days of Algerian nationalist resistance. While some, like Daniel Guerin (premier intellectual of French Anarchism in the 1950s) declared unabashed support for an Algerian nationalist movement due to its potential not only for gaining independence from France, but also for the alternative to capitalism and fascism that could be born anew from a country free of colonial oppression. Others expressed doubts as to what real radical substance a nationalist movement could have. As Anarchists are all about decentralization and the dissolution of the state, how could Algerian nationalists provide a real alternative to the French colonial state?

Ramnath relays an insider’s view of the war for independence in Decolonzing Anarchism, exploring the thoughts and actions of those on the front lines of India’s struggle. A panoply of ideas relating to or influenced by anarchism swim in the same waters as spiritual leaders, militants whom took direct action, socialists, and wayward students attracted to the struggle. As with Eyes To The South, Ramnath’s book is a highly varied survey of radical politics. The struggle for independence in India draws parallels to all leftist/radical movements in that the number and diversity of voices involved can be dizzying.

Har Dayal was an Indian and British-educated Anarcho-syndicalist, who advocated for an egalitarian utopia, a “religious confraternity, based on an ideal, on freewill and mutual cooperation. Its motto was to be: Atheism, cosmopolitanism and moral law.” He emerged out of the Ghadar movement, which advocated “total autonomy and absolute freedom through revolution (nothing can be achieved by begging the Government, or passive resistance.)” Dayal eventually became excited about the prospect of violent direct action as a means to spark revolution, writing “in Asiatic countries the appearance of the bomb is the advance guard of complete liberty.”

While the motivation to create an egalitarian, post-colonial, free society existed within the various Indian nationalist movements, this was rare with Algerian nationalists. Any ideological pronouncements of a decentralized, stateless, or communist society in Algeria typically came externally from French Anarchists rather than the nationalists fighting the colonial regime in Algeria.

Federation Communiste Libertaire (FCL), Guerin’s organization, was directly involved with the Algerian struggle: “The FCL argued that ‘national liberation’ was a necessarily progressive transitory stage to an eventual egalitarian society…” The class struggle was imperative to FCL, and regardless of any ideological differences, the belief was that the forcible ousting of France from Algeria could spark a working-class revolution in both countries.

Future collaboration with non-anarchist groups and principles ultimately would come to include direct action support of Algerian revolutionaries, joint efforts with other political groups on the French left, participation in electoral politics, and endorsement of the use of revolutionary violence itself.

Alternately, Federation Anarchiste (FC) — the other prominent Anarchist group of the time — approached the Algerian situation, in FCL’s estimation, in an inferior manner, “…the non-interventionist ultra-individualism and purist moralism, anti-militarism, and anti-clericalism of the FA…” This type of infighting pervades the entire narrative of French Anarchy. The autocratic, militaristic hive-mind of the powerful (whom would eventually come to power in Algeria, filling the post-colonial power vacuum) is generally unified toward one goal: to gain and retain power.

Through various Anarchist journals’ reportage, we witness a path typical of a “liberated” nation, in which the power vacuum births a string of opportunistic presidents infatuated with tight control of the populace. From leaders Bella (whom had an inkling of good will towards the Algerian people) to Boumedienne, who is ushered in on the heels of a military coup, and then Chadli–who took power after Boumedienne’s death—we witness an increase in repression, civil violence, industrialization, and general disorder, resulting in many civilian deaths.

Of particular contention is the rise of Islamism among the populace of unemployed youth, resulting in an ongoing and extremely bloody struggle between the Algerian government and Islamist militants (with the government allegedly creating fictional Islamic groups in order to perpetuate violence, and use that violence as an excuse to increase the repression of civilians). Public outcry against the repressive government was virtually non-existent until 1980, year of the “Berber Spring” in which an organized movement of “…the deeply rooted Berber cultural identity concentrated especially in Kabylia and among Kabyle emigrés to urban centers, especially Algiers and abroad” took to the streets with mass demonstrations and rebellion against the draconian Algerian leaders. The Berber’s communal councils and consensus-based decision-making process gave French Anarchists an Algerian ideology they could grasp onto, even as their own opinions continued to splinter into even more factionalism.

Within Decolonizing Anarchism, the most recognizable and celebrated leader of the Indian people’s struggle against the British also promoted a philosophy of freedom most closely related to Anarchism. “Ghandi’s vision of liberation called for spiritually fulfilled, nonalienated lives of material self-sufficiency through artisanal efforts within a decentralized federation of autonomous village republics.” However, it is too simple to draw an immediate parallel between Ghandi’s approach to liberation and the Western idea of Anarchism, according to Ramanth. Ghandi’s distinct religiosity and “refusal to endorse class war or repudiate the caste system” led to the Indian left’s rejection of what they saw as allegiance to arcane traditionalism and classism. 

Eyes To The South is an impressive and comprehensive history of post-colonial Algeria and the ever-divided French Anarchist community. With the initials of 53 Algerian political parties and social movements and the initials of 26 French Anarchist organizations listed in the front of the book, David Porter has created a meticulous tome of relevance to both Algerian and French radical politics. Ramnath, in her Decolonizing Anarchism creates a narrower, but just as relevant, view of Anarchism as it relates to the anti-colonial struggle in Indian. Both can serve as substantial reference books to their respective subjects. And both books relay a passion for learning from the radical past and the application of that past to current struggles against repression everywhere.

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