There is a famous concluding scene to Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. After witnessing the French paratroopers “win” the battle by a combination of torture and murder over the previous hour and a half, the film climaxes with the residents of the Casbah surging out into the city with their rebel flags and banners blowing in the wind proclaiming independence and freedom for Algeria.
This was no sop to those of us who like a Hollywood-type happy ending but historical truth. Despite the rout in 1957 of the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in the actual battle of Algiers, the people themselves went on organizing.
When the French president Charles de Gaulle made his visit to Algeria in December 1960, the people of Algiers and half a dozen other cities throughout the country exploded into mass manifestations to impress on him their unbreakable determination to be free.
It was not the last spontaneous intervention of ordinary Algerians in the fate of their country. When independence came in 1962, most of the million European settlers decided to emigrate rather than live under Algerian rule. They left the country bereft of doctors, engineers, technicians, and teachers.
They also left behind them a trail of destruction. It was not only the terrorist OAS (Secret Army Organization) which wreaked this vengeance, killing thousands of unarmed Algerians. Farmers and businessmen also destroyed machinery and wrecked buildings as they departed.
The abandonment and destruction of the settler farms meant that Algeria faced starvation as the settlers had appropriated the best land. In addition, the French counterinsurgency had forced more than two million Algerians off the land as vast swathes of the countryside were cleared of villages and farms for free-fire zones.
Into this impending famine stepped the hundreds of thousands of Algerian farm workers who took over the abandoned farms and managed them themselves. The harvest was saved. While there were similar takeovers in the towns, the self-management phenomenon was much stronger in the countryside. That said, in the early days, teams of city mechanics were mobilized to go to the farms to repair and service tractors and other machinery.
This example of workers’ self-management was born of necessity. It did not rely on the leadership and initiative of the FLN, whose cadres had been scattered and driven out of much of Algeria by a French army of half a million soldiers. During the summer of 1962, the FLN split at a conference in Tunisia, further weakening its capacity to act. Just as in 1960, it was the self-organizing Algerian people who saved the day.
Certainly, one should not idealize this moment excessively. It was a patchy takeover of the European farms and firms. Local democracy wasn’t always perfect: there were many examples of local bigwigs, mafia, and armed mujahideen doing side deals with emigrating European owners or seizing European property. However, in the latter cases, there were often ongoing struggles between the usurpers and local workers for control.
The spontaneous reality of the summer of 1962 set the stage for the struggle that was to dominate the next three years: direct democracy versus bureaucratic and bourgeois control. To put it another way: the people against a nascent ruling class.
Radicalization at the Top
Initially the portents were good. In the struggle for power following independence, the most radical option came out on top, represented by the duo of Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the historic initiators of the war for independence, and Houari Boumédiène, the FLN’s army chief. The newly elected national assembly voted Ben Bella into office as president and Boumédiène as defense minister.
Ben Bella’s inclination was to make Algeria another Cuba. His coming to power coincided with the arrival in Algiers of the Greek left-wing activist Michalis Raptis, better known as Michel Pablo. As secretary of the Trotskyist Fourth International, Pablo had assembled the first and most important of the European support networks for the FLN, including the organization of underground arms factories to supply the movement with weapons.
Pablo firmly believed that an essential feature of socialism was the expansion of democracy. On the one hand, he did not think that you could have socialism in an underdeveloped and devastated country like Algeria, because socialism assumed a high level of economic development, which necessarily depended on an international division of labor. On the other hand, Pablo argued that you could lay the groundwork for a future socialism by fostering democratic institutions from the outset.
Pablo had become an advocate of what he called “autogestion” (self-management) throughout society. He welcomed the spontaneous creation of workplace self-management in Algeria. In his mind, here was a chance (and it was only that) to create a viable alternative to the capitalist or bureaucratic models for developing societies.
Pablo and Ben Bella struck up an immediate rapport and the new president hired Pablo as an economic counselor. A handful of supporters followed him to Algiers. There were also Algerian militants such as Mohammed Harbi and Omar Belouchrani who were already advocates of self-management.
For his part, Ben Bella persuaded the Egyptian dictator Gamal Nasser to release a host of Arab communists from his prison camps to work in Algeria. Some of them assisted with schemes for self-management and agrarian reform.
However, the gathering of this small staff of cosmopolitan revolutionary intellectuals could not conceal the fact that there was no national political force committed to self-management. The FLN was a shambles that was rapidly being rebuilt, attracting as many chancers and opportunists as genuine revolutionaries in the process.
In addition, the union movement was very much in its infancy, and its leaders were men appointed by Ben Bella and Boumédiène rather than elected by the members. What we might call a culture of political democracy was largely absent.
Nevertheless, the early days of free Algeria were hopeful. Ben Bella accepted Pablo’s advocacy for a cancellation of the debts of the peasantry and the suspension and cancellation of the recent sales of European farms and property. He authorized Pablo to draw up the new laws governing the self-managed sector of the economy.
This resulted in the March Decrees of 1963, which legislated the form that self-management was to take in all former European-owned farms and businesses. General assemblies were to hold the ultimate power, including that of electing the workers’ council. In turn, the council elected the management committee which was in charge of day-to-day matters. The government was to appoint the executive director in agreement with the self-management bodies of an area.
The government launched implementation of the March Decrees with much fanfare. Ben Bella went on a national tour promoting those decrees, presiding over elections of workers’ councils and holding enthusiastic rallies wherever he went, proclaiming the birth of Algerian self-managed socialism. The Bureau national d’animation du secteur socialiste (BNASS or National Office for the Support of the Socialist Sector) was created to aid the new self-managed bodies and a regular radio program — the Voice of Self-Management — was inaugurated.
However, the assassination of Ben Bella’s radical foreign minister, Mohamed Khemisti, cut short his national tour as he hurried back to Algiers. Back in the capital, he was subject to lobbying by long-standing comrades, including his old cellmate Ali Mahsas, who was now minister for agriculture. Mahsas argued that firm central supervision of the self-managed farms was essential.
The original aim had been for the government to favor the self-managed sector with support and investment in order to boost its profitability and productivity: existing yields were about half those of comparable farms in Europe. The Algerian state would use taxes on these farms for local, regional, and national development.
Yet the party-bureaucracy had other ideas that were essentially parasitical. The ministry took control of farm machinery, marketing, and credit. It established strong links with the directors and management committee presidents. Corruption became rife.
In addition, the local préfets — officials in the traditional French administrative structure that Algeria inherited — used the farms to help solve unemployment. Often the farms now had four or five times the number of workers compared to colonial times. Ben Bella’s colleagues also persuaded him to put the BNASS under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture and the radio broadcasts were terminated.
The Struggle for Self-Management
Pablo and others protested this creeping bureaucratic coup, which basically reduced the self-managed councils and committees to the status of advisory bodies and the workers to that of state employees. As early as August 1963, Pablo wrote to Ben Bella, pointing out that all revolutions soon boiled down to a struggle between democratic and authoritarian tendencies, and he would have to choose his side.
According to Pablo, it was necessary to free the self-management sector from the ministry’s tutelage and allow it to set-up cooperative bodies in order to market and distribute its products and have control of its tractors and other machinery. Ben Bella’s government would also have to set up an agricultural investment bank to extend credit to the self-managed firms.
Ben Bella temporized. He authorized Pablo to draft an agrarian reform law redistributing land and encouraging the establishment of cooperatives for Algerian peasants, most of whom didn’t work on the former European farms and subsisted on tiny allotments. Pablo also drafted proposals for local communal councils, which would be a combination of directly elected representatives and delegates from the local self-management farms and enterprises.
Pablo’s scheme would oblige these communal councils to call regular general assemblies of citizens to guide their work. The councils would form the basis of a federated republic, mobilize the local population for public works, and help draft the overall plan for the economy.
These initiatives lay in abeyance until the first postindependence national congress of the FLN was held in April 1964. The congress adopted a manifesto, the Charter of Algiers, that Harbi had largely drafted in consultation with Pablo. It proclaimed self-managed socialism to be the goal of the FLN.
Unfortunately, this rhetorical victory did not result in control of the official party machinery by advocates of self-management or any substantial changes in the government ministries. By this stage, discontent at the bureaucratic counterrevolution in the self-managed sector was building up among the farm workers themselves. In December 1964, it culminated in the second congress of agricultural workers.
Delegates from the farms dominated this assembly of some three thousand people rather than the handpicked ministry and union representatives. The majority of speakers denounced the bureaucratic abuses and reasserted their demands for more self-management rather than less.
The Mecca of Revolution
From late 1964, there was evidence of a wider mass radicalization. A series of union conferences removed the puppet leaders that Ben Bella had appointed in 1962. The new leaders were more in favor of self-management, though understandably suspicious of Ben Bella himself.
The most dramatic manifestation of this radicalization was the International Women’s Day march through Algiers on March 8, 1965. From the photographic evidence, it is clear that the bulk of the marchers were women from the plebeian ranks of Algerian society. This was no chic parade.
Henri Alleg was the legendary editor of Alger Républicain, the bestselling (and communist) daily newspaper in the capital, and author of a damning book about his experience of torture at the hands of the French authorities during the independence struggle. He has left a telling anecdote in his memoirs about this march.
As tens of thousands of women, by Alleg’s count, made their way past the Alger Républicain offices, the staff leaned out of the windows and balconies to cheer and exchange chants with the ululating women. On the opposite side of the street was the Ministry for Agriculture. There the spectators watched stony-faced and in silence.
In his characteristic way, Ben Bella now began to pivot left despite the continuing attacks in the FLN’s army newspaper on the “atheistic communists” who held influential positions in his government. He signaled that he was about to sack the foreign minister, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was a key ally of the army boss, Boumédiène. At the central committee meeting of the FLN in mid-June, he supported a raft of radical motions.
While Ben Bella was not consistently radical in domestic policies, he did make Algeria, along with Cuba, the strongest supporter of anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World. Movements such as Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in South Africa, the Angolan MPLA, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and even the Portuguese anti-fascist alliance opened offices in Algiers and sent cadres and guerrillas there for training.
Amílcar Cabral, the great Pan-African poet and nationalist leader from Guinea-Bissau, dubbed the Algiers of this period “the Mecca of Revolution” — a phrase that the American historian Jeffrey James Byrne recently borrowed for an extraordinary study of Algeria’s foreign policy during the Ben Bella years. Quite naturally, Che Guevara chose Algiers as his first port of call in his attempt to revive the Congolese revolution.
As a result of this activity, the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) selected Algeria as the site for its second conference. All the giants of the anti-imperialist revolutions — from Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sukarno to Nasser, Josip Broz Tito, and Ho Chi Minh — were expected to attend or at least send their deputies to the meeting in July. Ben Bella was due to preside.
The prospect of this boost to Ben Bella’s prestige, combined with the president’s leftward move and his intention to remove key Boumédiène supporters from their posts, may have been what prompted Boumédiène to stage a coup against Ben Bella. In the early hours of June 19, 1965, a group of soldiers led by the army chief of staff entered the Villa Joly where Ben Bella was living and arrested him.
Soldiers and tanks took up positions in all the cities and major towns. The coup leader Boumédiène announced an end to “chaos” and a return to order. He denounced figures like Pablo as foreign atheists. The NAM conference was canceled.
Mahsas, the agriculture minister, naturally supported the coup. The protests against it were for the most part desultory, although Harbi has noted that one of the strongest demonstrations was in the city of Annaba, where “self-management militants . . . mobilized the people by explaining that the putchists were going to put an end to popular democracy.”
In the streets of Annaba, the Algerian army fired on and massacred its own citizens for the first time. Algeria’s experiment with self-management, hobbled almost from the outset, was now over. Advocates of self-management became hunted men and women, and Pablo had to leave the country.
Ben Bella remained under house arrest until after Boumédiène’s death in 1978. Harbi also spent time under house arrest, during which he began writing a history of the FLN. After escaping from Algeria in 1973, he went on to become the leading critical historian of the movement.
During the 1990s, hopes for democratization were quickly dashed as Algeria was plunged into a brutal civil war pitting the military against religious fundamentalists. The army dictatorship persists to this day.
But so do periodic popular uprisings to establish a genuine democracy. Boumédiène’s ally Bouteflika finally had to resign as president in 2019 after mass protests demanding an end to the dictatorship of the ruling bloc known as le pouvoir (“the power”).