Ben Barka Was a Lost Leader of the International Left

The Moroccan left-wing revolutionary Ben Barka was one of the towering figures of the anti-colonial movement. His murder by agents of the Moroccan king with help from France and Israel was a major blow to socialist forces throughout the Arab world.

Two photos of the Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mehdi Ben Barka was a leading figure in the Moroccan nationalist movement against French colonialism. After independence, he became the focal point for opposition to the autocratic rule of King Hassan II and a driving force behind the alliance of national liberation movements that came together at the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana.

However, Ben Barka never made it to the conference. On October 29, 1965, he was approached by two police officers on his way to a well-known brasserie in central Paris. They led him to a car and then he was driven to a villa on the outskirts of Paris. He was never seen again.

It is likely that Ben Barka’s assassination was ordered by King Hassan II and carried out by his interior minister Mohamed Oufkir, who was convicted of the murder in absentia by a French court in 1967. Supporting roles were played by President Charles de Gaulle’s secret services, a network spanning parallel police forces and the criminal underworld, masterminded by his dirty-tricks fixer, Jacques Foccart, and by Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad.

The full truth behind the murder has never come to light. Successive French presidents from De Gaulle to Emmanuel Macron have persistently obstructed justice in the name of secret défense, a perfectly legal and very effective means of covering up state crimes.

Who Was Ben Barka?

Ben Barka became active in politics at the age of fourteen, joining the Comité d’action marocaine and then the National Party for the Realization of Reforms, later the Istiqlal (sovereignty or independence) Party. He moved to Algiers in 1940 to study mathematics at university.

Influenced by the Algerian People’s Party, he began to identify Morocco’s fate with that of other North African countries. On his return to Morocco, he taught at the Royal Academy. Among his pupils was the young Prince Hassan.

Imprisoned for a year after signing the Proclamation of Independence of Morocco in 1944, Ben Barka played a leading role in the Istiqlal party and was involved in the 1955 negotiations with the French government in Aix-les-Bains. These talks resulted in the return of the exiled sultan to the throne as King Mohammed V, and the end of the French protectorate first established in 1912.

France was prepared to grant independence to Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, hoping that this would make it easier to keep hold of Algeria. Istiqlal proclaimed the return of the Sultan as a triumph over colonialism. But Ben Barka later saw it as a trap which prevented Moroccan nationalism from developing a revolutionary perspective, leaving Algeria isolated and paving the way for the neocolonial dependency of Morocco.

There were powerful arguments for unity between Istiqlal, the country’s biggest political party, and the king, its most powerful figurehead, not least the idea that this would help Morocco escape economic dependency after independence. For his part, Ben Barka initially believed that this alliance, along with the unity of Morocco’s social classes, could endure.

He chaired the country’s new consultative assembly, overseeing popular mobilizations inspired by the mass initiatives developed in Mao Zedong’s China and Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, and the literacy drives undertaken in Castro’s Cuba. One scheme saw sixty kilometers of highway built by twelve thousand young volunteers in three months, a “unity road” linking Morocco’s former French and Spanish territories.

Myths of National Unity

However, unity proved easier to achieve against colonial rule than after independence, as vested interests began to assert themselves. The mobilization of Morocco’s poor began to alarm the bourgeoisie, while big landowners became nervous at the prospect of agrarian reform.

Ministers close to Ben Barka drew up plans for economic planning, widespread industrialization, and withdrawal from the franc zone, reestablishing the Moroccan dirham as the principal currency. These proposals brought the government into conflict with the palace as well as the conservative wing of Istiqlal.

The nationalist coalition broke up. Ben Barka put forward his own vision, arguing that formal independence was not enough for countries like Morocco:

We must build a new society that allows men to thrive and make all forms of exploitation disappear. For us, it’s not just a question of ending exploitation originating under the protectorate, but also the exploitation of Moroccans by Moroccans.

The abandonment of the “myth of national unity” was a long process, leading to a split in Istiqlal and the formation of the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP) in September 1959.

As Saïd Bouamama notes, Ben Barka’s commitment to national unity led him at times to compromise his principles. In 1956, as the war in Algeria escalated, sections of the Moroccan Liberation Army (ALN), angry at the continuing presence of French troops in Morocco under the terms of the Aix-les-Bains agreement, staged a revolt. Ben Barka sanctioned its repression, and was held responsible by some for the murder of ALN founder Abbas Messaâdi.

Later Ben Barka would argue that “independence by itself is nothing more than a form in need of content.” Intervening at the second congress of the UNFP in 1962, he outlined three key errors that he and his comrades had committed in negotiations over independence: their optimistic reading of the compromises made with France; the waging of struggles behind closed doors, without mass participation; and a lack of ideological clarity that made it difficult to say precisely who they were.

Neocolonial Independence

In May 1960, Mohammed seized full powers for himself, appointing his son Hassan as deputy prime minister. Hassan targeted the UNPF. Hassan succeeded Mohammed after his death at the age of fifty-one from heart failure, following minor nasal surgery in 1961.

Ben Barka spent this period in exile, returning to a hero’s welcome for the second UNPF congress in 1962. He survived an assassination attempt in November 1962 before leaving the country again, never to return.

The coalition of forces loyal to the monarchy, the Front for the Defense of Constitutional Institutions, managed to win a majority in the elections of May 1963, but its share of the vote was matched by the combined score of Istiqlal and the UNFP. Ben Barka, although not present for the campaign, won a seat in Rabat.

Hassan, with the help of Oufkir, ramped up his campaign against the Left. In July 1963, troops surrounded a meeting of the UNFP leadership in Casablanca and arrested those present on charges of plotting a coup d’état and the murder of the king. Hundreds more arrests followed across the country.

Ben Barka, who was in Cairo at the time, was among the accused. Some, like Moumen Diouri, were tortured for weeks on end. An international outcry ensued but, as Jeremy Harding points out, Hassan’s methods — “banishment, detention, disappearance and harsh crowd control” — were long-established practices of colonial rule:

It would be wrong to see the Hassan era as a headlong flight from the norms of civilised nations. . . . Most colonial possessions, Morocco included, won independence in the thick of the Cold War. Whether they opted for a socialist model or a Western-style arrangement, they were able to spin disappearances, torture and maiming as regrettable features of state formation, much as the colonial powers had described them as instruments of progress.

Opposing the Sand War

Later, in September 1963, tensions between Morocco and newly independent Algeria came to a head. Anxious about the presence of a revolutionary regime on its border, Morocco invaded, sparking several weeks of what was dubbed the “Sand War.”

Speaking over the radio from Cairo, Ben Barka issued a rousing declaration, denouncing the Moroccan government’s “grave treason, not only to the dynamic Algerian Revolution, but, in general, to all Arab revolutions in favor of liberty, socialism, and unity, and to the world national liberation movement in its entirety.” He called instead for Moroccans to paralyze “the criminal hands that have appropriated power and that are armed, financed, and led by the imperialists.”

The declaration got little traction in Morocco, as Istiqlal and the Communists united behind the king. Internationally, Morocco was left relatively isolated. Cuban troops arrived in Algeria, which also received military backing from the Soviet Union and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt as well as support from the Arab League.

Hassan, disappointed at lukewarm backing from the United States, sought support from Israel, a state that shared an antipathy toward both Algeria and Egypt. Israel provided weapons, surveillance, and military training. In return, its intelligence agency, Mossad, received a permanent base in Rabat.

When the Arab League summit was held in Casablanca in September 1965, the Moroccan authorities provided Mossad with documents outlining the deliberations of the various delegations. According to the investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, Israeli espionage considered this intelligence coup to be the greatest achievement in its history, since it provided evidence of the state of unreadiness of various Arab nations for war against Israel — information that was pivotal to Israel’s stunning offensive two years later in the Six-Day War.

In the immediate aftermath of this summit, Morocco requested Mossad’s assistance in locating and killing Ben Barka. The agency duly tracked him in Geneva prior to his arrival in Paris and provided help with the logistics of his kidnapping and the escape of those involved in his torture and murder.

Ben Barka in Exile

In his absence, Ben Barka was sentenced to death twice, in March 1964 for his part in the July “plot,” and in November of the same year for supporting Algeria over Morocco. “The nationalist,” as Nate George puts it, “had transcended his nation.”

During his period in exile, Ben Barka spent time in Cairo, advising Nasser, and in Algiers, the “mecca of revolution,” as the unofficial “minister of foreign affairs” of the first Algerian president, Ahmed Ben Bella. Here he also encountered key figures in emerging liberation struggles, including Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Henri Curiel, Malcolm X, and Amílcar Cabral.

He played a major role in developing an understanding of neocolonialism, the means by which colonial influence was maintained in a postindependence environment. This could involve the establishment of “dummy states” with little chance of achieving real independence, or forms of “cooperation” that sucked prosperity out of Africa, or simply sowing divisions within and between nations. As Western European economies adapted to the United States’ hegemony, they were likely to follow its lead in their relations with the world, turning Africa into Europe’s Latin America.

Independence could therefore no longer be considered as progressive in its own right. For Ben Barka, only “the political and economic content of that independence has progressive meaning.” Independent nations must come together across Africa, “to liquidate the colonial system from the entire continent.”

The tricontinental movement had its roots in the Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference hosted by Indonesian president Sukarno in Bandung in 1955. Ben Barka sought to capitalize on the momentum of successive national liberation struggles and embed an anti-imperialist alliance across three continents.

Seeking an autonomous path between Soviet and Chinese influence without jeopardizing their support, he espoused, in the words of Nate George, “a socialism acceptable to nationalists and a nationalism acceptable to Marxists.” At a press conference held on October 3, 1965, weeks before his death, he claimed that the conference would bring together “two currents of the world revolution: the current born with the October Revolution and the national liberation revolutions.”

Imperial Backlash

Where neocolonial influence could not be maintained through unequal trade agreements or proxy governments, Ben Barka argued, it would be established through invasion and assassination. Throughout the year of his death, the point was to be underlined again and again, from the escalation of the US intervention in Vietnam to the massacre of the Indonesian left and the murders of Ben Barka himself and Malcolm X. By the end of the following decade, Che Guevara, Henri Curiel, and Amílcar Cabral, key figures in the development of the tricontinental movement, had all been assassinated.

The dangers of neocolonialism outlined by Ben Barka have radically intensified since then through the deployment of structural adjustment programs and punitive debt mechanisms. In this context, the racist outbursts of Western politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy and his caricature of the “African” who has “not fully entered into history” serve as a reminder of the role played by colonial nations in shutting down pathways to liberation glimpsed by the struggles to assert an independent politics of anti-imperialism in the postwar period.