France and Algeria: some comparisons
Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 25, 2005
Over the past few weeks, I have been reading a lot of
material on the war in Algeria
as background for a review of Battle of Algiers. Since top American military
officials watched this movie shortly after the occupation began in an attempt
to understand-and defeat-a similar resistance, it seemed worthwhile to take a
fresh look at the movie, the actual war of liberation in Algeria and how it
stacked up against the current one.
Yesterday I began reading War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria
and Vietnam by
David L. Schalk and the question of comparisons took
a new direction. This book compares the anti-imperialst
efforts of people like Sartre around Algeria
with that of Robert Lowell et al around Vietnam.
It suddenly dawned on me that the USA
has plunged into two adventures that were sequels in many ways to ones that France
carried out unsuccessfully. First of all, the USA
tried to accomplish in Indochina what had eluded the
French. There is not all that much difference between Dien Bien Phu
in 1954 and the spectacle of helicopters fleeing Saigon
goals in Algeria
had a lot to do with their own version of the Vietnam
syndrome. After losing Vietnam,
the ruling class and reformist parties of the left were anxious to prove that France
was still capable of maintaining an empire.
While there are many differences between Algeria
and Iraq, there
is one thing they have in common with each other (and with Vietnam).
They are countries with very headstrong peoples who have an inexhaustible
capacity for resisting colonization, sometimes passively and sometimes
The other thing that strikes me about the arrogance of the
conduct of both France
and the USA is
how it might be connected to a kind of narcissism about their roles in world
history as democratic revolution exemplars. There is a notion that 1776 and
1789 serve as models for the developing world, whether it accepts it or not.
You can find this self-deception at work in the foreign
policy rhetoric of the Bush administration and its ideological whores like
Christopher Hitchens and Norm Geras.
You found almost the same sickness in the behavior of Camus
and respected anthropologist Jacques Soustelle, who
was governor-general of Algeria
when the rebellion broke out and who gave his nod to concentration camps,
torture and mass murder. Soustelle wrote a deeply
sensitive and sympathetic book called Daily Life of the Aztecs that concludes
"Their culture, so suddenly destroyed, is one of those that
humanity can be proud of having created. In the hearts and minds of those who
believe that our common inheritance is made up of all the values that our
species has conceived in all times and all places, it must take its place among
our precious treasures -- precious because they are so rare. At long intervals,
in the immensity of the world's life and in the midst of its vast indifference,
men joined together in a community bring something into existence that is
greater than themselves -- a civilisation. These are
the creators of cultures; and the Indians of Anahuac, at the foot of their
volcanoes, on the shores of their lake, may be counted among them."
It appears that capitalism and imperialism have infinite
capacities for corrupting even the most noble among us.