In the second part of his long-read on Frantz Fanon and the Algerian revolution, Hamza Hamouchene looks at recent events in Algeria. He argues that we need to revive the ambitious projects of the 1960s that sought emancipation from imperialism and capitalism. Building on this revolutionary heritage, being inspired by its insurgent hope and its internationalist perspective is vital to Algeria, to the Black Lives Matter movement and to other emancipatory struggles all over the world.
By Hamza Hamouchene
As with any revolution, counter-revolutionary forces have mobilized to block change in Algeria. The counter-revolutionary campaign currently underway in Algeria draws support from abroad. Regionally, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are using their money and influence to halt potentially contagious waves of revolt in the region. At the global level, France, the US, UK, Canada, Russia and China, along with their major corporations, seeing a potential threat to their economic and geostrategic interests, are all supportive of the Algerian regime.
Revolutions and uprisings can also be times of entrenching unpopular economic policies and extending more concessions to foreign investors. The budget law of 2020 and the new multinational-friendly Hydrocarbon Law are powerful examples. We cannot therefore fully appreciate the political situation in Algeria without scrutinizing foreign influences and interferences and apprehending the economic question from the angle of natural resource grabs, energy (neo)colonialism and extractivism.
When it comes to the political level, the counter-revolution has been embodied by the military hierarchy. The army has not fired any bullets so far, but it has continued to justify various repressive measures. Since independence in 1962, Algeria has been ruled by a military regime, directly or indirectly. The militarization of society has created a culture of fear and distrust. The brutal repression of past uprisings and the cruelty of the war in the 1990s explain the popular movement’s reluctance to directly confront the army.
The military bourgeoisie still proclaims, as Fanon wrote in 1961, that the ‘vocation of their people is to obey, to go on obeying and to be obedient till the end of time’ and as he explained it is an army that ‘pins the people down, immobilizing and terrorizing them’. However, despite the Military High Command’s rejection of every roadmap and appeal for genuine dialogue proposed by the movement, people remain determined to peacefully demilitarize their republic. They have been chanting: ‘A republic not a military barrack’. After Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s overthrow, demonstrations continued in opposition to the military, which has maintained de facto authority over the country.
In these poor, under-developed countries, where the rule is that the greatest wealth is surrounded by the greatest poverty, the army and the police constitute the pillars of the regime; an army and a police force which are advised by foreign experts. The strength of the police and the power of the army are proportionate to the stagnation in which the rest of the nation is sunk. By dint of yearly loans, concessions are snatched up by foreigners; scandals are numerous, ministers grow rich, their wives doll themselves up, the members of parliament feather their nests and there is not a soul down to the simple policeman or the customs officer who does not join in the great procession of corruption.
This intense passage from The Wretched is a fairly accurate portrayal of the situation in Algeria where repression and suppression of freedoms are the rule – helped of course by foreign expertise – and where elites institutionalise corruption and serve foreign interests. One of the emblematic slogans of the current uprising has been very eloquent in this regard: ‘You devoured the country…Oh you thieves!’
Algerians know what the military are capable of and despite the trauma of the civil war of the 1990s, they are bravely still insisting: ‘A civilian state not a military one!’ In this way, the Algerian system is exposed for what it is: a military dictatorship hiding behind a ‘democratic’ façade.
Class struggle, organising and political education
Despite the odds stacked against it, and the state’s efforts to divide, co-opt, and exhaust it, the Hirak (Arabic for “movement”) has maintained an exemplary unity and peacefulness. This was demonstrated in various slogans such as: ‘Algerians are brothers and sisters, the people are united, you traitors.’
The movement is youth-led and relatively loosely organised. There are no clearly identifiable leaders or organised structures propelling it. It is a popular uprising mobilising mass forces from the middle classes and from the marginalised classes in urban and rural areas. Unlike Sudan, where the Sudanese Professional Association played a leading and organising role, in Algeria organising is done horizontally and mainly through social media. The general strike in the first few weeks of the uprising, which was instrumental in forcing Bouteflika to abdicate in 2019 was organised spontaneously after anonymous calls on social media. Such amorphous, non-structured and leaderless dynamics and movements are extremely vulnerable. While they can generate large inter-class mobilisations and are not an easy target for repression, or for co-option of leaders, they nevertheless manifest fatal weaknesses in the long run.
But what can Fanon teach us when it comes to the class struggle and organising?
Class struggle is central to Fanon’s analysis. The Lebanese Marxist, Mahdi Amel, pointing to Fanon’s insights on how the revolutionary praxis differentiates and changes its meaning and direction after independence, wrote: ‘While … [the revolution] before independence, [was] essentially a national struggle, after independence it becomes a real class struggle’ through which the masses discover their true enemy: the national bourgeoisie. So from a strictly national level, the fight moves to a socio-economic level of class struggle. Fanon urges us to move from a national consciousness towards a social and political consciousness when he says, ‘If nationalism is not made explicit, if it is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words into humanism, it leads up a blind alley’.
However, Fanon invites us to ‘stretch Marxism’ as a way of understanding the particularities of capitalism in the colonial and postcolonial world. To borrow Immanuel Wallerstein’s words, Fanon ‘had rebelled, forcefully, against the ossified Marxism of the communist movements of his era’, asserting a revised version of the class struggle breaking with the dogma that the urban, industrial proletariat is the only revolutionary class against the bourgeoisie. Fanon thought of the peasantry and the urbanized lumpenproletariat as the strongest candidate for the role of historical revolutionary subject in colonial Algeria. And here, Fanon meets Che Guevara when both point out that in colonised countries, revolution begins in rural areas and moves to the urban towns. It is launched by the peasantry, which embraces the proletariat rather than the other way around as in the case of European capitalist, and even socialist, countries.
In a nutshell, class struggle requires that we clearly identify the struggling classes. In this spirit, it is crucial to determine the revolutionary classes (and their alliances) in the current uprising. We need to go beyond ‘workerism’ and embrace a much broader conception of the proletariat in its contemporary expressions, namely the unemployed youth, urban and rural working people, informal workers, peasants, etc. It is these classes that have nothing to lose but their chains, which gives them potential revolutionary agency.
In his chapter ‘Spontaneity: its strengths and weaknesses’ in The Wretched, Fanon expressed concerns that if the lumpen-proletariat is left on its own, without organisational structure, it will burn out. In order to avoid this and to bar the route to the parasitic bourgeoisie, Fanon wrote: ‘The bourgeoisie should not be allowed to find the conditions necessary for its existence and its growth. In other words, the combined effort of the masses led by a party and of intellectuals who are highly conscious and armed with revolutionary principles ought to bar the way to this useless and harmful middle class’.
Fanon made an important observation on African revolutions, which is that their unifying character side-lined a socio-political ideology on how to radically transform society. This is a great weakness that we are witnessing yet again with the new Algerian revolution. ‘Nationalism is not a political doctrine, nor a programme’, wrote Fanon. He insists on the necessity of a revolutionary political party (or perhaps an organised social movement) that can take the demands of the masses forward, a party-structure that will educate the people politically, that will be ‘a tool in the hands of the people’ and that will be the energetic spokesperson and the ‘incorruptible defender of the masses.’ For Fanon, reaching such a conception of a party necessitates first of all ridding ourselves of the bourgeois notion of elitism and ‘the contemptuous attitude that the masses are incapable of governing themselves’.
Fanon abhorred the elitist discourse on the immaturity of the masses and asserted that in the struggle, they (the masses) are equal to the problems which confront them. Nigel Gibson eloquently articulated this view in these words: ‘for Fanon, the “we” was always a creative “we”, a “we” of political action and praxis, thinking and reasoning’. For him, the nation does not exist except in a socio-political and economic program ‘worked out by revolutionary leaders and taken up with full understanding and enthusiasm by the masses’.
Unfortunately, what we see today in Africa is the antithesis of what Fanon strongly argued for. We see the stupidity of the anti-democratic bourgeoisies embodied in their tribal and family dictatorships, banning the people, often with crude force, from participating in their country’s development, and fostering a climate of immense hostility between the rulers and the ruled. Fanon, in his conclusion of The Wretched, argues that we have to work out new concepts through ongoing political education, enriched through mass struggle. Political education for him is not merely about political speeches but rather about ‘opening the minds’ of the people, ‘awakening them, and allowing the birth of their intelligence’. ‘If building a bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it’, then according to Fanon, it ‘ought not to be built and the citizens can go on swimming across the river or going by boat’.
This is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of Fanon. His radical and generous vision is so refreshing and rooted in the people’s daily struggles, which open up spaces for new ideas and imaginings. For him, everything depends on the masses, hence his idea of radical intellectuals engaged in and with people’s movements and capable of coming up with new concepts in non-technical and non-professional language. Just as, for Fanon, culture has to become a fighting culture, so too must education become about total liberation.
This is what we need to bear in mind when we talk about education in schools and universities. Decolonial education in the Fanonian sense is an education that helps create a social and political consciousness. The militant or the intellectual, therefore, must not take shortcuts in the name of getting things done, as this is inhuman and sterile. It is all about coming and thinking together, which is the foundation of the liberated society.
Black Lives Matter and the Algerian revolution
In 2020, a global revolt against white supremacy started in the streets of Minneapolis in the United States following the murder of George Floyd, a 46 year-old Black man by a policeman who knelt on his neck. Like Eric Garner before him, George Floyd uttered these last words before he died: ‘I can’t breathe’. The ensuing global rebellion and show of solidarity echo the words of Fanon when he discussed the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle: ‘It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because “quite simply” it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe’.
We can no longer breathe in a system that dehumanises people, a system that enshrines super-exploitation, a system that dominates nature and humanity, a system that generates massive inequality and untold poverty. Fortunately, revolts that are fundamentally anti-systemic are taking place on all continents and regions. But for these episodic and largely geographically-confined acts of resistance to succeed, they need to go beyond the local to the global; they need to create enduring alliances in face of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.
Can these various contemporary struggles, from the Arab uprisings to Black Lives Matter, converge and build strong alliances that overcome their own contradictions and blind spots? Can they usher in a new moment where we question the colonial foundations of our current predicaments and continue on the path of decolonising our politics, economies, cultures and epistemologies? This is not only possible but necessary as we must envisage such transnational solidarities and alliances because they are crucial in the global struggle of emancipation of the wretched of the earth. Perhaps, we can take inspiration from the past, by looking at the decolonisation period, Bandung and Third Worldism era, the Tri-Continental and other internationalist experiences. I would argue that Fanon (or more accurately his intellectual legacy) could be once again the linkage of these struggles, as his work was in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the first two decades of its independence, Algeria became, as Samir Meghelli described it in 2009, ‘a critical node in the constellation of transnational solidarities’ being forged among revolutionary movements around the world. In the heydays of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, Meghelli shows that ‘just as Algeria looked to Black America as part of the Third World located in the heart of the beast so, too, did much of Black America look to Algeria as “the country that fought the enslaver and won”, as Ted Joans wrote in 1970.
Algeria became a powerful symbol of revolutionary struggle and served as a model for several liberation movements across the globe. Given its audacious foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s, the Algerian capital was to become a Mecca for all revolutionaries. As Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary leader from Guinea-Bissau announced at a press conference at the margins of the first Pan-African festival in 1969 in Algiers: ‘Pick a pen and take note: the Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Christians to the Vatican and the national liberation movements to Algiers!’
Thanks to the popular film The Battle of Algiers as well as Frantz Fanon’s writings, Algeria came to hold an important place in the ‘iconography, rhetoric, and ideology of key branches of the African American freedom movement’, as Meghelli explained in 2009, which came to view their struggle for civil rights as connected to the struggles of African nations for independence. Francee Covington in 1970, a student in political science at Harlem University in the late 1960s made this point even clearer: ‘In the past few years the works of Frantz Fanon have become widely read and quoted by those involved in the “Revolution” that has begun to take place in the communities of Black America. If The Wretched of the Earth is the “handbook for the Black Revolution,” then The Battle of Algiers is its movie counterpart’.
The writings of Fanon and his analysis of the Algerian war revealed so many parallels between the experience of colonial domination in Algeria and the racial oppression Blacks had suffered for centuries in America. His book The Wretched had become a ‘Black bible’ to use the words of Eldridge Cleaver. By the end of the 1970s, it had sold some 750,000 copies in the United States.
In his visit to New York on October 1962, Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN leaders and the first Algerian president, met with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and made it clear that there is a close relationship between colonialism and segregation. This view advocating for a global perspective on oppression (be it colonial or racist) was expressed a few years later by Malcolm X. After visiting Algeria in 1964 and the Casbah – the site of the battle of Algiers against French militaries in 1957 – and after responding to the allegations that there existed some sort of “hate-gang” called the “Blood Brothers” based in Harlem and calculatedly committing crimes against whites, he declared at the militant Labour Forum: ‘The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort eventually to the terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Black community’.
It is this global perspective on our struggles that we need to emphasise in order to break away from the many constraints and limitations imposed on our movements in order to embrace a radical internationalism that will actively promote solidarity. Therefore, it becomes essential to rediscover the revolutionary heritage of the Maghreb, Africa, West Asia and the Global South, developed by great minds like Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney and Samir Amin to mention just a few. We need to revive the ambitious projects of the 1960s that sought emancipation from the imperialist-capitalist system. Building on this revolutionary heritage, being inspired by its insurgent hope and applying its internationalist perspective to the current context is of utmost importance to Algeria, to the Black Lives Matter movement and to other emancipatory struggles all over the world.
The progressive forces in Algeria and beyond have a huge task confronting them: the task of putting the socio-economic issue at the centre of the debate around alternatives and injecting a class analysis into the broad movement. It is incumbent upon them, and more specifically upon the radical and revolutionary left, to elaborate new visions that go beyond resistance to the current predatory offensive of capitalism to question the models of capitalist development itself.
Fanon urged us to invent and make new discoveries and not blindly imitate Europe. The struggle of decolonisation, Fanon tells us, must challenge the dominance of European culture and its claims of universalism. It is these two alienations that colonised people must overcome in their cultural struggle. Decolonising the mind also means deconstructing Western notions of ‘development’, ‘civilisation’, ‘progress’, ‘universalism’ and ‘modernity’.
Such concepts represent what is called a coloniality of power and knowledge, which means that ideas of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ were conceived in Europe and North America and then implanted in our continents (Africa, Asia and Latin America) in a context of coloniality, as Mignolo wrote in 2012. These Eurocentric ideas and culture have reinforced the colonial heritage of land confiscations, resource plunder, as well as domination of ‘other’ peoples in order to ‘civilise’ them.
These notions (of ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘modernity’) are imposed notions and are based on a linear conception of the evolution of history that divides the world between ‘developed’ and ‘under-developed’; ‘advanced’ and ‘less advanced’; ‘modern’ (read Western) and ‘backward’ (read non-Western). They are concepts that pretend to be universal and issue injunctions to the excluded and dispossessed to follow a pre-determined path in order to enter an imperial globalisation, led by the ‘advanced’ countries, legitimising their subordination. Being Eurocentric, these concepts assert their self-claimed superiority by excluding and delegitimizing other forms of knowledge, other ways of life and other civilisations’ contributions.
Fanon did not offer us a clear prescription for making the transition after decolonisation to a new liberated political order. Perhaps, there is no such thing as a detailed plan or solution. Rather, he viewed it as a protracted process that will be informed by praxis and, above all, by confidence in the masses and in their revolutionary potential to figure out the liberating alternative.
In the conclusion of The Wretched, Fanon wrote:
Come, then, comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged and leave it behind. The new day, which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent and resolute…. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe… Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe…For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.
In this vein, it is vital to continue the tasks of decolonisation and delinking from the imperialist-capitalist worldn order to restore our denied humanity. Through resistance to colonial and capitalist logics of appropriation and extraction, new imaginaries and counter-hegemonic alternatives will be born.
This is the second of a two-part long read on Fanon and the new Algerian revolution. Many of the ideas in the blogpost come from a chapter in a forthcoming book Fanon Today: The Revolt and Reason of the Wretched of the Earth (edited by Nigel Gibson, Daraja Press 2021).
Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian researcher-activist and commentator, he works as the North Africa Programme Coordinator for the Transnational Institute (TNI).
Featured Photograph: Justice for All March (13 December, 2014).
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