Albert Camus published Chroniques algériennes on June 16, 1958, one month after pro-French Algerians stormed government offices in Algiers, which led to the decline of the Fourth Republic and the eventual re-installment of General Charles de Gaulle. This is the sort of happenstance of which, I am sure, at least a few contemporary publishers dream and should have created a ready-made audience for Camus’s work.
Yet, as Alice Kaplan notes in her introduction to the first English translation of Chroniques algériennes, it was almost entirely ignored. “The press file in the archives at Gallimard,” she writes, “is practically empty.” By contrast, Henri Alleg’s personal account of torture at the hands of the French army published in February 1958 by Éditions de Minuit sold 66,000 copies in a little more than a month before it was banned by the French government.
By 1958, Camus had been silent for two years on the topic of Algeria. He had last spoken in Algiers in January 1956 at a roundtable in a late effort to broker a “civilian truce” in which the French army and pieds-noirs (Algerians of French descent) would agree to curtail the indiscriminate killing of Muslim non-combatants and the socialist Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) would stop its terrorist attacks. The meeting would also demonstrate, Camus had hoped, “that there is still a chance for dialogue.”
It was an utter failure. Camus had spoken against French abuse of power and oppression, but he had also spoken against Algerian independence and regularly defended the rights of French Algerians. Despite this, his address was interrupted by French nationalists chanting “Death to Camus!” Less than six months later, the French government decided to begin carrying out the death sentences of the 253 FLN prisoners on death row. The FLN responded by ordering its members to “Kill any European between the age of eighteen and fifty-four years. No women, no children, no old people.” Twenty-one people were attacked and ten killed. In August, members of the police linked to French nationalist groups responded by planting a bomb in the middle of Casbah, killing seventy, which, in turn, provided the FLN with an excuse, as Martin Evans notes in his excellent Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, to launch “its own campaign of indiscriminate, urban violence, transforming Algiers into a major point of confrontation.” Muslim women disguised as Europeans entered the city center and exploded two bombs—one at the milk bar and another at the cafeteria—wounding fifty-two and killing four, as violence spiraled out of control.
Fellow leftists demonized Camus for failing to support Algerian independence and what they viewed as the necessary violence of the FLN. Following World War II, Camus was revered as a hero. He joined the Communist party in 1934 and the French resistance in 1943, editing its underground newspaper, Combat, until 1947. The publication of The Rebel in 1951, however, in which he derides Marx’s utilitarianism and the seemingly inherent violence of Communism, earned him the scorn of the Parisian left and the vitriol of his one-time friend Jean-Paul Sartre.
On the topic of Algeria, Sartre held that the dehumanizing effects of colonialism could not be avoided since it was understood to be part and parcel of Capitalism. For Sartre, the only thing that could free the oppressed “native” was violence. As he put it in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961): “No gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. . . . When the peasant takes a gun in his hands, the old myths grow dim and the prohibitions are one by one forgotten. The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity.” Apparently, this is the sort of toughness that Susan Sontag had in mind when she wrote in a 1963 essay that Camus “was not that tough, not tough in the way that Sartre [was].”
Camus, however, stood against terrorism and this particular justification of it. In his preface to the Chronicles, he takes the Left to task for “justifying the very crimes” it seeks to fight:
This terrorism is a crime, which can be neither excused nor allowed to develop. In the form in which it is currently practiced, no revolutionary movement has ever tolerated it, and the Russian terrorists of 1905 would sooner have died (as they proved) than stoop to such tactics. It is wrong to transform the injustices endured by the Arab people into a systematic indulgence of those who indiscriminately murder Arab and French civilians without regard to age or sex.
I quote at length here to show the stark contrast between Sartre and Camus on the topic of terror and how enraging it must have been to Sartre for Camus to take the moral high ground.
Worse, though, was Camus’s adamant opposition to Algerian independence itself. The Algerian French had lived on Algerian soil for over a century. Most them were—like Camus’s family—poor farmers or tradesmen, who benefited less from the colonial system, Camus argues, than the mainland French. They had fought for France in two wars, but now would be exiled by their own country if Algeria were “liberated.” “Even if,” Camus writes,
there are Frenchmen who believe that France’s colonial ventures have placed it (and it alone among nations otherwise holy and pure) in a historic state of sin, they need not offer up the French of Algeria as expiatory victims. They would do better to offer themselves up: “Die, all of us, we all have it coming!” The idea of acknowledging guilt as our judges-penitent do, by beating the breasts of others, revolts me.
The solution for Camus, as Martin Evans points out, was to be found in bringing “French democracy to Algeria. By extending the March 1944 reforms, France had to win over the ‘Arab masses’ through practical action.” These reforms included granting citizenship to 65,000 Algerian Muslims. The French government, Camus claims, was responsible for the Algerian crisis because of its use of torture and impoverishing discrimination and mismanagement. Camus documented these in a series of articles for Alger républicain and which opens the Algerian Chronicles. But his overall point is not that democracy has failed; it is the French government that has failed democracy. And he warns those who support the rebels that the results of victory will not be freedom but a “new imperialism.”
On this final score, Camus was prescient. He died in car accident in 1960 and so did not see the outcome of the conflict. Algeria, of course, would win its independence in 1962, following a bloody final battle beginning in March. The FLN later claimed that independence had cost the country one million Algerian “martyrs,” but Evans puts the figure—still significant—at closer to 300,000 (and notes that at least 30,000 of them came at the hands of the FLN itself).
On September 25, 1962, Ferhat Abbas, who was elected the head of the first Algerian Assembly five days earlier, announced the beginning of the “democratic,” “popular,” and “socialist” Algerian Republic, but democracy would prove ellusive. Those who had opposed the FLN and the “March on Algiers” were excluded from power and the militant Ahmed Ben Bella was appointed president. Bella and his allies put forward a new constitution that made Algeria a one-party state. This led to Abbas, who was in favor of a plurality of parties, to resign as the head of the Assembly.
Bella, however, was able neither to solve Algeria’s many economic problems following the war nor slow the exodus of its skilled workers (most of them Jews or pieds-noirs). On June 19, 1965, Ben Bella was removed from power and Houari Boumediène, who had been patiently consolidating his control over the Algerian military, was appointed head of the new Revolutionary Council, which replaced the Algerian Assembly. Boumediène ruled Algeria until his death in 1978. The current president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a protégé of Boumediène, was voted into office in 1999, but only after all of the other candidates withdrew from the race, protesting wide-spread voting fraud. Boutefika has since presided over a long, bloody civil war against Islamic insurgents. In 2009, the constitution was changed again to allow Boutefika to run for a third term as president and further consolidate his power.
In short, more than fifty years after the revolution, Algeria is still not a democracy, and its people are still not free. While Camus’s proposal to bring all the benefits of democracy to the Algerian people was ignored and most likely came too late (in 1944, it seems, Abbas had already given up hope), history has proven Camus right when he warned in 1955 that those who support terror and call for massacres, “no matter which camp they come from and no matter what argument or folly drives them, are in fact calling for their own destruction.” A lesson the world, alas, has still not learned.