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    Algeria, Genesis of Political Nationalism

    Algeria, Genesis of Political Nationalism

    NORTH AFRICAN STAR (Etoile Nord Africaine, ENA)

    While the political foment in Algeria gathered pace, the movement that was the most direct predecessor of the FLN (French acronyms for National Liberation Front) had been gaining strength across the Mediterranean, in France, since the early 1920s. 

    Acquiring the Skills: Communist Tutelage

    Founded among the metropole’s working-class Arab immigrant community, the Etoile Nord Africaine (North African Star, ENA) party was a precursor to the FLN in a philosophical and organisational sense for which it owed a great debt to communist tutelage.

    For many, Wilson’s refusal to support anticolonial causes in 1919 left a bitter taste— the influential Egyptian journalist Mohamed Haykal judged it “the ugliest of treacheries ... the most profound repudiation of principles!”— and this disillusionment helped propel some nationalists toward the Soviet Union in their search for guidance and support. 

    Indeed Messali Hadj, who quickly became the ENA’s recognised leader after helping to found the party in Paris in 1926, later credited the efforts of pied-noir communists for his initial political awakening, and the PCF (French Communist Party) closely assisted the party’s development. At that time he was a shop boy and his cofounders were factory workers, and like many other such anticolonial groups, the ENA was intimately enmeshed in the French left- wing milieu.

    Messali actually married a PCF militant, and a 1929 Paris police report claimed sixteen of the twenty-eight members of the ENA’s central committee were also members of the communist party. Moreover, communist mentorship undoubtedly influenced the ENA’s doctrine. Not only was the ENA the first Algerian group to advocate consistently for outright independence, but its official party program for 1933 also called for “the complete transfer to the Algerian State of the banks, mines, railroads, ports and public services monopolised by the conquerors; the confiscation of the large estates monopolised by the feudal allies of the conquerors, the colonisers and the financial firms; and the transfer of this seized land to the peasants.” 

    Messali and his comrades had internalised Lenin’s argument that imperialism was the product of European capitalism.

    The ENA also participated in anticolonial transnational forums such as the 1927 Anti- imperialism Congress in Belgium, where future national leaders like India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal formed the League against Imperialism, a short- lived Comintern-sponsored initiative that nevertheless created many durable relations between far-flung activists. 

    Other intercolonial exchanges happened outside the communist umbrella, though usually with some connection to the diverse left wing of French politics. For example, the ENA cooperated with the Ligue de Défense de la Race Nègre (Negro Race Defense League), a black African movement founded by Senghor and the French Sudanese (Mali today) activist Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté, to protest the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935– 1936. The January 1935 issue of the party’s newspaper El Ouma (Nation, or Community) urged that “Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Annamese [i.e., Vietnamese], Malagasy, Senegalese, etc., get together, find common ground ... and work together closely, shoulder to shoulder with the French intellectual and manual proletariat for their economic, political and social independence. Oppressed people from the colonies, unite to protect your interests.”

    The Great Rift

    By the mid- 1930s, however, there were clear divergences between the communist and anticolonial agendas, and Messali’s movement experienced a particularly angry parting of the ways with former comrades in the Marxist mainstream. The immediate cause was geopolitical: obeying Stalin’s orders, the PCF and its new Algerian offshoot, the PCA, deprecated the anticolonial cause to focus on forging an anti-Fascist coalition in Europe, and to keep Léon Blum’s Popular Front government in power in Paris. 

    Thus the ENA condemned the Blum-Viollette reform bill of 1936, which would have further expanded the Muslim franchise in Algeria and “assimilated” thousands of évolués, as a colonialist project that betrayed socialist principles. Worse still, the government ultimately caved to pied noir outrage on the matter. 

    In January 1937, Messali penned a recriminatory letter to L’Humanité, the main French communist news-paper, accusing the PCF of turning its back on a decade of friendship, shared adventures, and shared imprisonments.

    Paradigm Shift, Back to Roots

    Philosophically, however, Messali and communism were already drifting apart because he prioritised national liberation over proletarian revolution. While the ENA had participated in various inter-Arab and pan-Islamic initiatives, its leader experienced a revelation when he spent six months in 1935– 1936 hiding from the French police in Geneva, where he kept close company with the influential Arab nationalist figure Shakib Arslan. “Certainly, I am Syrian,” Shakib told the Algerian, “but above all I am an Arab, a Muslim, and a combatant.” He encouraged Messali to reconcile with the Islamic reformist movement in his homeland, which the latter had seen as an elitist project of Algeria’s haughty Ulema, because jihad was a powerful means to national liberation. 

    Likewise, the Tunisian nationalist (and future president) Habib Bourguiba recommended combining modern political mobilisation with the expression of national cultural identity: “Both elements are indispensable: the first to spread the Arabic language, history, and religion, the other to organise and struggle.”

    Messali saw the wisdom of their counsel. When he returned to Algeria in 1936 to join the surging political ferment there, he sought to combine the political methods and message of social justice that he had developed in France with a new emphasis on cultural “authenticity”—starting with the long flowing beard and robes of a traditional Maghribi Sheikh.

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