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Camus and the Algerian Revolution

[inset_left]Algerian Chronicles

By Albert Camus, Translated by Arthur Goldenhammer

Belknap Press, May 2013[/inset_left]Soon after accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Albert Camus was confronted by a young Algerian at a press conference and challenged to speak in favor of the ongoing revolution. (Camus was born in Algiers and his family still lived there.) Camus replied: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” In the account, published in Le Monde and translated around the world, his reply was shortened to become: “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.” Camus’s original words questioned the idea that terrorism and justice can ever go hand-in-hand. However, the version he is remembered for is more chauvinistic: forget justice, because only the tribe matters.

Camus regretted the way his words were reported so much that he published a short book entitled Algerian Chronicles in 1958. It has now appeared for the first time in English, in a time when the bloodshed in the Middle East had never been uglier. The slim volume, translated by Arthur Goldhammer for Harvard University Press with an elegant foreword from Alice Kaplan, represents Camus’s personal selection of writings on Algeria, covering a period of twenty years, along with a new preface and epilogue.

It includes a speech delivered at a 1956 peace conference organized by Camus, in which he relates how his father’s family arrived in Algiers after Alsace, their homeland, was surrendered following the Franco–Prussian War. Camus’s father fought and died in the Battle of the Marne 45 years later. To Camus, these incidents speak of his family’s identity as French citizens of Algeria. They were poor: his mother was a maid, and an uncle who shared their small Algiers apartment was a barrel-maker.

Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus
Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus

By the 1950s, French Algerians numbered over a million and, according to Camus, eighty percent were manual workers and shopkeepers, not the wealthy colonialists of popular imagination. When he delivered his 1956 speech, Camus was still hoping for a solution that retained a place for these French Algerians. Within two years his hope had died; Algerian Chronicles came with a vow of silence. Camus writes: “Finding it impossible to join either of the extreme camps, recognizing the gradual disappearance of the third camp in which it was still possible to keep a cool head . .  . I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent.” He adds, “The only actions that interest me are those that prevent the pointless shedding of blood.” Camus’s vow of silence was his way of mourning the death of his “third camp,” as much as it was a precaution to say nothing that would put his family in danger.

Today, most of us feel obliged to take sides: for or against rebels, for or against military coups, for the government or for the revolution. At the same time, too many people know their families are at risk if they speak too openly. Camus’s “third camp,” the space for “cool heads,” does not exist anymore. Perhaps it never did. There has never been much space for open and free debate in the Middle East. Yet remaining silent feels like surrender—or worse, petulance.

When Camus speaks of a “third camp,” he is referring to the 1956 peace conference. It took place at a hotel in Algiers and Camus’s fellow speakers included a number of religious figures, as well as a prominent Algerian leader Ferhat Abbas. The aim was to call for an end to targeting civilians: women, children and the elderly. The Battle of Algiers was in full force, with massacres and torture taking place by the French army, and widespread terrorist attacks by the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale (FLN, National Liberation Front). Camus hoped that a lessening of the tension might provide space needed for new solutions—solutions that he believed should stop short of an independent Arab Algeria. Camus had thought it unimaginable that a million French citizens would simply desert a country that had been home for a hundred years. Yet when independence came in 1961, the French vanished almost overnight.

Camus never regarded himself as reactionary or anti-Arab: he was a journalist in Algiers in the 1930s and his anti-colonial politics led to him being blacklisted; Algerian Chronicles includes his newspaper account of a famine in Kabylie. Unable to find work, he left Algiers and became a journalist in the underground resistance to Nazism and later on, after the war, the author of an astonishing series of novels including The Plague and The Outsider. By the late 1950s, Camus no longer knew Algiers. He was surprised when the crowds outside the hotel in 1956 chanted for his death. The irony was that the protestors came from the poor, French Algerians that Camus hoped to save. The security inside the hotel was provided by the FLN (though Camus was unaware of this). Later that same year, his “third camp” colleague, Ferhat Abbas, was forced into exile by the French and finally joined the FLN in Cairo.

Camus’s plan for a peaceful solution shows just how out of touch he had become. His preferred scheme was a complex bi-national state in which the French and the Arabs would be self-governing, yet intermingled. They would be equal-yet-different, and though Arab Algerians would be denied French citizenship, they would send delegates to a French parliament. Camus’s blind spot, as Algerian Chronicles shows, was that he recognized a French Algerian political identity, but no equivalent Arab Algerian identity. He masks his chauvinism with casuist arguments, arguing that it makes no sense to speak of Algerians because no independent Algeria ever existed, while an Arab nationality is a new invention of General Nasser, cooked up in partnership with the Soviets. In such a way, Camus hoped logic would dissolve both sides of an Arab Algerian identity and cause the nationalist’s demand disappear.

Today, one hears equally bizarre bi-national formulas offered as solutions to the Israel–Palestinian conflict. Indeed, Camus might be the patron saint of everyone who believes goodwill and an active imagination can offer solutions that the people, truly involved on the ground, have somehow missed. Camus’s retreat into silence does not look principled, but appears as an attempt to give dignity to his failure to fully engage.

Yet in one respect, Camus continues to offer a challenge: he insists that all violence is equivalent whether it is committed by rebels or the government. For Camus, violence always breeds more violence. Camus is arguing against another French outsider, Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born philosopher. Fanon was a propagandist for the FLN who argued that if you make a moral equivalence between the powerful and the oppressed, you make justice impossible. Fanon swung the opinions of many French intellectuals in the 1950s and, today, many of us would tend to agree with him.

Nevertheless, we also recognize how appalling post-revolutionary states can be. Revolutions unleash monsters as well as destroy them. After Algeria won independence, Ferhat Abbas was imprisoned by the FLN, a dictatorial force, intolerant of voices that challenged their own paranoid idea of a unified Algeria, and incapable of reaching out to the France it had rejected. This sacrificed not only the benefits of Western technology and capital, but also ordinary community-minded people like Camus’s mother, who knew nowhere but Algiers. In a violent situation, it can seem impossible to imagine different communities living together in goodwill, yet this is what justice demands.

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