April 13, 2013


Resistance, Rebellion, and Writing : Albert Camus's dispatches on the Algerian crisis appear in English for the first time (GEORGE SCIALABBA, APRIL/MAY 2013, BookForum)

 In 1939 he had pleaded for the long-promised assimilation of native Algerians. At that point, nearly 80 percent of the indigenous population wanted to become French citizens. By 1945 the promise had been too long delayed; scarcely anyone believed in it anymore. Moreover, as Camus pointed out, "hundreds of thousands of Arabs have spent the past two years fighting for the liberation of France." It seems incredible in retrospect that a new French government thought it could simply resume the old colonial relationship with only minor modifications, but that is evidently what it assumed. This was folly, Camus protested. The French would "have to conquer Algeria a second time," and "this second conquest will not be as easy as the first."

Arab public opinion had shifted from assimilation to federation and a modified form of independence. Camus strongly supported this position, though he carefully couched his support in a patriotic appeal to French wisdom and grandeur. He knew all too well the intransigence of the French Algerian community; he also recognized--almost uniquely among French intellectuals--that his fellow pieds-noirs, though dismayingly many of them were pigheaded racists, nevertheless had rights, too, and were just as much oppressed as they were oppressors.

The French government continued to dither. In 1948 it allowed elections for two separate assemblies, French and Muslim, but when it looked like the pro-independence parties would dominate the latter, the colonial administration rigged the elections and began arresting the leaders. Predictably, this led to further Arab protest, which led to further French repression. A National Liberation Front (FLN) formed, demanding complete independence. It was, of course, outlawed. In late 1954, the FLN launched a guerrilla offensive, to which the French government responded by escalating its repression. In August 1955, the FLN massacred 123 French and Muslim civilians, and the French Army (along with paramilitary groups of pieds-noirs) went on a rampage, killing thousands of guerrillas and Arab civilians. The Algerian War had begun in earnest. [...]

Moral imagination is not to be expected, perhaps, from politicians or military commanders. But even the intellectuals of Paris and Algiers failed to respond, preferring partisan commitment. Camus was profoundly discouraged, and moreover bore many scars from earlier Parisian polemics. Further ridicule was in store: At a press conference in Stockholm after the Nobel ceremony, Camus made a statement widely misreported as "I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice." Goldhammer and Alice Kaplan--in her introduction to this edition--perform a considerable service in pointing out that Camus said nothing so simplistic. What he said was: "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." He was not sentimentally exalting his mother above justice; he was rejecting the equation of justice with revolutionary terrorism.

But by the time he put together Chroniques algériennes the following year, his bridges to his fellow intellectuals had been burned.

Nothing so became him as the hatred of the intellectuals.
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Posted by at April 13, 2013 6:57 AM

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