- Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria by David Porter
David Porter’s Eyes to the South is a dense, detailed tome on a controversial subject. In the past decade, the Algerian War of 1954–1962 has become a highly debated topic both [End Page 253] in and outside of academia, mostly as a result of previously classified archives becoming available. Porter brings a new, hitherto unexplored perspective on the views that French anarchists have held on Algerian politics and society from 1954 to the present. According to the author, such a study not only sheds light on Algerian history, but also provides a thorough overview of the ideological dilemmas that the international anarchist movement has had to face in the last sixty years (p. 493). Among those challenges, questions related to the “liberatory” potential of violence, to female emancipation, to the role of national liberation movements in the transition to more decentralized socioeconomic and political structures, and to the place of “Western-type ‘anarchism’” in non-Western countries (for lack of a better phrase) have loomed large (p.495).
After a brief section on pre-Second World War Algeria, Porter analyses the roles played by various prominent French anarchists (or quasi-anarchists, like Albert Camus) in generating discussions on the possibilities offered by the Algerian War. The book follows a chronological order. Each chapter includes a section focusing on Algerian socio-political events at a given time, accompanied by an analysis of the French anarchists’ perspective on said events as well as on related debates such as the use of violence or the issue of the headscarf in French public schools. In the course of his analysis, Porter emphasises the growing disconnect between the French anarchists’ hopes for a freer Algerian society and, on the other hand, the increasing ossification of a cynical dictatorship. In that regard, the author brilliantly describes the military-backed regime’s efforts to strengthen its authority by the means of divide-and-rule methods and, for the past twenty-five years, its artificial alliances with lackey parties and some Islamist groups.
Conceptually and structurally, Eyes to the South resembles a distorting mirror. Although Porter does not resort to that particular metaphor, it seems that the majority of French anarchists analysed Algerian politics through the lens of their own theoretical concepts and did not really focus their attention on the realities on the ground. As the country gradually sank into dictatorship during the Ben Bella and Boumédienne eras (1962–65 and 1965–78, respectively) and grew more conservative under Chadli and Bouteflika (1978 to the present), the debates concerning Algeria among French anarchists tended to revolve around issues more closely related to French politics or to the anarchist movement at large, such as self-management projects or the Berber Spring in the 1980s. Thus, Porter’s book can be understood as a twofold critical analysis of Algeria’s post-1962 failed democratisation and of the French anarchists’ unsuccessful attempts at overcoming the dilemmas inherent to their own ideas.
Porter devotes a substantial part of the second half of his book to Kabylia, a region located in the north of Algeria, in areas immediately to the east of Algiers province. The Kabyles, as Berbers, have held a special place in Algeria in that their language and culture differ significantly from those of the Arabs. Kabylian society’s traditional structures, which have placed much emphasis on municipal power, did not fail to draw the attention of anarchist thinkers and activists. Many of the latter saw similarities between their plans to develop workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives and self-management programmes on the one hand, and Kabylian socioeconomic and political traditions on the other. The various political protests that have taken place over the last two decades, most notably during the April 1980 Berber Spring uprising and in 2001, contributed to kindle the interest of [End Page 254] French anarchists in Algerian politics. Nevertheless, only some of the Kabylian protesters’ ideas converged with those of the anarchists. Indeed, some of the protesters’ demands called for a...