The Colonist of Good Will: On Albert Camus
Today, it is difficult to see how the decolonization of the European empires could have been anything but an overdetermined process. After World War II, anticolonial nationalists became impatient with the elaborate timetables devised for securing independence; veterans returning to the colonies were intent on demanding even more from their metropoles than their predecessors had twenty-five years earlier; capitalists were no longer convinced that the colonial system was worth the cost; the United States and the Soviet Union spasmodically pressured European empires to prepare their territories for self-determination. Finally, there was the internal logic of decolonization itself: if one of the empires divested its colonies, it would be hard for the others not to follow suit. There was moral prestige to be won by whoever accomplished it first. In 1966, just four years after France had left Algeria, de Gaulle did not hesitate to shame the United States for not yet having quit Vietnam.
But for Europeans on the ground in the immediate postwar decades, full-scale decolonization appeared far from inevitable. In the 1950s, the vast majority of mainland French citizens supported keeping Algeria French; by the 1960s, almost none of them did. Algeria—which had never been defined as a French colony, but rather as an “overseas” province every bit as integral as Corsica—now had to be let go. The change of heart was sudden, and the doubts it cast on the entire republican project were quickly glossed over. As the historian Todd Shepard convincingly argues, the concept of “decolonization” had to be invented in the 1960s as a way for the French to believe that they had just presided over an orderly and historically necessary process of self-determination. Now that they had furnished themselves with an excuse to forget the Algerians, they could get on with the work of building a “European” republic. Shepard agrees with prominent historians of decolonization, including Wilder, that the specific form that postwar decolonization took was not predetermined, but it remains hard to fathom how, considering all of the contributing factors, the outcome could have been dramatically different from what occurred: the rapid emergence of a series of nation-states, each jealous of its new sovereignty.
For Camus, there had always been an alternative to this fate—reform. It would have meant dealing with the declining number of “moderate” nationalists like Ferhat Abbas who had been seeking a greater voice in French politics since the 1920s. In 1936, Camus backed the Blum-Viollette proposal, which called for granting citizenship to a small number of educated Algerians, with the intention of widening the franchise in the future. In 1956, Camus flew to Algiers and in a powerful speech announced a “Civilian Truce”: “French and Arab solidarity is inevitable, in death as in life, in destruction as in hope.” In 1958, he backed the Lauriol Plan, which would have transformed Algeria into a federated state like Switzerland, with Arabs and Berbers having their separate legal jurisdictions and the right to vote on national measures that affected them. All of these plans were rejected out of hand by the pieds-noirs; all of them were too little, too late for the Algerians. Camus was a “colonizer of good will,” remarked the writer Albert Memmi.
By 1954, when war started in earnest, the Algerian moderates had either been routed or had joined the ranks of the FLN, which was demanding a completely independent state based on “Arab culture, Berber roots, and Islamic tradition.” For Camus, there had never been any such thing as an Algerian “nation.” “As far as Algeria is concerned,” he wrote, “national independence is a formula driven by nothing other than passion.” He believed that the FLN was no more than a band of totalitarian stooges who could not be negotiated with under any circumstances. (Incredibly, Paul Berman has recapitulated this view in The New Republic, seeing Camus as nothing less than himself avant la lettre, shrewdly anticipating the seedlings of an Islamist totalitarian empire.) But under the leadership of Ahmed Ben Bella and Saadi Yacef, the FLN proved extremely effective. Its violent tactics provoked even more savagery on the part of the French government, not to mention the pieds-noirs’ own homegrown terrorist group, which tried to assassinate de Gaulle and threatened France with a civil war within its mainland borders. At the same time, the FLN increasingly made use of the United Nations in what turned out to be a winning two-pronged strategy: terrorism in the streets of Algiers coupled with high-level diplomacy on the East Side.
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The French intellectuals who served as house theorists for the FLN—Sartre and Frantz Fanon—saw their mission as nothing short of reinventing what it meant to have a revolution. It could be achieved, they argued, only through an overwhelming tide of redemptive violence, which would grant the Algerians a chance to exercise and feel their untapped powers as “new” men and women, no longer reliant on Europeans. Peasants were designated to lead the charge. “The starving peasant, outside the class system,” wrote Fanon, “is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays.” Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was published in 1961, one year after Camus’s death, but Camus had anticipated some of its arguments. Early on, he recognized that the promises of revolutionary violence were a mirage. More likely, he believed, Algerian independence would result in just the sort of crude nationalism that had already turned Europe into a charnel house twice in the twentieth century. Surprisingly, this was the view shared by the young Jacques Derrida, who as a leftist French-Algerian Jew continued to distinguish between Algerian “autonomy” and “independence” for longer than one might have expected.
One critical element that separated Camus from his French intellectual peers was that he rejected anything resembling a philosophy of history. Sartre agreed with Camus that there was no organic unity that could be recognized as the Algerian “nation,” but that was precisely the point: national consciousness had been forged in the crucible of the colonial encounter. In the Sartrean dialectic, History had finished preparing the Algerian people, who were now ready for revolt. On the other side of the ideological divide, even Raymond Aron, the French intellectual most opposed to historical fatalism, argued that in the case of Algeria, the universal promise of French republicanism was historically exhausted, and it was time to accept that liberalism was the only ideology to which France could afford to subscribe now that colonialism had become a costly folly. Camus could not accept either argument—both reeked of different brands of nihilism. In the case of Aron, it meant giving up on Algeria for squalid economic reasons: the colony no longer paid its way. In the case of Sartre, it meant succumbing yet again to the lie of revolutionary violence, which was just as unforgivable in 1958 as it had been in 1793.