Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969

ALGERIA IN 1870-1914


The Paris Commune had an immediate impact on Algeria, a long-suffering land oppressed both by Bonaparte militarists and the big bourgeoisie. The uprising of the Paris Communards was closely linked with the revolutionary events in Algeria of 1870-71, and coincided with the big national liberation uprising of 1871. This coincidence was not accidental. The collapse of the Second Empire showed the Algerian Arabs and Berbers just how weak and corrupt the French bourgeois state had become. They seized up the situation and launched another attempt to shake off the hated foreign rule.

The course of events in these turbulent years was some-what complex. The first news of the events in France, of the French army’s capitulation and surrender of the Emperor, and of the proclamation of a republic on September 4, 1870, reached Algeria on the same night. The Arabs and Berbers, who comprised the main bulk of the population (2,100,000), were still unprepared for immediate action and the first reaction to the events in Paris came from the French population of Algeria, which numbered approximately 270,000.

The social make-up of the French population of Algeria was not uniform. Groups of French workers and intellectuals had come into being in the midst of the French bourgeoisie and colonists. All sections of the French population of Algeria, with the exception of a handful of bankers and concessionaires, were against the Bonaparte regime. More-over, the overwhelming majority of bankers and concessionaires lived in Paris, not in Algeria. Why were the local French colonists and bourgeoisie opposed to the regime of the Second Empire? The reason lay in the struggle for the monopolistic exploitation of Algeria, for the seizure of her natural resources. Napoleon III had been handing out concessions to the big metropolitan bourgeoisie and Parisian financiers and openly cheating the Algerian group of French capitalists out of their share. The whole system of the French colonial rule in Algeria was designed primarily to serve the interests of the big Parisian concessionaires.

The local bourgeoisie could take no direct part in Algeria’s administration, and in 1852, was even deprived of the right to send its deputies to the French Parliament (a right which it had been granted in 1848 under the Second Republic). The post of governor-general was usually given to high ranking French militarists such as Marshal Pelissier, Marshal MacMahon and others and the colonists’ and French bourgeoisie’s discontent was directed mainly against the “dictatorship of the epaulettes.” These circles demanded that the “military regime” be abolished, that Algeria’s administration be entrusted to the local French bourgeoisie and that a settlers’ colony on the American model (with complete expulsion and extermination of the native population) should be set up in Algeria. Some colonists even maintained that Algeria (not Arab Algeria, of course, but a French Algeria with its native population completely enslaved) should secede from France altogether.

Most of the French colonists were Orleanists or legitimists, i.e., they favoured the preservation of the monarchy, but with the possibility of changing the dynasty. The others were so-called moderate Republicans.

These bourgeois colonists decided to take advantage of Napoleon III’s overthrow by seizing power in Algeria. They were afraid to get rid of the Governor-General Duroc, an appointee of the Second Empire, but they did secure the replacement of several Bonaparte officials by liberal Republicans. The representatives of this group filled nearly all the key posts in the local administration.

Apart from this group, however, the Revolution of 1871 brought democratic emigre circles on to the political scene. It must be borne in mind that Algeria served as a place of exile for all the opposition elements in France. Between 1848 and 1849, 20,500 Parisian workers, participants of the July uprising of 1848, had been banished to Algeria. After the Bonaparte coup of December 2, 1851, 9,530 active Republicans, mainly petty-bourgeois revolutionaries, were

sent there. The exiles lived a hard life and many of them died of poverty, disease and the heat.

These French Democrats naturally had no intention of being left out of political events. On September 5, 1870, thousands of French workers and petty-bourgeois democrats organised a mass demonstration, pulled the imperial eagles down from all the buildings and hoisted a pole topped by a Phrygian cap, the symbol of the Revolution, in the court-yard of the governor-general. Democratic organisations were set up-defence committees, the Republican Association of Algeria, the national guards and municipalities.

Defence committees were formed in all the French-populated cities of Algeria. They were headed by the Algiers Defence Committee, which was supervised by bourgeois Republicans and petty-bourgeois democrats. The committee demanded that it be given a part in the administration of the colony, that the institutions be purged of Bonapartist elements, and that the military regime be abolished. The native population was not represented on any of these committees, The bourgeois Republicans, how-ever, sabotaged the defence committees’ attempts to establish control over the prefects and sub-prefects. The leader of the Republican bourgeoisie – the prefect of Algiers, Warnier left the old mechanism of power untouched and even secured the removal of working-class representatives from the defence committees.

The Republican Association of Algeria was a political organisation of revolutionary workers and petty-bourgeois democrats with branches in all the cities of Algeria. It organised general meetings and published newspapers. The organisation was comprised of workers, members of the Algerian section of the International (not Marxists, but mainly Proudhonists). The Republican Association felt that all power in Algeria should be vested in the elective municipalities-communes, and that Algeria should be a federation of such municipalities-communes. It goes without saying that in both the Republican Association and in the communes contemplated by the Association the hopes of the Arab-Berber population were completely ignored. The petty-bourgeois democrats and Proudhonists were chauvinists like the big French bourgeoisie.

True, individual Arabs as well as Jews and Europeans of non-French origin were admitted to the Association. Although the members of the Republican Association admitted Arabs to their ranks, however, at best they remained indifferent to the native population’s struggle for national liberation. As for the followers of Proudhon with their “national nihilism,” they were apt to regard the conversion of all Arabs into French as the solution to the national question. In October 1870, the newspaper Algerie Francaise, which was connected with the Republican Association of Algeria, defined the tasks of the national guards, which had been formed with the active participation of the Association members, in the following way: 1) struggle against the external enemy, 2) struggle for an independent Republic in Algeria if the monarchy were restored in France, 3) struggle against local popular uprisings.

The national guards, whose commanders were elected by the people, were made subordinate to the defence commit-tees and to the elective municipalities, in which the petty-bourgeois Democratic Party had a majority. Its leader was the. lawyer Romuald Vuiermoz, who in the early days of the Revolution had been elected the head of the Republican Defence Committee and the mayor of Algiers.


On October 24, 1870, General Walsin-Esterhazy, a monarchist who had stained his reputation by bloody reprisals against the workers of Oran in September 1870, was appointed the interim governor-general of Algeria. After the new governor-general’s arrival (on October 28, 1870), the European workers of Algeria along with the Arab poor besieged the governor’s palace. The general relinquished his post and escaped to safety in a warship, while the workers, with the help of the national guards, seized his palace. Prefect Warnier also resigned. The workers and 4,000 national guardsmen began preparations for an assault on the Admiralty, the last bulwark of the counter-revolution, which was defended by only 200 sailors. Vuiermoz, however, who had entered into negotiations with the admiral, foiled the attackers and thereby helped preserve the bastion of reaction.

When news reached Algeria on the 30th of October, 1870, that Metz had surrendered and Marshal Bazaine had capitulated, fresh demonstrations were held in Algiers, Oran and other towns, to demand the use of revolutionary terror against the traitors. On November 7, the Republican Association of Algeria required that the entire administration of Algeria be handed over to the Republican defence committees. In keeping with the Association’s decision, however, on the next day the Algerian municipality and the Defence Committee met to elect Vuiermoz the interim Extraordinary Commissioner of Algeria, i.e., ruler of the country. The meeting proclaimed “the commune the primordial basis of all democracy” and announced that the whole country would be a federation of communes.

This outburst, however, led to nothing. Having branded the decision of the Algerian commune as an “illegal act of usurpation,” the French Government appointed the reactionary Charles de Buzer as its Extraordinary Civil Commissioner in Algeria (with the rights of governor). Vuiermoz immediately ceded power to him (November 11, 1870). At de Buzer’s demand the national guards were placed under his control and all revolutionary elements were removed from the command. Thus, disrupted by small bourgeois conciliators, the movement began to decline.

What caused the failure of the democratic elements? Of course one may speak of Vuiermoz’s treachery, but that is beside the point. The narrow democratic strata did not have the solid backing of the masses, certainly not of the native population. This was the, reason why the colonial bourgeoisie was later able to suppress all attempts by the Algerian commune to regain power and control of the national guards.

The promulgation of the Paris Commune in March 1871 occasioned a new upsurge of the revolutionary movement in Algeria. Demonstrations were held throughout the country under the slogans “Long Live Paris! Down with Versailles!” The revolutionary press published detailed reports on the activities of the Paris Commune. The Republican Association of Algeria sent delegates to France. On their arrival in the capital, men like Alexandre Lambert joined the Paris Commune and became its active builders and defenders. The question of taking over power was once again raised in the Republican Association. But this time, under the influence of the petty-bourgeois conciliators, the Association declined all further struggle.

This decision was prompted by the outbreak of an Arab-Berber insurrection. The French petty-bourgeois democrats and even the proletariat in Algeria did not understand the revolutionary significance of the Arab national liberation movement. The French revolutionaries’ chief mistake was their neglect of the national question. They forgot that victory over the counter-revolutionary French bourgeoisie in Algeria could be won only in alliance with the native population. They did not realise that a people who oppresses others cannot be free itself, and that they themselves had a vital interest in Algeria’s national emancipation.

When, consequently, a massive liberation uprising of the native population flared up in Algeria in March 1871, the local Frenchmen with their Great Power prejudices sowed considerable strife and disorder in the working-class movement. As for Vuiermoz and the other petty-bourgeois leaders, their kow-towing to French reaction became more marked as their fear of the Arab uprising grew. In April 1871, a new French governor-general by the name of Gueydon, an ardent monarchist and clerical, who had been instructed by the Versailles leaders to put down the uprising, arrived in Algeria. Taking advantage of the cowardice of the petty-bourgeois politicians and their fear of the “Arab danger,” Gueydon had no trouble in disbanding the Algerian municipality and the national guards.


Colonial oppression brought economic ruin to the Algerian villages. Between 1868 and 1870 a terrible famine raged in the land. People ate grass and frequent cases of cannibalism were recorded. Cholera, the handmaid of famine, took toll of thousands of lives. Algeria’s native population which in 1866 had numbered 2,652,000 fell by 1872 to only 2,125,000. Over 500,000 (i.e., a nearly fifth of the entire population) had perished from hunger, disease and from the atrocities of the French punitive expeditions.

Year in and year out uprisings had flared up in various regions of the country. These uprisings, however, had been local and quite often of a spontaneous character; the struggle had not been organised on a national scale and was easily suppressed by the French authorities.

Towards the close of 1870, however, the situation changed. New horizons opened up for the Arab Algerians. They were aware that France had displayed military weakness in the war of 1870-71 and that the French generals had proved ineffective. They knew about the Sedan catastrophe, about the fall of Metz and about the class struggle in France and among the Algerian French population. The Arabs realised the time had come for a decisive struggle. Their representatives in the urban centres, especially in Algiers, actively supported the French workers. Since July 1870, the villages and nomadic regions had been in a state of ferment.

Resentment increased when the people learned of the plan to transfer power in Algeria from the generals and Parisian bankers to the big French colonists, who had brutally oppressed the native population. These were the immediate and real oppressors and the Algerian peasants especially hated them. A decree issued at the end of 1870 granting the Algerian Jews the full rights of French citizens evoked considerable discontent, only stressing as it did the people’s complete lack of rights. Moreover, reports of the impending transfer of refugees from Alsace-Lorraine to Algeria and of France paying indemnities to the Prussians deeply affected the Algerian peasants, who connected both events with new expropriations and taxes.

The Arab and Berber tribal uprising headed by Mohammed el-Mokrani, the ruler of the Kabyle region of Medjana (near Setif), began on March 14, 1871. A descendent of the old feudal nobility, Mokrani could not reconcile himself to the fact that from an almost independent ruler, France had turned him into a mere civil servant. Nor could he forget that France had reduced the size of his land and his revenues, countermanded his orders and forced him to accept her agents as his assistants. Mokrani had thirty tribes under his control and could muster 25,000 men.

The peasants and nomads, however, were the main force of the uprising, not the feudalists who had joined Mokrani. On April 8, 1871, the religious fraternity of Rahmaniya, which exercised influence over approximately 250 tribes, i.e. about 600,000 peasants and nomads (nearly a third of Algeria’s native population), took action. The brotherhood had over 100,000 men at its disposal. Its agitators wentround the villages, bazaars and nomad camps, summoning the people to a holy war against the enemy.

After the religious brotherhood of Rahmaniya had joined the uprising, all of eastern Algeria became the scene of a great war of liberation. Mokrani’s plan, which he submitted to the insurgent leaders’ military council, did not call for the expulsion of the French from Algeria. It merely pro-posed forcing them to make concessions to the Arab and Kabyle chieftains. This plan, however, was not endorsed and it was decided to fight for the complete expulsion of the French from Algeria. Against Mokrani’s advice, the insurgents took the French fortress of Bordj bou Arreridj (in Kabylia) by storm. In the course of later battles between April and May, the insurgents gained one victory after another and liberated almost the entire eastern part of the country from the French. After a mere ten months they already had 340 battles to their credit. Mokrani was killed in battle in May 1871. His place was taken by his brother, Ahmed Bu Mezrag.

The insurgents won one victory after another, while the Paris Communards held out heroically against the onslaught of the Versaillists, thereby making it impossible for the Tiers government to despatch troops to Algeria. But when the Versaillists, having routed the Communards, brought up the size of the occupation army to 85,000 men, the situation changed. By July 1871, the main forces of the uprising had been defeated and the leaders of the religious brother-hood of Rahmaniya under Sheikh Haddad surrendered. The French punitive detachments burnt villages, drove away the cattle, destroyed wells and murdered women and children. The guerillas of Kabylia, however, courageously continued the unequal fight for another six months. After their resistance had been broken, Ahmed Bu Mezrag with-drew to the south, where he fought the last rear-guard actions of the uprising. In January 1872, the last two centres of resistance, the oases of Tuggurt and Wargla, fell. Ahmed Bu Mezrag was taken prisoner and the uprising was suppressed.

The Versaillists cynically admitted that they had dealt with the Algerian insurgents in the “Parisian manner.” Thousands were executed, thrown into prison or exiled to New Caledonia to do penal servitude. The rebellious tribes paid 36,000,000 francs indemnities and 500,000 hectares of their best land were confiscated. To save the rest they had to pay the conquerors another 27,000,000 francs.

The Paris Communards and Algerian peasants had a common enemy-the French bourgeoisie. They fought this enemy simultaneously, but were unable to combine their forces in united action, thus making it easier for the French bourgeoisie to defeat both the one and the other.


The defeat of the 1871 uprising marked a turning point after which the French felt quite secure in Algeria. The nomad uprisings in the towns of Aures (1879) and the Walid-sidi-Sheikh uprisings in western Algeria (1881) were the Algerian people’s last armed outburst in their struggle for freedom. Under the Third Republic, there could no longer be any question of large popular uprisings in a land crushed and enslaved by force of arms. Colonial exploitation and the imperialist plundering of Algeria reached their highest pitch.

The invaders’ main policy was, as usual, seizure of the land. According to the law of 1873, which introduced the French land legislation in Algeria, all clan and communal lands were liable to forced partition and became private property. According to this law, any member of a commune could demand the conversion of his allotment from the collective ownership by the clan and tribe into private freehold. By destroying the commune, the law made it easier for the money-lenders and the rich colonists to buy the land. An-other law, passed in 1887, further facilitated the transfer of peasant communal property to the hands of the European colonists since it renewed the division of the tribal lands between the clans and the households and also allowed the Europeans to buy the communal lands even before they had been made private property.

All these measures left the Arab peasants at the mercy of ruthless European swindlers and money-lenders. During the seventies of the 19th century the French colonists acquired 400,000 hectares of land which had been confiscated from the Arabs, and in the next forty years they acquired another 500,000 hectares. By 1917, the French owned 55 per cent of all the country’s registered land.

Moreover, French colonisation still gave priority to large estates. Only 10 per cent of the colonised land fund went to the small and middle colonists, while the remaining 90 per cent went to the big colonists (about 10,000 persons). Viniculture continued to develop rapidly. A considerable part of the land which had been expropriated from the Arabs was set aside for this purpose and developed under a capitalist-type economy. The rest of the colonists’ land was split up into small plots and leased out to the Arab métayers on the basis of the onerous khammasat.

The French “civilisers’ “ barbarous policy of seizing the land ruined the Arab peasants’ farms. In their attempts to suppress the rebellious tribes, the conquerors destroyed wells, turning the blooming oases into a desert. The best pastures were taken over by the colonists. Forced into Algeria’s barren and rugged hinterland, the nomads could find no fodder for their flocks, which perished from hunger and thirst, from the summer heat and the winter cold.

Algeria’s rich deposits of iron ore and phosphorite were seized by French companies.

The exploitation of the iron-ore deposits, which had been discovered prior to 1871, was carried out at first on a relatively small scale. In 1879, 438,000 tons of ore were mined. But by 1913, after the deposits had been handed over in the form of concessions to Messrs. Schneider & Kreso and several other metallurgical companies, the extraction of ore had risen to 1,230,000 tons. Phosphorite deposits were discovered in 1873 on the Algerian-Tunisian border. Their exploitation was taken over by four French joint-stock companies. Some 967,000 tons of phosphorite were extracted in 1913. Copper and zinc mines were also put into operation.

A new feature in the exploitation of Algeria after 1871 was the participation of monopolies connected with the French banks. Several banks were set up on the territory of Algeria. The biggest was the Compagnie Algerienne, which also controlled the Banque d’Algerie of issue, the land bank Credit Foncier d’Algerie and others.

In the seventies, in view of the growing demands of internal and foreign trade and also for military and strategic purposes, work was launched on the construction of railways. In 1870, the line from Constantine to Philippville was completed, in 1871, the Algiers-Oran line, and in 1875, three lines-Bone-Tebessa, Bone-La Calle and Algiers-Constantine-were built in one year. In 1881, the Oran rail-way was built, which penetrated deep into the interior in the south. All told, 2,030 kilometres of track had been laid in Algeria by 1885.

In overseas trade the situation retained the trends of 1830-70. The increase in foreign trade in 1871-1914 was a sign of Algeria’s growing importance as a market and a raw material base for French industry. The following table of Algeria’s imports and exports speaks for itself (annual average in million francs):

Imports Exports

Algeria imported mainly industrial goods from France. In 1874, out of 270,000,000 francs of the overall value of Algeria’s imports from France, 90,000,000 francs, i.e., one-third, were accounted for by cloth and 22,000,000 by machines, metalware and other articles. This meant that the very means of creating a national manufacturing industry in Algeria was undermined and the country was doomed to play the part of an agrarian and raw material appendage of the French capitalist economy.

Nevertheless, the construction of roads, ports and various other projects, the use of hired labour in agriculture and in transport as well as the emergence of a number of small enterprises of local significance (mainly for processing agricultural produce) contributed to the formation and development of the local proletariat. Originally, these were almost exclusively French or European by birth. In the seventies, these were printers, railway workers, builders, miners, and the like. Gradually, however, Arab workers were taken on at the docks, in construction and in agriculture (somewhat later in the mining industry). The absence of exact statistical data makes it rather difficult to determine the number of workers in Algeria in the seventies and nineties of the 19th century. All that can be said is that they were relatively small in number.

The Algerian working class did not play a significant part in the social and political life of the country at the time. The only exception was 1870, when the French workers took an active part in the movement of the Algerian commune, and 1871, when the Arab agricultural workers fought together with other participants in the Algerian national liberation uprising. For many years there were no workers’ organisations in Algeria. They came into being later than in France and were comprised mainly of French-men. As a rule, these organisations adopted a paternal and assimilative attitude towards the Arabs and Berbers. In essence, the working-class movement in Algeria first arose as a social factor only after the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 in Russia.

The numerous differences between the French and Algerian workers stood in the way of working class unity in Algeria. Most of the Algerians did not know French at the time, which in itself prevented the establishment of contacts with the European proletariat. The Europeans enjoyed certain privileges. They received higher wages and were given lighter and “cleaner” work. Moreover, they also had political rights, which the Algerian workers did not. The French colonial administration and the local French bourgeoisie always tried to use these factors to set the Algerian and French workers against each other, to split the ranks of the proletariat in Algeria.

The alpha and omega of the French colonial policy in Algeria was support for the privileged French minority and oppression of the rightless Arab-Berber majority. The whole Algerian population was divided into “citizens” (the French) and “subjects” (the Algerians). The “citizens” elected their deputies to the French Parliament, the municipalities and, beginning with 1898, to the Financial Delegations, a body of autonomous administration, which dealt with the local Algerian budget. One of the delegations was comprised of French colonists, one of non-colonist French-men and one (the smallest and partly appointed by the governor-general) of native feudal leaders, who were the obedient tools of the colonialists. Many of the feudalists received French citizenship, ranks and decorations in return for having betrayed the people’s national interests.

As for the “subjects,” they were deprived of the right to vote and had to obey the arbitrary rule of the French officials and officers without demur. The “citizens” paid the same taxes as in France, while the “subjects” were heavily taxed by the colonial authorities. The “citizens” were tried according to French laws, whereas a strict “native code” was drawn up for the “subjects.” The colonial authorities could throw them into prison without trial, flog them, banish them to remote regions in the Sahara and confiscate their property. “Subjects” were not allowed to put out newspapers in their native tongue, to form their own political parties or trade unions or to assemble without the permission of the authorities. For the slightest misdemeanour against the laws laid down by the French, collective fines were imposed on whole villages, tribes and regions. Even worse were the conditions of the “subjects” in the southern part of Algeria, which had remained under the administration of the War Ministry, and in which power was wielded by French militarists. Here the “subjects” were watched over exclusively by “Arab bureaus” headed by “native affairs” officers.


In reply to the land plunder, the brutal exploitation and the tyranny of the colonial authorities, the native Algerians waged a persistent struggle throughout the last quarter of the 19th century and during the 20th century for the abolition of the shameful “native code” and for the democratisation of the country’s political system.

National organisations came into being in Algeria for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century, in connection with the general upsurge of the bourgeois-democratic liberation movements in the Fast in the period of the Asian people’s awakening. They encountered almost no support among the-masses, however, not only because of the working class’ weakness, but also because of the national bourgeoisie which had only begun to develop at the time, and was restricting its activities almost exclusively to trade. Most of the local intelligentsia was connected with the bourgeoisie and had been almost completely assimilated, or in any case, considerably Frenchified. Algeria’s first national organisations did not strive for independence. They merely demanded equality between Algerian Arabs and French and the abolition of the “native code.” They alsodemanded that Algerians should have the rights of French citizens, or, at most, Algeria should become autonomous through the creation of local bodies of self-government with broad representation of the native population.

The most moderate movement was that of the Musul-franks (short for Moslem-French), who, having adopted the French language and having received a French education, pressed for equality within the framework of the French colonial empire. They formed the Franco-Native Union and others of its kind, but they lacked any definite form of organisation. Of a more resolute nature were the demands of the Maghreb Union and the Algerian and Tunisian Liberation Committee, which pressed for Algeria’s autonomy in the name of what they called the Maghreb nation. There was also a small group of feudal lords who placed their hopes on the Turkish Sultan. Pan-Islamic propaganda spread among all these elements, but it evoked no serious response from the masses.

In 1912, in Algeria, there were isolated outbursts against the colonial regime, mainly in the form of protests in the press and passive civil disobedience. Owing to their restricted and cliquish nature, however, these outbursts did nothing to shake French supremacy in Algeria or bring about any serious changes.