Reading Albert, March 2015

Albert Camus is not much read these days by a general public grown indifferent to politics and suspicious of any writer who does not engage with the subject’s prevailing superficiality. The loss is a reflection of insularity in matters of governance – change and unrest in former colonies and ferment in the Arab world, for examples – that makes the particular concerns of Camus in relation to France and Algeria the subject of renewed interest. Some regions have entered the second phase of post-colonial turmoil, which may or may not have a bearing on the things commentators such as Camus had to say about what set the fiery ball rolling in the first place.

Camus, himself an Algerian and later active in the French Resistance, held views on colonialism and its evolution that were out of kilter with ones expounded by those who felt paralysed by non-violent protest. Camus did not believe that terrorism (i.e., violent revolt) was a solution to the Algerian crisis any more than it was to any other political impasse. It was a cul-de-sac, he thought. (Not the least interesting aspect of Camus and the seductive style in which he expresses his views is the doubt irresistibly raised as we succumb to its hypnotic flow. Violent uprisings do work – in South Africa, for example – and their outcomes should not be confused with problems and difficulties that follow . But in Algeria, he thought, it could lead only to disaster.)

There was a dilemma. In favour of the eradication of colonial injustice, Camus was at the same time opposed to an Algerian sovereignty independent of France and instead supported a canton-like arrangement, which would apply to the mother country and all its other colonies. But he was not a politician; he was primarily a writer – and as a writer he could admit and give voice to his contradictions, as writers do and should. They are all there in this series of observations, analyses, conclusions, exasperations and warnings, first published in 1958 as Chroniques algériennes, 1939-58 by Editions Gallimard. Fifty-five years ago, the Algerian War led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic. The Chronicles were not well received at the time of publication but the claims for its re-printing today (for the first time in English) are that its author’s views were prescient. This may be so, though Camus, interested in a continuing French presence in a ‘provincial’ Algeria, may not have foreseen the actual nature of later post-colonial developments, especially as they would be influenced by the rise of Islam and the fomenting contradictions of religious and secular state power. Of course, he was only too aware of the competing claims of the Algerian Arabs and the Algerian French and the difficulties of reconciling European and non-European cultures but perhaps not the extent to which they would be seen as emblematic of more widespread racial dichotomies geographically beyond their French colonial context. As the new publishers of these commentaries state, Camus was a moralist who posed questions about violence and counter-violence, national identity and justice, all of which illuminate the contemporary world. They might have said that they are also universal. In one sense, therefore, the issues are both of their time in relation to their specific subject-matter and more broadly spread in the light of how history is witness to the repeat of error.

The time span of the Chronicles allows Camus to begin at the beginning, as it were, in writing about the Algeria where he was born as a pied-noir and where he suffered in the handout culture of a low-wage society. Many died of exhaustion returning from food distribution centres. He reports on the tragedy of Kabylia, a mountainous region of orchards and cereal-growing, where there was often insufficient to feed the populace and where supplementary grain had to be bought on the open market, mostly at impossibly high prices. Addressing his countrymen, Algerian and French, he says, ‘The truth is that we are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.’ The National Liberation Front weren’t and resolved to do something about it, whatever the consequences. The resulting war was devastating and preternaturally brutal, the French Army easily resorting to torture. Camus’s stance was ‘moderate’ compared with other French intellectuals ( he’d just won the Nobel Prize for Literature), including the Stalin-loving Sartre and de Beauvoir, representatives of a café society too frightened to say ‘boo!’ to a goose and to whom murder and torture were just words. Things went from bad to slightly better after the right-wing military attempt at a coup d’état in Algeria, precipitating a crisis that led eventually to the installation of de Gaulle as French president. Four years on, Algeria won its independence, but Camus was no there to see it: he died in a car crash in 1960, aged just 46. ‘Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery,’ Camus once said. Contrast this with FLN leader Ramdane Abane, justifying his movement’s decision to target civilians: ‘One corpse in a jacket is always worth more than twenty in uniform.’ Both in their different ways were correct, though those who have never starved or never killed in pursuit of justice will accord Camus the morally higher ground. Insurgents will always consider victory in terms of a people grown tired of barbarity; it’s political triumph through attrition.

This nook is a welcome re-appearance of some beautifully-written work but one wonders if, as one American reviewer has said, it’s ‘a history of the past, a guide for the future’. Let’s ignore that most histories are of the past while we are wondering how much the helplessness of Camus before the events that confronted him are any more useful as a response to our own recurrent political episodes. In the face of terror and the downward spiral of failed diplomacy, desperate measures and ultimate, seemingly never-ending carnage, we may still have no answer bar that of allowing the horrors to continue until their perpetrators come to realise the futility and counter-productivity of their actions, their willingness to grind a population into submission through fatigue and desperation notwithstanding.. We have nothing more to offer than what might look to the cynical as self-righteousness. Perhaps it’s the price we have to pay before realising that Camus and others were right. Can we argue against non-violence? The appalling fact remains that many do and would in the reconciliation of ends with means. In the case of Algeria, Camus here raises the status of the means with passion and conviction. For others, it’s the goal that matters, the nature of the striving being unfortunate necessity. These are the perennial issues raised again by the Camus chronicles. They are not so much a guide for the future as an injunction not to lose heart, to be engaged, to be observant and vigilant, and to be political. But only political up to a non-negotiable moral point.

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