The Name of Algeria: French Philosophy and the Subject of Decolonization

Du moment que nous avons admis cette grande vio­lence qu’est la con­quête, je crois que nous ne devons pas reculer devant les vio­lences de détail qui sont absol­u­ment néces­saires pour la con­solid­er.
– Alex­is de Toc­queville, Let­ter to Lam­or­i­cière, April 5, 18461

On crie: exter­mi­na­tion! Mais c’est juste­ment quand on l’extermine qu’il se révolte, ce peu­ple.
- Guy de Mau­pas­sant, Le Gaulois, August 20, 18812

How might the name of Alge­ria inflect our under­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary French phi­los­o­phy, espe­cial­ly in its think­ing and nam­ing of vio­lence? “The Name of Alge­ria” is the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s oblique and wist­ful pref­ace to La guerre des Algériens, the 1989 col­lec­tion of his polit­i­cal and soci­o­log­i­cal chron­i­cles of the war of inde­pen­dence, pub­lished in Social­isme ou bar­barie (SouB) between 1957 and 1963. In that brief text, where he also draws a proud if remote bal­ance-sheet of SouB’s col­lec­tive mil­i­tant activ­i­ty, Lyotard recalls, rather lyri­cal­ly, his intel­lec­tu­al awak­en­ing as a lycée pro­fes­sor in Con­stan­tine between 1950 and 1952. The expres­sion the “name of Alge­ria” sur­faces in Lyotard’s reflec­tion on the simul­tane­ity between his unspar­ing cri­tique of the FLN’s nation­al-pop­ulist bureau­cratism and his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the net­work of por­teurs des bours­es for the Alger­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion. He writes: “I did not feel the need to adjust my diag­nos­tic to my prac­tice, nor the desire to renounce the lat­ter because of the for­mer. It is right, we told our­selves, that the Alge­ri­ans impose on the world that their name be pro­claimed; it is indis­pens­able to crit­i­cize the class nature of the inde­pen­dent soci­ety that their fight pre­pares.”3 Insert­ing his ret­ro­spect in his mature philo­soph­i­cal dis­course, he writes of this as an inti­mate dif­fer­end that had to remain unre­solved, lest one fall into the delu­sion of syn­chronic­i­ty – the “false and dan­ger­ous idea that every­where his­to­ry march­es in lock­step, in the Aurès and Bil­lan­court” – or the “stu­pid” notion that the peas­ants of the Third World will revive the mori­bund rev­o­lu­tion in the heart­lands of cap­i­tal. The ges­ture of Lyotard’s text is one of vale­dic­tion and fideli­ty: Social­isme ou bar­barie was right to iden­ti­fy an intractable (intraitable) ele­ment at the heart of any sys­tem, but its desire to bind this intractable to a sys­temic socio-polit­i­cal alter­na­tive, that of work­ers’ pow­er, must be aban­doned (we may note here Lyotard’s oscil­la­tion between the acknowl­edg­ment of the ter­mi­na­tion of the alter­na­tive, which he links here to his analy­sis of the depoliti­ciza­tion of French soci­ety in 1960, a har­bin­ger of post­mod­ernism, and the imper­a­tive to leave the Marx­ist and oth­er nar­ra­tives behind).

The ques­tion of the name of Alge­ria also sur­faces in Sidi Mohammed Barkat’s strik­ing reflec­tion on the forms of sym­bol­ic and phys­i­cal vio­lence inscribed in the inclu­sive exclu­sion of the “indige­nous” with­in the juridi­cal regimes of col­o­nized and annexed Alge­ria, all the way from the Sen­a­tus Con­sulte of 1865 to the illu­so­ry “inte­gra­tion” of Alge­ri­ans in 1958 and their mas­sacre in the streets of Paris on Octo­ber 17, 19614 – forms of vio­lence that had the racial­ized “body of excep­tion” of Alge­ri­ans as their object. Writ­ing of the colo­nial mas­sacre of tens of thou­sands of Alge­ri­ans fol­low­ing the demon­stra­tions of May 8, 1945 – when the cel­e­bra­tion of France’s lib­er­a­tion from the Nazi yoke coin­cid­ed with the oppres­sion of Alger­ian nation­al aspi­ra­tions – Barkat notes that what was at stake was not sim­ply the emer­gence and affir­ma­tion of an Alger­ian beside the French one. It was a mat­ter of nom­i­na­tion:

Nam­ing, giv­ing a name to those who do not have one. Exist­ing through the name. The entire Alger­ian affair in this cru­cial moment of the Lib­er­a­tion lies there. Two social sub­sets face one anoth­er. There are those who think they have a name, rec­og­nized as such, and who do not in any way feel the need to find anoth­er. Those are enclosed in that name and do not open them­selves to the col­o­nized, notwith­stand­ing the urgency of the con­text, which push­es in this direc­tion. The oth­ers are deter­mined to endow them­selves with a name because none is rec­og­nized as theirs. To be indige­nous means not hav­ing a polit­i­cal name. The word indige­nous is pri­v­a­tive, it marks the absence of the name, the exclu­sion from nom­i­na­tion. The new State that is demand­ed is the guar­an­tee of a name. And the name is the sym­bol­ic expres­sion of equal­i­ty. It is what makes life pos­si­ble.5

The names cho­sen to speak of vio­lence are by now a recur­rent theme in crit­i­cal his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and reflec­tion on the peri­od of 1954–62, thor­ough­ly inven­to­ried in the col­lec­tive vol­ume Guerre d’Algérie, edit­ed by Cather­ine Brun. There we are remind­ed of the fraught his­to­ry of the offi­cial nom­i­na­tions of what would only lat­er set­tle into “The Alger­ian War” on the one hand and the “Rev­o­lu­tion” or the “Alger­ian Inde­pen­dence War” on the oth­er: thus les événe­ments, la paci­fi­ca­tion, le main­tien de l’ordre, opéra­tions de police fol­lowed them­selves, while col­o­nized Alge­ri­ans were, out­side of clan­des­tine FLN pub­li­ca­tions, for­bid­den from nam­ing their strug­gle – a strug­gle whose iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Rev­o­lu­tion, or thaoura (clos­er to “upris­ing,” and less redo­lent with the sense of a social trans­for­ma­tion), is the the object of crit­i­cal reflec­tion in Brun’s vol­ume.7 In terms of the tar­gets of colo­nial vio­lence (which is of course waged against its own state sub­jects, if not nec­es­sar­i­ly its own cit­i­zens), the anti-polit­i­cal names also fluc­tu­ate, which is to say names that revoke the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pol­i­tics and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty: indigènes, musul­mans, Français musul­mans d’Algérie (FMA, even when they are long set­tled in France), race Arabo-musul­mane, etc.8

In recent years, Anglo­phone schol­ars have tried to reflect on the impact of the expe­ri­ence of colo­nial­ism and decol­o­niza­tion on those very French the­o­rists and the­o­ries who, via detours that take in both the Amer­i­can cam­pus and Indi­an crit­i­cal his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and the­o­ry, are deemed to be at the sources of the post-colo­nial. We have thus been pre­sent­ed both with read­ings that reframe “French the­o­ry” as post-colo­nial avant la let­tre, with the Alger­ian ori­gins and engage­ments of fig­ures like Der­ri­da, Bour­dieu, Bal­ibar, or even Althuss­er as a pre-text, or with denun­ci­a­tions of a “pol­i­tics of Oth­er­ing” that would find its sources in the mis­con­ceived response by rad­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als to the Alger­ian War and would issue into the lega­cies of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and post-colo­nial state jar­gons of authen­tic­i­ty.9 I would sug­gest that, in order to grasp the speci­fici­ty of the Alger­ian War’s effects on philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion in France, peri­odiz­ing and clas­si­fy­ing labels like post-struc­tural­ism are of lit­tle use, as are dubi­ous intel­lec­tu­al causal­i­ties that would see Sartre­an phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy retroac­tive­ly indict­ed by the author­i­tar­i­an poli­cies of Boume­di­enne, for exam­ple. I want to add two more retroac­tive reflec­tions to Lyotard’s “The Name of Alge­ria” that might allow us to shift the terms of the debate some­what, and to see in what sense a rethink­ing of pol­i­tics and of its rela­tions to vio­lence tran­sit­ed through (but also in some sense away from) the ques­tion of the Alger­ian War, Jacques Rancière’s “The Cause of the Oth­er” (1996) and Éti­enne Bal­ibar “De Charonne à Vit­ry” (1981).

Rancière’s text begins with a demar­ca­tion from those respons­es to the war in Alge­ria that direct­ly linked vio­lence to sub­jec­ti­va­tion, and which framed the posi­tion of met­ro­pol­i­tan sol­i­dar­i­ty, so to speak, as one of affirm­ing the other’s right to vio­lent lib­er­a­tion. Giv­en the extent to which the Fanon-Sartre axis has become such a locus clas­si­cus for debates on phi­los­o­phy and vio­lence (fre­quent­ly sat­u­rat­ed with mis­un­der­stand­ing), I think it’s more inter­est­ing here, before we con­sid­er the way Ran­cière explic­it­ly links a fig­ure of sub­jec­ti­va­tion to the Alger­ian War, to pause for a moment on his oth­er crit­i­cal tar­get, aside from Sartre’s noto­ri­ous pref­ace, name­ly a 1961 arti­cle pub­lished in Esprit by Pierre Bour­dieu (and reprint­ed as the post­face to the Eng­lish edi­tion of Soci­olo­gie de l’Algérie, The Alge­ri­ans), “Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rev­o­lu­tion.” Con­sid­er­ing Rancière’s sus­tained ani­mus against the soci­ol­o­gist of habi­tus and repro­duc­tion, this is per­haps not sur­pris­ing, though the tenor of Bourdieu’s arti­cle might be.10

In the 1961 edi­tion of Soci­olo­gie de l’Algérie, Pierre Bour­dieu had begun his study by cit­ing a Caliph Omar who once declared that “(North) Africa is frag­men­ta­tion (frac­tion­nement),”11 going on to pose the prob­lem of the (social, cul­tur­al, lin­guis­tic) uni­ty and dif­fer­ence of Alge­ria at a time when its antag­o­nis­tic indi­vis­i­bil­i­ty was indeed an axiom of the FLN, speak­ing of a coun­try ide­al­ly pre­dis­posed to an explo­sion into par­tic­u­larisms, while also rec­og­niz­ing the para­dox­i­cal­ly uni­fy­ing effects of colo­nial destruc­tura­tion, decul­tur­a­tion, and uproot­ing. It is strik­ing to note in Bourdieu’s writ­ings on Alge­ria of the late 1950s and ear­ly 1960s the par­tic­u­lar way in which his soci­o­log­i­cal analy­sis of the dev­as­ta­tions of colo­nial cap­i­tal­ism is artic­u­lat­ed with his pre­scrip­tions regard­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a ratio­nal rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­cy, which needs to be ground­ed in the habi­tus and hori­zons of expec­ta­tion, the tem­po­ral and instru­men­tal cal­cu­lus of a par­tic­u­lar type of social sub­ject. In bare­ly dis­sim­u­lat­ed polemic against Fanon and the FLN, Sartre and assort­ed fel­low trav­ellers of the Alger­ian rev­o­lu­tion – and the kind of analy­sis that Ran­cière would effec­tive­ly inter­ro­gate in his “anti-soci­o­log­i­cal” writ­ings – Bour­dieu presents the Alger­ian peas­antry and sub-pro­le­tari­at as unpre­pared for rev­o­lu­tion­ary action and prey to pop­ulist mes­sian­ism, while it is real­ly the small, priv­i­leged, qual­i­fied, mod­ern, indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at whose form and sta­bil­i­ty of life and employ­ment are “the con­di­tion for the for­ma­tion of a coher­ent sys­tem of aspi­ra­tions and demands, and, cor­rel­a­tive­ly, a par­tic­i­pa­tion in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary project.”12

In Les deux Algéries de Pierre Bour­dieu, Enrique Martín-Cri­a­do has not­ed the para­dox­es of Bourdieu’s writ­ings on Alge­ria and on Kabylie in par­tic­u­lar, which com­bine a soci­o­log­i­cal atten­tion to the dev­as­ta­tions of colo­nial cap­i­tal­ism with an anthro­po­log­i­cal effort to grasp the repro­duc­tion of “tra­di­tion­al” struc­tures, which in turn become a kind of “invert­ed France.”13 “Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rev­o­lu­tion” is an extreme­ly unchar­ac­ter­is­tic out­lier of the first option, since it takes the destruc­tur­ing effect of rev­o­lu­tion­ary war as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the instau­ra­tion of a new pol­i­tics and a new soci­ety. War in this fig­u­ra­tion has accel­er­at­ed the “cul­tur­al apoc­a­lypse” (to use a rel­e­vant term from the anthro­pol­o­gist Ernesto De Mar­ti­no) which col­o­niza­tion and the colo­nial sys­tem had wreaked on the col­o­nized pop­u­la­tion, break­ing the bonds of the past. In a text not devoid of “Fanon­ian” or “Sartre­an” res­o­nances, Bour­dieu will write that all the muta­tions of the colo­nial sys­tem are sub­ject to a law of all or noth­ing, and that the demand for a whole­sale destruc­tion of the colo­nial sys­tem is a prod­uct of its own racial Manicheanism. As he declares: “If the strug­gle against the caste sys­tem takes the form of a war of nation­al lib­er­a­tion, this is per­haps because of the exis­tence of an inde­pen­dent nation appears the only deci­sive means for achiev­ing a rad­i­cal change in the sit­u­a­tion that can bring about the defin­i­tive col­lapse of the caste sys­tem.”14 While in the colo­nial sit­u­a­tion resis­tance to dom­i­na­tion found only a sym­bol­ic expres­sion, demand­ing a recla­ma­tion of the signs of iden­ti­ty and tra­di­tion (e.g., the veil), the rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­di­tion means a free­ing of the Alge­ri­ans’ rela­tion to their own sym­bol­ic lega­cy, some­thing like a “free use” of the effects of colo­nial moder­ni­ty, not least med­i­cine (and we could think here of Fanon’s text on “Med­i­cine and Colo­nial­ism” in A Dying Colo­nial­ism). In a strik­ing antic­i­pa­to­ry rebut­tal of Han­nah Arendt’s famous argu­ments about the mute­ness of vio­lence Bour­dieu affirms:

Thus the exis­tence of a peo­ple who say no to the estab­lished order, the exis­tence of a ratio­nal and last­ing orga­ni­za­tion able to con­front and shake the colo­nial sys­tem – in a word, the exis­tence of an effec­tive nega­tion estab­lished at the very heart of the sys­tem, and rec­og­nized, vol­un­tar­i­ly or per­force, even by those who would bit­ter­ly deny it – is suf­fi­cient to ren­der vain so much of the behav­iour in which the dom­i­nat­ed caste expressed its rejec­tion of dom­i­na­tion. The war, by its very exis­tence, con­sti­tutes a lan­guage, and lends the peo­ple a voice that can say no.… It has allowed [the Alger­ian peo­ple] to have the expe­ri­ence of a dis­ci­pline freely assumed and acknowl­edged because imposed by their own author­i­ties – in brief, with the expe­ri­ence of auton­o­my.15

To what does Ran­cière object in Bourdieu’s arti­cle? To the link between war (which is to say vio­lence) and truth as the crux of this fig­ure of sub­jec­ti­va­tion. The vio­lence of war “speaks the truth of a his­tor­i­cal process” – in a link between truth, his­to­ry and lan­guage or nam­ing to which Ran­cière is deeply averse. But Bourdieu’s text is also symp­to­matic of a cer­tain “regime of alter­i­ty,” in which “a peo­ple whose iden­ti­ty has been snatched away by colo­nial oppres­sion becomes that alterity’s oth­er.… War is the unveiled and invert­ed truth of oppres­sion, and it is com­plet­ing the break with a pri­mal iden­ti­ty. Inso­far as it ends the nega­tion that was colo­nial­ism, the war is a nega­tion of the nega­tion.” In Fanon, Sartre, and Bour­dieu writ­ing on the Alger­ian War, Ran­cière dis­cerns a “sys­tem of rela­tions between truth, time, iden­ti­ty and alter­i­ty” (and we could add, vio­lence and its names or lan­guages): “With­in this sys­tem, the war con­sti­tutes an emer­gent peo­ple; the emer­gent peo­ple iden­ti­fy with the voice of a truth; his­to­ry is the moment of a truth that asserts the clo­sure of a his­tor­i­cal form (colo­nial­ism) as the sub­ject that colo­nial­ism had wrest­ed asun­der becomes a voice and a peo­ple.”16 What regime of alter­i­ty and its politi­ciza­tion, which might dis­lo­cate the vec­tor of his­to­ry and its vio­lence, does Ran­cière oppose to this? In what is also a pow­er­ful def­i­n­i­tion of his own think­ing of pol­i­tics, Ran­cière defines it as fol­lows:

Inso­far as it is a polit­i­cal fig­ure, the pri­ma­ry mean­ing of the cause of the oth­er is a refusal to iden­ti­fy with a cer­tain self. It is the pro­duc­tion of a peo­ple dif­fer­ent from the peo­ple seen, named and count­ed by the State, of a peo­ple defined by the wrong done to the con­sti­tu­tion of a com­mon­al­i­ty that was con­struct­ing an oth­er com­mu­nal space. A polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion always implies a “dis­course of the oth­er” in three sens­es. It is, first­ly, a rejec­tion of an iden­ti­ty estab­lished by an oth­er, a degrad­ing of that iden­ti­ty, and there­fore a break with a cer­tain self. Sec­ond­ly, it is a demon­stra­tion addressed to an oth­er that con­sti­tutes a com­mu­ni­ty defined by a cer­tain wrong. Third­ly, it always con­tains an impos­si­ble iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with an oth­er with whom one can­not in nor­mal cir­cum­stances iden­ti­fy: the “wretched of the earth” or some oth­er object. In the case of the Alger­ian war, there was no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with those fight­ers, whose motives were not ours, or with those vic­tims, whose very faces were invis­i­ble to us. But an iden­ti­ty that could not be assumed was includ­ed in a polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion – in a rejec­tion of an iden­ti­ty.17

The vic­tims that Ran­cière speaks as being “invis­i­ble to us” (a we/us which a curi­ous foot­note tells us “sim­ply refers to a polit­i­cal gen­er­a­tion tak­en as a whole”18 ), are the beat­en, shot and drowned pro-FLN Alger­ian demon­stra­tors (all of them French cit­i­zens, it should be not­ed) of the infa­mous mas­sacre of Octo­ber 17, 1961. The shift in regimes of alter­i­ty is also a spa­tial shift, from the the­ater of war in Alge­ria to the “police oper­a­tions” in the metrop­o­lis. It is a shift towards think­ing pol­i­tics not as sol­i­dar­i­ty in a hori­zon of rev­o­lu­tion that would be both nation­al and plan­e­tary, but in terms of artic­u­la­tions of cit­i­zen­ship that stage “a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship between the same and the oth­er.”19 This stems from the con­vic­tion that the belief in a regime of truth (such as that of the his­tor­i­cal becom­ing of a peo­ple through vio­lence) is as much the effect as the cause of a mode of polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion. It is the shift to the “here” of an anti-war polit­i­cal prac­tice that had vis­i­bil­i­ty and the police, and not his­tor­i­cal lib­er­a­tion and war as its para­me­ters, and which promised, con­tra Sartre’s pref­ace to The Wretched of the Earth, a “polit­i­cal inclu­sion of the oth­er which is not that of moral­i­ty nor is it its oppo­site.”20 The shift has Octo­ber 17, 1961 as its trau­mat­ic cat­a­lyst:

That day, with its twofold aspect (man­i­fest and hid­den), was a turn­ing point, a moment when the eth­i­cal apo­r­ia of the rela­tion­ship between “mine” and the oth­er was trans­formed into the polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion of an inclu­sive rela­tion­ship with alter­i­ty. … It was not the blind­ing sun that lit up the polit­i­cal scene in 1961. On the con­trary, it was an invis­i­bil­i­ty, the removal of some­thing by the action of the police. … From that point onwards, there became pos­si­ble a polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion that did not take the form of exter­nal sup­port for the other’s war, or of an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the other’s mil­i­tary cause with our cause. This polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion was pri­mar­i­ly the result of a disiden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the French state that had done this in our name and removed it from our view. We could not iden­ti­fy with the Alge­ri­ans who appeared as demon­stra­tors with­in the French pub­lic space, and who then dis­ap­peared. We could, on the oth­er hand, reject our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the State that had killed them and removed them from all the sta­tis­tics.21

Ran­cière writes that in its act of bru­tal repres­sion, “the State there­fore made it pos­si­ble to sub­jec­ti­vate the self-dif­fer­ence of our cit­i­zen­ship, or a gap between juridi­cal cit­i­zen­ship and polit­i­cal cit­i­zen­ship.… This did not cre­ate a pol­i­tics for the Alge­ri­ans. But in France it did cre­ate a polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion, or a rela­tion­ship between includ­ed and exclud­ed in which no sub­ject was specif­i­cal­ly named.” That may be so, but it is dif­fi­cult not to acknowl­edge the uneasy way in which Rancière’s text, while rec­og­niz­ing the cru­cial undo­ing of a uni­fied notion of cit­i­zen­ship (though not entire­ly rec­og­niz­ing how foun­da­tion­al it is to the French poli­ty) redou­bles some of that invis­i­bil­i­ty by act­ing as though the “Alge­ri­ans” (who were juridi­cal­ly French at the time) sim­ply “dis­ap­peared,” became invis­i­ble. It is as though no polit­i­cal rela­tion­ship with the oth­er cit­i­zens were pos­si­ble except via the State – neg­a­tive­ly, as a disiden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The polit­i­cal-gen­er­a­tional “we/us” nev­er includes, except ide­al­ly, those oth­er cit­i­zens, so that the con­crete regime of alter­i­ty is such that the tiny minor­i­ty of white French mil­i­tants involved in FLN-sol­i­dar­i­ty work – like Lyotard with his crit­i­cal-polit­i­cal dif­fer­end – had a far more real rela­tion­ship to alter­i­ty, not as iden­ti­fi­ca­tion but as sol­i­dar­i­ty, which in some of these cas­es such as Lyotard’s involved no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. In oth­er words, they had a more intense polit­i­cal rela­tion to the Alger­ian oth­er than Rancière’s gen­er­a­tion could have to what juridi­cal­ly but not polit­i­cal­ly or indeed affec­tive­ly were French cit­i­zens who had long inhab­it­ed the same city as they. This is not to chide Ran­cière for repeat­ing the process of invis­i­bil­i­ty, since much of what he says is no doubt a very real effect of the extreme racial and polit­i­cal seg­re­ga­tion of Alger­ian cit­i­zens of France in that peri­od, but to query what is at stake in a link­ing of cit­i­zen­ship, alter­i­ty, vio­lence, and sub­jec­ti­va­tion in which the orga­nized pro­test­ers of Octo­ber 17, 1961, their polit­i­cal thought and action, is reduced to the invis­i­ble faces of the mur­dered, and becomes the occa­sion of a disiden­ti­fi­ca­tion that con­tin­ues, albeit neg­a­tive­ly, to be absorbed by the “Big” Oth­er, the State.

To fur­ther inves­ti­gate this ques­tion of the fig­ures of polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion linked to the Alger­ian War, its name, and its vio­lences, I want­ed to con­clude by reflect­ing on the remarks on Octo­ber 17, 1961 in Éti­enne Balibar’s “De Charonne à Vit­ry,” the text whose pub­li­ca­tion in Le Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur trig­gered his expul­sion from the PCF.22 Bal­ibar looks back upon two decades in the PCF, begin­ning with a fierce beat­ing dur­ing a Com­mu­nist-sup­port­ed demon­stra­tion in which he par­tic­i­pat­ed as part of the “ser­vice d’ordre” of the Jeuness­es Com­mu­nistes, and end­ing in the shame­ful racism against migrant work­ers of PCF may­ors in Vit­ry and else­where. The tale told by Bal­ibar is one in many respects of failed sub­jec­ti­va­tion, of an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that remains at best par­tial, and whose regime of alter­i­ty is deeply con­strained by the inca­pac­i­ty tru­ly to think the racial­iza­tion of French cit­i­zen­ship and class belong­ing. In think­ing through how the PCF (but also much of the French left and intel­li­gentsia) got to where it was, Bal­ibar search­es behind the offi­cial “anti-colo­nial­ism” of the par­ty to a crit­i­cal dis­place­ment in its objects of com­mem­o­ra­tion. It is not to the mas­sacre of Octo­ber 17, 1961 that the par­ty turned, but to the deaths of PCF demon­stra­tors at the hands of the police at the Charonne metro sta­tion in 1962. The anti-colo­nial strug­gle memo­ri­al­ized by the Par­ty was “abstract and myth­i­cal.” And yet:

Many of us can bear wit­ness with lucid mem­o­ries: if there was a Feb­ru­ary 8, 1962 [the date of the Charonne deaths], and before it a Decem­ber 19, 1961 [the demon­stra­tion where Bal­ibar him­self was blood­ied], these uni­tary demon­stra­tions in which everyone’s divi­sions and sec­tar­i­anisms were put aside, it is only because the ter­ri­ble Octo­ber 17, 1961 hap­pened, of which the Par­ty nev­er speaks, nor any­one else for that mat­ter.23

Far from being pre­sent­ed as the cat­a­lyst for a gen­er­a­tional sub­jec­ti­va­tion and disiden­ti­fi­ca­tion, the dom­i­nant regime of nam­ing and alter­i­ty of the French left in the after­math of Octo­ber 17, 1961, and of the end of the Alger­ian War, is one of a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty, one that would have direct­ly addressed the divi­sions inter­nal to both cit­i­zen­ship and the work­ing class, not least by seek­ing to dis­lo­cate a racial colo­nial regime which was not out­side the metro­pole, but con­sti­tu­tive of it. In Balibar’s at the time more clas­si­cal­ly Marx­ist for­mu­la­tion:

The occa­sion was missed to forge an organ­ic uni­ty in strug­gle between French work­ers and immi­grant work­ers [NB: legal­ly, if not polit­i­cal­ly, these immi­grant work­ers were French cit­i­zens]. For both, inter­na­tion­al­ism remained, save for some excep­tions, a cal­cu­lus of con­ver­gent inter­ests, not a com­mon prac­tice in which one learns lit­tle by lit­tle to know each oth­er, to over­come con­tra­dic­tions, to envis­age a shared future.24

This would require not (just) a shift in the regime of polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion, but in orga­ni­za­tion­al forms:

A pol­i­tics that would favor and devel­op the autonomous forms of mobi­liza­tion of immi­grants, emerg­ing from their exploita­tion, their con­cen­tra­tion, their com­mu­nal tra­di­tions main­tained against all odds.

To con­clude: leav­ing aside the sui gener­is cas­es of Camus and Der­ri­da, whose posthu­mous­ly pub­lished let­ter to Pierre Nora on the latter’s Les Français d’Algérie shows him to have con­sid­er­able sym­pa­thy for the author of Chroniques Algéri­ennes, a hypo­thet­i­cal “Alger­ian his­to­ry of French phi­los­o­phy” elic­its a var­ie­gat­ed but in many ways opaque pic­ture. Notwith­stand­ing the involve­ment of numer­ous fig­ures in the French philo­soph­i­cal pan­theon in debates and inter­ven­tions on the Alger­ian War – not just Sartre in dia­logue with Fanon, but also Mer­leau-Pon­ty, Blan­chot, Barthes, Aron, etc. – it is by no means evi­dent that this involve­ment was real­ly dif­fer­ent than the involve­ment of intel­lec­tu­als more broad­ly, riv­en by famil­iar divi­sions with­in the left and the polit­i­cal scene more gen­er­al­ly con­cern­ing colo­nial­ism, vio­lence and the future of the French state. Arguably, it is only the gen­er­a­tion that came of polit­i­cal age in the late 1950s and ear­ly 1960s – the gen­er­a­tion of Bal­ibar and Ran­cière – that, with con­sid­er­able delay, incor­po­rat­ed the ques­tions raised by the decol­o­niza­tion of France and Alge­ria into their think­ing, but when they did so it was not in terms of the prob­lem­at­ic of rev­o­lu­tion­ary anti-colo­nial vio­lence (as in Sartre-Fanon, or even the Bour­dieu of 1961) but in terms of the antin­o­mies of cit­i­zen­ship, with the sig­nal event being not the mas­sacres of the Sétif in 1945 or the Bat­tle of Algiers in 1957 but the mas­sacre of Alger­ian cit­i­zens of France in the streets of Paris on Octo­ber 17, 1961. The dif­fi­cul­ty of giv­ing a name to, or even prop­er­ly acknowl­edg­ing that vio­lence, takes a kind of par­a­dig­mat­ic role, oscil­lat­ing between an analy­sis of the racial­ized regimes of belong­ing that struc­ture French cit­i­zen­ship and a rethink­ing of polit­i­cal sub­jec­ti­va­tion around the ques­tion of in/visibility or re/presentation, both ques­tions that have defined some of the most sig­nif­i­cant debates in the French con­text, espe­cial­ly the con­text of post-Althusser­ian phi­los­o­phy, from the 1980s to today.


  1. “Once we’ve accept­ed this great vio­lence that is con­quest, I believe we can­not retreat before the piece­meal acts of vio­lence that are absolute­ly nec­es­sary in order to con­sol­i­date it.” 

  2. “They cry: exter­mi­na­tion! But it is pre­cise­ly when one exter­mi­nates it that this peo­ple ris­es up in revolt.” 

  3. Jean-François Lyotard, “Le nom d’Algérie,” in La guerre des Algériens: Écrits 1956-1963 (Paris: Galilée, 1989), 36. 

  4. On the mas­sacre of Octo­ber 17, 1961, as a “foun­da­tion­al moment of the endo­colo­nial con­di­tion,” see Math­ieu Rigouste, La dom­i­na­tion poli­cière. Une vio­lence indus­trielle (Paris: La Fab­rique, 2012), as well as his ear­li­er L’ennemi intérieur. La généalo­gie colo­niale et mil­i­taire de l’ordre sécu­ri­taire dans la France con­tem­po­raine (Paris: La Décou­verte, 2009). 

  5. Sidi Mohammed Barkat, Le corps d’exception. Les arti­fices du pou­voir colo­nial et la destruc­tion de la vie (Paris: Édi­tions Ams­ter­dam, 2005), 51. 

  6. Cather­ine Brun, “Intro­duc­tion. Les mots en partage,” in Guerre d’Algérie. Les mots pour la dire, ed. Cather­ine Brun (Paris: CNRS Édi­tions, 2014), 11. Also see Pierre Guy­otat, “Désig­na­tions d’une guerre en cours,” in the same vol­ume. 

  7. See Mes­saoud Beny­oucef, “La rev­o­lu­tion saisit la langue,” and Gilbert Meynier, “La ‘rev­o­lu­tion’ du FLN (1954-1962),” in Brun, ed., Guerre d’Algérie

  8. Accord­ing to Yves Benot, “Mus­lim and “non-Mus­lim” only become offi­cial terms in the final years of the con­flict. See Mas­sacres colo­ni­aux (Paris: La Décou­verte, 2001), 55n10. 

  9. See Pal Ahluwalia, Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colo­nial Roots (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2010); Muri­am Haleh Davis, “Alge­ria as Post­colony? Rethink­ing the Colo­nial Lega­cy of Post-Struc­tural­ism,” Jour­nal of French and Fran­coph­o­ne Phi­los­o­phy Revue de la philoso­phie française et de langue française 19, no. 2 (2011): 136–52; James D. Le Sueur, Unciv­il War: Intel­lec­tu­als and Iden­ti­ty Pol­i­tics Dur­ing the Decol­o­niza­tion of Alge­ria, (Lin­coln: Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 2005). 

  10. See The Philoso­pher and His Poor. I have tried to address this in “Anti-Soci­ol­o­gy and its Lim­its” in Read­ing Ran­cière, ed. Paul Bow­man and Richard Stamp (Lon­don: Con­tin­u­um, 2011), 217–37. 

  11. Pierre Bour­dieu, Soci­olo­gie de l’Algérie (Paris: PUF, 2012), 7. 

  12. Ibid., 136. This account of the socio-genet­ic pre­con­di­tions for rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, not devoid of nor­ma­tive echoes with a cer­tain work­erist Marx­ist tra­di­tion (albeit on dis­sim­i­lar grounds), is artic­u­lat­ed in Algérie 60 (the revised and abbre­vi­at­ed ver­sion of the 1963 col­lec­tive work Tra­vail et tra­vailleurs en Algérie)  in terms of class habi­tus, which as “the inter­nal­iza­tion of the objec­tive sit­u­a­tion, is the struc­ture uni­fy­ing the sys­tem of dis­po­si­tions, which pre­sup­pose prac­ti­cal ref­er­ence to the objec­tive future, whether it be a mat­ter of res­ig­na­tion to or revolt against the present order or the capac­i­ty to sub­ject eco­nom­ic con­duct to fore­cast­ing and cal­cu­la­tion.” Pierre Bour­dieu, Algérie 60: Struc­tures économiques et struc­tures tem­porelles (Paris: Minu­it, 1977), 115; Alge­ria 1960, trans. Richard Nice (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1979), 92. A key con­cept here is that of “objec­tive future” (avenir objec­tif). The impos­si­bil­i­ty of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub-pro­le­tari­at sub­ject (or rev­o­lu­tion­ary lumpen­pro­le­tari­at, in Fanon’s terms) is the object of this demon­stra­tion: “Both in their con­scious rep­re­sen­ta­tions and in their prac­tices, the sub-pro­le­tar­i­ans repro­duce the sit­u­a­tion of which they are the prod­uct and which con­tains the impos­si­bil­i­ty of an ade­quate cog­nizance of the truth of the sit­u­a­tion: they do not know that truth, but they enact it, or, if you will, they state it only in their actions. Their unre­al­is­tic state­ments only seem to con­tra­dict the objec­tive real­i­ty which their acts so clear­ly express: illu­sion itself is not illu­so­ry and it would be a mis­take to see an arbi­trary phan­tasm in what is only the objec­tive effect of their impos­si­ble posi­tion in the eco­nom­ic and social sys­tem” (116/93). In terms of their “cog­ni­tive map­ping” of their sit­u­a­tion, the “affec­tive qua­si-sys­tem­a­ti­sa­tion” of the sub-pro­le­tar­i­ans falls con­sid­er­ably short of a “gen­uine total­iza­tion,” mil­i­tat­ing against any mechan­i­cal-explo­sive mod­el of rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­jec­ti­va­tion. There­fore, “we must acknowl­edge that revolt against the present sit­u­a­tion can­not be ori­ent­ed towards ratio­nal, explic­it ends until the eco­nom­ic con­di­tions for the for­ma­tion of a ratio­nal con­scious­ness of those ends are ful­filled, in oth­er words, until the pre­vail­ing order con­tains the poten­tial­i­ty of its own dis­ap­pear­ance and so pro­duces agents capa­ble of mak­ing its dis­ap­pear­ance their project” (116/94). 

  13. Enrique Martín Cri­a­do, Les deux Algéries de Pierre Bour­dieu, trans. Hélène Bretin (Bel­le­combes-en-Bauges: Édi­tions du Cro­quant, 2008). 

  14. Pierre Bour­dieu, “Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rev­o­lu­tion,” in Alger­ian Sketch­es, ed. Tas­sa­dit Yacine, trans. David Fern­bach (Cam­bridge: Poli­ty, 2013), 94. 

  15. Bour­dieu, “Rev­o­lu­tion in the Rev­o­lu­tion,” 97. 

  16. Jacques Ran­cière, “The Cause of the Oth­er,” trans. David Macey, Par­al­lax 4, no. 2 (1998): 25–26. Orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion: “La cause de l’autre,” Lignes 1, no. 30 (1997): 36–49. 

  17. Ibid., 29. 

  18. Ibid., 32. Ran­cière, who was born in Algiers but left for France as a very small child, briefly recalls the place of Alge­ria in his for­ma­tion, and the polit­i­cal water­shed of the demon­stra­tions of 1961–62 in a recent inter­view book: Jacques Ran­cière, La méth­ode de l’égalité. Entre­tien avec Lau­rent Jean­pierre et Dork Zabun­yan (Paris: Bayard, 2012), 19–20. 

  19. Ran­cière, “The Cause of the Oth­er,” 25. 

  20. Ibid., 27. Trans­la­tion mod­i­fied. 

  21. Ibid., 28–29. 

  22. Bal­ibar else­where writes of being awak­ened to knowl­edge of the world by the colo­nial wars, and of the need to reflect on the intrin­si­cal­ly asym­met­ri­cal reci­procity between France and Alge­ria. See Daho Djer­bal and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, “Pour une nou­velle épistémê,” in Brun, ed., Guerre d’Algérie, 274. See also his arti­cle on Alge­ria and France in Droit de cité (Paris: Quadridge/PUF, 2002). 

  23. Éti­enne Bal­ibar, “De Charonne à Vit­ry,” in Les Fron­tières de la démoc­ra­tie (Paris: La Décou­verte, 1992), 22–23. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Le Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur no. 852, March 9, 1981. 

  24. Ibid.,  25. 

Author of the article

teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he co-directs the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, and Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism and is series editor of The Italian List at Seagull Books.