Commentary Magazine


Algeria: The Realities, by Germaine Tillion

Algeria and France
Algeria: The Realities.
by Germaine Tillion.
Knopf. 115 pp. $3.00.

 

One of the subtler successes of Leninism has been the gradual permeation of the left intelligentsia by the slogan, “The main enemy is in your own country.” The widespread though unconscious acceptance of this attitude is responsible for the quasi-automatic way in which all problems are understood by the left to be best formulated in a way hostile to the traditional interests of one’s own country. This hangover of disaffection is most clearly apparent in all discussions of the so-called “colonial” question. In Europe, precisely at a moment when nationalism as such is perceived to be an anachronism at best and a cul-de-sac at worst, the newly awakened nationalism of primitive or backward peoples is commonly hailed by liberals as an indispensable and inevitable stage of progress.

This self-negation in Western society is seen in high relief with respect to Algeria. The French left sees the Algerian rebellion in classic alternatives: oppression versus liberation, nationalism versus imperialism. Also, the social schizophrenia characteristic of the country since the French Revolution makes it all too easy for liberals to see in the “traditional,” “national” French values the classic aspect of reaction. Thus the material needs of the Algerian people are overshadowed by the metropolitan preoccupation with the ancient feuds endemic in French society. No real thought is given to the nature of native society; for the liberals as much as for the conservatives a native is only a native, and the real point of the argument over Algeria is found in defying ancient antagonists at home rather than in thinking up plans to better the welfare of the region overseas. It is simply assumed that the entire trouble with the colonial society is the rapacity of the foreign oppressor; once the imperialist bloodsuckers are ejected and a native regime has been established, all will doubtless be sweetness and light.

Algeria: The Realities, the latest authoritative, though slender, book on the Algerian imbroglio, by Germaine Tillion, a professional anthropologist who has spent many years studying the back-country Moslems of Algeria, has an earnest simplicity of approach that is bound to arrest attention. Written in a style of uncompromising starkness, it takes pains to puncture the illusions of all parties to the dispute, from the “colonialist” extremists to the naivest pro-rebels. What emerges is a picture Mile. Tillion evidently intends to make as discouraging as possible: of a region racked by the profound disproportion between the objectives made attainable by Western civilization and the material pauperization of the population brought about by the inevitable technological contradictions. This is enveloped in the pathos of the thoroughgoing destruction or transposition of the old values of native society, so that in addition to their material distress the Moslems are deprived of even their cultural identity, without being provided with an adequate substitute. The basic factor, symptomatic for the whole complex, is the vast increase in Moslem numbers as a result of the sharp decrease in infant mortality. These numbers, though made possible by modern medicine and hygiene, have by far outstripped the material opportunities. Yet the cultural lag makes it impossible for the Moslems to change their intellectual habits in time to adapt themselves to the new Western patterns of life.

This in a nutshell is Mlle. Tillion’s exposition of the impasse in French Algeria: the French have no way of providing the mass of Algerians with all the goods produced by the French economy, and the Algerians cannot afford to shake loose of France and be on their own. Now all this is true, indeed truistic. But Mlle. Tillion’s method is vitiated by the somewhat priggish condescension which makes so much anthropological comment irritating even when applied to backward societies, and quite irrelevant to advanced societies. Accustomed to assessing the cultural phenomena of more or less sequestered primitive or backward societies, anthropologists tend to imagine themselves competent to judge the complex socio-economic life of great modern collectivities by the limited cultural criteria developed in their parochial studies.

Mlle. Tillion, operating with one or two concepts having to do with the cultural-psychological time-lag of the Algerian masses and the difficulty of shifting from one cultural milieu to another, makes some sweeping pronouncements whose dramatic effect is unfortunately mitigated by a certain sentimental arbitrariness. For one of her main contentions is that in the life of nations the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; the corollary of which is that the nations now being pauperized by the spread of technology are almost bound to deteriorate at an increasing rate unless drastic (though unspecified) steps are taken. The advice Mlle. Tillion finally feels herself competent to give this society in travail is—to produce a mutation! It is a “genuine social mutation” which is “called for” to solve the problems of the “unadapted peoples.” This is tantamount to calling for a miracle, since she has already “proved” that the cultural time-lag which makes this miracle indispensable also makes its necessity incomprehensible. None of this leaves us much the wiser.

As a matter of fact, however, if we consider the example of the “pauperized” Russian society which managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps—with grueling sacrifices, to be sure—and has now gone on to sweep an even vaster and still more pauperized community, the Chinese, into the maelstrom of breakneck industrialization, and if one recalls further the limitlessly protean potentialities of present-day technology, the ipso facto hopelessness of the Algerian situation becomes far less convincing. Mlle. Tillion’s conclusions do not, in fact, warrant her pessimistic pronouncements. In spite of her obvious sympathy for the “nationalist feeling” of the Algerian masses, she comes to the conclusion that their only hope after all lies in a continued alliance with France, which alone possesses the resources of will and ability to burst through the socio-economic impasse created in Algeria by the hitherto unregulated capitalist dynamics of the French economy.

The complexities of contemporary politics have dealt rather ironically with Mlle. Tillion: to her distress, in view of her “liberal” line on Algeria, the present de Gaulle regime has apparently been making abundant use of her book, which is of course a tribute to her professional ability and fairmindedness but is nevertheless annoying. Since Mlle. Tillion wrote her book reasons for her rebel sympathies have been destroyed: for non-anthropological reasons—i.e., because of the same political passions her lesser fellows are swayed by—she had chosen to consider the Algerian rebels as representing the Moslem masses, but now that the French referendum has been voted on, and has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the Moslem population of Algeria, it is clear that, whatever Mlle. Tillion’s motive is for sympathizing with the rebels, her reasons are not shared by their compatriots.

The only thing, in fact, that could upset this Franco-Algerian symbiosis is a major conflict, the consequences of which would of course be incalculable. Until then it would seem wiser to regard the Franco-Algerian association as an instance in which the problems are for the first time being dealt with as a unit, giving European energy and ingenuity, prodded by Soviet rivalry, another chance to vindicate itself in action.

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