Hadj-Ali Abelkader: A Muslim Communist in the 1920s

The relations between Muslims and revolutionary socialists have often been problematic. A few years ago in France there was bitter controversy in the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste when a Muslim woman who wears the hijab was selected as a candidate for the regional elections.1 Yet in the early 1920s the Communist International offered a very different approach. The Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 attracted hundreds of Muslim delegates.2 In 1922 Willem van Ravesteyn gave a report on the “Eastern question” to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in which he stated:

The Islamic peoples have it in their power to destroy the bridge that sustains British imperialism. If this bridge falls, then this imperialism will also collapse. Its fall would have such a mighty echo in the entire world of Islam and the East that the French Empire too would not survive this blow. The liberation of the Islamic world from every form of European political domination, particularly as regards the countries of the Near East, is in the interests not only of the peoples there, the peasants and workers in the Eastern territories, not yet in the grip of capitalism. It represents also a fundamental interest of the West European and world proletariat.3 

The following year Trotsky argued for “a non-uniform attitude to Great Russian and to Muslim nationalism: in relation to the former, ruthless struggle, stern rebuff, especially in those cases when it is displayed in the administrative and governmental sphere; in relation to the latter—patient, attentive, painstaking educational work.”4

But what did such statements mean for individual Muslim activists in the emerging Communist movement? It may be interesting to look at the story of a now largely forgotten figure, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader. (There is one biography.5) He played a significant role in the early years of the French Communist Party (PCF) and in the struggle for Algerian independence. 

Hadj-Ali was born in 1883 in a village, Douar Ouled Sidi Ouïs, some 23 kilometers from the provincial capital Relizane, in Algeria. Algeria had been colonized by the French in the 1830s, and in 1848 it had become constitutionally an integral part of French territory. But the indigenous population were legally French subjects, not French citizens. They were subject to the notorious Code de l’indigénat (native code), which imposed a special set of laws and regulations, and which criminalized even the most minor forms of insubordination. It forbade any disrespectful act toward any representative of authority even if off duty, and any public remark intended to weaken the respect due to authority.6 The privileges and rights of French citizenship were extended only to a very small minority of the native population.

Hadj-Ali was born into a prosperous land-owning family that had a good reputation in the area and was said to be descended from a holy man. It is probable that he was called after the emir Abdelkader, a leader of the resistance to French rule, who had died shortly before Hadj-Ali was born. 

At the time, educational provision for the Muslim population was poor. The French spoke a great deal about their “civilizing mission,” but in practice they had closed many of the old Koranic schools (which had ensured that most of the population before colonization was literate).7 According to one estimate, fewer than 5 percent of Algerian children attended any kind of school in 1870.8 So Hadj-Ali was part of the relatively fortunate minority who got an education. He attended a Koranic school in his village and learned to read and write Arabic. It is said that by the age of ten he could recite the entire Koran by heart. Growing up in an agricultural area he had ample opportunity to observe and participate in various aspects of farming, and he acquired a respect for manual labor.9

However, things began to go wrong for his family. First his father died, and his paternal grandfather took charge of the boy. Then, under legislation that massively favored European settlers, the family was dispossessed of 391 hectares as a result of a debt to a usurer. Suddenly the once prosperous family found itself plunged into poverty. Hadj-Ali’s grandfather was unwilling for the boy to become an agricultural laborer, so he arranged for him to be sent to the city of Mascara where he got a job in an ironmonger’s shop. At the age of fourteen he had to leave home and family and make an independent life for himself in a large town.10 

Although he was very badly paid by his employer he seems to have been a model worker. He was ambitious and was prepared to sacrifice himself in the hope of becoming an employer himself. Within a few years he had saved enough money to rent premises and open his own ironmongery business. He seems to have been successful and had many customers. From serving Europeans he began to pick up the French language and made great efforts to become proficient in it.

As yet, there was no sign of any class consciousness on his part. But due to his family’s misfortunes and his experiences in the city, he was becoming increasingly aware of national oppression, and he resented French rule, especially as expressed in the form of the native code. He became increasingly resentful of this.11

The next episode in his life remains somewhat obscure. In 1904, at the age of twenty, he married a young woman from Mascara. She became pregnant; but by the time the daughter, Maghnia, was born, Hadj-Ali had left his wife and his shop, and had moved to mainland France. He never saw his daughter and seems to have made no effort to meet her. There is no obvious explanation for why the marriage broke up so quickly, or for why he decided to move to France.12

In general Algerian Muslims had to get permission to travel to the mainland. But he benefitted from a law of 1905 that exempted licensed traders from the controls on travel. He crossed the Mediterranean, a journey of some forty-eight hours, and, arriving in Marseille, immediately took a train to Paris. A new phase of his life was opening up. The rest of his life, including his remarkable political activities, would be spent in mainland France, although he never forgot his identity as an Algerian and a Muslim. 

Before 1914 there were still relatively few Algerians in mainland France. Hadj-Ali quickly found work and for a short time was a peddler, which had the great advantage of enabling him to get to know the city of Paris in detail. But soon he decided to revert to the skill he had acquired in Mascara, and took a job as salesman in an ironmonger’s shop, where he stayed for several years. He lived a bachelor existence in hotels owned by Algerians and ate in Algerian restaurants, and through that he maintained contact with his compatriots.

In 1911 he applied for French citizenship, and went through the legal procedures required to obtain it. We don’t know his exact reasons for this decision, which might seem paradoxical since he was opposed to the idea then current in the French Socialist Party that the emancipation of Algerians would be achieved by assimilation into the French population. This, he believed, would mean the disappearance of the Algerian nation. But according to the native code, if he was not a French citizen, he was not allowed to engage in political or trade union organization. He was becoming increasingly interested in politics, and this was probably his main motivation.13

In April 1912 Hadj-Ali married for a second time. His wife was Adrienne Caroline Leblanc, who came from Rouen in Normandy. She was to remain his faithful companion, and it was her support that made his subsequent political activity possible.14 Yet France remained a deeply racist society determined to hold on to its empire. Despite his citizenship and marriage, Hadj-Ali was not assimilated into French society. The Jamaican writer Claude McKay told of an encounter between the Senegalese Communist organizer Lamine Senghor and a Senegalese bar owner in Marseille in the 1920s. The bar owner said: “I don’t see how you can become a great Negro leader when you are married to a white woman.” Senghor responded that he “felt even more bitterly about the condition of Negroes because he was married to a white woman.”15 Hadj-Ali may well have felt something similar.

After his marriage Hadj-Ali achieved another ambition. He had been carefully saving for some years, and perhaps with financial help from his new wife, he was able to buy his own ironmonger’s shop. This was situated at No. 39 on the Rue de l’Arbre Sec in the first arrondissement of Paris, close to the Louvre and Les Halles. His wife worked closely with him in the shop. Economically he was successful and became relatively prosperous. One of the rooms became a meeting place where Hadj-Ali entertained his Algerian friends and engaged in political discussion with them. A number of future activists—including Mahmoud Ben Lekhal—gathered here and the idea of an Algerian revolutionary party was discussed.16

From the time of his arrival in France Hadj-Ali became increasingly interested in political questions. Although he had a personal ambition to own his own shop, he soon decided to become a trade unionist and joined the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), France’s main trade union body. It was a time of intense class struggle and the army was regularly used to attack striking workers. In 1907 soldiers killed and wounded protesting vine growers in Narbonne in southern France—but one regiment mutinied rather than shoot.17 The CGT engaged in vigorous antimilitarist campaigning.18 

Many of the activists in the CGT were syndicalists—that is, they believed that trade unions were an adequate political expression of the working class, and that political parties were unnecessary. Hadj-Ali was apparently unconvinced of this argument, and around 1910 he joined the French Socialist Party (SFIO), of which the most prominent leaders were Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde; the party’s Marxist wing was led by Guesde and Paul Lafargue. Hadj-Ali was impressed by the party’s social and economic program, but perhaps less so by its attitude to colonialism. In this period there were sharp debates within the SFIO—and within the Second International to which it was affiliated—about the demand for colonial independence. As far as Algeria was concerned, the SFIO in its majority favored progress through assimilation of the indigenous population.19

In August 1914 World War I began, and in September Hadj-Ali was called up into the army. The war was clearly to defend France’s colonial empire, so he did not identify with the French national cause in any way, but he had no alternative. There is little information about what happened to him during the war years. Apparently he was sent to hospital after being injured at Bordeaux, where he remained for the rest of the war.20 Since Bordeaux was a long way from the front line we can only suppose that he got his injury during training or as the result of an accident. 

The experience of military service radicalized Hadj-Ali further. He saw the very visible discrimination against soldiers from Africa and other colonial territories. They were paid less and got worse rations; they were rarely promoted to senior ranks. (Of the 197,000 North Africans who fought in World War I none held a rank higher than lieutenant.21) If wounded, they were not allowed to return to Algeria to convalesce, and if they were killed, their bodies were not returned to their native land.22 And there was little gratitude shown to colonial troops once they had served their purpose. When the Madagascan Jean Raliamongo, who had served in the army, applied for a job with a railway company after the war, he was told, “The fact of having served in the French army doesn’t mean you are French.”23

After the war Hadj-Ali returned to his political and trade union activities. He also became involved in activities within the Algerian community. Informal associations developed to raise money for those in need, to visit those in hospitals, to help the unemployed, and to hire lawyers on behalf of Algerians where necessary.24 Such activity, while clearly a response to the inherent racism of French society, was often closer to philanthropy than to politics. But it related to the needs of North Africans in France and must have seemed more concrete than the rather remote prospect of national independence.

But the war had brought about irreversible changes. At the end of the war US President Wilson excited considerable enthusiasm with his call for self-determination; many in the colonial world believed the principle should apply to them. An even greater impact was made by the Russian Revolution, which offered the possibility of a break with the old order. The Baku Congress of 1920 represented a direct appeal for the oppressed of the colonies to join forces with the European proletariat; the president of the Communist International, Zinoviev, went so far as to propose a revision to Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Marx had said, “Workers of all lands, unite!” but now, according to Zinoviev, this should be replaced by: “Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite!25

In December 1920 the Congress of the SFIO voted to affiliate to the Communist International; the opposition walked out and it became the French Communist Party (PCF). One of the key issues at the Congress was the acceptance of the “twenty-one conditions” for affiliation to the Communist International. The eighth condition laid down that “Any party wishing to join the Third International must ruthlessly expose the colonial machinations of the imperialists of its ‘own’ country, must support—in deed, not merely in word—every colonial liberation movement, demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies, inculcate in the hearts of the workers of its own country an attitude of true brotherhood with the working population of the colonies and the oppressed nations, and conduct systematic agitation among the armed forces against all oppression of the colonial peoples.”26 In the course of the Congress a young Indochinese delegate Nguyễn Ái Quốc (later to be known as Hồ Chí Minh) declared that his homeland was “shamefully oppressed and exploited,” and urged that “the Party must make socialist propaganda in all the colonies.”27 For Hadj-Ali there could be no doubt. At the beginning of 1921 he joined the newly formed French Communist Party. It was a young party, drawing together the hopes of those inspired by the Russian Revolution. But it was far from homogeneous and scarcely under the control of the Communist International.

Paris in the 1920s offered a promising environment for anti-imperialist activists. It was increasingly a cosmopolitan city. After the terrible losses of the war, immigrant workers had to be drawn into French industry. By 1924 there were between 100,000 and 150,000 North African workers in France, 75,000 in the Parisian region. Generally they found themselves doing the most unpleasant, unhealthy, and dangerous jobs in mines, steelworks, and chemical factories.28 The 1920s saw the growth of cafés maures, which served North African food and where Algerian workers met to complain about their working conditions and discuss politics. There were also many students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America—among those who would later make an international impact were Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Haya de la Torre, and the Peruvian Marxist Mariátegui. The political perspective that later came to be known as “Third Worldism”—the “idea of an anti-imperialist solidarity spanning several continents”—was first developed in 1920s Paris. With some justice Michael Goebel has described the city as an “anti-imperial metropolis.”29 

In order to benefit from the new opportunities the PCF established in 1921 an organization, which came to be known as the Union Intercoloniale (UIC). The aim was to bring together people from the French colonies (including Algeria, which in reality, if not technically, was a colony) now resident in France, to involve them in political and trade union activity, and to prepare them for anticolonial struggles. It was formed on the initiative of a Guadeloupian lawyer, Max Clainville-Bloncourt, and began as a small organization, with only some two hundred members by the end of 1921. They were mainly Madagascans and Vietnamese, with a few Algerians, one of whom was Hadj-Ali, who rapidly began to take a leading role and to draw his fellow Algerians into the organization. Initially Nguyễn Ái Quốc was the dominant figure, but when he moved to Moscow in 1923 Hadj-Ali took over his leading position. Hadj-Ali was thus one of the original nuclei that laid the foundations for anticolonial struggles throughout the French Empire.30 

One of the main activities of the UIC was to produce a newspaper, known as Le Paria.31 It may be suspected that not all the PCF leadership were enthusiastic about the venture; its finances seem to have been precarious. In 1923 the Colonial Commission of the PCF gave the UIC a subsidy of just 100 francs—not much more than £50 in today’s money.32 (There was money in the Communist International—the German Communist Party attained finances to launch twenty newspapers (for which it could not find enough editors33—but it does not seem to have made its way to Le Paria.34) The total circulation was no more than three thousand, the majority of which was smuggled into the various colonial territories; only some five hundred copies remained for sales to students and workers in France.35 The leading figure was originally Nguyễn Ái Quốc, but in 1923 he went to Moscow to work for the Communist International. The paper was a lively propaganda sheet in which a critique of French imperialism was developed.

Hadj-Ali became a regular contributor to Le Paria. He wrote under various pseudonyms such as “Ali Baba” and “Hadj Bicot.” “Bicot” is a particularly offensive racist epithet applied to North Africans, so he was a pioneer of the technique of subverting racist language and turning it back against those who used it.

In particular he wrote a very forceful piece under the ironic title “Paris . . . City of Light” about the situation of immigrant workers in Paris; much of what he described would be recognized by many immigrant workers of later times:

And yet there are Algerians in Paris. There are tens and tens of thousands working themselves to death in the factories, rotting away in the Grenelle district, and in the slums of the Boulevard de la Gare and de la Villette.

. . . They live alone, without wives, steeped in their patriarchal habits. They cannot bring over the women they left over there. They prefer to live in abstinence, cutting away at the minimum they need to live in order to send money to their children, to the aged parents they have left behind and who are being trampled on by colonialism.36

But he did not confine himself to a description of the suffering of North African workers. He was also actively involved in trying to unionize his compatriots. In 1921 there had been a split in the CGT, leading to the formation of the Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire (CGTU). Communists were active in the CGTU. An article in Le Paria, probably written by Hadj-Ali, urged immigrant workers to join the union:

In the factories of France you have learned that your material situation in no way differed from that of your brother French workers. You have seen that proletarians, whatever their race, are crushed beneath the weight of the same exploitation and reduced to the same poverty. . . . It’s time to wake up from your inactivity, stop being indifferent to the employers’ attacks, no longer accept their blows fatalistically. Organize with your French worker comrades; join the unions in large numbers to defend your wages and to demand your rights.37

He also contributed to other PCF publications. A report adopted in 1922 by the Second Communist Interfederal Congress of North Africa, largely dominated by European settlers, had argued that “what characterizes the native masses is their ignorance. This is above all the main obstacle to their emancipation.”38 Hadj-Ali replied in the Bulletin Communiste with a stinging critique:

There is an obvious danger in leaving the native proletariat of the colonies under the influence of the bourgeoisie and at the disposal of militarism and imperialism, without preparing it to refuse to let itself be recruited to come and smash the revolution if the case should arise.

Believe me, comrades, you must realize that any indifference in this respect is a mortal danger for the revolution in countries like France, Britain, and Italy.

You must realize that in all the colonies the native workers, thanks to the Russian Revolution, are awakening and beginning to rally round and to seek their way forward so as to break their chains. . . .

Believe me, comrades, the native workers are more open to our propaganda and our ideas than to those of outdated democracy; that comes from their experience. They haven’t forgotten the lying promises made to them by the bourgeois groupings during the war for the rule of law and civilization in order to send them to the slaughter.

If you really want to make the revolution, you must not only undertake to maintain the neutralization of the native proletarians, not only win their sympathy, but, by methodical and truly Communist propaganda, prepare yourselves a revolutionary guard from among them, in case the need arises.

You can do that, all the more so because all the natives, from the intellectuals to the most primitive, know that the Russian Revolution has liberated many peoples who were under the yoke of Tsarism. . . .

So what are we asking for?

That the party should lay down a general line of conduct for its militants and federations in the colonies;

That it should assign to them, in precise fashion, the aim to be achieved; to make propaganda and to recruit among the natives and, in order to achieve this, to adopt as a platform the immediate demands of the natives, namely:

Suppression of the native code; the rights of French citizenship for all; abolition of the repressive courts; equality before the law; abolition of the arbitrary administrative measures which impose on the mass of native peasants and workers all sorts of forced labour and constraints which are unworthy of civilisation, etc., etc. The results will soon be visible. . . .

It is time that Communism should no longer be restricted to a few scattered Europeans in the colonies while we ignore millions of native proletarians who are reaching out to us.39

Hadj-Ali’s list of “immediate demands” focuses on questions that directly affected the lives of Algerians; it calls for “the rights of French citizenship for all” and does not mention national independence.

The first major test of the UIC and Le Paria came in 1923. The French government, in pursuit of unpaid reparations, occupied the Ruhr region of Germany. Many of the troops used in the occupation were North African or Senegalese, which provoked racist opposition from German nationalists. The PCF conducted a vigorous campaign among the French troops, arguing for fraternization with German workers. The PCF already had a soldiers’ paper, La Caserne (the barracks), which it used to make antimilitarist propaganda. A bilingual (Arabic and French) version of this was now produced (Al Kazirna) and distributed to North African troops in the Ruhr. The chief organizer was Mahmoud Ben Lekhal, but Hadj-Ali was also very much involved. Ben Lekhal was arrested and following a trial at Mainz in June 1924 was sentenced to five years hard labor. The PCF launched a major campaign for his release, including a meeting chaired by Hadj-Ali, and Ben Lekhal was released.40 

The PCF combined legal and illegal activities. After his involvement in the Ruhr, Hadj-Ali’s next activity was strictly constitutional. In May 1924 the PCF presented Hadj-Ali Abdelkader as a candidate in the parliamentary elections for the second sector of Paris. (He was one of the few Algerians who had French citizenship and was therefore eligible for election.) A statement in the PCF daily L’Humanité set out the party’s aims:

All our comrades must indeed be convinced that whatever may be a worker’s origin or color, he belongs first and foremost to the working class. Racial prejudice is something that any conscious worker must totally reject. By neglecting, or even worse, despising, the worker recruited in the colonies because he has different habits, the French worker is playing his exploiter’s game.

Capitalism is precisely trying to sharpen these racial antagonisms in order to more effectively break the workers’ class action.

French capitalism is holding in reserve its colonial subjects, as strike-breakers, as troops to be used, if necessary, against French workers.41

Whether the PCF membership as a whole was as forthright in its antiracism as this statement would suggest seems doubtful. Claude Liauzu claims the decision to stand Hadj-Ali was imposed by “a handful of almost marginal activists,” and that the Communists of the second sector were unwilling to accept it.42

There is some evidence to support Liauzu’s claims. When the first list for the second sector was published Hadj-Ali’s name was not on it.43 The original intention had been that the list should be headed by Jacques Sadoul and Henri Guilbeaux, both under sentence of death in absentia. Three weeks later the authorities ruled these names ineligible, and a revised list was published, including Hadj-Ali. The initial announcement of the new list in L’Humanité gave no explanation of the addition of Hadj-Ali, and referred to him simply as a “unionized hardware representative” with no reference to his ethnicity.44 And when the PCF announced that on May Day, less than a fortnight before the elections, there would be sixteen simultaneous rallies in Paris, each with around six speakers, Hadj-Ali was not billed to speak at any of them. Only in the last week of the campaign did he speak at a number of public meetings in his own constituency.45 He campaigned in distinctive North African clothing, wearing a burnous (cloak) with a chechia on his head.46

It also appears that Hadj-Ali himself was less than enthusiastic about standing. Previously he had argued within the Algerian community that for an Algerian to stand for election to the French parliament would endorse the legitimacy of parliament and hence of Algeria’s legal status as part of France. He seems to have been put under pressure, perhaps with an intervention from the Communist International, which at this time was still more consistently anti-imperialist than the PCF leadership. Hadj-Ali’s biographer, Abdellah Righi, argues—and without further evidence it can only be speculation—that Hadj-Ali made some sort of deal with the PCF leadership that he would stand in the election if they would in return support his project of establishing an autonomous North African political grouping.47 

Two Communists were elected for the eleven-member constituency; Hadj-Ali obtained the lowest total on the list. (Voting was by a complex list system. Each party presented lists for multimember constituencies. Electors voted for individuals, on more than one list if they wished. Seats were allocated proportionately on the basis of the average vote obtained by the list, but it was the individuals with most votes who were chosen to represent the list.) The two Communists elected got 41,601 votes and 40,805 votes, respectively; the average for the list was 40,781, and Hadj-Ali obtained 40,569.48 It should be remembered that very few of his voters were North Africans, since the vast majority of them did not have citizenship. 

The result was quite a success. The most successful Communist candidate, Garchery, got some eight hundred votes more than anyone else on the list, doubtless due to some personal following. But Hadj-Ali achieved 97.52% of Garchery’s vote, and 99.48% of the average for the list. As Benjamin Stora points out, for Algerians in France the important thing was how well he had done.49 It now seemed quite possible to envisage an Algerian being elected to the French parliament on the basis of support from French workers.

The election campaign was to have another result, which would be of great significance, not just for Hadj-Ali but for the whole history of Algerian independence. One of those who was drawn in by the campaign was a young Algerian from Tlemcen called Messali Hadj. As he recounted in his Memoirs:

One day as I was leaving work I stopped by the election posters to read the dates of the election meetings, the names of the speakers and their political affiliations. I immediately noticed an Arab name on the list. Hadj-Ali was standing as a candidate of the French Communist Party. I was surprised and delighted. I went to the meeting that he was holding at a school on the Place de la Réunion, close to the factory where I worked. I listened to him present the political program of his party. I could see that he was very much up to the requirements of his candidacy. As I listened to him I was overcome with great pride and great joy. I applauded him sincerely. At the end of the meeting I went up to him and greeted him in Arabic. I congratulated him on his speech in which he had denounced injustice and the native code. We exchanged a few words and good wishes, then separated, after having fixed a date to meet again later.50

They and their wives soon became firm friends. Initially at least Hadj-Ali was very much the teacher and Messali, who was some fifteen years younger, the pupil. They had many discussions about Lenin and the Third International; one discussion, toward the end of 1924 lasted an entire afternoon.51 Messali was very struck by Hadj-Ali’s grasp of “Communist ideology, which he handled with great dexterity.”52

Hadj-Ali was now establishing himself as a leading figure in the PCF. In 1924 he was appointed a member of the party’s Colonial Commission. (Another member was Robert Louzon, who had been expelled from Tunisia after helping to launch the first Arabic-language Communist daily paper.) The commission was reorganized after the Fifth Congress of the Communist International and Jacques Doriot took a leading role. (Doriot is notorious for having later become a pro-Nazi, but at the time he was a rising star of the PCF and active in anticolonial campaigning.) On September 12, 1924, Hadj-Ali spoke alongside Doriot at a meeting in opposition to the Rif war. He made a rousing appeal for the unity of all the exploited, whatever race they belonged to, against all exploiters.53

Hadj-Ali had frequent disagreements with Doriot; he favored the establishment of an autonomous party of colonial subjects, rather than the Communist International’s strategy of creating a North African revolutionary nationalist party. In 1926 he was removed from the commission.54

At the party congress in January 1924 he was elected to the Central Committee, a position that he held for just one year.55 In 1925 he visited Moscow, and seems to have reacted very favorably to what he saw. Messali Hadj recalled:

On his return to Paris, Hadj-Ali gave it to be understood that he had been very impressed by what he had seen, as well as by his discussion with the Soviet Russian leaders. Everything was new, everything was splendid, everything was perfect, nothing required comment, let alone criticism. Hadj-Ali seemed to us like a pilgrim who had come back from the Holy Places with the philosophers’ stone in his pocket.56 

Throughout this time Hadj-Ali remained a practising Muslim. Indeed, the defense of his native land’s religion and its cultural traditions was an important part of his defense of Algerian rights. One of his main charges against French imperialism was the way it had weakened Islam through school closures, the introduction of other religions, and the encouragement of alcohol.57 As Messali Hadj noted, “The long time he had spent in France and his membership in the Communist Party had not in any way detracted from his Arabic identity or his Islamic faith.”58 

In 1924 Hadj-Ali wrote an article for Le Paria in which he argued that Communists should adopt a nonpolemical position towards Islam.59 The PCF was heavily marked by the traditions of laïcité which has been so important for the French left,60 but there seems to have been no pressure on him to disavow or play down his religious heritage. The PCF at this time seems to have considered that religious belief was a matter of personal choice. At the same time he does not seem to have been dogmatic in his religious allegiance. One account of Algerian friends visiting his home tells of fierce arguments, when some of his friends “with repeated thumps on the table . . . caused Madame Hadj-Ali to fear for her dishes, [and] tried…to convert us to a belief in the exclusive primacy of matter over ideas.61 On another occasion he advised Messali not to put too much emphasis in his speeches on religion and the history of the Arab Empire.62

By 1925 the PCF position on the colonial question was beginning to shift. Lenin was dead and Stalin was in the ascendant with his theory of “socialism in one country,” though it would take some time for all the implications to be developed. Le Paria finally ceased to appear in April 1926. Rather than a general anticolonial organization Hadj-Ali now became involved in setting up an organization specifically aimed at North African workers. This was to become the Étoile Nord-Africaine (North African Star, or ENA). There remains some historical controversy as to the precise date at which the ENA was founded, but although the origins of the organization can be traced back earlier, it would seem that it first acquired a public face at a meeting held in June 1926.63 It involved workers from Tunisia and Morocco as well as Algeria.64 (Greater numbers of Tunisian and Moroccan students were now arriving in Paris, including Habib Bourguiba, later to become the first president of independent Tunisia.65) The initial core consisted of some eight thousand North African workers who were unionized in the CGTU (out of a total of over a hundred thousand North African workers in France). That this degree of unionization had been achieved was the result of the hard work of Hadj-Ali and his comrades over the preceding three years.66

In the course of 1926 and 1927, the ENA held a number of large public meetings in the Paris area, the biggest of them attracting several hundred. There was also a banquet for students. The main campaigning issues were the abolition of the native code, free movement between Algeria and France, and freedom of the press and assembly. In 1928, as the ENA was breaking its links with the PCF, there was a shift away from large public meetings towards smaller meetings in districts with a large North African population.67

Historically the name of Messali Hadj is associated with the ENA; he was for many years its leader and the leader of its successor organizations. Hence there have been claims that he was in effect its founder. The name of Hadj-Ali has largely vanished from history. Yet it is clear that at the time of the foundation it was Hadj-Ali who played the key role, and that he was the organization’s leader in its first years. In 1948 La République Algérienne published a letter from Hadj-Ali, now close to death, in which he made a final effort to assert his historical role:

I was the one who drew up the statutes and proposed the name which was immediately accepted. . . . Messali was a recruit like all the first militants. Moreover, he was a dilettante, he wasn’t diligent in attending meetings and when he did come he was always late. Nonetheless, I considered him to be a sincere nationalist. . . . I led the association until 1928. From 1924 to 1926 Messali had never spoken in public.68

Obviously Hadj-Ali was defending his reputation, and others might have recalled events differently, but it seems clear that he did play a central role in the founding of the ENA, and that at the time he was more experienced and more politically mature than Messali.

The launching of the ENA was done with the support and encouragement of the PCF. Michael Goebel, using documents and minutes from the PCF archives, has argued that initially Hadj-Ali and Messali were more concerned with civil rights than national sovereignty, and that it was only under pressure from the PCF that they agreed to raise the demand for Algerian independence:

In July 1926 Hadj-Ali still preferred to speak of “total emancipation” instead. Employing the term “independence”, he reasoned, might alienate “bourgeois nationalists.” . . . As late as October the two Étoile founders wavered, arguing that the term “independence” risked alienating their constituency, namely North African workers in Paris, who cared about civil rights, which should flow from the French imperial state, not about Algerian sovereignty.69

PCF strategy towards North Africa was very much influenced by the positions adopted by the Communist International. In China the emerging Chinese Communist Party was instructed by the International to subordinate itself to the nationalist Guomindang. This alliance lasted until the Communists in Shanghai were massacred by Guomindang forces in April 1927.70 In the course of 1925 there were discussions in the PCF to establish a North African Guomindang, which led to the formation of the ENA.71

In particular this involved cooperation with the Emir Khaled, who was an Algerian nationalist pure and simple, but who had built up a following in Algeria by working within the electoral institutions provided by the French state for the Muslim population. Originally Hadj-Ali and the PCF had been hostile to Khaled. In 1922 Hadj-Ali had explained why Le Paria rejected proposals for parliamentary representation for the native population of Algeria:

Because we don’t want separate representation; because we consider that it is a deception to make the natives believe that when they are represented by two or three yes-men, or by an ambitious agitator like Khaled, then the task of achieving the justice to which they aspire and which we demand with all our strength will have been achieved.72

But by 1924 Hadj-Ali seems to have recognixed the need for cooperation with Khaled in the spirit of the united front. In July 1924 the PCF and UIC helped to organize two large meetings in Paris where Hadj-Ali shared a platform with Khaled.73 Khaled became honorary president of the ENA, although he played no active role in the organization.74

In February 1927 Hadj-Ali and Messali attended a world congress of oppressed peoples in Brussels, organised by the League Against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression, which was backed by the Communist International. This marked the beginning of Messali’s career as a political leader when he made a powerful speech denouncing French imperialism’s role in Algeria:

Far from giving the country the aid it could have used to develop itself, French imperialism combined expropriation and exploitation with the most reactionary political domination, depriving the natives of any freedom of condition or organisation, and of all political and legislative rights, or else granting such rights only to a small minority of corrupted natives.

To this is added systematic brutalization achieved by alcohol, the introduction of new religions, and the closing of Arabic-language schools which existed before colonization; finally, to crown its work, imperialism enrols the natives in its army to continue colonization, to serve in imperialist wars and to crush revolutionary movements in the colonies and the metropolis.

Against this colonial policy, against this oppression, the working peoples of North Africa have carried out and continue to carry out permanent action by all means at their disposal to achieve the goal which includes their aspirations at the present time: national independence.75

Hadj-Ali later claimed he had written the speech; Messali gave a somewhat different account.76 Whatever the truth, it seems clear that Hadj-Ali was still the senior figure and that he was trying to develop and promote Messali as a leader.

But already by 1926, if not earlier, divergences were appearing between Hadj-Ali and the PCF. Hadj-Ali had been a loyal and trusted member of the PCF, who combined a good grasp of Marxism within his nationalist and religious ideas. But in the last resort it was the question of Algeria, rather than anything else, that motivated him. At the same time the PCF, which initially had encouraged the self-organization of colonial activists, was becoming more manipulative, increasingly concerned to exercise party control over organizations in its orbit.

There were also important changes taking place within the Communist International. Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” had already led to some disorientation, notably in China, but the International’s policy still followed in the tradition of the united front as launched in 1922.77 But in 1928 the International abandoned the united front in favor of the disastrously sectarian analysis of the “third period,” which led to the claim that social democrats were really “social-fascists.” For the leaders of the ENA it meant an inevitable parting of the ways with an increasingly sectarian and manipulative Communist International.

So increasing friction between the PCF and the leaders of the ENA was becoming inevitable. It was Hadj-Ali who had encouraged Messali’s involvement in the ENA, and had arranged for him to become a full-time organizer.78 The PCF paid his wages. But in 1927, Hadj-Ali had to tell his friend and protégé that the party would no longer pay him, and Messali had to find a job working in a shop. Messali accepted the decision and remained a PCF member.79

Hadj-Ali’s position seems to have been that the ENA should be an autonomous organization independent of PCF control, while he was quite open about his own commitment to communism. The minutes of an internal PCF meeting from 1926 record him as saying that if asked, he would say: “I am a Communist, but I am also a Muslim, and that is why I have joined the ENA.”80 He continued to advocate the formation of an autonomous Communist Party, or at least a North African Communist Party in France and the creation of a revolutionary nationalist party in Algeria. But he was accused of wanting to create a party within the party. Differences with the PCF leadership became ever sharper. 

There were increasingly stormy meetings of the ENA. A Renault worker, Banoune Akli, recalled:

In November 1927 there was another general meeting at 11, rue des Gracieuses. During the discussions the nationalist tendencies became clear. A motion calling for the independence of Algeria having been adopted with a large majority, all those like Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, who thought they could use the Algerians as a reserve army for the benefit of the French Communist Party, protested and then walked out. French people who supported the ENA followed them. After this the Communists began to stay away from the ENA.81 

It is not wholly clear what the issues were, and it appears that Hadj-Ali was still acting as a disciplined party member. But there was obviously something deeply wrong. At another meeting of North African militants and workers in 1928 those attending were asked “Do you want to be dependent on the PCF or to form an independent organization on a national basis?” There was unanimous support for the latter formulation.82

By 1928 Hadj-Ali seems to have begun to withdraw from the activism that had consumed his life since 1921. Seeing Messali as his successor, he handed over the leadership of the ENA to the younger man.83 The PCF was withdrawing its support for the ENA and he was becoming estranged from the party. He was finally expelled from the PCF, probably in 1930, for having stood as a candidate in the municipal elections without party permission.84 There are few details known about this episode, but it was merely the final consummation of a break that had been developing for some time.

Nevertheless, Hadj-Ali remained very active in the ENA, which was facing considerable difficulties because of both state repression and the withdrawal of PCF support. In January 1929 he chaired an ENA meeting of 1200 people (attracted by a leaflet which promised that Emir Khaled would speak, though he did not turn up).85 Up to 1930 the ENA did not have a paper, and presented its policies through leaflets and public meetings. In October 1930 Hadj-Ali played a key role in the founding of the paper El-Ouma (The Nation), of which he was the first editor. However, he seems to have withdrawn from this activity by the beginning of 1932.86 In 1931 he was still a member of the leadership of the ENA.87 

By 1930 Hadj-Ali’s life was changing in other ways. Despite his intense political activity his ironmonger’s shop had prospered. This was undoubtedly due to the hard work of his wife, who looked after the shop on his many absences for political duties. She also served as hostess to the numerous political contacts who visited the premises. While she does not seem to have been directly involved in political activity, she shared her husband’s commitment and made an essential contribution; without her his political career could scarcely have been possible.88

In 1928 he arranged to build a house at Brunoy, a village some thirty kilometres to the south of Paris. The couple moved there in 1930; he took great pleasure in the rural setting, which must have reminded him of the agricultural area in which he had grown up. Messali Hadj referred to this new home, perhaps ironically, as a “ranch.”89 Having sold his successful shop for a good sum, he looked for new areas of investment. He began to acquire property in Montgeron, a commune close to Brunoy. He acquired a café, a block of apartments to rent, a bus company, a large garage, and a cinema. Not surprisingly some of his political opponents described him as having become “embourgeoisé.” Yet it should be noted that he was generous with his money and donated to charities and political causes.90

As he began to move away from direct involvement in politics he also began to drift away from his friendship with Messali. Around 1930 Messali and his wife still used to stay for weekends with Hadj-Ali in Brunoy. But Messali recalled that “while remaining polite, he was embarrassed and ill at ease with me.”91

Under Messali’s leadership the ENA made good progress; successful meetings were held in various French towns, and by 1934 the circulation of El-Ouma had risen to 40,000.92 From November 1934 to May 1935 Messali was in jail, a sign that the government regarded his movement as a real threat.93 In June 1936, just after the election of the Popular Front government, the ENA held a large rally. Messali and Hadj-Ali had not met for some time, but they greeted each other cordially.94

In January 1937 the Popular Front government, backed by the Communists, took the decision to dissolve the ENA. A few days later L’Humanité published a long article criticizing the “hostility of the leaders of the Étoile Nord-Africaine to our party and to the Popular Front”; it did not condemn the dissolution.95

On February 11, a meeting was held in Paris to protest banning the ENA, with some 3500 people packed into the hall. Messali himself spoke, and among the other speakers was Hadj-Ali.96 A month later, at Nanterre in the suburbs of Paris, another meeting was held to launch a new organization, the Parti du Peuple Algérien (Algerian People’s Party, or PPA), which effectively continued the work of the ENA. Again Hadj-Ali was present, and was among the founding members of the PPA. It would be the last time he would meet Messali.97 Although he was no longer as active, Hadj-Ali had clearly not renounced the ideas he had believed in.

By now both Messali and Hadj-Ali were deeply disillusioned with the PCF. There were other forces to the left of the PCF – the grouping around Pierre Monatte and La Révolution prolétarienne, the Trotskyists, and the quite substantial left-wing current in the Socialist Party, led by Marceau Pivert. Messali had contacts with these,98 but Hadj-Ali does not seem to have looked towards them. Perhaps “once bitten, twice shy” would have summed up his feelings. In 1935 he became political editor of another journal, Le Peuple algérien, for which he continued to write until the outbreak of World War II.99 

During the German occupation of France (1940–44), he seems to have been completely inactive. A few Algerian nationalists, seeing French imperialism as the main enemy, misguidedly hoped they might get some advantage from collaboration with the Nazis, but there is no evidence that Hadj-Ali had any part in this.100

Hadj-Ali’s last years were miserable. After the Liberation he bought two restaurants, but neither was a success. His commercial career came to an end as his health deteriorated seriously. He had been a heavy smoker and he now fell victim to a serious lung disease; he was hospitalized in 1947 and remained there until his death in May 1949.101

From his sickbed he wrote a final letter—in a sense his testament. This was the letter to La République algérienne, quoted above, in which he reasserted that he had been the main founder of the ENA. La République algérienne was the journal of the Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien (Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto, UDMA), led by Ferhat Abbas. (Abbas at this time was a moderate nationalist, who urged the formation of an Algerian state with French cooperation. He later joined the FLN—National Liberation Front.) In the same letter Hadj-Ali declared himself in full agreement with the doctrine and tactics of the UDMA.102 But it is clear that he defended his own past record and that he continued to support Algerian independence. 

That Hadj-Ali should have mostly disappeared from history is scarcely surprising. A great many of those who played leading roles in the early years of the PCF had disappeared by 1930 and they were omitted from most histories of the party.103 Messali maintained his organization under new names,104 but in the early 1950s there was a split with the emergence of the FLN, which carried through the struggle for Algerian independence but which also fought a bitter internecine war against Messali’s organization, the Mouvement National Algérien, in which thousands died.105 As a result it was quite a long time before Messali’s role in the history of Algerian nationalism got the recognition it deserved; but today the airport at Tlemcen, Messali’s birthplace, is called the “Messali El Hadj Airport”. His mentor Hadj-Ali, though, largely disappeared from the story.

Hadj-Ali was just one of many of his generation, talented and dedicated revolutionaries whose initial hopes and aspirations were ultimately thwarted by the degeneration of the Communist International and the rise of Stalinism. But for several years he made an important contribution to the movement, and deserves to be remembered.

Thanks to Tithi Bhattacharya for encouraging me to write this article.

  1. J. Wolfreys, “After the Paris Attacks: An Islamophobic Spiral,” International Socialism 146 (2015), http://isj.org.uk/after-the-paris-attacks/.
  2. See John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1993).
  3. John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 685.
  4. Leon Trotsky, “On the National Question,” Pravda, May 1, 1923; in In Defence of the Russian Revolution, Al Richardson, ed. (London: Porcupine Press, 1995), 181.
  5. Abdellah Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader (Algiers: Casbah Publishers, 2006).
  6. See Ian Birchall, “À bas l’indigénat,” Parti des Indigènes de la République, December 3, 2001, http://indigenes-republique.fr/these-sur-lindigenat-precede-dune-presentation-de-ian-h-birchall-les-communistes-contre-le-code-de-lindigenat/
  7. Roger Murray and Tom Wengraf, “The Algerian Revolution—1”, New Left Review 1, no. 22 (December 1963), 25.
  8. Malika Rebai Maamri, The State of Algeria: The Politics of a Post-Colonial Legacy (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015), 3. 
  9. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 37.
  10. Ibid., 39–40.
  11. Ibid., 41–43.
  12. Ibid., 45–46.
  13. Ibid., 48–50.
  14. Ibid., 50.
  15. M Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis (London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 97.
  16. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 51.
  17. Paul B. Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens (Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2002), 77.
  18. See Ian Birchall, “Le Sou du soldat”, http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/le-sou-de-soldat/ .
  19. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 68, 77–80.
  20. Ibid., 52. 
  21. M Kaddache, Histoire du nationalisme algérien, (Algiers: Casbah Publishers, 1981), 89.
  22. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 80–81.
  23. Le Paria, no. 2 (May 1922,), 1.
  24. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 65–66.
  25. Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East (stenographic report), London, 1977, 161.
  26. Terms of Admission into Communist International: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jul/x01.htm.
  27. Quoted from Ho’s Écrits (Hanoi: Editions En Langues Etrangeres, 1971), 121–22. Another version of the speech appeared in La Vie ouvrière, December 31, 1920), 3.
  28. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 63, 73.
  29. M Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis, 279.
  30. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 86–88.
  31. See Ian Birchall, “‘Le Paria’. Le Parti communiste français, les travailleurs immigrés, et l’anti-impérialisme (1920-24),” Contretemps, http://www.contretemps.eu/interventions/paria-parti-communiste-fran%C3%A7ais-travailleurs-immigr%C3%A9s-lanti-imp%C3%A9rialisme-1920-24.  
  32. Claude Liauzu, Aux Origines des tiers-mondismes (Paris: Parcourir les Collections, 1982), 109.
  33. Isaac Deutscher, “Record of a Discussion with Heinrich Brandler,” New Left Review 1, no. 105 (1977). 
  34. For the Communist International’s rather stingy attitude to the financing of anti-imperialist activities, see Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism (Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 2013).
  35. Liauzu, Aux Origines des tiers-mondismes, 110.
  36. Le Paria, no. 22 (January 1924): 1.
  37. Le Paria, no. 21 (December 1923), cited in Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 70–71.
  38. Bulletin communiste, December 7, 1922. English translation in Revolutionary History 10, no. 4 (2012). 
  39. Bulletin communiste, December 14, 1922. English translation in Revolutionary History 10, no. 4 (2012).
  40. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 163–64.
  41. L’Humanité, April 28, 1924, 2.
  42. Liauzu, Aux Origines des tiers-mondismes, 18. 
  43. L’Humanité, April 5, 1924, 4.
  44. Ibid., April 25, 1924, 2.
  45. Ibid., April, 28, 29, May 7, 8, 9, 1924.
  46. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 104.
  47. Ibid., 100–103.
  48. L’Humanité, May 13, 1924, 1; Le Temps, May 13, 1924, 8. 
  49. Benjamin Stora, Messali Hadj (Paris: Parcourir les Collections, 1986), 52–55.
  50. Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj (Paris: Parcourir les Collections, 1982), 136. Messali’s Mémoires were edited and pruned after his death from an unfinished manuscript. Nonetheless they constitute a very valuable source. See J Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine (Paris: Parcourir les Collections, 2003), 292–93.
  51. Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, 138.
  52. Ibid., 137.
  53. Ibid., 2.
  54. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 92–93. 
  55. Ibid., 97.
  56. Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, 146.
  57. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 206.
  58. Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, 137.
  59. Le Paria, no. 25, April–May 1924.
  60. See Ian Birchall, “From the Schoolroom to the Trenches: Laïcité and Its Critics,” http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2015-from-the-schoolroom-to-the-trenches/.
  61. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 212. 
  62. Ibid., 185.
  63. Ibid., 132–34, 142–46.
  64. Ibid., 142.
  65. Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis, 144–45.
  66. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 73.
  67. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 251–52.
  68. La République Algérienne, December 24, 1948, cited in Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 130–32.
  69. Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis, 203.
  70. See H R Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010). 
  71. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 64.
  72. Le Paria, no. 9, December 1922, 1.
  73. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 67.
  74. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 240.
  75. Ibid., 95.
  76. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 188–89.
  77. See Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922.
  78. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 186. 
  79. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 106.
  80. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 58. 
  81. Kaddache, Histoire du nationalisme algérien, 188.
  82. Ibid., 230.
  83. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 190.
  84. Ibid., 97–98. 
  85. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 131.
  86. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 120–23.
  87. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 253.
  88. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 198.
  89. Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, 141.
  90. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 53–55.
  91. Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, 161, 168.
  92. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 161.
  93. Ibid., 162–64.
  94. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 192–93.
  95. J. Moneta, Le PCF et la question coloniale (Paris: Parcourir les Collections, 1971), 113–16.
  96. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 221.
  97. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 193.
  98. Simon, L’Étoile Nord-Africaine, 308.
  99. Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 124–25.
  100. Ibid., 126–28.
  101. Ibid., 55–56. Benjamin Stora, in his Dictionnaire biographique de militants nationalistes algériens (Paris: Parcourir les Collections, 1985), 51, gives 1957 as the date of his death. 
  102. Stora, Dictionnaire biographique de militants nationalistes algériens, 55.
  103. See Ian Birchall, “PCF: The Missing Founders,” http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2011-pcf-the-missing-founders/.
  104. Le Parti du Peuple Algérien (with a legal wing Le Mouvement pour le triomphe des libertés démocratiques) and later Le Mouvement National Algérien.
  105. See B Stora, Messali Hadj (1898–1974), Ian Birchall, “A Note on the MNA,” Revolutionary History 10, no. 4 (2012). 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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