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

Ian Birchall.

Published by International Socialist Review number 106

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]J. Wolfreys, “After the Paris Attacks: An Islamophobic Spiral,” International Socialism 146 (2015), http://isj.org.uk/after-the-paris-attacks/. 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]See John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1993). 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]John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 685.

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]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..

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]Abdellah Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader (Algiers: Casbah Publishers, 2006).) 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]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/. 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]Roger Murray and Tom Wengraf, “The Algerian Revolution—1”, New Left Review 1, no. 22 (December 1963), 25. According to one estimate, fewer than 5 percent of Algerian children attended any kind of school in 1870.[8]Malika Rebai Maamri, The State of Algeria: The Politics of a Post-Colonial Legacy (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015), 3. 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]Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 37.

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]Ibid., 39–40.

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]Ibid., 41–43.

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]Ibid., 45–46.

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]Ibid., 48–50.

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]Ibid., 50. 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]M Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis (London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 97. 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]Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 51.

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]Paul B. Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens (Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2002), 77. The CGT engaged in vigorous antimilitarist campaigning.[18]See Ian Birchall, “Le Sou du soldat”, http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/le-sou-de-soldat/ .

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]Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 68, 77–80.

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]Ibid., 52.   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]M Kaddache, Histoire du nationalisme algérien, (Algiers: Casbah Publishers, 1981), 89.) 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]Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 80–81. 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]Le Paria, no. 2 (May 1922,), 1.

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]Righi, Hadj-Ali Abdelkader, 65–66. 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]Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East (stenographic report), London, 1977, 161.

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