Tag Archives: fascism

Time’s Anvil: seeds, saints, fascism and labour

Time's Anvil -- Richard MorrisRichard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:

This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)

This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.

On seeds

I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that

seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…

A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.

There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:

every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.

Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.

On saints

The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:

A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)

There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.

It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.

I quite love thinking more about this, though:

In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)

The ties between fascism and planning & conservation

I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler

held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.

The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:

The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)

It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.

I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:

It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)

Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.

Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.

I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.

On the beauty of labour

Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —

buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.

A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:

Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)

It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:

…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)

if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)

There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:

that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)

By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.

I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.

A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the  Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.







Walter Rodney: Imperialism’s interconnected racisms

Walter RodneyPart 1 looks at the broader argument around the dialectic of development and underdevelopment found in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So much of my work focuses on racism in the US though, and Rodney mentions the US often. It became an Imperialist power par excellence after all, after WWII. But first, to return to the connections between capitalism and racism (later explored around the same time by Cedric Robinson, later by Roediger, Marable and others)

Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. (10)

There are some telling facts here on the early connections between slavery and capitalism. For instance J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ (82)

The whole town and country — that’s a metaphor (or a reality, or some twisted kind of whitewashing) that needs some following up.

Marx noted the connection:

‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. (83)

This is telling too, those visions of dashing buccaneers braving the seas and the Spanish? Not so true:

John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains. (83)

The origins of a version of English money in the name of the Guinea Coast:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’ (84)

The rise of cities and their connections with the industrial revolution (though those cities mostly pretend it didn’t happen, or like Bristol focus on a heritage of abolition)

The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — – notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. (85)

Then this revolting fact:

David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. (85)

I knew I didn’t like them.

Racism shaped and has continued not just the physical underdevelopment of Africa, but how it is understood and discussed. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but how much have I read recently that completely fails to acknowledge, much less interrogate this?

It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. … However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology. (88)

These rationalisations were in service of exploitation.

The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. (20)

But in the move from ‘spheres of influence’ to direct colonisation in Africa unlike most other continents, the existence of racism played a key role:

In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule. (140-141)

He looks at the content of racism:

Sometimes, white racism was vicious and at other times it was paternalist. Nor did it necessarily reflect Europe’s desire to exploit Africans economically. In Southern Rhodesia, racial discrimination was very much tied up with the white settlers maintaining their jobs and the stolen land; but when some semi-literate white inspector insulted an educated Sierra Leonean that may be referred to as ‘gratuitous’. Racism in such a context actually jeopardised economic exploitation, and it was merely the manifestation of prejudices that had grown over the centuries.

To me a key point — that racist ideologies took on lives of their own, themselves began to articulate with the economics and politics of the situation (drawing on Hall here who looks at this explicitly, but the seeds are all here in Rodney):

by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people. … There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. (89)

This is so clearly visible in the history of the U.S. An early aside from Rodney (who has some wonderfully sarcastic lines that made me laugh out loud a couple of times):

Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. (14)

Walter Rodney makes clear the connection between the violence of slavery and colonialism in Africa, and how they connect to slavery, genocide and the violence found throughout US society:

In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active. (87)

Connects these too to Vietnam, to the My Lai massacre and if he were alive now, would see it in the continuing murders of Black men and women being called out by #BlackLivesMatter:

But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade. (90)

Of course, the US had a much more direct connection that most people (I include myself in that) ever realise:

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the U.S.A. was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of 6 cents per acre and 1% of the value of the exported rubber. Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone’s profits from Liberia’s land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the U.S.A. (154)

But to return to the connection between imperialism, exploitation and racism, Rodney argues this violence also sits at the root of fascism:

Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). (196)

Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination and racism-mainly exercised outside of Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. (200)

These connections were hardly invisible, and helped form the basis for organising the Pan-African movement, for this vibrant and vital strain of scholarship and activism that Walter Rodney himself embodies.

The racial contradiction extended far beyond the shores of Africa, because of the historical antecedence of the slave trade. It is not in the least surprising that Pan-African ideas should have been most forcefully expressed by West Indians like Garvey and Padmore and North Americans like W.E.B. Dubois and Alpheus Hunton. Those individuals had all been educated within the international capitalist structure of exploitation on the basis of class and race. Having realised that their inferior status in the societies of America was conditioned by the fact of being black and the weakness of Africa, the Pan-Africanists were forced to deal with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent. Needless to say, the metropolitan powers could never have foreseen that their humiliation of millions of Africans in the New World would ultimately rebound and help Africa to emancipate itself. (277)

Another fascinating insight to be followed up — and one that Rodney brings forward but then doesn’t much explore, is based on a quote from Albert Memmi (I love Albert Memmi), who writes:

The most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history and from the community. Colonisation usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.

Rodney continues:

Sweeping as that statement may initially appear, it is entirely true. The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonised is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study ‘primitive society’. (225)

This idea of being removed from history resonates so strongly with Trouillot’s work on Haiti, with the experience of all oppressed peoples, and is something I’d like to follow up. Part of this is memory of collective ways of being, acting in the world. This, too needs more thought:

In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism… However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few. (254)

There is so much here.

For more on race and empire…



The Geographical Fantasy of Donogoo-Tonka (1920)

6184154Donogoo-Tonka — a city in deepest South America, entirely made up by a French geographer (M. Trouhadec). The most unbelievable aspect of this story? That he is disgraced for such a thing.  The main character — a vaguely depressed and almost suicidal young man named Lamendin. Serendipity casts him in the path of a friend who refers him to the Institute of Biometric Psychotherapy. He is hooked up to wires and alchemical mechanical things, and then this:

I prescribe:

To be present this very day at Buci Intersection at 5:15 p.m. To watch attentively, from that moment on, the hackney-coaches that shall enter into the crossroads, coming from the Rue Mazarine.

To count sixteen occupied carriages (the empty ones remaining uncounted).

When the seventeenth appear, to rush to it; to seat yourself in it by any means; but as much as possible with courtesy and without violence.

To express to the occupant, or to the principal occupant, that his protests are useless, that he will be accompanied in spite of himself…

…to indicate to him that you put yourself without reservation into his hands… (4)

Lamendin follows his instructions, and thus begins the quest to make Donogoo-Tonka a reality, rescuing the reputation of the geographer whose carriage he has entered. Thus begins one of the most enjoyable and unique things I’ve read in ages, written as a ‘cinematographic tale’, describing the action scene by scene (or even sometimes simultaneously screened) with intertitles — strange and often not very intertitly intertitles — in boxes strung through text and descriptions of images that move from the fantastical to the surreal and back again.

Lamendin realises his prescription means he is to work to convince the world that Donogoo-Tonka exists so Trouhadec can enter his learned society, and so creates a film, distributes propaganda. There are illustrations of this imagined city (and best of all, at the back of the book, more illustrations from other versions!). From my version: Donogoo Tonka

From other versions:



Word gets around to adventurers in ports and border towns around the world, and then look! Word arrives in London’s East End:

In London:

One of the smokiest pubs on Commercial Road, two steps from Stepney Station. Around a rectangular table, a dozen men, very diverse in appearance, shout, argue. On the table, with a bit of charcoal, they trace plans, maps, itineraries. They compute on their fingers and start complicated calculations again. (33)

What I love is that this is my own station, now the Limehouse DLR station but it was indeed once Stepney East station on Commercial Road.

Anyway, that’s a complete aside.

In partnership with a banker, Lamendin makes presentations, spreads rumours, starts a company, sells shares. The city must then be founded. Lamendin sails off, arrives with pioneers to find it already founded, by some of these adventurers pulled from these smokey bars who have sought after the imaginary. Gold was promised, and gold has been discovered.

Lamendin rides down the Avenue de la Cordillere in the brand-new Donogoo-Tonka the day after his arrival. And here is what he believes is needed for the founding of a new city, urban planners take note:

He makes frequent stops. He questions the notables. “Whose shop is this?” He turns toward two of the pioneers in the first row, architects from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “The alignment will need to be restored. We should take advantage of it to construct a sidewalk. Too close, all of this. We’re suffocating.”

The cortege arrives at the former prairie. It is definitely here that it is appropriate to erect the General Company building; all the offices, all the services. Plenty of land remains available. They will lay out a stately square, bordered by buildings. Three new avenues will be opened up. (65)

We arrive at the Sixth Part, serving as an epilogue — describing the building of the squares and palace, the arrival of women, a bar fight. Then there is this:

Donogoo-Tonka Corporation for Instantaneous Structures (73)

Which contains a description of ridiculous automated building. Amazing. And then?  The Decrees:



The virtues of geography to be among the most discussed subjects. My little geographer heart swooned away. That’s not even mentioning the evocation of the national cult of Scientific Error. They build temples and everything.

This is the best of this wonderful little book.

The worst is so bad because it’s both expected and awful and boring and you just don’t want it here. You want him to be better, you want him to mock colonialism along with geography and science. Yet we turn to the residential palace, where Lamendin has brought all his old cronies from Paris:

Lamendin and his friends have cool drinks. They smoke. They speak little…

Two black women do the serving. An Indian attends in particular to the lighting of the cigars and pipes, and sees that they draw regularly.

The Pioneers, since they tend to be noisy, have been crammed into a lower room with forty bottles. (79)

I think there is one other mention of all the many people who actually already inhabit South America. They are never heard and rarely seen, and then only when serving whites. Infuriating.

He was just a man of his time, you may argue. He couldn’t escape the racism of his colonial setting. That’s as may be, but then there is this, from the admirable afterward (how do I love introductions that come at the end of the book? Let me count the ways…) by Joan Ockman.

Not surprisingly, Romains’s dalliance with themes of charismatic leadership and ritual violence led some readers to associate Unanimism with fascism. (124)

And he did indeed flirt quite a lot with fascism, until he had to flee France with his Jewish wife in 1940. But before he did that, he wrote L’Homme Blanc in 1937. Epic verse to the Aryans — “the white Man, the first Man, the beautiful race.”

That tidbit of his personal history is saved for the end, however. After the interesting stuff on his theories about the urban. So I wasn’t quite sure if I should just light a match under my notes on Romains’ ideas of unanimism. I still can’t pronounce it, which makes it impossible to talk about out loud. Probably why I had never heard of it. The unitary urbanism of the situationists is much better on that level, undoubtedly indebted in some ways to unanimism but probably like me, unable to pronounce the debt.

It’s interesting, this narrow line between belief in the collective as opposed to the capitalistic individual, fascism and white supremacy. Mostly because I don’t understand how that line exists much less why it should be so narrow, but so it is. It forces me to re-examine some of my faith in the collective, which after reading and thus remembering these connections, I know is a good thing. So to look at Unanimist Urbanism, we return to Joan Ockman on Romains:

…the jostling scene of pedestrians, automobiles, buses, shop windows, and buildings suddenly revealed itself to him as evidence of an immanent, all-encompassing collective reality. This intuition, which amounted to a full-fledged conversion or religious experience in the sense of William James, caused the young poet to revolt against nineteenth-century habits of thought centered on the individual, and eventuated in his conception of the quasi-mystical materialism of the unanime as the vital principle of modern life. (104)

Donogoo-Tonka is all about a semi-mystical serendipity, a coming together of many different people for their many different reasons to build a successful city and create lives of leisure for the lucky.

He writes in Power of Paris’, which I think I will look for:

Space belongs to no one. And no being has succeeded in appropriating a morsel of space to saturate it with [his own] unique existence. All intercrosses, coincides, cohabits. Each point serves as perch to a thousand birds. There is Paris, there is the Rue Montmartre, there is an assembling, there is a man, there is a cellule on the very pavement. A thousand beings are concentric. One sees a little of some of them… (106)

This is from a translation by Ezra Pound from 1913 in The New Age. Ezra Fucking Pound. Ezra Pound, of course, didn’t even walk the line, he crossed the whole way over, moved to Italy in 1924 and supported Mussolini, Mosely and Hitler for a few decades. But back to this interesting piece that continues:

[G]roups! They are not precisely born. Their life makes and unmakes itself, as an unstable state of matter, a condensation which does not endure. They show us that life is, at the origin, a provisory attitude, a moment of exception, an intensity between abatements, nothing continuous, nothing decisive. The first togethers take life by a sort of slow success, then they extinguish themselves with catastrophe, no element perishing in the breaking of the whole. The crowd before the foreign barracks comes to life little by little as water in a kettles that sings and evaporates. (106)

The connection to fascism comes here, in the elements required to condense a group. As Ockman writes:

Within the unanimist schema it is the animateur who embodies this problem…Endowed with the task of awakening the crowd from its state of somnolence to self-consciousness, and often an authorial surrogate.

Romains wrote another novella, ‘The Town Regenerated’ in 1906, so you can see he first took aim at the dreams of urban planners before moving on to geographers. It begins with the arrival of a stranger and his piece of graffiti on the municipal urinal:

‘Those who posses live at the expense of those who work; whoever does not produce the equivalent of what he consumes is a social parasite’

Not much to complain of there. This sets off discussions, debates, interpretations, and results in complete transformation of the town:

Within a year the populace has become an extroverted collectivity, and the nameless town transformed into a humming industrial center whose factory chimneys belch “black dreams.” (107)

A sad dream perhaps. Both in some ways remind me that a key aspect of fascism is about belonging to something greater than yourself, of being important and finding meaning because of this belonging. A belonging defined through hatred and oppression of the other.

So altogether Romains represents a sad pairing of geographic imagination and love of the collective and playfulness and white supremacy and fascism. There is more to tease out there, but so much has been written about fascism that I don’t know about, I feel sure someone has already done it.

Not that I won’t look into it more.

But for now I will end with a celebration of the awesomeness of the physical object of this book from the FORuM Project, and the pages near the end with covers and illustrations from designers who loved it:


Donogoo-Tonka Donogoo-Tonka

A Savage War of Peace

A Savage War of Peace - Alistair HorneI knew almost nothing of the war of liberation in Algeria, and Horne’s A Savage War of Peace was an enormous introduction (624 pages worth), bringing immense satisfaction at finishing it. It is brilliantly crafted history, slow going but fairly enthralling none the less, and a wonderful management of detail. It is as balanced and critical as the author can make it I think, exploring the critical events and the political machinations of the war on both sides. For an aerial view of everything that happened, explored with all the benefits of both hindsight as well as the immediacy of interviews with almost all of the key figures surviving on both sides, this is a good place to start in understanding the conflict. And it is full of sidelights of the humorous and pulpy details of plots and spies and bungling that I confess with a sense of almost shame, I enjoyed immensely.

For all that it is written by a European (of neither France nor Algeria), and despite his best efforts and his deep critique of France’s role, it is still the French and the pied noir that A Savage War of Peace understands best, while Algerians themselves remain for the most part inscrutable and ‘other’. I am reading now the journal of the author Mouloud Feraoun, which has broken my heart in two and left me far more critical of Horne’s account because it exemplifies what is missing — the understanding of a colonised people finally standing up, along with the day to day fear, violence, death, descriptions of torture, hunger, loss, conflicted feelings about the FLN even while fully supporting their struggle.

Three things primarily struck me in reflecting back on it. First, how little I know of French history and how hugely important Algeria was in its history, as Horne summarises:

The war in Algeria — lasted almost eight years, toppled six French Prime Ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.

The second is how closely it parallels the settling of the United States, and how much the white mobs in defense of their land and their privilege reminded me of the white mobs I have studied in the US…defending their land and their privilege. On the French policy of ‘pacification’:

Said Bugeaud in a renowned statement before the National Assembly in 1840: “Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colons, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong. (30)

That is the foundation of it all, conquest and a refusal to give up its fruits. Part of that was the destruction of anything Algerian that could offer up resistance, primarily the policy of breaking up great traditional families

because we found them to be forces of resistance. We did not realise that in suppressing the forces of resistance in this fashion we were also suppressing our means of action. The result is that we are today confronted by a sort of human dust on which we have no influence and in which movements take place which are to us unknown.
— Jules Cambon, governor-general 1894 (p37)

This quote struck me, both in its poetic racism and in the sad reality of colonialism that seeks to destroy any sense of strength and sociality with such a tremendous human cost. Dust in the eyes of the oppressor, a terrifying analogy, for who cares what you do with dust? Lives shorn of culture and mutual support and richness in the experience of the oppressed, though of course they strive to conserve, protect, rebuild what they can.

The third is how this conflict, and that in Indochina, flowed naturally from World War II and calls into question much of what I thought I knew. It reverse polarities, putting people who might have been my heroes for their role in the resistance, for their sufferings in the concentration camps, in an alliance with fascists. I cannot fundamentally understand it, just as I cannot understand the oppression of the Palestinians by Israelis.

The list of generals — paras from both Indochina and Algeria — all heroes of WWII, leaders of resistance, many in concentration camps:

Ducournau, Trinquier, Bigeard, Brothier, Meyer, Jeanpierre, Fossey-François, Château-Jobert, Romain-Defossés, Coulet.

This is a long list. They took what they had learned in fighting fascism in Europe and applied it to the oppression of both the Vietnamese and the Algerians fighting a war of liberation, and they were both efficient and murderous.

One of the key figures of the revolt and attempted coup against de Gaulle was:

The slender St Cyrien, Jean Gardes…The only son of a Parisian heroine of the Reisistance, who had run a cell through her well-known Restaurant des Ministères on the Rue Ministères on the Rue du Bac, Gardes himself had won no less than twenty-four citations for bravery and been severely wounded with the Tiralleurs Marocains in Italy. (354)

He worked in Indo-China and Algeria, and was put in charge of the Cinquième Bureau, with its ‘potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare’…

It is not just that they were heroes of the resistance, these men appropriated symbols of uprising from their history, drawing parallels from the French Revolition and the Paris Commune. In describing the brains behind the fascist OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète), Pierre Serjent writes of him: ‘rigid comportment and incisive speech, Jean Jacques Susini evoked in me … the image of St Just.’ (482)

Of the uprising led by the FNF (Front National Français — it would later fold into the OAS), Horne writes (and is he prompted in this by interviews with the men or simply on his own? It hurts me to think of the Commune in this fashion):

At Ortiz’s “command post” there was chaos reminiscent of the headier days of the Paris Commune; everybody talked, gave orders and made speeches in an atmosphere dense with Bastos cigarette-smoke, the smell of sweat and beer. In the street below some young members of the FNF began spontaneously to prise up paving-stones and create a barricade… (361)

With the same results:

With remarkable speed, army pioneers got to work, bulldozing the barricades, replacing the pavé and covering it with a thick, prophylactic layer of bitumen — as Paris had done after her “troubles” in the nineteenth century (373)

It was not just the French who were decorated war heroes in this conflict. In thinking about the turn to armed uprising as opposed to non-violence (which I think we tend to support more now on this end of history, both for philosophical and well as very practical reasons as the terrain of war has shifted), for those emerging from the celebrated armed struggle against German fascism, what could be more obvious or natural? How could they just return to be oppressed by the same people they had fought alongside of in a war for freedom and justice? This is again another parallel with returning soldiers of colour to the US no longer content to put up with second-class citizenship.

Just one example: The FLN’s external campaign to influence the United Nations was led by M’hamed Yazid and Abdelkader Chanderli —  Chanderli had fought in the French campaign of 1940, escaped to Britain to join de Gaulle, in 1948 a reporter on Palestine, and in 1954 he was working for UNESCO.

This same war created a wave of displaced Nazis seeking to occupy themselves, some of them, for money I am sure, ended up on the side of colonised peoples as arms-dealers:

On the ground floor were a group of ex-Nazis who had found refuge in Cairo and had made themselves useful to Nasser; among them a former S.S. man called Ernst-Wilhelm Springer, who had helped form the pro-German Muslim Legion in the Second World War… (262)

Racism and colonial struggle have clearly wrecked havoc on the ideology, on the sense of what is just and an instinctive knowledge of which side is the right one that is usually portrayed as being so clear in WWII. Obviously, it was not.

Horne also quotes Marighela, Brazilian revolutionary, and his ideas of destroying the ‘soft centre’ thus forcing the authorities to negotiate with the revolutionaries — a tactic used both by the FLN (learning from the use of Bao Dai to undercit Ho Chi Minh in negotiations in Vietnam) and the FNF in their khaki shirts.

Heading one of the chapters is this interesting quote:

No, all Algeria is not fascist, all the French are not “ultras”, all the army doesn’t torture. But Fascism, the “ultras”, and torture, they are France in Algeria (Pierre Nora, 1961)

Krim Belkacem, negotiating for the FLN in Switzerland, helps understand why.

A European population has been created, heterogenous in its origins, but soldered together by its integration within French nationality… It has benefited from exorbitant privileges … Independence is going to pose the problem of these Europeans. (471)

It is not until reading Feraoun that I have gotten the full sense of these privileges, you cannot from Horne.

Nor is he able to explain why the same men who had fought the fascism of Germany could fight on the side of fascism in Algeria, but there is one fascinating quote from him:

To begin at the beginning, in November 1954 France was caught at a major disadvantage because, in contrast to Britain over India, no French politician, not even Mendes-France or Mitterand, let alone the Communists, could contemplate any kind of French withdrawal from Algeria. Mollet the Socialist echoed Mendes-France the Radical: “France without Algeria would be no longer France.” (545)

It is a repetition of France and Haiti which I find so immensely chilling. How, you wonder, can entire peoples replay over and over again the same inabilities? To turn to Trouillot’s discussion of why France of the period of Enlightenment and the revolution would oppose to its last breath the revolution of Haiti and its struggle for freedom:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

There is no such historical distance for France of 1956-1962. How was Algerian freedom after WWII still unthinkable?

Horne keeps returning to this phrase — Algérie montait à la tête
(Algeria goes to the head, Louis Joxe). Perhaps there is something to this, given how hard men fought to keep it when they had no prior roots or connection there. But I think most of the answer lies in the pattern of settlement — dense and deep-rooted as it was in the U.S., South Africa, Australia… I imagine what US history would have been if the genocide of Native Americans had not been quite so effective, if enough had survived this horror to outnumber white settlers and they had been able to carry out a struggle for liberation with such armed effectiveness. The reaction might have been even more violent than that of the French. The ongoing abolition-civil rights-black lives matter movements have been enough to inspire lynchings, riots and massive destruction.

The countries that the right — composed as it was by heroes of the resistance — considered sympathetic? Portugal, Spain, Israel, and South Africa.

Nor were the French restrained in their violence or determination. This included a policy of massive resettlement beginning in 1957:

This was regroupement, or resettlement, which — to rephrase the oft-quoted axiom — aimed at emptying the water away from the fish by isolating communities from the FLN and thus denying it refuge and supplies. It involved the resettlement of over a million peasants from ‘exposed’ communities to barbed-wire encampments, which often looked horribly like concentration camps (220)

When de Gaulle finally decided he would allow Algeria independence it was only a signal to increase terror. This declaration of the OAS shows that some of the settlers were willing to destroy everything to stop the peace process moving forward. Their goals as they articulated them were:

to paralyse the powers that be and make it impossible for them to exercise authority. Brutal actions will be generalised over the whole territory. They will aim at influential personalities of the Communist Party, at works of art and all that represents the exercise of authority, in a manner to lead towards the maximum of general insecurity and the total paralysis of the country. (516)

When peace talks began in Evian, the OAS assassinated the mayor and declared it an act of ‘national sulubrity’ (467).

Over the years French policy had also included a wide use of torture. Again, it is only in Feraoun that you get a sense of what this actually meant, but an interesting aside is the sense that torture is something the police do, not the army. I feel there is something psychologically important here to understand about oppression, but I am not sure what it is:

Certainly the pernicious effect on the French army as a whole lasted many years after the war had ended, and many officers came to agree with General Bollardie in condemning Massu for ever having allowed the army to be brought into such a police action in the first place, thus inevitably exposing it to the practice of torture (206).

The most pernicious effects, in reality, were suffered by Algerians, throughout the war and long after the war was over. On the situation of Algerians in France:

by 1973 they were close on 800,000. For the most part these Algerians lived like third-class citizens, their plight concealed from the eyes of other Frenchmen. Existing in rat-infested bidonvilles, or six to a tenement room, without women and on the poor food that their rock-bottom wages would provide, over eighty percent of the Algerian workers performed the traveaux pénibles; generally the heavy, dangerous or distasteful labour eschewed by Frenchmen…

In the summer of 1973 a bus driver had throat slit by an Algerian and terror was renewed:

whites machine gunned Algerian cafes in the city and threw Molotov cocktails into their lodgings; a sixteen-year old boy was shot down by men in a moving car. In Toulouse fifty paras rampaged through the streets on a ratonnade, beating up any North African they encountered. (550)

Just a final note before getting to the spy-novel details in which fascists are humiliated (a nice way to end), I was saddened (though not surprised I suppose) at the role ethnologists played in this. Jacques Soustelle was first an ethnologist, and then governor-general. Originally of the left, he soon shifted. Ethonlogist Germaine Tillion was part of the resistance, tortured by the Gestapo. She took the part of Algerians but was still instrumental in forming the policies of government support that formed the carrot that Soustelle hoped would neutralise the uprising for freedom when carried out alongside armed repression and torture. Another ethnologist Jean Servier, in 1957 started developing the harki units — light companies of Alegrian muslims that exploited the divisions between tribes, between Kabyles and Arabs and tried to attract FLN defectors.

There is one bright spot of academic solidarity, however:

…on hearing of his death [Ali Boumendjel] his former mentor, René Capitant, Professor of Public Law at the University of Paris, informed the Minister of Education that he was suspending his courses.  (233)

So now, some of the dark humour to be found in this terrible place:

 Bigeard had that particularly French quality of allure essential to an outstanding commander. He seldom did anything without panache. Instead of arriving by staff car or even helicopter, his favourite manner of inspecting a unit was to drop by parachute, arm at the salute as he touched down

The footnote is even more ridiculous:

This nearly ended in disaster when Bigeard, by now nearing sixty and a senior genera;, was dropped into a shark-infested sea by mistake during a visit to troops in Madagascar. He broke an arm but was saved by his faithful staff who had parachuted into the sea with him. (168)

They should have left him to the sharks, the poetic justice in that is almost unbearable.

The Algerians ran guns using the Queen of Jordan’s private yacht.

On the French Foreign Legion (actually mostly German apparently):

As an elite body it still enjoyed the best food in the army and was accompanied wherever it went by its own mobile brothels — “le puff”. (169)

There was an attempt by the right to blow up Salan (a key figure in all this, who would move as far right as anyone) with a bazooka, the conspirators? ‘Dr Kovacs, the ex-Hungarian doctor and hypnotist…and George Wattin, alias “The Limp”‘ (182)

The bad-assness of Algerian freedom fighters:

Azedine had had his right forearm shattered by a 50 mm. calibre bullet. For two days he lay in a coma, apparently half-blinded with pain, buy had refused the ministrations of even the primitive A.L.N. field hospital, dressing and removing splinters of bone from the wound himself. (252)

On Pierre Lagaillarde, fascist student leader (and by god, the French students were all fascists in this tale):

the forebear with whom Lagaillarde liked most to identify himself was his great-grandfather, an obscure deputy and revolutionary called Baudin who had found immortality in the 1851 uprising against Louis-Napoleon. Leaping on top of a barricade and crying “I’ll show you how one dies for twenty-five sous a day,” he had been promptly shot. (278)

I don’t know why that made me laugh out loud. But it did. Another interesting note, as part of the mob action on 13 may 1958 that seized the government, and the Gouvernement-Général…the students led  by Lagaillarde hurled down the bust of Marianne in the foyer. I can barely handle the symbolism.

Horne uses the expression to ‘cock a snook’. I have no comments on that.

A dude calling himself ‘Le Monocle’ was put in charge of the OAS terror campaign in Paris.

During the attempt at a putsch on Thursday, 20 April 1961:

Godard, the master intelligence operator, in the excitement of arriving had mislaid in a public corridor his briefcase containing all details of the putsch (448).

And again

…some of the waiting putschists apparently unaware even of the codeword Arnat… Once they were rendered leaderless by Faure’s arrest, no orders came through until a detachment of gendarmes appeared in the forest and gave a brusque order to disperse with which the powerful body of paras sheepishly complied. (454)

There were a few bright spots in the struggle to make our world bearable.