Between the end of September and the beginning of October 1988, Algeria went through a wave of social upheaval unprecedented since ‘Independence' in 1962. The major towns and industrial centers were shaken by a series workers' strikes and hunger riots by unemployed youth. With appalling barbarity, the ‘socialist' Algerian state and its sole party (the ‘'Front de Liberation Nationale'), massacred hundreds of young demonstrators. This state and party, hailed twenty years ago by Trotskyists and Stalinists as ‘socialist' met the demands for ‘bread and grain' with machine-guns and bullets. Assassinations, torture, mass arrests, the state of siege and the militarization of labor: this is the Algerian bourgeoisie's answer to the demands of the exploited.
The strikes and riots are caused by the rapid deterioration of the Algerian economy. Already a prey to the permanent crisis of the under-developed countries, the latter is now literally collapsing. The fall in gas and oil revenues, which are virtually the country's only resource, and the exhaustion of reserves forecast to have lasted until the year 2000, all explain the draconian austerity of the 1980's. Like Ceausescu's Romania, Chadli's Algeria has promised to repay its debt to the world's banks. The end of the state's intervention in sectors such as housing, health, and food prices has created a frightful situation for the laboring masses. Queues form at 6:00 in the morning for bread and semolina (the staple grain product); meat is not to be found; water is cut off for months at a time; it is impossible to find housing; already wretched wages are frozen; unemployment has become the norm for young people (65% of the 23 million population are under 25): all this is the result of 25 years of Algerian ‘socialism' born of the struggle for ‘national liberation'. The purely parasitic Algerian bourgeoisie defends its power against the exploited masses through a ferocious military dictatorship. FLN bureaucrats and army officers, who dominate the economic apparatus, live by speculation and the resale of imported foodstuffs at black market prices. This is the ruling class' weakness. And while it relies increasingly on the Islamic fundamentalist movement which it has encouraged in recent years, this movement is without any real influence on the working population, apart from fractions of the petty bourgeoisie and lumpen-proletariat.
The real meaning of the October upheavals, in reaction to terrible poverty, is the clear resurgence of the Algerian proletariat on the social scene. Much more than during the riots of 1980, 1985, or 1986, the working class has been in the forefront. At the end of September, strikes broke out throughout the industrial zone of Rouiba-Reghaia, 30 km from Algiers, with the 13,000 workers of the Societe Nationale des Vehicules Industriels (ex-Berliet trucks). From there, the strike spread to the whole Algiers region: Air Algeria, and above all the postal service (PTT). Despite the repression of the Rouiba workers by police armed with water-cannon, the movement then spread to the large cities of the East and West. In Kabylia, the attempts by police and military to set ‘Kabyles' against ‘Arabs' - to the point of sending out police loud-speaker vans to declaim "don't support the Arabs who did not support you in 1985" - met only hatred and contempt. Finally, and significantly, the state-controlled trades union, the UGTA (Union Generale des Travailleurs Algeriens) had to distance itself from the government, in order to regain some influence over of the movement.
It was in this context that there broke out, from 5th October onwards, a series of riots, lootings, destruction of shops and public buildings, carried out by thousands of young unemployed, sometimes joined by agents provocateurs from the secret police and the fundamentalists. These riots have been highlighted by the media both in Algeria and in the West in general, the better to hide the extent and the class direction of the strikes. Furthermore, the Algerian ruling class has made the most of them, to carry out a preventive massacre, which has since been put to use politically to emphasize the need for ‘democratic' ‘reforms', and to eliminate fractions of the state apparatus too closely linked to the army and the FLN, and inadequate in confronting the proletarian menace.
The riots of this young, hopeless, and unemployed population are not in continuity with the workers' strikes. They are clearly differentiated by their lack of any perspective, as well as the ease with which they are used and manipulated by the state apparatus. It is true that this youth does seem to have shown timid signs of emerging politicization, refusing to follow the slogans either of the opposition abroad (Ben Bella and Ait Ahmed, once leaders of the FLN, before being eliminated by Boumedienne), or of the Islamic fundamentalists, who are nothing other than a creation of the regime and the military. Here and there, young rioters tore down the Algerian flag, put town halls and FLN offices to the sack, and destroyed the Algerian headquarters of the Saharan Polisario, a nationalist movement supported by Algerian imperialism and symbolic of the hidden war with Morocco. But this kind of movement must be carefully distinguished from that of the striking workers. Youth as such is not a class. Separated from that of the proletariat, the action of youth, either unemployed or never having had a job (those known as the ‘guardians of the wall' because of their daily enforced idleness) cannot offer any way out.
Because they only attack the symbols of the state, because they loot and destroy blindly, these revolts remain impotent; they are merely brush fires, which can hardly contribute to the workers' class consciousness and struggle. They are not really any different from the periodic riots in the shanty-towns of Latin America. They express the accelerating decomposition of a system which provokes among the jobless, explosions of anger and despair without any historical perspective.
The apparent absence of any organization of the strike is doubtless what allowed these revolts to occupy the front of the stage. This explains the violence of the repression by the police and army (about 500 deaths, often amongst the very young). The armed forces remained uncontaminated; they did not even begin to fall apart. The 70,000 conscripts in an army of 120,000 did not budge.
All this shows that it would be wrong to compare the events of October 1988 with those of January 1905 in Russia. Nowhere did we see any signs of a pre-revolutionary period, either in the autonomous organization of the proletariat, of in any unsteadiness of the state.
This is why, once the water came back in the big cities, and the shops were ‘miraculously' restocked, the Chadli government was able, on the 12th October, to put an end to the state of siege. The 48-hour general strike in Kabylia, and the sporadic confrontations with the police, was rear guard actions. Bourgeois order reigns again, with a few ‘democratic' promises from Chadli (referendum on the constitution) and calls for calm from the imams (14th October), who put forward an ‘Islamic republic' with the military. In fact, this is a pause in a situation which remains highly explosive, and which will be expressed in more widespread social movements, where the proletariat will play a more visible and more determining part. This defeat is only the first round in the coming increasingly decisive confrontations between proletariat and bourgeoisie. Already, in early November, wildcat strikes have broken out again in Algiers.
Despite the apparent ‘return to calm', these social upheavals have a considerable historical importance. Consequently, they cannot be identified with the events in Iran in 1979, nor with today's events in Yugoslavia and Chile. In no case did the workers or young jobless follow the Islamic fundamentalists. Contrary to the claims of the press, the bourgeois intellectuals, and the French Communist Party, who all support Chadli come what may, the fundamentalists are the ideological arm of the military, with whom they work hand in glove. Unlike Iran, religion has almost no impact on the young unemployed, and still less on the workers.
The greatest danger for the proletariat today would be to trust in the promises of ‘democratization' and the renewal of ‘freedoms', especially since the referendum at the end of October (where Chadli won 90% of the votes). The proletariat can expect nothing from such promises, and has everything to fear from them. ‘Democratic' chatter does nothing but prepare still more infamous massacres by the bourgeois class, which has nothing to offer the exploited masses but poverty and bullets. This is a lesson for workers the world over: they promise you ‘democracy'; you will only suffer new massacres if you do not put an end to the barbarism of capital!
The October events in Algeria are important for 4 reasons:
-- they are a continuation of the strikes and hunger riots which have shaken next-door Morocco and Tunisia since the beginning of the 80's. They pose a real threat of extension throughout the Maghreb, where they have encountered a widespread echo. The Moroccan and Tunisian governments' immediate solidarity with Chadli -- despite their conflicting imperialist appetites -- is a measure of the fear that grips the bourgeoisie in these countries;
-- above all, they demonstrate the solidarity against the workers' strikes - of the great imperialist powers (France, USA) and their support for the bloodbath necessary to reestablish ‘order'. Already armed by France, Germany, and the US (who have taken over this role from the Russians), Algeria will now receive still more attentive care from the American bloc in the form of weaponry for civil war. Once again, we see confirmed the Holy Alliance of the whole capitalist world against the proletariat of one country, which confronts not just its ‘own' bourgeoisie, but all bourgeoisies.
-- because of the North African (and especially Algerian, numbering almost 1 million) proletariat's importance in France, these events have already had an enormous impact there. The question of proletarian unity against the bourgeoisie, in Western Europe and its immediate periphery is posed. Today, the conditions are encouraging for the formation of revolutionary minorities within the Algerian proletariat, at first among the immigrants in France and Europe, then in Algeria where the proletariat is most developed, and also in Morocco and Tunisia;
-- finally, this generalized strike movement is the Algerian proletariat's first large scale experience of confrontation with the state. The next movements will be less ‘flash in the pan'. They will be more clearly distinct from the revolts of the young jobless. Unlike these unconscious strata, easily permeated with society's general decomposition, the proletariat does not attack symbols, but a system. The proletariat does not destroy, to fall back into resignation and apathy; slowly, but surely, it is called on to develop its class consciousness and its tendency towards organization. It is in these conditions that the proletariat in Algeria, and indeed in all the countries of the Third World, will be able to give an orientation to the revolt of unemployed youth, to channel it into the destruction of capitalist anarchy and barbarism.