By ELISABETH SIELGEL, California, USA
Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, 2015
Professor Dan Edelstein
Graduate Teaching Assistant: Dylan J. Montanari
Dale Yoder in his article, 'Current Definitions of Revolution' claims that revolution must involve “abrupt, violent social change” with a shift in sovereignty from one place to another. He wrote, “It is the change in the attitudes of the citizenry toward the underlying basis of the institutions or customs which have come to stand in the way of a tolerable life-experience” (441). As evidenced in comparisons drawn between the American Revolution and the Algerian Revolution from 1954 to 1962, decolonization, as it happens, involves many of the elements also integral to a revolution, making the two terms almost inseparable in their synonymy.
Decolonization, or the withdrawing of colonial powers from a previously occupied area and said area’s acquisition of political or economic sovereignty, first successfully reared its head in western history during the American Revolution of 1776. While also clearly considering the act a revolution, many scholars also perceive the new United States of America’s breaking ties with its occupier, Great Britain, and establishing national sovereignty as the first sign leading up to the dissolution of the British Empire, a process that lasted for more than a century after its inception. In the American example, one can discern the intertwined qualities of decolonization and revolution, but to what extent does this remain true for decolonization as a general concept? Generally, scholars have argued that decolonization and revolution are separate entities, because of irreconcilable differences: revolution occurs as a phenomenon restricted to one society, while decolonization features a struggle between two societal spheres, one vying for the subjugation of the other, the other vying for total independence from that regime. Dale Yoder in his article “Current Definitions of Revolution” claims that revolution must involve “abrupt, violent social change” with a shift in sovereignty from one place to another. He wrote, “It is the change in the attitudes of the citizenry toward the underlying basis of the institutions or customs which have come to stand in the way of a tolerable life-experience” (441). As evidenced in comparisons drawn between the American Revolution and the Algerian Revoluton from 1954 to 1962, decolonization, as it happens, involves many of the elements also integral to a revolution, making the two terms almost inseparable in their synonymity.
The American Revolution originated with a shift in citizens’ attitudes toward their own identity and toward their relationship to the former mother country as a true revolution that particularly reflected Yoder’s proposed model. For the common people, the impetus for discontent amid a previously affable relationship with the English crown was the end of salutary neglect after the Seven Years’ War, in which the British took a more active role in taxing the colonies in order to recoup financial losses sustained during the costly battle with France and each side’s respective Native American allies. American voices remained relatively conciliatory and timid until one commoner spoke out with a definitive and influential cry for revolution, not only to break America’s ties with Britain altogether, but also to entirely move away from the standing governmental system of a monarchy. In his wildly popular work Common Sense, Thomas Paine enumerated the flaws in others’ reasoning for remaining in a colonial relationship with Britain as well as the logical inconsistencies for maintaining a monarchic system’s presence in power: “For all men being originally equals, no ONE by BIRTH could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever.” The influence of Paine in drawing conversations subversive toward the king out into the open remained a testament to the shifting mindset of the British colonial subjects. As they became increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo, they yearned for a rule less centralized and more representative of their individual wants and needs. The psychological jump encapsulated by Paine’s outright rejection of monarchy is, in itself, revolutionary; monarchy seemed like the only possible option in popular opinion for a governmental system at the time until Paine threw the doors open with a call for alternate options.
The development of a distinctly American identity occurred alongside other social change and helped encourage the disillusionment toward British rule. As early as 1759, Hector St. John Crevecoeur in a letter posed and answered the question of who an American was. He wrote, “He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles” (Beasley 28). The mannerisms and traits that once made the Americans purely British subjects have fallen away, even before the politically revolutionary stage of American history. This phenomenon brought forth a distinctly American individual, completely and utterly socially altered from the previous British identity. The profound social changes in identity and philosophical thought as a general trend for the common people in America along with the later abrupt political unrest both serve to fulfill the terms of Yoder’s definition of a revolution.
The Declaration of Independence as an anti-colonial document remains key in analyzing the American Revolution as a decolonization movement as well as a revolution in general. English colonies in North America penned the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4th, 1776, in order to move more significantly toward independence from the British Monarchy and ultimately toward the creation of the United States of America. Because of the amicable nature of the colonies’ former relationship with Great Britain, this stark difference in attitude that this document provided was tantamount to the process of decolonization. As the historian Fabian Klose commented on the significance of this move, “For Great Britain this meant the loss of its North American colonial empire.” The revolution certainly did not begin with the expectation of separation from the colonies’ mother country, but as the people of America were faced with an increasingly intractable monarch across the Atlantic Ocean, decolonization came to be the only option remaining. Declaring an identity as the States of America, the declaration read, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” The document goes on to emphasize that the former colonies are “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown,” and it emphasizes the new abilities of the states as a new sovereign nation: “[A]s Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” America has now fully bared its teeth at its British colonizer, changing the terms of the war irrevocably. Britain instead had to fight for the right to maintain its hold on its colonies. Although it was the most powerful colonial authority in the world, after the United States was recognized in the Treaty of Paris of 1783 as a sovereign nation, Great Britain’s relationships with its colonial subjects would never be the same.
The decolonization of America began a slow series of decolonization attempts, some successful, that lasted for centuries to come, reaching all corners of the world where imperial powers held their dominions. In the 20th century, the process of decolonization accelerated as the idea of keeping individuals disenfranchised and economically and politically subjugated became unpopular with modern conceptions of universal rights and higher visibility of the suffering inflicted upon colonial subjects. According to historian Fabian Klose, “This escalation of colonial violence and the attendant serious violations of human rights resulted in colonialism – particularly with regard to the Algerian War – being increasingly vociferously condemned in the global media and becoming a central topic on the agenda of international politics.” Among colonial subjects persecuted and othered by European white people, World War I and World War II called into question the fortitude of the colonizers: “The mass killing of Europeans by Europeans on the battlefields demonstrated the absurdity of the supposed civilizational superiority of the ‘white man’” (Klose). These notions crystallized colonial subjects’ desires for sovereignty, equality, and justice, leading to the increasing popularity of anti-colonial movements. The Algerian Revolution of 1954 to 1962, which Foran refers to as “the first great anticolonial social revolution of the century,” exemplifies the culmination of these influences, emphasizing once again the synonymous nature of decolonization and revolution inherent to the definitions of each.
The Algerian Revolution resulted from the dissatisfaction of the colonized Algerians toward the extreme suffering of the Algerian people as well as the political and economic inequalities present between French colonizers and the Algerian people. The nationalist movement key to the creation of the revolution as a recognizable entity remained present throughout Algerian history but came into sharp relief with the Massacre at Setif in 1945, which led to an estimated death toll among the Muslim population between 1,020 and 45,000 people (Hussey). Economic disparities remained stark, galvanizing the Algerians to take action against the injustices they faced. Compared to those of Algerians, French wages were twice as large, and of the 1.6 million Algerians living in cities, 47 percent were without jobs in 1954 (Foran).
Soon, a revolutionary movement headed on by the National Liberation Front (FLN) came to the forefront of Franco-Algerian relations. According to political scientist John Foran, “Political cultures of opposition came to crystallize around ideas of national independence from French control, Islamic identity, and radical ideas about socialist egalitarianism.” In an international context, the FLN gained supporters by appearing as a “democratic social revolution.” With a statement of the FLN quoted by historian Matthew Connelly in A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era, the party proclaims that their revolution “is an organized revolution — it is not an anarchic revolt. Ours is a national struggle to destroy an anarchic colonial regime — it is NOT a religious war. It represents a march forward in the historical path of human progress” (36). Although the French military forces triumphed over the FLN’s militias, the degree of cruelty and indiscriminate carnage executed by French forces turned popular opinion on an international scale against France, and even among the French people, many spoke out against the repressive treatment of Algerians. The French head of government, Charles de Gaulle, decided to hold a vote to try and turn the tide of public opinion, and as a result allowed Algerians their national sovereignty. Even in the modern day, the Algerian Revolution remains firmly lodged in national memory as a righteous revolution of liberation. Venerated monuments such as the Maqam Echahid in El Madania sit in honor of martyrs of the Algerian War. Historian Philippe Bernard wrote, “the Algerian War is also part of the incorporated memory [...] thus integral to their daily lives,” referring to the Algerians of today (xxvi).
The postcolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon used the Algerian Revolution to draw explicit parallels between anticolonialism and revolution in his work the Wretched of the Earth. “Decolonization,” he said, “which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder” (36). Similar to Yoder’s definition of “abrupt, violent social change,” decolonization according to Fanon must involve a total reinvention of the colonized peoples into individuals with a crystallized national identity, a transformation quite revolutionary in its own right. According to Fanon, this process “influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally” (36). The motif of the irrevocably changed human takes the role of a common thread uniting the conceptions of revolution and decolonization; the metamorphosis of civilization that occurs in events of decolonization and revolution nearly always involve deliberate change of a social as well as political nature, rather than just political upheaval.
Just as the citizens of America had to reinvent their methods of political thought in order to dream of possibilities besides a Monarchy, the colonized individuals of Algerian society had to rethink their humanity. Fanon argues, “Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men” (36). Suddenly, the subjugated Algerian could realize that he or she was not so different from the French occupier, and as Fanon wrote of this finding, “Thus the native discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler. He finds out that the settler’s skin is not of any more value than a native’s skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner” (44). These momentous ideological realizations that take place in the colonized subjects’ minds lead into their desire for a nationalist movement, giving birth to such organizations as the Algerian FLN. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall as quoted by historian Matthew Connelly spoke of the revolutionary elements that he noted within many anticolonial movements of the time, including no doubt the nascent nationalism among Algerians: “We are in the middle of a world revolution — and I don’t mean Communism. The Communists are…just moving in on the crest of a wave. The revolution I’m talking about is that of the little people all over the world. They’re beginning to learn what there is in life, and to learn what they are missing” (27). The new consciousness of colonized citizens around the world allowed them to reinvent themselves in terms of a more modern worldview, and the revolutionary process that led the Algerians along this way certainly aligns itself with the common definition of revolution applied to other historical events such as the American Revolution.
Historically, the appellation of “revolution” has been used as a legitimizing term, especially in decolonizational cases. As historian Fabian Klose noted, “While the colonizers used terms such as “rebellion” and “insurrection” in their attempts to depict anticolonial resistance directed against them as criminal attempts to overthrow legitimate authority, the anticolonial movement employed the concept of revolution as a “Legitimationstitel” (legitimizing title) for their struggle for independence.” According to some scholars, reasons exist for keeping “decolonization” and “revolution” separate. The act of declaring independence, while enough to be revolutionary in 1776, may not be satisfactorily revolutionary in a modern context. However, the aforementioned aspects of Fanon’s arguments discussing the total reinvention of the colonized subject’s conception of personhood adds in an element of intense social revolution that gives decolonization a modern stake in the term of revolution. Those select scholars may argue that decolonization may instead be a younger sibling of the broad concept of “revolution”; certainly, it is true that not all examples of revolutions in history have been anticolonial, but to refer to decolonization as anything less than revolution is to sell the movement short in all senses, to deny it access to the same legitimizing vocabulary freely granted to the social upheaval of the western world in examples such as the French Revolution and American Revolution. That view of decolonization seems even myopic when decolonization movements, as stated above, have every right to that terminology due to the undeniable similarities.
Moreover, does a comparison between the American Revolution and the Algerian Revolution truly hold water if the American Revolution featured the colonizers rising up against their own people, rather than the native subjugated people seeking their long-denied sovereignty once more? Certainly, not all elements of either revolution match in terms of participants, but the metric used to legitimize the term “revolution” when used referring to the American Revolution must also grant the Algerian Revolution a claim to this title, and thus all instances of successful anticolonial insurgences. For due to the shared ideological phenomena of a reinvented human and set of beliefs, the social upheaval among the citizens that takes place to make decolonization possible remains more than enough to meet the criteria established by those happy to refer to revolutions like the American Revolution and the French Revolution as revolutions.
Furthermore, in the American Revolution, one undoubtedly sees a colonized body throwing off the ownership of the colonizers, even if those colonized individuals were not at the lowest rung of the colonial ladder of the area as the Native Americans were at the time. Thus, the American Revolution retains its hold on its anticolonial undercurrents, signaling the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Had the Native Americans been the ones to rise up successful against British occupation, a direct comparison between the Algerian Revolution and the American Revolution would be more apt. Nevertheless, those similarities that do exist — in broad terms, the societal unrest and the political changes that follow — allow plenty of cause for discourse concerning the general overlap between decolonization and revolution.
In total, the definitive qualities of a revolution as seen in such quintessential constitutional revolution of America in 1776 remain present in more modern instances of decolonization. In the anticolonial movement in America, the colonists altered their worldview in order to seek a less centralized authority compared to monarchy, which then led to their declaring independence from the British Empire. Similarly, the Algerians subjugated by the French reinvented their consciousness in a monumental way in order to perceive the possibility of equality and justice for the Algerian people, so that they might successfully create a nationalist party and declare independence from the French Empire. These elements all coincide with Yoder’s agreed-upon definitions of Revolution — “abrupt, violent social change” and “change in the attitudes of the citizenry toward the underlying basis of the institutions or customs […].” Thus, rather than being a distinct entity other than revolution, decolonization and anticolonial movements take on identities as forms of definitive revolution.
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