The Battle of Algiers is an incredible film; as astonishing to viewers today as it was over 50 years ago. This is not intended to be a film review, however. There are plenty of anti-imperialist and communist reviews of the film already. Rather, there is one scene in the film that has a particular importance in demonstrating a key lesson for the liberal/first-worldist left. In this scene, the primary antagonist, Colonel Mathieu, is giving a kind of press conference when the issue of torture as a tactic of the french paratroops is broached. Mathieu’s response is on the one hand disturbing, but it carries with it a certain logical consistency that we should not overlook.
Initially, he justifies the use of torture with the notion of practical expediency, allowing them to gain information before it is rendered useless by the agents of the FLN. The interviewer, visibly appalled by the assertion, appeals to the premise that legality may not be expedient, but it is just in the liberal mindset. Of course this scene was not meant to endorse the use of torture by the french, or bemoan the idea of human rights, but rather it was attempting to go deeper than cliche liberal platitudes. Mathieu responds in a long diatribe against the reporters, asserting rather bluntly: “Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.”
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a simple “ends justify the means” argument, but rather it points to a contradiction in the ideological standard and reality of colonialism. On the one hand, they hold to liberal moral sensibilities which tell them that torture is evil and wrong, they could not imagine themselves participating in such an act. On the other, they do participate, and their simultaneous support for colonialism on the basis of its national and economic benefits to france, necessarily demands that extreme violence continue in order to maintain the unequal relationship that defines colonial occupation. It is not simply saying that “the ends justify the means” but that the political end of colonialism cultivates its own political means. The ends do not justify the means, they prefigure them.
This liberal inconsistency is easily picked apart from the right, just as Mathieu had done to the reporters in the film, but it serves a greater lesson for the left in how to properly delineate the Marxist position from the liberal approach and handle contradictions in a principled manner. The opportunist response to imperialist militarism and capitalist exploitation has often been a one-sided condemnation of its overt and highly destructive effects without a substantial criticism being issued to the primary aim of these practices. Liberal viewpoints typically revolve around individuals and choices, rather than on class society and conflict, in which active political agents are involved in struggle.
For instance, people often make a habit of condemning pollution, poverty, and war without addressing the economic basis for these conditions inherent to capitalism. Further, these issues are even more deeply mishandled when condemning the conditions suffered by people in the Third World, without any recognition of the correlating wealth and social services in the First World which has been bought through imperialism. There is a willingness to condemn the “unfortunate results” of a system, without ever implicating the system itself, condemning its corollary “convenient results” or providing for the ultimate solution to the problem itself.
The same could be said about the issue of police brutality and murder perpetrated against the colonized peoples in North Amerika. It is simple enough to condemn the most overt acts of violence carried out by police, but without ever fundamentally answering for the structural roots of colonialism, all liberal distaste is purely superficial. They only take issue with these things when it offends the senses, and when the realities are made inescapable to them. They don’t wish it to be gone so much as they wish not to see it or its effects. This isn’t to say that one should not feel offended by the sight of unarmed men and women being gunned down by police, or children murdered in drone strikes or starving to death in the Third World, rather it should create a desire to understand the fundamental roots of these problems and reconcile the contradiction that perpetuates them. So long as liberals continue to endorse this system and the benefits it brings them, they must be willing to accept all consequences. They cannot pretend to be on neither side.
However, if they are unwilling to accept those consequences, if they cannot cover their eyes or plug their nose anymore, then they should throw aside the system and its benefits. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We must choose: do we want to remain a parasite state, feeding off the labor and lives of peoples in the Third World, or do we seek a world where 6 billion people are not left in such deep poverty that they will certainly die hungry? These choices are mutually exclusive, just as it was in “french” Algeria. We cannot allow ourselves to feed into pleasant half-truths because they are convenient and do not upset our sensibilities. We must come to grips with parasitism and reject it entirely. Otherwise we have no hope of putting forward a cogent program to end human suffering, and all our humanitarian affirmations become meaningless.
In a strange way, Colonel Mathieu has told us how to fight him, and the systems he represents. The world cannot wait, and we should not let this dissuade humanitarian action, on the contrary we should strive to correct this inconsistency and promote a coherent program for world liberation: communism.
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