Algiers: Capital of Revolution

In 2018, it is difficult to imagine what it felt like to live through a genuinely revolutionary moment, one that connected hopes for the Third World with dreams ...

In 2018, it is difficult to imagine what it felt like to live through a genuinely revolutionary moment, one that connected hopes for the Third World with dreams of radical emancipation in the United States. Yet in the 1960s and early 1970s, the desire to introduce a new system of social justice, racial equality, and international socialism stretched from Algiers to Oakland. How did individuals understand the possibilities for a seemingly utopian future?

Elaine Mokhtefi’s extraordinary memoir grants us privileged access to these transnational networks of people, ideas, and politics. It centers on Algeria, which won independence after a violent war fought against the French from 1954 to 1962. Under two socialist regimes, those of Ahmed Ben Bella (1962–65) and Houari Boumediène (1965–78), the country attracted leftists and revolutionaries of all stripes, from Palestinian resistance fighters to South African militants. The country also welcomed the American Black Panther Party (BPP), the radical anti-racist movement founded in Oakland, California, which helped Algeria earn the reputation as the “Mecca of Revolutions”—a phrase coined by Amilcar Cabral, a revolutionary from Guinea Bissau, in West Africa. Mokhtefi artfully weaves together these various strands of radical struggle, while enriching our understanding of the Third World with personal anecdotes.

Mokhtefi’s account begins with her student days, when she was a militant with the Union of World Federalists. Her story takes us to the UN headquarters of the National Liberation Front (FLN), in New York, dreary postwar Paris, and finally to Algeria in the heady years after the revolution, when Algiers served as the headquarters for the international branch of the Black Panther Party under Eldridge Cleaver. It follows the story through the dissolution of this nexus of Third Worldism, Cleaver’s departure from Algeria (and, later, France), and Mokhtefi’s eventual return to the US. Throughout this journey, Mokhtefi wore a number of hats: translator, journalist, militant, and even jewelry maker and painter later in life. In Algeria, she became a “fixer” of sorts for the Black Panther Party. Facing pervasive (and violent) repression in the United States, notably by the FBI and COINTEL program, Cleaver set up shop in Algeria, opening an embassy with the support of the Algerian government. In Algiers, the BPP was hoping to internationalize their influence and gain a platform in the Third World.

Yet the physical and ideological distance between the United States and Third World proved considerable. Mokhtefi’s story begins and ends in the United States. On the very first page of the preface she tells us, “I would drink at the fountain of the past and be better prepared for life, innocent American that I was.” Indeed, Mokhtefi’s account is particularly intriguing precisely because she was outside of the France-Algeria colonial nexus and because of her own experiences as an American Jew. As she mentions at the end of the book, her exposure to anti-Semitism in the United States encouraged her to “broaden the dialogue,” by thinking about anti-racism more generally.

Mokhtefi artfully weaves together various strands of radical struggle, while enriching our understanding of the Third World with personal anecdotes.

The question of American “innocence” runs throughout the book. While Mokhtefi—and the Panthers—innocently idealized Algeria as a place of revolution and radical possibility, she is able to capture the tensions between the geopolitical realities of the Third World and the fantasies cultivated by members of the Black Panther Party. This was not the case for all of the Americans who sought revolution from the Algerian capital. As she recounts, Cleaver occasionally had to remind his comrades that they were living in Algiers, not Harlem. The Black Panthers also displayed a privileged form of innocence, gallivanting around Algiers: “They were the admired stars of the local scene, but in the atmosphere of that closed society their flamboyance was looked upon critically.” This was not limited to their lifestyle, which was much more glamorous than other revolutionary movements that had come to Algiers. It was also evidenced in Cleaver’s sexual practices and even his discursive register, whose outlandish and combative tone was unpalatable to local revolutionaries. Indeed, Cleaver may have felt that the Panthers were “an integral part of Africa’s history,” but he often seemed quite ignorant of African political and social dynamics.

While giving a speech in Congo, for example, Cleaver attacked the Soviet Union, accusing it of revisionism. Given that the conference had been funded by a Communist-bloc youth organization, Mokhtefi asks, “Could he have been ignorant of the cold facts behind the organization of the conference he was attending, or did he consider himself cool enough, powerful enough, to bring the crowd along?”

Whether stemming from arrogance or innocence, his actions overlooked basic political realities of the Non-Aligned Movement. Formed in 1955 at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, the Non-Aligned Movement sought to protect the interests of the developing world from becoming pawns of one of the two superpowers during the Cold War. Despite the formal commitment to non-alignment, however, many of the countries in the movement, including Algeria, were dependent on the aid of communist countries. To denounce Soviet influence in this context was indeed out of step with the geopolitical realities of international Third Worldism.

Yet despite these ominous signs, Mokhtefi makes it clear that contrary to many accounts, the Algerian authorities did not force the Panthers to leave the country. Cleaver was sometimes clumsy in his dealings with the Algerian government; for example, he wrote an open letter to Algerian President Houari Boumediène following Boumediène’s refusal to offer asylum to a group of American hijackers. This was the second time in a few months that a hijacked plane set out for Algiers. The second such incident, led by George Wright, played out quite differently than that of Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow in June 1972. This time, the Algerian authorities were markedly less supportive, setting off something of a power play between the BPP and the Algerian regime. Cleaver’s subsequent letter to Boumediène may have been ill-advised, Moktefi concedes, but it did not lead to the expulsion of the party.

Other actions by Cleaver portended future problems for the group. According to Moktefi, Elridge’s murderously jealous tendencies led him to kill a fellow Panther who had allegedly slept with his wife, Kathleen. Moreover, the split between Eldridge and Huey Newton led the movement into chaos and, ultimately, near irrelevance. This development was seen most dramatically upon Cleaver’s return to the US in 1975, when he became a born-again Christian and Republican. He also marketed “virility pants,” which sought to undo the “castration” caused by modern men’s clothing. But the slowing momentum of the BPP was already becoming palpable in the early 1970s.

As Mokhtefi recounts of her October 1971 trip to the US to raise funds for the recently rebranded Revolutionary People’s Communication Network, “I didn’t feel the sparks of revolution. Fresh leadership and new or renewed energy were required, and those could not be sourced from Algiers. Eldridge and DC were both in their late thirties. I suddenly saw them as survivors. I imagine they felt the same.”

Algeria provides more than just an exotic backdrop for Mokhtefi’s account. Her perceptive analysis offers insights into the trials and tribulations of the Algerian revolution on the ground, ranging from the influx of pieds-rouges (far-left sympathizers), the attempts to rebuild the country after colonization, the 1965 coup d’état against the country’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, and the finicky politics of Third Worldism, which made the presence of an American occasionally problematic.

Mokhtefi also manages to avoid two major temptations in writing about post-1962 Algeria. She gives us neither a nostalgic invocation of the glory of the FLN, nor a tragic account of the “confiscated” revolution. From her first contact with Algerian nationalists in New York, she senses the tensions below the surface of national unity, notably the “fissures” between the more moderate AML (Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty) and the communist-inspired MTLD (The Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties).

Mokhtefi’s destination was not so much Algiers as a lifetime of engagement with the languages, peoples, and ideas that constituted an international network of revolutionary politics.

Yet her analysis of Algerian nationalism is not uncontroversial. Her claim that the AML and MTLD “had dissolved upon joining the FLN” might be considered misleading. The MTLD, under the leadership of Messali Hadj, did not so much “dissolve” as it was liquidated by the FLN. The fratricidal war between the two groups is never explicitly acknowledged in Mokhtefi’s account but is perhaps hinted at with her somewhat puzzling statement that Messali Hadj was “waging a war to the death against the FLN in France and Algeria.” Mokhtefi continues, “Messali had become the objective ally of France, the erstwhile colonial master.” As a memoir, the story is instructive even if at times the historical record is at odds with individual memory.

The memoir does, however, explicitly seek to clarify a number of historical inaccuracies. For example, Mokhtefi refutes any suggestion that the CIA may have organized care for Frantz Fanon at the end of his life, which he spent at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Similarly, she takes issue with Cleaver’s claim, in Soul on Fire, that he financed his stay in Algeria by trafficking “stolen passports and counterfeiting visas,” along with “run[ning] stolen cars from Europe.” Mokhtefi claims that this is patently false. Her relationship with Cleaver is complicated, and she grapples to understand the enigmatic man with whom she spent so much time and for whom she galvanized so much support. In the end, Cleaver not only failed to reciprocate but also began renouncing his political convictions. As Mokhtefi recounts, Cleaver was already in the process of “resigning from the left” in 1972.

Algiers, Third World Capital also provides us with rich details of mythical scenes: the pill bottle at the bedside table of well-known European settler Henri Bourgeaud, which he left behind when fleeing Algeria after his farm had been nationalized. We also witness Nina Simone before the Pan-African festival, her psychological fragility and alcoholism following her to Algiers. Mokhtefi was even photographed while dancing with Frantz Fanon in Washington, DC, which led to a political polemic: the author of The Wretched of the Earth had been sharing Mokhtefi’s Gauloises cigarette at the time, which went against the Algerian FLN’s boycott on French tobacco. Fanon also offered Mokhtefi love advice. Indeed, even the most radical of revolutionaries have their tender moments. Despite Cleaver’s misogyny, we learn he sent a heartfelt note to an ex-lover in Algiers. The first two Algerian presidents were part of a love triangle: Ben Bella, incarcerated after the coup d’état, was dependent on Boumediène’s authorization to marry. He courted Zohra Sellami, who had previously rebuked the advances of Algeria’s austere second president.


Women of the Algerian Resistance

By Anna Jacobs

These anecdotes may not change our political understanding of the Third World, but they do offer a more human vision of geopolitical struggles. From Cuban politicians to French intellectuals, Third Worldism encouraged a series of relationships that spanned multiple continents. When Mokhtefi boarded that ship as an “innocent” American, her destination was not so much Algiers as a lifetime of engagement with the languages, peoples, and ideas that constituted an international network of revolutionary politics.

Rather than seeing the Third World as an abstract and romantic ideal or as a set of diplomatic entanglements, Mokhtefi explores this geographic unit through her personal trajectory. Politics aside, if such a thing is possible, this story reminds us that the Third World was not merely a destination. It was also a fabric of people woven together, even if the patchwork was sometimes unexpected, and at other times, imperfectly sewn.


This article was commissioned by Max Holleran. icon

Featured image: Public sculpture in Algiers, Algeria (2012). Photograph by Aslan Media / Flickr