[Reference] Colonialism is a System: Jean-Paul Sartre

interventions Vol. 3(1) 127–140
(ISSN 1369-801X print/1469-929X online)
Copyright © 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 1080/13698010020027074
liberation classics
Jean-Paul Sartre

With this issue, Interventions begins the first of a new series of ‘Liberation Classics’. Despite the wide-range of cultural, philosophical and politics texts produced during the twentieth-century liberation struggles by activist intellectuals in order to define the mechanisms of the operation of colonialism and to produce forms of counter-modernity posited against it, the field of postcolonial studies draws on a relatively limited range of material for its immediate theoretical inspiration. We therefore intend to reprint or translate neglected or little-known material from the past in order to initiate the process of a fuller retrieval, and theoretical understanding, of the post-colonial archive. In this issue, we begin with a translation of a little known essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Colonialism is a System’.

Sartre’s ‘Colonialism is a System’, written in 1956 at the beginning of the Algerian war of independence, constitutes a thorough analysis of the mechanics of colonial economics that shows him fully immersed in the perspective developed by Marx, who argued that colonialism presented capitalism in naked form, stripped of the decorous clothing of European bourgeois society. Colonialism, Sartre was to add, also operates in a different temporality from Western capitalism, in the time of its secondary system; Fanon in turn would point to differences of temporality within the colonial domain, a ‘time-lag’ between the cosmopolitan modernity of the nationalist leaders and the peasantry. In this essay, Sartre shows a remarkable understanding of contemporary ‘third world’ differences of perspectives and need,


in his emphasis on the questions of land and the agrarian problem, of the appropriation of land and resettlement, and, particularly, of landlessness, which have been central to the problems of many colonies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the same time, despite the specificity of its historical and economic analysis of Algerian colonialism, Sartre’s essay is remarkable in emphasizing the systematic basis of colonialism. In generalizing his account of Algeria through the claim of his title, Sartre did not mean that there was a single colonial system everywhere and at all times, but rather that colonialism represented a deliberate and systematic form of exploitation that could be analysed as such. Fanon took this a stage further, so that Sartre’s Manichaean system provided the fundamental model for his much more abstract account of colonialism and anti-colonial resistance in The Wretched of the Earth. Despite the persuasive generality of Fanon’s analysis, which has led to its use to describe a wide variety of colonial situations, Sartre’s essay is a reminder that Fanon’s account of colonialism was derived from his understanding of a particular culture struggling against the singular, violent conditions that operated in French Algeria.


I would like to put you on your guard against what might be called ‘neo-colonialist mystification’. Neocolonialists think that there are some good colonists and some very wicked ones, and that it is the fault of the latter that the situation of the colonies has deteriorated.

This mystification consists of the following: you are taken around Algeria, you are obligingly shown the extreme poverty of the people, which is dreadful, you are told about the humiliation the Muslims suffer at the hands of the wicked colonists. And then, when you are really outraged, they add: ‘that is
why the best Algerians have taken up arms; they couldn’t take any more.’ If they go about this in the right way, you will return home convinced:

first, that the Algerian problem is first of all economic. It is a question of providing, by means of judicious reforms, food for nine million people.
secondly, next, that the problem is social: the numbers of schools and doctors must be greatly increased.
thirdly, that the problem is, finally, psychological: you remember De Man and his ‘inferiority complex’ of the working class. He had discovered at the same time the key to the ‘native character’: maltreated, malnourished, illiterate, the Algerian has an inferiority complex with regard to his masters. It is by acting upon these three factors that he will be reassured: if he eats enough to satisfy his hunger, if he has work and can read, he will no longer suffer the shame of being a subhuman and we will rediscover that old Franco-Muslim fraternity.

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But above all let us not bring politicsinto this. Politics is abstract: what is the use of voting if you are dying of hunger? Those who come and talk to us about free elections, about a Constituent Assembly, about Algerian independence, are agitators or troublemakers who only cloud the issue.

That is the argument. To that the leaders of the FLN have replied: ‘even if we were happy under French bayonets, we would fight.’ They are right. And indeed one must go further than them: under French bayonets, they can only be unhappy. It is true that the majority of the Algerians live in intolerable poverty; but it is also true that the necessary reforms can be implemented neither by the good colonists nor by France herself, as long as she intends to maintain her sovereignty in Algeria. These reforms will be the business of the Algerian people themselves, when they have won their freedom.

The fact is that colonization is neither a series of chance occurrences nor the statistical result of thousands of individual undertakings. It is a system which was put in place around the middle of the nineteenth century, began to bear fruit in about 1880, started to decline after the First World War, and is today turning against the colonizing nation.

That is what I would like to show you about Algeria, which is, alas, the clearest and most legible example of the colonial system. I would like to show you the rigour of the colonial system, its internal necessity, how it was bound to lead us exactly where we are now, and how the purest of intentions, if conceived within this infernal circle, is corrupted at once.

For it is not true that there are some good colons1 and others who are
wicked. There are colonsand that is it.

When we have understood that, we will understand why the Algerians are right to attack, first of all politically, this economic, social and political system and why their liberation, and also that of France, can only be achieved through the shattering of colonization. The system did not put itself in place on its own. In truth neither the July monarchy nor the Second Republic really knew what to do with conquered Algeria.

They thought about turning it into a settlement colony. Bugeaud conceived of a ‘Roman style’ colonization. Huge estates would have been given to the demobilized soldiers of the Army in Africa. His proposal was not taken up. They wanted to channel to Africa the overfiow of the European countries, the poorest peasants of France and Spain; for this ‘rabble’ a few villages were created around Algiers, Constantine and Oran. Most of them were decimated by disease.

After 1848 they tried to settle – it would be better to say ‘add’ – unemployed workers whose presence worried the ‘forces of law and order’. Out of 20,000 labourers transported to Algeria, the majority perished from fever and cholera; the survivors managed to get themselves repatriated.

In this form the colonial enterprise remained hesitant. It took more definite

1I do not consider as colonists either the minor public officials or the European workers who are at the same time innocent victims and beneficiaries of the system.


shape during the Second Empire, as a result of industrial and commercial expansion. One after the other, the great colonial companies were created:
1863: Société de Crédit Foncier et de Banque(Banking and Land Credit Society);
1865: Société Marseillaise de Crédit (Marseilles Credit Society); Compagnie des Minerais de fer de Mokta (Mokta Iron Ore Company); Société Générale des Transports maritimes à vapeur(General Maritime Steam Transport Society).

This time it was capitalism itself that became colonialist. Jules Ferry would become the theoretician of this new colonialism:

It is in the interest of France, which has always been awash with capital and has exported it to foreign countries in considerable quantities, to consider the colonial question from this angle. For countries like ours which, by the very nature of their industry, are destined to be great exporters, this question is precisely one of outlets.
. . . Where there is political predominance, there is also predominance in products, economic predominance.

So you see, it was not Lenin who first defined colonial imperialism; it was Jules Ferry, that ‘great figure’ of the Third Republic.

And you also see that this minister is in agreement with the fellagha2 of 1956: he proclaimed ‘politics first!’ which they were to take up against the colonists three-quarters of a century later.

First of all overcome resistance, smash the framework, subdue, terrorize. Only then will the economic system be put in place.

And what does this consist of? The creation of industries in the conquered country? Not at all; the capital with which France ‘is awash’ will not be invested in underdeveloped countries; the returns would be uncertain, the profits would be too long in coming; everything would have to be built, equipped. And, even if that could be done, what would be the point in cre- ating competition for production in France? Ferry is very clear: capital will not leave France, it will simply be invested in new industries which will sell their manufactured products to the colonized country. The immediate result was the establishment of the Customs Union (1884). This Union still exists: it ensures that France’s industry, handicapped in the international market by prices that are too high, has a monopoly over the Algerian market.

But to whom thendid this new industry expect to sell its products? The Algerians? Impossible: where would they have got the money from to pay? The concomitant of this colonial imperialism is that spending power has to be created in the colonies. And, of course, it is the colonists who will benefit

2 Freedom fighter, member of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN).

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from all the advantages and who will be turned into potential buyers. The colonist is above all an artificial consumer, created overseas from nothing by a capitalism which is seeking new markets.

As early as 1900, Peyerimhoff stressed this new feature of ‘official’ colonization: ‘Directly or not, the property of the colonist has come to him gratis from the State or he has seen concessions granted around him on a daily basis. Before his eyes the government has made sacrifices for individual interests considerably greater than those it would consent to in older fully developed countries.’

Here the second side of the colonial diptych appears clearly: in order to be a buyer, the colonist must be a seller. To whom will he sell? To the people of mainland France. And what can he sell without an industry? Food products and raw materials. This time, under the aegis of Minister Ferry and the theoretician Leroy-Beaulieu, colonial status is established.

And what are the ‘sacrifices’ that the State makes to the colonist, to this man, the darling of gods and exporters? The answer is simple: it sacrifices the property of the Muslims to him.

Because it so happens that, in fact, the natural produce of the colonized country grows on the land and that this land belongs to the ‘indigenous’ population. In certain thinly populated regions, with large uncultivated areas, the theft of land is less apparent: what you see is military occupation, forced labour. But in Algeria, when the French troops arrived, all the good land was cultivated. The so-called development thus relied upon a plundering of the inhabitants that continued for a century. The story of Algeria is the progressive concentration of European land ownership at the expense of Algerian ownership.

And any method was acceptable.

At the beginning the slightest stir of resistance was used as an excuse to confiscate or sequestrate. Bugeaud would say: ‘The land must be good; it is of little importance to whom it belongs.’ The revolt of 1871 was very useful; hundreds of thousands of hectares were taken from the vanquished.

But there was a chance that would not be enough. So we decided to give a handsome present to the Muslims; we gave them our civil code.

And why all this generosity? Because tribal property was usually collective and we wanted to fragment it to allow land speculators to buy it back bit by bit. In 1873, investigating commissioners were given the task of turning the large common estates into a jigsaw puzzle of individual properties. With each inheritance they made shareswhich were given to everyone concerned. Some of these shares were fictitious. In the douarof Harrar, the investigating commissioner found 55 beneficiaries for 8 hectares. It sufficed to corrupt one of these beneficiaries and he would demand a share-out. The long and confusing French procedure ruined all the co-owners;

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the traders in European goods then bought the whole lot from them for peanuts.

It is true that in our own regions we have seen poor peasants, ruined by the concentration of land and mechanization, sell their fields and join the urban proletariat. But at least this inexorable law of capitalism was not accompanied by theft in the strict sense of the term. Here, with premeditation, with cynicism, they imposed a foreign code on the Muslims because they knew that this code could not apply to them and that it could have no other effect than to destroy the internal structures of Algerian society. If the operation has continued in the twentieth century with the blind necessity of a law of economics, it is because the French State had brutally and artificially created the conditions of capitalist liberalism in an agricultural and feudal country. That has not stopped speakers in the National Assembly, quite recently, from vaunting the forced adoption of our legal code by Algeria as ‘one of the benefits of French civilization’.

Here are the results of the operation:
In 1850, the colonists’ territory was 115,000 hectares. In 1900, it was 1,600,000; in 1950, it was 2,703,000.
Today, 2,703,000 hectares belong to European owners; the French State owns 11 million in the form of ‘State-owned land’; 7 million hectares have been left to the Algerians. In short, it has taken just a century to dispossess them of two-thirds of their land. The concentration law, moreover, partly went against the small colonists. Today, 6,000 landowners have a gross agricultural revenue of more than 12 million francs; some of them reach 1,000 million. The colonial system is in place: the French State gives Arab land to the colonists in order to create for them a purchasing power which allows French industrialists to sell them their products; the colonists sell the fruits of this stolen land in the markets of France.

From that point on, the system feeds itself; it runs smoothly; we shall follow all its consequences and see it become more and more rigorous.

First, in Frenchifying and dividing up the property, the structure of the old tribal society was broken without putting anything in its place. This destruc- tion of the framework was systematically encouraged: first because it suppressed the forces of resistance and replaced collective strength with a handful of individuals; next because it created labour (at least as long as farming was not mechanized). This labour force alone offsets the transport costs, it alone maintains the profit margins of the colonial companies in the face of economies in France where production costs keep going down. Thus colonization has turned the Algerian population into an immense agricultural proletariat. It has been said of the Algerians that they are the same men as in 1830 and work the same land; only instead of owning it, they are the slaves of those who own it.

Secondly, if, at least, the initial theft was not of the colonial type, it could

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perhaps be hoped that mechanized agricultural production would allow the Algerians themselves to buy the produce of their land more cheaply. But the Algerians are not, nor can they be, the colonists’ customers. The colonist must export to pay for his imports: he produces for the French market. The logic of the system makes him sacrifice the needs of the native population to those of the French in France.

Between 1927 and 1932, wine-growing increased by 173,000 hectares, more than half of which was taken from the Muslims. However, Muslims do not drink wine. On this land that was stolen from them they grew cereals for the Algerian market. This time it was not only the land that was taken from them; by planting vines there, the Algerian population was deprived of its staple food. Half a million hectares, taken from the best land and entirely devoted to wine-growing, were reduced to unproductiveness and as good as wiped out for the Muslim masses.

And what about citrus fruits, found in all Muslim grocers’ shops? Do you think that the fellahseat oranges for dessert?

Consequently, the production of cereals retreats year after year towards the pre-Saharan south. People have been found, of course, to prove that this was a benefit provided by France. If the crops move south, it is because our engineers have irrigated the country up to the edge of the desert. Such lies can deceive the credulous or indifferent inhabitants of France, but the fellah knows full well that the south is not irrigated. If he is obliged to live there, it is quite simply because he was driven out of the north by France, his bene-factor; the good land is on the plain, around the towns; the desert has been left to the colonized.

The result has been a continual deterioration of the situation: the growing of cereals has not increased for 70 years. During this time the Algerian population has trebled. And if we want to count this high birth-rate among the benefits from France, let us remember that it is the poorest populations that have the highest birth-rates. Will we ask the Algerians to thank our country for allowing their children to be born into poverty, to live as slaves and to die of hunger? For those who might doubt the truth of this, here are the official figures:
in 1871, there were 500 kilos of grain for each inhabitant;
in 1901, 400 kilos;
in 1940, 250 kilos;
in 1945, 200 kilos.

At the same time the effect of the shrinking of individual properties was to remove the livestock routes and toll rights. In the pre-Saharan south, to which the Muslim cattle farmers are restricted, livestock is more or less stable. In the north, it has disappeared.

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Before 1914, Algeria had 9 million head of livestock. In 1950, it had only 4 million. Today agricultural production is estimated as follows:
the Muslims produce 48 billion francs’ worth;
the Europeans produce 92 billion francs’ worth.
Nine million men provide one-third of the agricultural produce. And let us not forget that only this third can be consumed by them; the rest goes to France. They are therefore obliged, with their primitive tools and their poor land, to feed themselves. From the Muslims’ share – reducing their consumption of cereals to 200 kilos per person – 29 billion francs’ worth has to be subtracted for their own use. Translated into family budgets, that means it is impossible – for most families – to limit their spending on food. Food takes up all their money; there is nothing left for clothing, housing, buying seed or tools.

And the only reason for this increasing pauperization is that the wonderful colonial agriculture has settled like a canker at the very heart of the country and eats away at everything.

Thirdly, concentration of land ownership leads to the mechanization of agriculture. Mainland France is delighted to sell its tractors to the colonists.

While the productivity of the Muslims, restricted to the poor land, has fallen by a fifth, that of the colonists increases day by day for their profit alone: vineyards of 1 to 3 hectares, where modernization of growing methods is difficult or even impossible, produce 44 hectolitres per hectare. Vineyards of more
than 100 hectares produce 60 hectolitres per hectare.

Now mechanization engenders technology-driven unemployment: agricultural labourers are replaced by machines. This would be of considerable but limited importance if Algeria had any industry. But the colonial system denies it any. The unemployed fiock to the towns where they are occupied for a few days doing public works, and then they stay there, for want of knowing where else to go: this desperate underclass increases year after year. In 1953, there were just 143,000 salaried employees officially registered as having worked for more than 90 days, that is to say one day in four. Nothing demonstrates better the increasing rigour of the colonial system: you begin by occupying the country, then you take the land and exploit the former owners at starvation rates. Then, with mechanization, this cheap labour is still too expensive; you finish up taking from the natives their very right to work. All
that is left for the Algerians to do, in their own land, at a time of great prosperity, is to die of starvation.

Do those here in France who dare to complain that Algerians take the jobs of French workers know that 80 per cent of them send half of their wages to their family, and that a million and a half people who have remained in the

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douars live exclusively on the money sent to them by these 400,000 voluntary exiles? And this also is an inescapable consequence of the system; the Algerians are obliged to seek in France the jobs that France denies them in Algeria.

For 90 per cent of Algerians, colonial exploitation is methodical and rigorous: expelled from their lands, restricted to unproductive soil, obliged to work for derisory wages, the fear of unemployment discourages their revolts; strikers fear that blacklegs might be recruited from among the unemployed.

As a result the colonist is king: he grants none of the things that pressure from the masses has managed to extract from bosses in France: no wage indexation, no collective agreements, no family allowances, no canteens, no workers’ housing. Four walls of dried mud, some bread, some figs, ten hours of work a day: here the wages are plainly the minimum necessary to recuperate the strength to work.

That is the picture. Can we at least find some compensation for this poverty systematically created by European usurpers in those benefits which are termed not directly measurable, public works and improvement schemes, sanitation, education? If we had this consolation, perhaps we could maintain some hope. Perhaps some judiciously chosen reforms. . . . But no, the system is pitiless. Since France, from the very first day, has dispossessed and driven back the Algerians, since she has treated them like a bloc that cannot be integrated, the whole French project in Algeria has been carried out for the profit of the colonists.

I will not even mention the aerodromes and the ports. Are these of any use to the fellah except for going to die of hunger and cold in the poorest quarters of Paris?

But what about the roads? They connect the large towns to the European-owned estates and the militarized zones. Only they were not built to enable the Algerians to be reached in their homes. The proof?

In the night of 8 to 9 September 1954, an earthquake ravaged Orléansville and the Bas-Chélif region. The newspapers reported 39 European dead, and 1,370 French Muslims. Now, among the dead, 400 were only discovered three days after the disaster. Some douars only received emergency aid six days later. The excuse of the rescue teams is a condemnation of the French operation: ‘What do you expect? They were too far away from the roads!’

Well, hygiene at least? Public health?
Following the Orléansville earthquake, the government wanted to investigate the state of the douars. Those chosen, at random, were 30 or 40 kilometres from the town and were visited only twice a year by the doctor in charge of medical assistance.

As for our famous culture, who knows whether the Algerians were very keen to acquire it? But what is certain is that we denied it to them. I will not go so far as to say that we were as cynical as in that southern state of the

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USA where a law, maintained until the beginning of the nineteenth century, prohibited people from teaching black slaves to read – offenders would be fined. But we did want to make our ‘Muslim brothers’ a population of illiterates. Still today 80 per cent of Algerians are illiterate. It would not be so bad if we had just forbidden them the use of our own language. But a necessary aspect of the colonial system is that it attempts to bar the colonized people from the road of history; as nationalist claims, in Europe, have always been founded on linguistic unity, the Muslims were denied the use of their own language. Since 1830, the Arabic language has been considered as a foreign language in Algeria; it is still spoken, but it hardly survives as a written language. And that is not all: to keep the Arabs fragmented, the French administration confiscated their religion; it recruited leaders of the Islamic religion among creatures in its pay. It has maintained the most base superstitions, because they disunite. The separation of Church and State is a republican privilege, a luxury which is right for France. In Algeria, the French Republic cannot allow itself to be republican. It maintains the cultural ignorance and the beliefs of the feudal system, but suppresses the structures and customs which permit a living feudal system to be, despite everything, a human society; it imposes an individualistic and liberal legal code in order to ruin the frameworks and the development of the Algerian community, but it maintains kinglets who derive their power solely from it and who govern on its behalf. In a word, it fabricates ‘natives’ by a double movement which separates them from their archaic community by giving them or maintaining in them, in the solitude of liberal individualism, a mentality whose archaism can only be perpetuated in relation to the archaism of the society. It creates masses but prevents them from becoming a conscious proletariat by mystifying them with the caricature of their own ideology.

It is here that I return to our interlocutor from the beginning, to our tender-hearted realist who suggested massive reforms to us, saying: ‘The economy first!’ I reply to him: ‘Yes, the fellahis dying of hunger, yes, he lacks everything: land, work and education; yes, he is affiicted with illness; yes, the present state of Algeria is comparable to the worst poverty of the Far East.

And yet it is impossible to begin with economic transformations because the poverty and the despair of the Algerians are the direct and necessary effect of colonialism, and we will never remove them as long as colonialism lasts. That is what all aware Algerians know. And they are all in agreement with these words of a Muslim who said: “One step forward, two steps back. That is colonial reform.”’

It is because the system by its very nature effortlessly destroys all attempts at development; it can only maintain itself by becoming harder and more inhuman each day.

Let us suppose that mainland France proposes a reform. Three scenarios are possible:

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Firstly, the reform turns automatically to the advantage of the colonist, and the colonist alone. To increase the yield of the land, dams and a whole irrigation system were constructed. But as you know, water can only feed the land in the valleys. Now, these lands have always been the best in Algeria, and the Europeans have taken them over. The text of the Martin law acknowledges that three-quarters of the irrigated land belongs to the colonists. Just try and irrigate the pre-Saharan south!

Secondly, it is denatured in such a way that it is rendered ineffective. The status of Algeria is monstrous in itself. Did the French government expect to mystify the Muslim population by granting the two-college Assembly? What is certain is that it was not even given the opportunity to bring this mystification to its conclusion. The colonists did not even want to give the natives the chance to be mystified. Even that was too much for them; they found it simpler to rig the elections publicly. And, from their point of view, they were absolutely right. When you murder people, it is better to gag them first. This is colonialism, which they embody, turning against neocolonialism to rid it of its dangerous consequences.

Thirdly, it is left dormant with the complicity of the administration. The provision of the Martin law, in compensation for the added value given to their land by irrigation, was that the colonists would cede some parcels of land to the State. The State would have sold these parcels to Algerians who would have been allowed 25 years to pay off their debts. So you see, it was a modest reform; it was quite simply a question of selling back to a few chosen natives a tiny part of the land that had been stolen from their parents. The colonists would not lose a penny.

But for them it is not about not losing; they must always get more. Accustomed for a hundred years to the ‘sacrifices’ that mainland France has made for them, they could not accept that such sacrifices might benefit the natives. Result: the Martin law was put on ice.

You will understand the attitude of the colonists if you consider the fate they reserved for the ‘agricultural offices for the technical training of Muslim peasants’. This institution, created on paper and in Paris, had no other aim than to improve slightly the productivity of the fellah: just enough to prevent him from dying of hunger. But the neocolonialists of mainland France did not realize that it went directly against the system: for Algerian labour to be abundant, the fellahhad to continue to produce little and for high prices. If technical training became widespread, would the agricultural labourers not become more scarce, more demanding? Would there not be the threat of competition from Muslim landowners? And then, above all, education, whatever it may be and wherever it may come from, is an instrument of emancipation.

The French right-wing governments are so aware of this that they refuse to educate our own peasants, in France. So spreading technical know-how among

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the natives is surely not the thing to do! Unwelcome and attacked everywhere – insidiously in Algeria, violently in Morocco – the offices remain inoperative.

On that basis all reforms are ineffective. In particular, they cost a lot. They are too expensive for mainland France, and the colons in Algeria have neither the means nor the will to finance them. To provide schooling for everybody – a reform often proposed – would cost 500 billion old francs (calculating the yearly cost per pupil at 32,000 francs). Now the total revenue of Algeria is 300 billion. Educational reform can only be achieved by an industrialized Algeria which has at least trebled its income. But the colonial system, as we have seen, is opposed to industrialization. France may sink billions into major works: but we know full well that nothing will be left of it.

And when we talk of the ‘colonial system’, we must be clear about what we mean. It is not an abstract mechanism. The system exists, it functions; the infernal cycle of colonialism is a reality. But this reality is embodied in a million colonists, children and grandchildren of colonists, who have been shaped by colonialism and who think, speak and act according to the very principles of the colonial system.

For the colonist is fabricated like the native; he is made by his function and his interests.

Linked to the mainland by the colonial pact, he has come to market for France, in exchange for a fat profit, the goods of the colonized country. He has even created new crops which refiect the needs of France much more than those of the natives. He is, therefore, double and contradictory: he has his ‘homeland’, France, and his ‘country’, Algeria. In Algeria, he represents France and wants to have relations only with her. But his economic interests bring him into confiict with the political institutions of his homeland. French institutions are those of a bourgeois democracy founded on liberal capitalism. They include the right to vote, to free association and the freedom of the press.

But the colon, whose interests are directly contrary to those of the Algerians, and who can only base exploitation upon pure and simple oppression, can only accept these rights for himself to enjoy in France, among the French. To this extent he detests the token universality of French institutions. Precisely because they apply to everyone, the Algerians could claim these rights.

One of the functions of racism is to compensate the latent universalism of bourgeois liberalism: since all human beings have the same rights, the Algerian will be made a subhuman. And this rejection of the institutions of his homeland, when his fellow-citizens wish to extend them to ‘his’ country, produces in each colonist a secessionist tendency. Was it not the president of the mayors of Algeria who said, a few months ago: ‘If France falters, we will replace her’?

But the contradiction is expressed most sharply when the colonists explain that the Europeans are isolated among the Muslims, outnumbered nine to one. It is precisely because they are isolated that they reject any status that

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would give power to the majority. And, for the same reason, they have no alternative but to maintain their position by force.

But precisely because of that – and because the balance of power can only turn against them – they need the might of France, that is to say the French Army. So these separatists are also hyper-patriots. Republicans in France – insofar as our institutions allow them to constitute a political force at home
– they are, in Algeria, fascists who hate the Republic but who passionately love the Republican army.

Can they be any different? No. Not as long as they are colonists. It has happened that invaders, having settled in a country, mix with the native population and end up creating a nation. It is then that we see the birth of common national interests – at least for certain classes. But the colonists are invaders whom the colonial pact has completely cut off from the invaded: in more than a century during which we have occupied Algeria, practically no mixed marriages or Franco–Muslim friendships have been recorded. As colonists their interest is in ruining Algeria for the benefit of France. As Algerians they would be obliged, one way or another, and in their own interests, to take an interest in the economic development – and consequently the cultural development – of the country.

Meanwhile mainland France is caught in the trap of colonialism. As long as she asserts her sovereignty over Algeria, she is compromised by the system, that is to say by the colonists who repudiate her institutions. And colonialism obliges France to send democratic Frenchmen to their deaths to protect the tyranny that the anti-democratic colonialists exert over the Algerians. But here again, the trap works and the circle tightens: the repression that we exert for their benefit makes them each day more detestable; to the same degree that they protect them, our troops increase the danger they are in, making the presence of the army all the more indispensable. This year the war will cost, if we continue with it, more than 300 billion francs, which equals the total Algerian revenue.

We are reaching the point where the system destroys itself. The colonies are costing more than they bring in. In destroying the Muslim community, in refusing the assimilation of the Muslims, the colonists were logical with themselves. Assimilation implied that the Algerians would be guaranteed all basic rights, that they would benefit from our welfare and security institutions, that room would be made in the French National Assembly for a hundred Algerian members of parliament, that the Muslims would be assured a standard of living equal to that of the French through effecting agricultural reform and the industrialization of the country. Assimilation taken to its extreme meant, quite simply, the ending of colonialism; how could one expect to get that from colonialism itself? But, since the colonists have nothing but hardship to offer the colonized, since they keep them at a distance, since they make them a bloc which cannot be

Jean-Paul Sartre

integrated, this radically negative attitude must have the necessary concomitant of producing an awakening among the masses. The effect of the liquidation of the feudal structures, after weakening Arab resistance, has been to facilitate this collective awareness; new structures are born. It is as a reaction to segregation and in the daily struggle that the Algerian personality has discovered itself and has been forged. Algerian nationalism is not simply a revival of ancient traditions, old attachments; it is the only way out for the Algerians to put an end to their exploitation. We saw Jules Ferry declare in Parliament: ‘Where there is political predominance, there is economic predominance. . . .’ The Algerians are dying of our economic predominance, but they draw benefit from this lesson: to rid themselves of it, they have decided to attack our political predominance. Thus the colonists themselves have taught their adversaries; they have shown the hesitant that no solution was possible other than force.

The only good thing about colonialism is that, in order to last, it must show itself to be intransigent, and that, by its intransigence, it prepares its ruin. We, the people of mainland France, have only one lesson to draw from these facts: colonialism is in the process of destroying itself. But it still fouls the atmosphere. It is our shame; it mocks our laws or caricatures them. It infects us with its racism; as the Montpellier episode proved the other day, it obliges our young men to fight despite themselvesand die for the Nazi principles that we fought against ten years ago; it attempts to defend itself by arousing fascism even here in France. Our role is to help it to die. Not only in Algeria but wherever it exists. People who talk of the abandonment of Algeria are imbeciles. There is no abandoning what we have never owned. It is, quite the opposite, a question of our constructing with the Algerians new relations between a free France and a liberated Algeria. But above all let us not allow ourselves to be diverted from our task by reformist mystification.

The neocolonialist is a fool who still believes that the colonial system can be overhauled – or a clever cynic who proposes reforms because he knows that they are ineffective. The reforms will come in their own good time: the Algerian people will make them. The only thing that we can and ought to attempt – but it is the essential thing today – is to fight alongside them to deliver both the Algerians and the French from colonial tyranny.

Translated by Azzedine Haddour, Steven Brewer and Terence McWilliams

This translation will be published in J.-P. Sartre, Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism, trans. Azzedine Haddour, Steven Brewer and Terence McWilliams (London: Routledge, 2001)….

interventions – 3:1


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