In March 1963, Algeria embarked on the adventure of self-management. Although the experience did not last long, it nonetheless constituted a source of inspiration for other countries, including Europe.
Exactly 60 years ago, at the end of March 1963, the barely independent Algerian Republic adopted the famous "March decrees" which aimed to introduce into certain sectors of its economy a functioning based on the principle of self-management.
An experience often overlooked today, which nevertheless marked its time and had a significant impact in many other countries thereafter.
From colonial property to Algerian property
With the Evian agreements signed on March 19, 1962, a phase begins which will lead to the proclamation of the independence of Algeria on July 5, 1962. The agreements provide, in their title IV, for “guarantees of acquired rights and prior commitments”, which concerns in particular the property of the “Europeans” of Algeria.
It is worth remembering who owned the agricultural sector at the time, knowing that 87% of the population lived from this sector, which represented 33% of gross production and 67% of the country's exports. The lands and forests extend over more than 20 million hectares, of which nearly half belong to the colonial state, 3 million to private European property and 10 million to the Algerians. But two-thirds of the land belonging to the Algerians is unproductive land or meager pasture. 450 fellahs (small farmers) own less than 000 hectares, while the average area of land owned by settlers is 10 hectares, on which 125 agricultural workers work.
1 people had been moved by the French army to “regrouping camps” to empty hundreds of villages and make it impossible for the villagers to support the maquisards. Finally, several hundred thousand Algerians are emigrated workers abroad, notably in France, and 800 are refugees on the other side of the borders in Tunisia and Morocco.
At independence, the situation was dramatic: for more than eleven and a half million inhabitants there were one million rural unemployed, and another million came to swell the urban population, constituting a kind of plebs.
The exodus, between March and July, of most French people, leaves a significant number of vacant properties or material destroyed by the owners. Thus, while there were 5 tractors in 600, there were only less than a thousand left in 1956. Harvests risked being lost. It was not until 1962 that Tito's Yugoslavia (which had introduced self-management in 1950 and moreover widely supported the FLN during the war of independence) supply a large number of agricultural machines to Algeria.
The departure of the French is reflected, among other things, by a lack of supervision, due to the return to mainland France of 35 engineers, 000 doctors and 2 teachers. The National Education Federation (the majority union in French education) nevertheless manages to organize the arrival of 000 teachers in the new Algeria, and many other French people come to lend a hand, rather well received because for many they supported the struggle for independence.
It is in this context that we observe a strong movement of occupation by Algerians of housing, businesses and land that formerly belonged to the French. In the farms of Algiers and Orléansville (today Chlef), management committees were set up to ensure the harvests as a matter of urgency.
The new leaders of the country, who feared that such occupations would provide the French army with a pretext to hold on in order to enforce the Évian Accords, decided to protect the vacant properties and took legal measures to do so (order of August 24, 1962). Is constituted a Vacant Property Office. On his initiative, the management committees were legalized on October 22, 1962 for agriculture, then in November for industry, commerce and crafts.
That same October 22, the former owners having not returned, a decree transferred the European properties to the State. Purchases made at low prices by wealthy Algerians (traders, small industrialists, liberal professions) during the period of confusion of the previous six months were invalidated by another decree on October 23, 1962.
The decrees of March 1963
President Ben Bella, initially reluctant, sees the popularity of the process. It was under these conditions that the "March decrees", adopted on March 18 and 22, 1963, instituted a self-managed sector, on the basis of the work and recommendations of the members of the National Office for the Animation of the Socialist Sector (BNASS) which replaced the Office of Vacant Property, in the broader perspective of a major agrarian reform.
This organization is made up of Algerians, such as Mohammad Harbi, but also of other nationalities like the French jurist Yves Mathieu, who died in a mysterious accident, and whose daughter made a film, The Algeria of the possible, the Greek Trotskyist Michael Raptis, the Egyptian surrealist Lotfallah Suleiman, etc., who put themselves “at the service of the Algerian revolution”.
The architecture of the system articulates three levels in the companies concerned. A workers' assembly, made up of "permanent" workers with at least six months' seniority (which excludes seasonal workers) meeting quarterly; a workers' council, appointed by the general assembly, bringing together once a month from 10 to 100 members depending on the size of the company; and finally a management committee of 3 to 11 members, including the chairman of the committee, which meets monthly.
In agriculture, an organization (ONRA, National Office for Agrarian Reform) is responsible for organizing the management of abandoned farms. At domain level, he appoints an operating manager with a technical mission and a member of the management committee. At a local, district level, the ONRA coordinates various activities, including the repair of agricultural equipment, cooperatives for selling and marketing, and exporting fruit and vegetables.
In practice, the implementation of the decrees was difficult. The army had accepted self-management only after having pre-empted for itself 70 hectares of the best land. Investigations commissioned by the BNASS have revealed that in many cases agricultural workers have been expropriated in favor of former combatants supported by an administration unaccustomed to accepting democratic processes. The political power itself did not support self-management, tending on the contrary to increase the control of the single FLN party over the unions and social organizations. The number of workers involved was limited; the self-managed sector had about 000 in industry and 10 in agriculture.
However, the political and symbolic impact was significant inside and outside the country. Inside, the UGTA union (General Union of Algerian Workers) had launched a major campaign in support of the March decrees, with a large demonstration in Algiers on April 3, 1963. In the cities, workers and students, at the call of their union, the UNEA (National Union of Algerian Students), organized solidarity brigades to repair machinery or participate in harvesting.
weekly African Revolution led by Mohammad Harbi is an information and training tool, not hesitating to report difficulties and blockages. Field surveys are entrusted to academics, led by the French Jeanne Favret Saada who had just replaced Pierre Bourdieu at the faculty of Algiers. Pressures and threats interrupt his mission, his summary report disappears, but many field surveys have been saved, and some recently published in a book by Mohammed Harbi, Self-management in Algeria: another revolution.
The revival of the “self-management utopia”
When Ben Bella was overthrown in June 1965 by the Boumedienne coup, we touch neither the laws nor the vocabulary of self-management, although many of its promoters are arrested for some, expelled for others. It was not until 1971 that the terms changed; we then speak of “the socialist management of enterprises”, which are state-controlled. At that time, the so-called self-managed sector covered 80% of the surface of permanent crops, provided 60% of useful gross agricultural income, and 30% net of Algerian income, but it no longer had, with bureaucratization and monopolization mentioned above, of "self-managed" than in name.
For the exterior, the "socialist" vocabulary of the Tripoli program drawn up by the National Council of the Algerian Revolution (CNRA) in May 1962 with a view to independence and "Charter of Algiers", adopted at the FLN congress in April 1964, provided a framework for the decrees of March 1963. All of this responded to the hopes placed by a large part of the left in a new path which was neither capitalism nor a state-controlled economy like that from Eastern countries.
In Italy, for example, cooperatives are linking up with Algerian self-managed farms. The Italian Communist Party supports self-management, as does the United Socialist Party (PSU) in France. In May 1967, the n°3 of the magazine Self-management dedicate a special number. In May 1968, the CFDT officially adopted the perspective of self-management.
Despite its limits, and even its political failure, the Algerian experience breathed new life into the "self-management utopia" that would be claimed in France and in many other countries in the 1968s.
Robi Morder, Associate Researcher at the Printemps Laboratory, UVSQ/Paris-Saclay, President of the Study and Research Group on Student Movements (Germe), University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) - University of Paris-Saclay
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