Before, During, and After the Revolution: A Personal and Internationalist Lens



Translated from French by Hicham Touili-Idrissi

This extensive conversation with Daho Djerbal takes us from a personal account of his childhood and teenage memories—of both daily life under settler colonialism and Independence Day in Oran—to a description of several scales of internationalism Algeria has been involved with before, during, and after the Revolution in the Maghreb, the African Continent, the Arab region, and the Third World.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Daho, you were 17 years old in July 1962. The question I feel the urge to ask you is very simple: could you tell us about your memories of that time?

DAHO DJERBAL: Yes, of course, but there are a certain number of facts that must be put into perspective in order to understand July 1962 itself, because July 1962 is the liberation of something that had been confiscated, and for which an extremely high price has been paid to get out of it. There’s nothing trivial about getting out of a situation of colonial domination, of settler colonialism, separating from metropolitan France, which is one hour away from Algiers by plane. This independence bears particular, singular, and sometimes an exceptional character. I think that putting the event in context is important in terms of the country’s internal history, the history of the Algerian people.

I was born in 1945. I have therefore experienced the European colonial system in Algeria as an Algerian child and teenager.

It is important to point out that I was born in Oran, which is the second largest city in the country and Algeria’s most European city. So essentially, as Algerians, we were enclosed in neighborhoods or in zones that were exclusively reserved for Algerians, for “Natives” [“Indigènes”]. I alternate between the terms “Algerian” and “Native” to make it clear that one of the aspects of French colonial policy in Algeria was to deprive us of our citizenship and our nationality. In fact, at the end of the 19th century and during the first part of the 20th century, we were no longer Algerians. Those who were called “Algerians” were the European settlers in Algeria. They were strongly represented in the French National Assembly through the lobby of French mayors from Algeria, and they called themselves “the Algerians.” There was even an Algerianist school that was exclusively European, which embodied one of the moments of Orientalist art. Out of all the generations that graduated from the school, one could count the names of actual Algerians on one hand…

Algerians were excluded from the inhabited space of my own city and confined to traditional, pre-colonial farming villages, without water, without electricity—not too far from the Jewish neighborhood, which was close to where I was born. The Algerian neighborhoods were therefore exclusively Algerians. Then there were intermediate transitional neighborhoods between “Natives” areas and the city center. They were inhabited mainly by Spaniards, Spanish political refugees and, previously, Spanish economic refugees from the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th, early 20th century, who were very impoverished. When they arrived in Algeria, obviously, they were proletarians and they worked as cheap labor in colonial farms or in colonial factories, or other European companies in Oran. In the eyes of Algerians “Muslims” or “Natives,” they were even poorer than the poor Algerians. The first wave came, settled in the peripheral neighborhoods and joined a Spanish minority because Spain had remained in Oran from the 16th century until 1792, 38 years before the French invasion. So these intermediary neighborhoods in Oran were mixed areas: Arabs, Spanish, Europeans, and French. As for the rest, they were zones of ethnic exclusion, with exclusively European neighborhoods and exclusively Algerian neighborhoods. Everyone lived in proximity, without mixing.

The French schools were also exclusively French, European schools, and were not open to Algerians. The exceptions, of course, were the children of elites, of the collaborators, who had a place in the French primary schools, middle schools, and high schools of Algeria. I was educated in a school with other Algerians; we were taught French language, French culture, French history, and French geography. We were much more familiar with the history and geography of France than we were of our own country.

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Daho Djerbal’s class in one of Oran’s colonial kindergarten.

I mentioned earlier Jewish people in Oran. In 1940, the Vichy government and the pro-Pétain general government of Algeria suspended the 1870 Crémieux decree which had given French citizenship to Algerian Jews. After 1943-1944, the U.S. invasion, the pressure of the government and the United States on France, the Crémieux decree was reinstated. At school, some of our fellow students were Jewish, others were Spanish… they were Catholics; more or less fundamentalist, many of them were antisemites. We were working as hard as possible to reach the end of fifth grade. At that time, fifth grade was the end of the line. The Algerians did not go beyond middle-school, only the elites did.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it is important. It’s not only the fact that we were living under a colonial type of domination and a colonial economic and social system, it is also about the question of perspectives for the future of the new generation to which I belonged. This future was more or less fixed forever.

You had to be the subaltern, therefore assigned to subalternity in all domains, whether it was the domain of daily life, the domain of work, the domain of knowledge…

This is very important because it’s not talked about much in research, history books or anywhere else. I speak a bit about myself because my example may illustrate the condition of the majority.

My father was a child of the countryside, in the region of Mostaganem, which is about 120 kilometers away from Oran. In the small village where he was born, his parents were dispossessed of their land, so he had to leave his village because his father died. They took away all his possessions and turned the place into colonial farms. So my Dad came to Oran when he was 18 years old to look for work. He worked at Sénéclause, the biggest wine grower in Oran, which exported its wines to Brittany in France. When he arrived in Oran, he started living in a small furnished apartment, and his luck was that he was an athlete and practiced track and field. He broke records. The company Electricity Gas Algeria had a sports club that recruited him, so he became a permanent employee while he was a laborer, working to push the cellars, the large tanks of wine to prepare them for exportation. He was so miserable, without water, without electricity, getting clothes with credit to be able to go down to the city. As the Europeans grew up, in their early teens, they were going out with their girlfriends. A lot of them were having surprise parties at the time. We were excluded. We also were living in a society segregated by gender, so girls stayed at home while boys went out and had fun. This was everyday, ordinary life. And then the war came.

We had no idea what colonization was, in terms of history. In school books, the only thing we’d learn about it would be about Emir Abdelkader, but as a man defeated by the French. And then Juba’s history, in Antiquity, which is about defeat too. Juba was taken to Rome as a prisoner, his children were brought up in the Roman way, and then he returned to Algeria as a Roman governor. All that we were inculcated with was the idea of subalternity, but also of surrender, of always being under the benevolence of the colonial power, of the French Empire. This inferiority was internalized and did not form an anti-colonial consciousness.

Daily life was therefore structured by exclusion, by poverty, by the non-access to what could be the dream, the imagination of a child or an adolescent.

Then came the war. The war in Oranie meant only a few attacks because it was a very colonized territory where only the guerrillas could fight, not the liberation army. It was happening in the mountains of Tlemcen or near the border with Morocco in mountainous and wooded areas. Oran was a peaceful city, “pacific” or “pacified,” you might say. All we knew about the war was that a few attacks were taking place and as the war took hold, it expanded and the violence intensified. So, we went through very difficult and very hard times, with the rise in power of the ultra-colonial forces, as we were living in proximity with “Pieds noirs” [settlers] of the French Algeria Front, and then with the OAS [Secret Army Organization]. It was very brutal at that time, to the point that we risked being the target of attack every day when we went to school. We were the target of a possible attack by Pieds noirs, who were doing everything to keep the European neighborhoods from being opened to Algerians. If, by chance, you were going down to the city you’d hear “Go home you Arab! What are you doing here?” and all the racism you can imagine. When you come back to the neighborhood where you live, there were also armed FLN [Algerian National Liberation Front] members protecting the population, and if you were dressed in European style, if like me you wore glasses, you could also risk being a target of theirs, because you looked like a European.

So during the summer, it was war. The attacks became more and more serious and were organized by the OAS in 1960, 1961 and the first months of 1962. It was terrible. There was the OAS, the secret army organization whose generals Salan, Jouhaud, Zeller, etc. were based in Oran. The radio in Oran was hacked by the OAS and thus separatist radio broadcasts were made, wanting to make Oranie an exclusively European colony. There were also attacks in the Algerian neighborhoods and car bombs on market days. The victims and direct witnesses could see those killed and injured carried to the care centers by the white catholic nuns. There was basically a rise of extremism, which was, in fact, an inter-community confrontation while being an anti-colonial confrontation. This is very important to understand. From the modern European neighborhoods with towers and 12-story buildings, there were snipers shooting at us. And then, at night, we had to protect our neighborhood. So there were lookouts who tried to give the alert in case of intrusion by an armed OAS group on the terraces of our low houses. Friends and neighbors were victims of defensive fragmentation grenades. We were losing some of them as we went along, plus the “ratonnades” [anti-Arab pogroms]. Your neighbors, your buddies, who you grew up with, could be victims. All of that built up. In the consciousness and in the collective memory, it is something that is of the order of a confrontation to death, between two communities. Towards the end of the confrontation period between the OAS, the FLN, and the French army, the Jewish community, for a large part of it, switched to the European side. It was the time of talks, of discussions, and then of negotiations between the French government and the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic [GPRA], between France and the FLN. This moment is important because this inter-community confrontation meant that we no longer went to high school.

From 1961, we stopped going through what I called earlier the “transitional neighborhoods,” because they had become a no man’s land, and at that time within our neighborhoods, we were teaching ourselves in the elementary schools. There were two other neighbors who came to school and taught us middle school and high school curriculums. It was a kind of an internal organization and we would go in convoys to be able to move and get our supplies.

The adults went in armed convoys to bring back flour, grain, and oil to feed the neighborhood. All of this was obviously done under the constraint of French army barricades set up everywhere to separate the communities.

All of this is important to understand: in a city that is yours, where you were born, there are places that are forbidden to you because of your community and religious affiliations. We were not all believers and practitioners, but we were classified, assigned to be Muslims of Algeria. This was a moment of increasing extremism in a sort of quasi civil war, intercommunity and interconfessional, and it was very striking because people were not protected and were victims of these attacks. We saw that the French army itself took sides with the ultras [armed settlers], which left a feeling of adversity—not to say of hatred—against the French and the Europeans. And then it was 1962: the end of the negotiations took place in March 1962, and that’s when it became even more intense in Oran.

The conflict with the OAS climaxed during the ceasefire between March and July, with the destruction of public buildings, with the bombings of social security, of some public establishments, and so on. The fuel reserves in the port of Oran were blown up and bathed Oran in a blanket of smoke. All this is war. We witnessed the end of the war in the city; it was very brutal. When the declaration of independence was made in July 1962, there was a referendum to make Independence official. There were not many Algerians who were able to hold polling stations, not knowing how to read and write in French. So we, at school, were mobilized to hold the polling stations. It was the first and the only time that I entered a polling station to take care of a register.

The referendum took place on July 1, 1962 and July 5 was Independence Day. The entire Algerian population from the enclosed neighborhoods, and those who were sequestered, went down to the European city center. Meanwhile, in the intermediate zones, there were abuses, because there were kidnappings, the members of the Algerian armed forces were questioning the Europeans that they had kidnapped in order to know who was part of the OAS. They wanted to continue the purge of OAS members within the European community, which led to what was called the massacres of Europeans in Oran. But this was something that can only be understood if one understands what happened before. Having said that, we have yet to study the extent of the massacres, the conditions, the motives, etc.

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A couple of hundreds of Algerians celebrate with great joy the Independence in/on a bus in Algiers on July 3, 1962. This photo was taken by Jean-Paul Margnac, a 25-year-old constricted French soldier who disobeyed the order to remain in his barrack in order to witness the celebrations.

What was Independence Day for us? What was 1962? For a young person like me who was 17 years old? We went down to the European city center with a group of friends and went everywhere in the places that were forbidden to us. We would go into the brasseries, where there was still the smell of cigars, of alcohol, the wood and velvet walls of these big Parisian style restaurants. We would also go to the cinemas. Then, as we were high school students, we were organized in an association close to the FLN which was called the National Union of High School Students of Algeria. We organized to continue our work. Until then, we didn’t have headquarters: we met in a café, on a terrace, and the FLN gave us a building that had just been constructed. To tell you the truth, we were entering a new territory that we did not know before.

For us, independence was also about reclaiming a space from which we had been excluded. This is extremely strong in my memory and in my consciousness.

Secondly, we could reenact the scenes of what we were deprived of as young Algerians, for example, walking in the street as a couple. For the first time, we went out with our girlfriends, our neighbors, our cousins… Everything belonged to everyone. We would stop a vehicle and get in. The owner of the vehicle was happy to take us down to the city center. Buses were free, trains were free. Everywhere, there were celebrations. Not to mention the singing, the dancing in groups, in crowds, which lasted a few days, about a week. It was a moment of utopia, something that you had perhaps dreamed of, imagined, that you now saw in reality. This was a defining moment for me, I can’t forget it.

It was like a collective body, a collective individual, a people, were breathing in their own atmosphere again… It was an immense breathing of an entire people.

In six months, ten percent of the country’s population, i.e. most of the Europeans who had settled in Algeria, left. This too was another event in the contemporary history of the 20th century. There is not a single colony that has seen the European minority of colonial occupation leave the country in such a short amount of time. This represents something important since 80% of the production of goods and services was European. As I said, 80 to 90% of the electricity and gas meters were European. Locomotive engineers, ticket punchers: they all were Europeans. So it was necessary to find teachers and all professions of trades, arts and crafts that were almost exclusively European. It’s not only a country to build, but a country to invent. It is an administration of everything that composes a country to be reinvented, to be taken in hand for a population that had been excluded from the administration and the management of its affairs. This is also something absolutely indescribable but lived very intensely. When the first Ben Bella government came to Oran, what was the first task that we were asked to do in mass organization? It was to march to the forest of M’sila, on the heights of Oran, to replant the forest that had been razed and burned by French napalm. Everywhere in Algeria, we were thousands, tens of thousands doing the same thing. I walked for three, four hours to go to this forest, to plant one or two trees with thousands and thousands of people. These are moments of communion of an entire people. For me, that’s what 1962 was, it’s a communion of a whole people that finally, for the first time, breathes its own atmosphere, its own air, its own oxygen. And that is absolutely indescribable. And how can I tell you? It is incomparable with anything else in the history of the 20th century. You could perhaps look to Vietnam, but Vietnam was not a settlement.

LL: Angola?

DJ: Angola, perhaps, but at a smaller scale. It was not ten percent of the population in Angola, nor in Mozambique, nor in Northern Rhodesia [now Zambia]. Doctors who had gone to Northern Rhodesia as part of a WHO delegation told us “It looked like Algeria during European rule.” When I was in New Caledonia in 2001, I felt like I was back in Oran, from the 1950s.

LL: It’s true that a decent amount of Pieds noirs resettled in Kanaky New Caledonia after 1962…

DJ: Yes, absolutely. So that’s what 1962 was. After that, we had to get the country back on track, back to work, and forget about partying for a while. Our celebrations were somewhat altered by the arrival of the National Liberation Army [ALN] border troops, which were troops of peasants and mountain dwellers. We had a culture of peace, a culture of the city, which was beginning to take hold. And then being outside as an unmarried couple was suppressed. And that too is a memory. 1962 was not always and only about celebrations.

LL: Let’s now speak more generally and approach internationalism, if you will. Algeria is part of several geographical ensembles, which have all been translated into unifying political embodiments: the North African Star at the scale of the Maghreb, Pan-Arabism, Pan-Africanism, and the Non-Aligned movement or Third Worldism. Can we talk about each of them during and after the Revolution?

DJ: Here we’re leaving the dimension of everyday life to enter a different, broader, more important dimension which is the one of the history of the 20th century and particularly of the history of North Africa. It is important to recall that the Algerian liberation movement was born with the North African Star in the 1920s. It was born in a context of the rise of the October Revolution in Russia, the creation of the communist parties and the Comintern. It was born in the context of an attempt to form an alliance between the Bolshevik revolution and the colonial peoples. We must never forget this. That moment is also the moment of the conditions of the adhesion to the Third International. We must always remember it, because in the eighth condition of the adhesion of parties and unions to the Third International, it was necessary to fight against colonialism. Not only with words, but literally with weapons at hands. Some kind of instruction was given to all the communist parties that were created at that time, in 1920-1921 and later, to participate directly and actively in the liberation of colonized peoples.

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Baku’s Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920. / U.S. Library of Congress.

In 1920 was the congress of Baku, the Congress of the colonial peoples led by the Russian Bolshevism, in a context of confrontation between communism and bourgeois capitalism. The North African Star was born, therefore, in a context of national Bolshevism, because it is the emigrants, a part of the underemployed and subalternized working class, France, Belgium, and other countries, which was constituted under the protection and under the guardianship of the French Communist Party. Why? Because it was forbidden for Algerians at the time, including immigrants in France, to create an association. We were not French, we were French subjects, not citizens. Thus, the Communist Party lent its offices and trained the association’s executives, some of whom were sent to the Komintern schools in Moscow. At first, the social base of the North African Star was constituted within the framework of the French Communist Party’s policy, itself a member of the Third International in a perspective of colonial liberation. However, in 1921-1923, there was a turning point in the political bureau of the French Communist Party, which abandoned the idea of engaging in armed conflict or deserting the French colonial army in order to join the liberation struggles. At the time, Bolshevik Russia was beginning to need support and alliances in order to face the pressure of the West.

In 1927, the representatives of the Liberation Movement, anti-colonialists from South and South-East Asia, India, Indonesia, Ceylon, and Africa met in Brussels. There again, was the representative of the North African Star Association, an association for the defense of the material and moral interests of Black African Muslims. Messali Hadj, who was trained in the schools of the Kommintern, went up to the tribune and reversed the program of the Communist Party, which had under its tutelage and under its protection the North African Star Association when it was the socialist revolution in France, then the colonial liberation.

During the tribune of the Congress of Brussels, Messali affirmed that the first point was the total separation of Algeria from France, then the withdrawal of the French troops from Algeria, a Parliament elected by Algerian universal suffrage, and lastly, the return of the lands that had been confiscated from farmers by the feudalists and the colonists.

A revolutionary program. The communist party didn’t hear it that way, which was the first rupture. The foundations of the Algerian independence movement are there: it is national-Bolshevik with a proletarian or sub-proletarian base. Then, the Popular Front [leftist political party in France] took power and dissolved the North African Star, and imprisoned its leaders. This was the second rupture with the socialist-communist trend and the French. Finally, Messali Hadj created the Algerian People’s Party in 1937, one year after the creation of the Algerian Communist Party, which was more European than Algerian.

This exemplifies an early internationalism: in the French prisons, the prisoners of the North African Star would interact with Yugoslav, Polish, Spanish, and other imprisoned revolutionaries. The encounters between these militants would continue—in France at least—in working class neighborhoods, in the Paris banlieues’ automobile factories, in the regions of the industrial, mining, coal, such as the North, or Alsace and Lorraine… Again, it was an early form of proletarian internationalism in an embryonic state.

Then, in 1945, the passage to forms of radicalization of Algerian nationalism gave birth to the idea of a common struggle of the peoples of North Africa. This is not an internationalism, it is a kind of union of the peoples of the Maghreb to liberate themselves. However, the Moroccan and Tunisian political parties, and one of the currents of Algerian nationalism, accepted the idea of a gradual independence, an independence without independence. The radical Algerian nationalist independence movement wanted to make a decision, and in order to make that decision, it gave priority to the preparation of the armed struggle, starting in 1947. This happened in Cairo with the Emir Abd el-Krim who had led the first armed liberation struggle in the Moroccan Rif, and there the struggle was against the allied Spanish and French imperialisms. But on the way Abd el-Krim escaped and settled in Cairo, where he created the Coordination Committee of North African Liberation Struggles. In this struggle, the stakes broadened : it was no longer an Algerian struggle, it was a struggle of the Maghreb, of North Africa, which allied itself with the countries of the Middle East by creating the Arab League. In 1947-1948, the creation of Israel took place. So there too, the first embryos of the liberation armies of the Maghreb were going to volunteer in the first confrontations against the Israeli troops and their Western allies. The idea and the representation of the struggle widenned: it was no longer only a struggle for independence, it became an anti-imperialist struggle. In 1956, with the tripartite intervention in Egypt to break the government of Nasser and the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the Soviet Union threatened to bomb the capital cities of country that would intervene.

The end of hostilities in the Middle East in 1956 corresponds to a particular moment in contemporary history. There was a prospect of support for the Soviet Union against the NATO countries, because there is also an article in the North Atlantic Treaty that makes North Africa the southern flank of NATO—we should never forget it. The challenge was also to integrate this region into the containment and destruction of the Soviet empire and therefore of the communist adversary. It was also at this time that in Africa, some colonized peoples took up arms to free themselves. In Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Cameroon, in Guinea-Bissau… There the FLN-ALN and the GPRA took it upon themselves to form the first groups in South Africa as well, the ANC [African National Congress]. So, the first leader of post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was trained with a group of South Africans in Morocco in the cantonments of the National Liberation Army. We can see some records of their shared training, of this fraternity in the liberation struggle. But we were gradually moving out of an attempt to create a North African liberation front with the other regions of Africa in the liberation struggle—including South Africa—which was being created somewhere. There were movements of solidarity that were being implemented, and also movements of training and support of the armed struggle, while Ghana (with Kwame Nkrumah), Guinea, Mali, and the Congo (with Patrice Lumumba) were becoming independent. There was a will to unite the peoples of Africa within the framework of a renewed Pan-Africanism.

Pan-Africanism, for those who have studied it, was not the same in 1950-1960 as it was in the early 20th century: it used to be much more racial than liberatory, in the anti-colonial and imperialist sense. The role that Nkrumah played is extremely important because he was one of the first to set up the core of this militant Pan-Africanism, one that departed from armed struggle, and attached itself to the construction of independent states. How to build these independent states outside of Western tutelage? This constitutes a danger because the resources were there: raw materials, etc. Obviously, the West deployed policies and strategies to destroy all these desires by assassinations, coups d’état, etc. The access to independence led to the desire to create, within the framework of the Cold War, a movement of neutralism. This third way is Non-Alignment, and that was what the Brioni conference did in 1956. This is also the beginning of a kind of mutation of what pan-Africanism and non-alignment were, from the struggle of the peoples to the position of the independent states. When you look at the Bandung conference, it is composed of leaders of liberation movements from South Asia, South-East Asia, North Africa, etc. When you look at the Brioni Conference one year later, it is a conference of heads of state. It was not the same thing anymore. Therefore, it is the policy of non-alignment that also tried to create a zone of cooperation, collaboration, exchange, which would be proper to options of self-management, for example, for Yugoslavia and of what was applied in Algeria in 1962-1964.

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President Ahmed Ben Bella in Havana with Fidel Casto and Che Guevarra on October 20, 1962. / Public Domain.

There was internationalism also because the massive departure of French from Algeria led the Algerian government to appeal to the cooperation of Eastern Europe, and later to the cooperation of political refugees from Chile or elsewhere. Because at the same time, there was also the Castro movement and then the Guevarist movement of the Tricontinental. They tried to move from neutralism to positive neutralism, and then from positive neutralism to non-alignment. But at the same time, there was another movement at the international level, which was to make “one, two, three Vietnams”—which is Che Guevara’s slogan—through the Tricontinental.

Ben Bella had programmed the second Afro-Asian conference in July 1965. But on July 5, 1965, there was a military coup d’état that aborted the international gathering. The arrival of Boumédiène to power was at first met by hostility on the part of the Soviet Union. They however ultimately called communist parties to support him. The Algerian Communist Party took a stand in favor of the coup d’état and agreed to collaborate on the nationalization of some companies. The mass nationalization was an important moment because it allowed the creation of the Institute of technology, the Institute of petroleum, etc., and the curricula of training of these engineers—electricity, gas, petroleum, mechanical engineers…. It was also then that many skilled workers came from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and also a few hundreds of Chilean refugees, and from a few other Latin American revolutionary movements.

This time was striking for me. So was meeting the Black Panthers in Algiers! Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, etc., for us young leftist students, that was a defining moment. That’s what I can say on the question of internationalism, which was not doctrinal internationalism, it must be said, it was revolutionary internationalism as it wasn’t completely anchored at the level of the masses. There was a kind of real active sympathy towards Cuba, towards the struggles of the colonial peoples of Africa, Latin America, or Asia. With Vietnam, the solidarity was very strong. To this day, the Vietnamese embassy is asking me to contribute to a work for the 60th anniversary of the peace and friendship treaty between Algeria and Vietnam.

We have to make a distinction between what lies in the political doctrine of the states and the dominant parties, and what lies in the realm of feelings, in other words, the vast majority of the population.

We can say that the 1969 Pan-African festival was a turning point because 1970 was the movement of nationalization in Algeria. We entered a sort of political caesarism, born after the military coup, but with a power that was more military than civil and that, nevertheless, needed to rely on a certain number of intermediate layers and Eastern powers, in particular, anti-imperialists. While remaining limited, it was not a radical anti-imperialism. ■