“You Are Beautiful like a Comité de Gestion”: Self-Management in Algeria and Yugoslavia



Shortly after the Revolution, Algeria’s ties with Yugoslavia allowed for socialist practices to be implemented in Algerian farms and factories, in particular “auto-gestion” (workers’ self-management). Importantly, as Muriam Haleh Davis explains in this text, Yugoslavian models of socialism also allowed for a valorisation of religious practice, as opposed to Soviet and Chinese paradigms.

On April 15, 1965, Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito arrived in Algeria and was personally greeted by President Ahmed Ben Bella at the airport. The front page of the newspaper of Algeria’s main trade union, Révolution et Travail, lauded this historic meeting. It noted that the Yugoslavian model of socialism had become an “important source of inspiration for the international workers movement.” Publications with different ideological orientations had been referencing Yugoslavia’s brand of socialism since independence; the Arabic-language Al-M’arifa, which was published by the Ministry of the Habus, admitted that “If every age has an [ideological] ‘fashion,’ the fashion of this age is the understandings of socialism.” While the article invoked Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser as two possible examples of socialist regimes, many of the publication’s columns advocated that Algeria adopt a socialism rooted in Islamic values.

In the early 1960s, Algeria and Yugoslavia adopted workers’ self-management as a model of economic organization that was inspired by socialist utopian traditions, rejecting the hegemonic iterations of communism stemming from the Soviet Union or China. In theory, this meant giving workers an active stake in the running of farms and factories and the comités de gestion served as the basis of collective organization. By resisting top-down statist orientations, self-management also provided a blueprint that would reflect the cultural and historical specificities of each nation. The Algiers-based leftist newspaper Révolution Africaine saw the transformation of the Yugoslavian salaried worker into a genuine “gestionnaire” (manager) as serving to “essentially modify the psychology, the personality, the material and political situation of workers and of all those who work, including the relations among men.” Ahmed Mahsas, who ran the National Office of Agrarian Reform wrote that by adopting self-management Algerians had broken with scientific socialism and “take[n] into consideration the reality of the society, its positive values and the real problem of development.”

Even prior to Tito’s visit, Algeria and Yugoslavia had fashioned multiple ties of solidarity. Six years before the start of the Algerian Revolution, Hocine Aït Ahmed reflected on Yugoslavia’s armed struggle against fascist forces, when contemplating how future resistance against France could make most effective use of territory. Tito famously split with Stalin in 1948 and initiated the Non-Aligned Movement, which took concrete form during the 1955 Bandung Conference (as well as the subsequent 1961 conference in Belgrade).

Yugoslavia, the only non-aligned country in Europe, subsequently provided crucial support for various Third Worldist struggles.

During the war with France, for example, Yugoslavia offered Algerian fighters arms and medicine. It was also one of the first countries to recognize the Republic of Algeria Provisional Government (GPRA) in 1959. Youth delegations of the FLN and the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), as well as members of the GPRA, spent time in Yugoslavia during the war. After Algerian independence, Yugoslavia sent a delegation of combatants to Algeria in early 1963 to observe the country’s experiment with socialism. The government provided material as well as expertise, offering 500 tractors and financing a number of large infrastructural projects, notably in the Soummam valley.

In theory, self-management promised to give workers a personal and economic stake in the running of farms and factories as councils would control the policies of each enterprise. Inspired by the works of social utopian thinkers such as Pierre Proudhon, subsequent theorists of self-management like Georges Gurvitch viewed the decentralization of workers organizations as providing a “social cell” that was “at the same time a center of collective forces and a home for collective reason.” In Algeria, self-management began as a spontaneous response to the departure of European settlers (who were offered French nationality in 1889) in order to keep farms and factories running. This policy was subsequently formalized by the 1963 March Decrees, which also brought the heavy hand of bureaucracy to bear on workers and farmers. The solidarities between Algeria and Yugoslavia were not limited to economic cooperation in the early 1960s; artistic exchanges between Yugoslavia and Algeria flourished during the early 1970s, and both countries adopted forms of political architecture that sought to express the link between self-management and other forms of “social infrastructure.”

Haleh Davis Funambulist
Drawing promoting self-management from the Algerian Newspaper, Révolution et Travail, December 12, 1964. / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The degree to which self-management could be considered a vernacular expression of economic organization – rather than an orthodoxy imported from Europe – was the source of considerable controversy in the first years of Algerian independence. The Minister of Agriculture and Land Reform, Amar Ouzegane, claimed that while the French word “socialisme” sounded cold to rural Algerians, farmers had a warmer reaction to the Arabic word “ishtirakiyya.” FLN publications were sent to the Mashreq, providing explanations of self-management or tasyir al-dhaati, in Arabic. For Ahmed Mahsas, Ben Bella’s socialism, rooted in Islam, was a clear rejection of the common trope expressed by French economists that Muslim “civilization” was to blame for Algeria’s underdevelopment. In this regard, Yugoslavia provided a model of how a specific form of socialism could express religious and cultural elements in a national framework. The Yugoslav ethnographer Cvetko Kostić, undertook fieldwork among Berber communities in Kabylia in 1963 and 1964, comparing them to the rural Albanian communities in his home country. The diversity of Yugoslavia’s inhabitants was also similar to Algerian society, including the country being home to a number of Muslim inhabitants. For many Algerians, this was proof of the government’s religious tolerance and stood in stark contradiction to the Soviet Union’s dogmatic atheism. A 1964 article in Révolution Africaine dedicated to Yugoslavia focused on state support for Islamic activities including the publishing of the Qur’an and pilgrimages to Mecca. This reflected the important role that Yugoslavia’s Islamic Religious Community (Islamska verska zajednica, IVZ) played in diplomatic outreach with Third Worldist countries like Egypt and Indonesia in the late 1950s. These efforts would be translated into domestic policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Tito recognized Muslims as an official ethnic, and then national, group.

Despite the religious connections between Yugoslavia and Algeria, it was hard for partisans of self-management to stave off accusations regarding the foreign genesis of this policy. Tito was not the only European to offer inspiration for Algerian socialism; a handful of so-called “Pieds rouges” (“red feet”) came to Algeria after the Revolution and advised Ben Bella. Named after the better known Pieds noirs, or European settlers, these revolutionaries sought to support Algeria’s socialist experiment. Most famously, the Greek Trotskyst and leader of the Fourth International, Michel Raptis (Pablo), is said to have penned the March Decrees. Many of these anti-clerical leftists, including Daniel Guérin, expressed reservations about the Islamic coloring of Ben Bella’s celebration of the Islamic character of Algerian socialism.

Debates on self-management exposed the political fault lines that underpinned the fragile Algerian state, but they also encapsulated the optimism of diverse Algerian revolutionaries. This was famously captured in Jean Sénac’s 1967 poem, Citoyens de beauté, which was dedicated to Che Guevara (who was, ironically, opposed to self-management according to Algerian historian Mohamed Harbi). It included the lines:

“Oh, you are beautiful like a comité de gestion/Like an agricultural cooperative/Like a nationalized mine.”

Self-management was a relatively brief episode in Algeria’s post-colonial history, as Houari Boumediène adopted the policy of top-down industrialization after his 1965 coup against Ben Bella. Yet Tito returned to Algeria multiple times under Boumediène, seeing Algeria as an essential partner in forging a robust Non-Aligned Movement that encompassed Europe as well as North Africa. Even after the passing of the “beautiful” self-management committees, Algeria’s relationship with Yugoslavia continued to be a cornerstone in defining the contours of Third Worldism. ■

O Révolution patiente
Et têtue !
O ces dents qui sont la page blanche
Où mon poème se construit !
O nuit très douce
Dans les absinthes de tes bras !
Oui, n’aie pas peur, dis leur
Que tu es belle comme un comité de gestion
Comme une coopérative agricole
Comme une mine nationalisée.
Osons, ô mon amour, parer de fleurs nouvelles
Le corps du poème nouveau !
Et même si l’horreur maintenant nous fait face
(Car rien n’est facile, non, et tout sans fin remis),
A la terrasse des cafés si nos singes bouffis
Grignotent l’avenir avec des cacahuètes
Et parlent de Ben M’Hidi comme d’un objet de consommation anodine
(O frère-dynamite ! O frère-flamme nue !
O frère-vent actif qui déracine la gangrène !),
Même si le découragement et la dérision nous assaillent,
Maintenant nous savons que nous sommes sauvés
Dans le grand geste socialiste
Car la Révolution et l’Amour ont renouvelé notre chair
(Salves ! Salves cent fois de tzaghrit et de graines !)
Je t’aime.

Excerpt of Jean Sénac,
Citoyens de beauté, 1967.