Richard Price reviews Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers by Elaine Mokhtefi, Verso 241pp. £9.99
Born into a secular Jewish family in Depression-era America, Elaine Klein “had little idea of what being Jewish meant” except from the era’s pervasive antisemitism. Her lack of a sense of belonging was deepened by the family regularly moving in search of a secure income. Her most important inheritance from her parents was anti-racism.
Expelled from school in Georgia aged 16 for opposition to segregation, she studied languages in New York and her internationalist liberalism drew her to the United World Federalists, who dreamed of a peaceful world ruled by a federal world government. After a split between older, more conservative members and younger, more radical ones, she took a boat to France in 1951, seeking work as a translator in Paris.
Instinctively anti-imperialist, Klein’s first experience of grey, authoritarian Stalinism came on May Day 1952, when she witnessed Algerian workers being prevented from joining the PCF-CGT demonstration. The historic leader of Algerian independence, Messali Hadj, was arrested for the umpteenth time shortly afterwards, and the PCF was engaged in a lengthy right-turn after the leftism of the late 1940s, which placed it on the opposite side of the barricades to fighters for Algerian independence.
In her capacity as translator and editor, she was increasingly drawn into the anti-imperialist movement in Paris, both as observer and participant. In 1958, she attended the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana, where she met the famous anti-colonial theorist and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, who would remain a close friend until his untimely death in 1961. Between 1960 and 1962, now closely aligned with the Algerian FLN, she worked in New York for the shoestring proto-embassy of its provisional government.
During the countdown to Algerian independence, Klein moved to Algiers. In late August 1962, rival FLN factions led by Ahmed Ben Bella and Benyoucef Benkhedda moved on the capital from west and east – a foretaste of how disputes would subsequently be dealt with. Ben Bella’s brief period in power up to June 1965 was a tumult of radical measures, including nationalisations and plans for agricultural and industrial self-management, combined with the consolidation of the secret state.
She writes that Ben Bella “launched new national projects every day, but neglected the measures required to implement them … One by one, revered leaders of the of the revolution were dismissed or resigned. He turned to lesser personalities, made bargains, created parallel political structures. He ordered arrests and allowed torture.” That is the closest we get to political analysis. When Ben Bella was overthrown by Boumedienne, the coup was met only by “weak and ineffectual” protests, emphasising that much of the “Algerian Revolution” had been carried out over the heads of the Algerian people and lacked democratic accountability.
The increasingly militarised regime in Algiers remained externally a revolutionary HQ, offering asylum and stipends to liberation movements throughout Africa. That is what attracted Eldridge Cleaver who founded the international section of the Panthers in Algiers in 1969. Klein’s appointment book for the 60s and early 70s reads like a Who’s Who of Third World anti-colonialism, including Khrushchev, Fidel Castrol, Ho Chi Minh, most of the Algerian leadership, the leaders of FRELIMO, SWAPO, ANC and MPLA, not to mention, er, Timothy Leary, but it is Cleaver who dominates the second half of the book. The idea of an international of anti-imperialists stretching as far as the Black Panthers and the Red Army Faction (who feature briefly) was an illusion borne of a lack of analysis of non-aligned and Soviet-aligned movements and would subsequently fall apart.
Over the next few years, Klein established a close personal, if not romantic, relationship with Cleaver, and is over indulgent towards him. Among Cleaver’s less attractive traits, he was a self-declared rapist, arrogant and sometimes embarrassing towards Algerians, an open womaniser who admitted that he had murdered a fellow Panther – it is assumed in a fit of jealousy. In later life, Cleaver was variously a cocaine addict, a Mormon and Conservative Republican.
In 1974, after 12 years of service to the regime, Klein, now married to former FLN activist Mokhtar Mokhtefi, was excluded from Algeria, the by-product of an obscure power struggle. This remained the case for the next four decades, during which time she lived with her husband in France, and latterly in New York until his death in 2015. She remains true to her youthful ideals and in her 90s continues to support progressive causes.