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Review Essay: Camus and Bourdieu on Algeria

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Albert Camus. Algerian Chronicles. Edited by Alice Kaplan. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Pierre Bourdieu. Algerian Sketches. Edited and Presented by Tassadit Yacine. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Polity Press, 2013.


The Algerian War is misleadingly emblematic of the history of French decolonization. France’s colonial rule in North Africa began when they invaded Algiers in 1830. But within two decades Algeria was officially incorporated into France as three legislative départements. In broad outlines, Algeria was legally no different than the Haute-Loire, yet in practice Algeria was treated like many other colonial holdings. A European settler minority that would later be called the pieds noirs controlled the vast majority of land and capital and controlled political decisions. A majority indigenous population of Muslim Arabs, Berbers, and Kabyles were denied most of the trappings of the supposedly superior French nation.

Though born into poverty in Algeria in 1913, Albert Camus was a descendant of this settler population. Throughout his life he argued that all persons in Algeria were worthy of French citizenship will all of its trappings, and that economic prosperity should not be limited to an elite group of settlers. From the beginning of the Algerian War on November 1, 1954, through to its end in the Summer of 1962, like Camus many in France and most of the pieds noirs clung to the belief that Algeria was France, though they were less willing than Camus to treat it as such. For them, to abandon Algeria was tantamount to betraying the French nation itself. So even when thirteen French colonies in Africa gained their independence in 1960, guerrilla warfare, urban terrorism, mass detentions, assassination attempts, and torture continued in France and Algeria for two more years. By contrast, intellectuals farther to the left than Camus, like Jean-Paul Sartre, saw Algerian independence as necessary, for both the future of France and Algeria. For those in this extreme position, even the terrorist actions of Algerian militants could be condoned.

In a conflict defined by non-conventional warfare, statistics on loss of life remain highly contested, a fact that belies the vested interests of both the French and Algerian governments. The Algerian government has claimed the number of Algerians killed or disappeared alone is 500,000, with another 1 million wounded. Scholars since have shown that the number of Algerians killed is most likely somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000. But either set of numbers is a testament to the war’s carnage. As Martin Evans recently noted, 300,000 Algerians is the same percentage of the Algerian population killed as the percentage of the French population killed in World War One. [1]

In high school and college classrooms, Albert Camus seems to have pride of place as one of the exemplary voices of this tale of decolonization. However, many also see Camus as more than a compelling example of the messiness of an historical event, he is an example of moral righteousness with relevance for today’s political climate. This is perhaps due to the ease with which Camus’ tragic moralism facilitates sidestepping hard questions. By contrast, the Algerian War made sociologist Pierre Bourdieu confront questions of colonialism when he would have perhaps chosen another path. A generation younger than Camus and from mainland France, Bourdieu had finished his first degree in philosophy in 1954 at the École normale supérieure when compulsory military service forced him to serve his country in the early military campaigns in Algeria. His experience in Algeria prompted him to scratch his plans to write a dissertation in philosophy, and focus his attention on an in-depth study of social structures in the mountainous regions in northern Algeria. Though Bourdieu was not in agreement with blatant apologists of Algerian Revolutionaries, he could not see Camus’ position on the war as viable, either. Two new compilations present these two differing views on France’s relationship with Algeria.

Algerian Chronicles presents a full translation of Camus’ Chroniques Algériennes, 1939-1958, his political writings on Algeria, with additional essays and letters previously unpublished in French or English. It is in the presentation of this supplementary material that this volume shines. Arthur Goldhammer’s translation of the text and occasional explanatory footnotes are a testament to his command of Camus’ rhythm and cadence, which are often lost in English translations of Camus’ work.  Alice Kaplan’s introductory essay gives a well-rounded account of Camus’ ties to Algeria and the background behind his position on the Algerian War. As a pied noir from a poor European family he saw himself as an example of the gray area between the colonialist and anti-colonialist camps that saw things in stark black-and-white terms.  His agitation for a more equal, more just French Algeria led to both his exile from Algeria in the 1940s and then to his marginalization once Algerian rebels started their war for independence in November 1954. Feeling his voice was drowned out by extreme right- and leftwing positions in the war, he lived the last years of his life publicly silent on the matter.

Much of the material in Algerian Chronicles, however, complicates this caricature of a silent and defeated Camus. Arthur Goldhammer has rightly corrected the apocryphal translation of Camus’ response to an Algerian journalist’s question upon receiving the Nobel Prize in literature. The media turned Camus’ statement “I must also condemn the blind terrorism that can be seen in the streets of Algiers, for example, which someday might strike my mother or family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice” into catchphrases like “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother”. [2] Though Camus may have tended towards public silence on the war towards the end of his life, he was not politically inactive and debated the war in various correspondences. Camus wrote letters to the French President on behalf of Algerian militants sentenced to death and even tried to correct press accounts of the Nobel debacle.

Newspaper reports from the 1930s that detail the poverty of the Kabyle people in the Algerian countryside—their low standard of living and the lack of developed infrastructure—comprise the first half of the volume. Camus attempted to make a case for the economic improvement of indigenous Algerians by portraying their daily plight as case studies in human hardship, frequently asking his readers to see themselves in the Kabyle situation: “Can anyone read this without feeling outrage? How many of you reading this article would be able to live on such a sum?”[3] Camus’ indignance at the economic impoverishment of the people he saw as his fellow countrymen in these early articles highlights the fact that he felt France could and should do better for the non-pieds noirs of Algeria.

But the very fact that Camus could not connect the economic sufferings of Algerians to the basic premises of colonialism points to the entrenched mentalities of so many well-meaning people complicit in forms of imperial rule. Camus felt he was one of them—the oppressed of Algeria—since he was born into poverty.  Impoverished like many oppressed he was therefore part of the shared story of human inequality. It was unthinkable for him that the French or even French-Algerian identity he so greatly valued was part of the colonial problem itself. He could not ask, Why did Algeria need France in the first place?

Beyond the gripping tragedy of Camus’ biography, introductions from Arthur Goldhammer and Alice Kaplan make a case for Camus’ contemporary relevance.  Goldhammer informs us that “For us, half a century later, the facts still have not changed, and the future to which Camus hoped to contribute has expanded to include not just France but the entire world” (xi-xii).  And Kaplan insists that “The book’s critique of the dead end of terrorism—the word appears repeatedly, with respect to both sides of the conflict—its insistence on a multiplicity of cultures; its resistance to fundamentalisms, are as meaningful in contemporary Algeria as in London or New York”. [4] Given the supplementary material in the collection that reshapes the standard, popular image of Camus, it is surprising that such an emphasis is placed on Camus’ critiques of terrorism or his contemporary moral relevance at all.

It is surely right to, like Camus, criticize governmental and non-governmental terror as a matter of principle. But Camus’ principles are hopefully not our own, least of all his best-of-intentions defense of French Algeria. And surely we didn’t need Camus to teach us violent excess is undesirable. The nightly news should suffice there.

For many critics and commentators, Camus’ politics in the Algerian War came to define his biography by virtue of the war comprising his life’s final chapters. Since Camus died in a car crash in 1960, we can only speculate about what he would have thought and said about the end of the war. As Walter Benjamin aptly said: “The tragic hero has only one language that is completely proper to him: silence. It has been so from the very beginning… In his silence the hero burns the bridges connecting him to god and the world, elevates himself above the realm of personality, which in speech, defines itself against others and individualizes itself, and so enters the icy loneliness of the self.” [5] Camus, Antigone, Hamlet: unjustly condemned for bucking the trend and following their moral instincts.

Like an empty signifier, Camus’ tragic silence invites sympathizers to use his name as shorthand for a moral high ground in the place of political realism. Is it that Camus the moralist offers American readers a position that eschews the tough political choices of our time by escaping from them? Such a resource could be both the source of political creativity that rebels against the status quo—it could also be a source of political quietism. All options are invalid and immoral; therefore, like the protagonists in many of Camus’ novels, there is no real escape from the absurd.

It is perhaps less well known that the Algerian War proved definitive for the intellectual life of Pierre Bourdieu. In contrast to Camus, those familiar with the writings of Bourdieu will most likely not automatically associate his name with Algeria or twentieth-century decolonization. Instead, they will think of his analyses of the various ways in which social networks and relations of power structure everything from aesthetics to academia. A new collection of many previously untranslated essays, interviews, and letters, however, displays the significance of Algeria throughout Bourdieu’s adult life and serve as reminders that his first published studies were ethnographic accounts of Algeria.

Already part of a small batch of Parisian-educated leftists who found no home with the French socialists or the Stalinist Communist Party, the experience of decolonization only sharpened his political outlook. “I was appalled by the gap between the views of French intellectuals about this war and how it should be brought to an end, and my own experience,” he explained in 1986. [6] If the French left, from Sartre to Camus, was wrong about Algeria then what was most important was to articulate exactly what Algeria was and who Algerians were.

Algerian Sketches presents a collection of essays, letters, and occasional pieces Bourdieu wrote beginning in the 1950s concerning his attempt to grapple with Algerian experiences of colonialism and anti-colonial revolution.  David Fernbach has translated each entry and the essays’ original notes are supplemented with helpful editorial annotations from the volume’s editor, Tassadit Yacine, herself a specialist in Algerian sociology. An introductory essay also places the content of the collection in the context of both decolonizing France and the intellectual climate in which Bourdieu came of age.

Much of Bourdieu’s analyses of Algeria are just that: technical writings on complex topics with many moving parts. The first three essays were written from 1959-1963 as efforts to influence French policy decisions more than they were impassioned pleas to sway public opinion. Already we see Bourdieu attempting to think through Algerian society from within. Whereas previous commentators saw the economic plight of Algeria as caused by its maladaption to western economies, Bourdieu highlighted the need to jettison the west as the automatic marker of economic normalcy. Colonialism tried to impose a western economy on Algeria but was never able to get Algerians to think like western economic agents. As a result, analysts had to think differently about Algeria, provide “what non-Euclidean geometries are to Euclidean geometry”. [7]

The essays in the middle of the book treat the topic of the Algerian War more directly, seeing not as just a war against colonial France, but also a revolutionary reorganization of society. Bourdieu saw more clearly than many that as a social reality for Algerian nationalists “Decolonization started with the beginning of the war” (98), and the 130 years of French colonial domination meant that decolonization was not going to be a simple process of subtraction. Rather, it was a total social transformation marked with as many solutions as new problems. While many caught up in third worldist politics saw decolonization as the key to brighter future for oppressed workers everywhere, Bourdieu was much more measured. The problems posed by unemployment, underemployment, and what shape an independent society should take were real and did not have immediate answers, despite “demagogues who promise radical and magical solutions” [8]

Despite the force of these early writings Bourdieu’s later recollections of his experiences highlight how much fundamentally confused him about the complexities of Algeria: “I think that the ethnologist cannot escape naivety, however narrowly, unless he bears in mind that reality is infinitely more complicated, and unless, having this in mind, he is capable of obtaining and mastering the useful information” [9] The intellectual reflexivity that made Bourdieu’s later work so productive and profound was first of all honed in Algeria.

Algerian Sketches might prove slightly misleading as a title. For even though the writings collected in the volume are short—none is longer than forty pages—they do not sit well with the artistic image the word “sketches” conjures. Bourdieu was meticulous throughout his whole career in both the methodology he employed and the way he presented his findings. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the use of photography was central to his documentation of Algeria. While Bourdieu admitted he just as often snapped shots of scenes and people he found beautiful, he also noted its utilitarian function—“it was a way of sharpening my gaze” [10] If there is artistry at work in these essays, it is the artistry of the photograph that aims at the exact. [11]

Yet if Bourdieu’s writings on Algeria seem colder and more distant than Camus’, they undoubtedly push beyond the impasses that made Camus’ stance so untenable. French colonialism presented a total confrontation between two differing worldviews. The resulting breakdown in Algerian society and its impoverishment was not merely a symptom of not enough modernization, but a fundamental disjunction between two social worlds. Camus may have seen himself as a middle term, a site of translation between the two worlds and the possibility of “living together” (Camus’ phrase), but for Bourdieu this idea was ill-conceived: “The European, in fact, brings his universe with him; he imposes his own order on the outside world, as we can see, to take only one example, in the colonial villages that reproduce those of metropolitan France” [12] As much as Camus may have thought of himself as a political outsider, he was always on the inside of the colonial system and that was the problem.

Historians of imperialism often speak of the grey zones that always appeared in situations where governments would have liked to simply see colonizer and colonized. From Camus’ vantage point within the colonial system, the details were certainly messy, but in terms of political imperatives this is often largely beside the point. And as Bourdieu wrote early on, there was no escape from this colonial dynamic: “Algeria did not contain any genuine isolated part living sealed off and completely removed from the colonial situation” [13]. Even if it was always more messy than French versus Algerian, these abstractions of colonial Algeria set in motion the causes of Algerian rebellion and the shape of the war that was fought.


[1] Evans, Martin.  Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 335-338.

[2] Bourdieu, Pierre. Algerian Sketches. Edited and Presented by Tassadit Yacine. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Polity Press, 2013, 215.

[3] Camus, Albert. Algerian Chronicles. Edited by Alice Kaplan. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013, 54.

[4] Algerian Chronicles, 9.

[5] Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne (New York: Verso, 2009), 108.

[6] Axel Honneth, Hermann Kocyba, and Bernd Schwibs, “The Struggle for Symbolic Order: An interview with Pierre Bourdieu,” in Theory, Culture & Society 3, no. 3 (November 1986), 38, also cited in Algerian Sketches, 17.

[7] Bourdieu, Pierre. Algerian Sketches. Edited and Presented by Tassadit Yacine. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Polity Press, 2013, 50.

[8]  Algerian Sketches. 179.

[9] Ibid, 212.

[10] Ibid, 303.

[11] There are no photographs in Algerian Sketches, but a recently published collection of Bourdieu’s photographs taken while in Algeria offers a slightly warmer insight into Bourdieu’s Algerian connection. Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria, Edited by Franz Schultheis and Christine Frisinghelli, Foreword by Craig Calhoun (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[12] Bourdieu, Pierre. Algerian Sketches. Edited and Presented by Tassadit Yacine. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Polity Press, 2013, 44.

[13] Camus, Albert. Algerian Chronicles. Edited by Alice Kaplan. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013, 42.


Timothy Johnson is a PHD Candidate in History at the Graduate Center, CUNY.



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