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Socialismes en Afrique

Françoise Blum
Héloïse Kiriakou
Martin Mourre
et al.

Troisième partie : socialismes transnationaux : coopération et circulation

“Moderates,” “Radicals,” and Foreclosing the Transnational Left in Tunisia, 1911–1925

Chris Rominger

Texte intégral

  • 1 On political “lethargy” during World War I, for example, see Mahjoubi (1982: 147). On the teleologi (...)
  • 2 For example, see Hassett (2019: 256), Fahrenthold (2019: 240), Arsan (2014: 420), Jacobson (2011: 2 (...)

1Given the global political consequences of World War I and the intimate involvement of some quarter million North Africans in combat in Europe, to say nothing of the countless others directly impacted by the economic tolls of war, it might come as a surprise that the nationalist historiography of North Africa has had relatively little to say about the effects of the war. The characterization of this moment as politically “lethargic” might be indicative of a tendency common to nationalist history writing more broadly: a focus on the “contributions” of various groups and individuals to a singular national movement presumed to have been inevitable, at the expense of research on figures such as migrants, exiles, and minorities.1 Recent transnational approaches to the war across the Arab world, however, have pushed scholars to consider the sheer uncertainty and possibility characteristic of the war’s immediate aftermath.2 Tunisia, whose diverse coastal cities are situated along what Julia Clancy-Smith has called a “central Mediterranean corridor,” presents a fruitful example through which to understand such contingencies (Clancy-Smith 2012: 468). Far from a foregone conclusion, Tunisia’s liberal nationalism was still in its formative stages in the early 1920s, negotiating and competing in a political field which also included strands of socialism, communism, Zionism, and a revived Ottomanism. Some of these strands were themselves woven back and forth across the Mediterranean through networks of intellectuals in Europe and the Middle East. Years before Habib Bourguiba’s Neo-Destour nationalist party had surpassed its rivals—Bourguiba would go on to serve as independent Tunisia’s first president from 1957 to 1987—several visions for the future were in flux. In particular, in the wake of World War I, Tunisian leftists cultivated ties across the local political spectrum and reached out to European allies for support. Such encounters engendered vigorous debates about the prospects of trans-Mediterranean cooperation, the role of the international community in ensuring self-determination, and the extent of demands for reform.

  • 3 On al-‘Ayari, see: Schaar (2016: 195–205). On Guellaty, see Perkins (2004: 77) and Mahjoubi (1982: (...)

2This chapter will reconstruct a postwar moment as seen through the trajectories of leftist political activists and their encounters with one another. In particular, a comparison of the “radical” veteran-turned-communist Mukhtar al-‘Ayari and the “moderate” socialist Hassan Guellaty will demonstrate the ways in which the Tunisian political field was constructed and contested in the wake of World War I.3 These two figures’ transnational paths crossed and eventually diverged by the mid-1920s, marking the narrowing of Tunisians’ political horizons, which had been blown open by the war. Their trajectories, when presented on their own terms rather than within teleological frames of Tunisian nationalism or French colonialism, provide an opportunity to better understand categories such as “radical” or “moderate”—relative terms that cannot sufficiently explain the historical contingency of this postwar moment.

3Such a comparison draws inspiration from recent works on the complex relationship between France and its African colonies at the end of empire in the mid-twentieth century. In particular, in an effort to circumvent the anti-colonial Manichaeism that has characterized many nationalist histories, scholars such as Gary Wilder and Frederick Cooper have focused on African intellectual and political movements that envisioned a wide range of futures, including those which held a place for a continued (albeit altered) relationship with France. Wilder refuses to reduce Aimé Césaire, for example, to a “political moderate,” calling his program of decolonization and departmentalization in Martinique an “antifoundational, nondogmatic, and experimental approach to truth and politics that refuses ready-made a priori certainties” such as the inevitable primacy of liberal nation-states (Wilder 2015: 21). Cooper, examining the efforts of Mamadou Dia and Léopold Senghor to negotiate various forms of postcolonial federation between West Africa and France, warns against using anachronistic concepts like “nation-building” and “identity,” lest we project our hindsight onto historical actors during transitional moments such as decolonization (Cooper 2005: 18; 2014: 433).

  • 4 An expanded study might also include the more well-known Mohamed Ali El Hammi, a founder of the inf (...)
  • 5 Tunisian anti-colonial reformer Mohamed Bach Hamba, for example, spent the war in Switzerland, repr (...)

4This chapter attends to similar concerns yet takes up an earlier period of political uncertainty during which socialist and communist currents had not yet been stifled by French repression or co-opted by the nationalist mainstream. It focuses on two political figures whose circumstances and legacies were decidedly more ordinary than those of Bourguiba, Césaire, or Senghor.4 And as neither al-‘Ayari nor Guellaty had quite the clout or opportunity to participate directly in metropolitan politics (as did Césaire and Senghor), an examination of their trajectories opens a unique window into the ambiguous conditions of possibility which North African reformers faced in the wake of World War I. Tunisia’s early socialist and communist circles were markedly diverse. World War I initiated brutal forms of human movement around the Mediterranean—one only need recall the Armenian genocide, or the Greek-Turkish population exchange. But the war also reconfigured older cross-Mediterranean networks, invigorating the exchange of political ideas that could reach a broader swath of the Tunisian population than ever before. For those who worked and fought in France, the opportunity to mix with colonial subjects and French civilians could introduce new concepts of labor mobilization or cultural affinity with France. And for the more fortunate who avoided military service, travel or exile to emergent political hubs like Geneva and Lausanne introduced them to anti-colonial activists from around the Arab world.5 Even while traditional outlets for political dissent in Tunisia were silenced by Protectorate censorship, transnational experiences such as these were burgeoning. Immediately following the war, Muslim and Jewish Tunisians worked alongside French and Italian settlers as well as metropolitan French leaders to establish vibrant meeting circles and publications which presented a range of political orientations without an initial commitment to any particular ethno-religious nationalism.

5In such a moment of uncertainty, communism and socialism presented visions for Tunisia’s future that to many were more compelling than nationalist historians ever acknowledged. But how and why did these alternatives emerge, and eventually diverge? This chapter argues that early Tunisian communists’ and socialists’ evolving positions, even in the midst of mounting anti-colonial nationalist sentiments, both reflected the extent of trans-Mediterranean cooperation and reflect the insufficiency of terms such as “moderate” or “radical” to explain their political horizons of expectation in the early 1920s.

War and a crisis of authority

6Made a protectorate of France in 1881, Tunisia never witnessed quite the same level of violence, inequality, and dispossession as neighboring Algeria did. Military conquest was relatively quick, and the Bey—Tunisia’s hereditary ruler—remained nominally sovereign while a French administration was put in place to handle most aspects of governance as well as the repayment of debts owed to European creditors. French settlement did expand, but Italian settlers and their descendants continued to outnumber their French counterparts well into the mid-twentieth century (Lewis, 2014: 169). In fact, the presence of so many Italians, along with sizeable Maltese, Jewish, and Algerian populations, made French domination in Tunisia a slippery proposition, both on a local and international level. Mary Lewis has shown how these groups’ claims for consular protection in a variety of legal cases, much like the “forum shopping” practiced in the nineteenth century, led to a form of colonial rule more direct, but also more tenuous, than originally envisioned (Clancy-Smith 2011: 199–246; Lewis 2014: 64, 117–118).

7Significant inequities between Tunisians and European settlers prompted the rise of political challenges to French colonialism during the first decade of the twentieth century. The Young Tunisians, a cadre of bourgeois reformers drawing from graduates of the progressive Sadiqi College, began calling for more Tunisian participation in government, educational, and judicial reform, and a constitution. Matters came to a head in 1911, when a French plan to survey and repurpose parts of the historic Jellaz cemetery in Tunis were met with large protests inspired in part by Young Tunisian exhortations; police and protestors soon exchanged gunfire and dozens on each side were killed. A few months later, when an Italian-operated streetcar struck and killed a Tunisian child, the Young Tunisians orchestrated a boycott that called not only for reforms to the transportation system but also to the Consultative Congress, the protectorate’s main representative body. A month into the boycott, French police arrested and deported a number of prominent Young Tunisians, including Hassan Guellaty, who would become a leading socialist reformer in the 1920s (Perkins 2004: 70–72). These agitations, shortly followed by the outbreak of World War I, prompted increased efforts by the colonial state to silence political dissent in Tunisia. A state of emergency imposed in 1912 proscribed most political meetings and publications until 1919, disrupting years of increasingly assertive political activism.

  • 6 For example, see Campos (2011), Provence (2005: 223). Julia Clancy-Smith’s work on the rural Sufi l (...)
  • 7 See for example, Stovall (1998).

8On the other hand, the upheavals of World War I are increasingly recognized to have contributed significantly to the emergence of a number of popular and assertive political movements across the Arab world. Some of these have been attributed to a “Wilsonian moment,” which ushered in a new era of internationalized dialogue reevaluating the colonizer-colonized relationship. Erez Manela argues that Woodrow Wilson provided the language anti-colonialists needed to undertake increasingly drastic efforts to secure their place in the world order, connecting a generation of reformers with an international audience and with one another (Manela 2007: 219–221). Moreover, while many in the Arab world certainly did appeal to principles we might recognize as “Wilsonian,” recent scholarship suggests that the immediate postwar witnessed a dramatic shift towards a variety of mass movements no longer tied exclusively to the elite secular reformers who, until recent decades, have enjoyed most of the historiographical spotlight.6 Given the importance of migration to the study of modern Tunisian history, this important if under-studied aspect of World War I could help explain why, almost immediately following the easing of press and political censorship in Tunisia in 1919, dozens of political journals and organizations sprung up across the protectorate. These actions nearly precipitated the abdication of the Bey in 1920 and contributed to a crisis of authority more generally. One iteration of migration was that of the political exiles such as Mohamed Bach Hamba who, publishing from cities such as Geneva and Berlin, began to demand complete independence for Algeria and Tunisia. Another strain of migration is represented by the roughly 70,000 Tunisian soldiers and workers conscripted to wartime service in France who. Having faced racial and colonial discrimination amid the horrors of war in Europe, they learned from a variety of dissenters and activists in the metropole and returned home with new political vigor.7 Guellaty and al-‘Ayari, the two figures we will explore below, exemplify the consequences of such transnational trajectories.

Mobile beginnings: Guellaty and al-‘Ayari

  • 8 This included political dissidents in self-imposed exile from Algeria, such as Si Muhammad al-Madan (...)
  • 9 Perkins notes that Guellaty returned to Tunisia after the war, but more recent evidence seems to pu (...)

9Hassan Guellaty was, from an early age, well-connected and well-traveled. He was born in Boghair, Algeria, in 1880, and within a year moved with his father, a court interpreter, who had been transferred to Tunis (Gobe 2013: 95). His was one of many upper bourgeois Algerian families who settled in Tunisia throughout the nineteenth century (McDougall 2006: 36).8 Indeed, it has been argued that such connections help explain the similarity between Algerian and Tunisian activists’ grievances prior to World War I despite their decidedly different colonial circumstances (Tlili 1984: 116). In 1903, Guellaty began practicing law in Tunis after studying in Toulouse, and quickly made the most of his connections with the Algero-Tunisian elites through his marriage to Fatma Sfar, daughter of the reformer and administrator Béchir Sfar (Sraieb 1971: 107–108.). Guellaty also enjoyed French nationality, perhaps thanks to his education and family connections to the protectorate administration (Gobe 2013: 96). He served for a time as the president of the Khalduniyya Society, an institution founded by his father-in-law (among others) that taught European and global affairs in Arabic. Guellaty entered politics in writing for Le Tunisien, the first French-language newspaper published by Tunisians. The journal, run by prominent intellectual Ali Bach Hamba from 1907 to 1911, was the primary organ of the Young Tunisians who, though never questioning the existence of protectorate itself, called for educational reforms and legal equality. It was this partnership, in addition to Guellaty’s involvement in the 1912 tramway strike aimed at securing equal treatment of Tunisian and European workers, that resulted in his forced exile later that year. Yet while his colleague Ali Bach Hamba died an exile in Istanbul during World War I, Guellaty, thanks in part to his status as a French national, was able to return to Tunisia shortly before the outbreak of war.9

10Mukhtar al-‘Ayari was not so fortunate. Details from his early life are scant; born in 1887 or 1889, he attended a Franco-Arabic school in Tunis and entertained ambitions of one day becoming a police officer. He enrolled voluntarily in the army, perhaps hoping that it might accelerate his acceptance into the ranks of the protectorate government (Schaar 2016: 199). What little we know of al-‘Ayari’s wartime experience comes from his writings and recorded comments after the war. What is more relevant to our analysis is not so much “what happened” to him from 1914 to 1918, but rather how he conceived of these experiences in retrospect, and to what political ends he mobilized these memories.

  • 10 CADN, 1TU/2 MI 239: Rapport 53 de Clapier, le Commissaire spécial, 21 January 1922. See also Schaar (...)
  • 11 For example, see Betts (1960: 224) and Conklin (1997: 384).

11Historians have argued that on the Western Front, North and West African soldiers such as al-‘Ayari were deployed disproportionately as front-line shock troops, justified by French conceptions of their “warlike mentality” and “savage ardor,” even while they earned less than half the salary of French soldiers of equal rank, faced segregation from French civilians, and were rarely considered for promotion (Koller 2008: 120; Lunn 1999: 531–535). Given what we know about the unequal treatment of tirailleurs in wartime spaces of coercion and racial distinction, al-‘Ayari’s postwar accounts of his negative experiences come as no surprise; what is unique is that a rather average veteran’s accounts are preserved at all. He claimed at a 1922 communist meeting surveilled by police that despite his heroic service in battle and his ability to speak both French and Arabic, he was never promoted, because to do so would violate the colonial order by placing him on par with French non-commissioned officers.10 Officiers indigènes were in fact seldom if ever promoted to command units at the company level or higher, and multiple North African lieutenants were not generally allowed in the same company; all communications between them had to go through a French superior, undermining the potential for concerted resistance during a war in which mutiny was a real concern (Meynier 1981: 417). Moreover, the few Tunisians who were placed in positions of authority usually came from an elite background, reflecting the French policy of association.11 It was presumed that these elites, used to commanding their social inferiors and unlikely to be corrupted by newfound delusions of grandeur, would not make claims against the very colonial hierarchy that sustained their elevated position (Fogarty 2008: 116–117). In the French Army, then, al-‘Ayari had run up against two dynamics of colonial difference: a lack of French citizenship and a modest upbringing. In attempting to understand how these disappointments with French hierarchies impacted his political engagement after the war, we must account for his expectations. Prior to the war, al-‘Ayari was likely quite aware that he was not “French,” whether in the legal sense or otherwise. Although it is not laid out explicitly, however, we can deduct from his postwar commentary that his wartime experiences had indeed come as a shock: prior to the war, he had far less sense of what exactly his exclusion from both the French and elite Tunisian spheres would mean for his lived reality. Perhaps it is in this regard that we can speak more authoritatively about al-‘Ayari’s political shift: disappointments and shattered expectations at war catalyzed unexpected visions for the future.

Contentious homecomings

  • 12 On Bach Hamba, see Tlili (1978) and Laskier (1997: 36–37).

12Demobilization was a chaotic affair in Tunisia. Throughout 1917 and 1918, returning veterans were involved in violent and occasionally deadly altercations with Jewish communities, based on accusations that Jews had profited from their exemption from military service (Katz 2015: 40–41, Hamli 2018, 61-110). Moreover, since many veterans had come from rural areas and had little formal education, claiming benefits and pensions was often a hardship. Correspondence with remote villages was unreliable, and documentation requirements for widows and orphans could be onerous. As in other parts of the French Empire, veterans often had to travel days to fill out a form, only to have to return months later to complete paperwork before receiving a pension (Mann 2006: 100–102). Yet the war, despite the horrors it visited on so many, did catalyze new opportunities for Tunisians to think not only beyond colonial borders but also across class and religion. For example, exiled intellectuals forged new ties with reformers from across the Arab world, as Mohamed Bach Hamba did in Geneva; some Tunisian Jews embraced Zionist activists from France.12 Early iterations of Tunisian communism and socialism, in particular, highlight the extent to which the war’s upheavals opened up new concepts of political community which might stretch beyond traditional boundaries and categories of belonging.

  • 13 Poor harvests, the ousting of Tunisians from jobs and markets by returning French veterans, and pro (...)

13We can say with some certainty that al-‘Ayari’s experience in the trenches of France and Belgium would have been jarring. Moreover, having witnessed the very real boundaries imposed by colonialism, al-‘Ayari arrived home in Tunis prepared to take a path quite different from the one he had once envisioned as a future policeman or soldier. He soon began working as a tramway operator and was an active member of his union during the difficulties of Tunisia’s postwar economic crash (Perkins 2004: 75–76).13 North African soldiers such as himself had learned from French workers’ labor activism in the depots and ports of France during the war (Stovall 1993: 47). Al-‘Ayari also began attending meetings of Tunisia’s new Communist Party, lending his oration skills and working class appeal to a political vision he believed might align with his union work (Schaar 2016: 199).

14For Guellaty, on the other hand, home might have had multiple meanings over the course of his life thus far. He had traveled with his family from Algeria, studied law in France, and drew from a long tradition of Mediterranean elites crossing seas and borders (Clancy-Smith 2011: 3–8). We know little of his wartime activities, and while his brief exile may have provided the space for a more assertive approach to reform, he faced none of the extremes of combat, discrimination at the front or in French hospitals, or the disturbing discovery of colonial boundaries to citizenship or promotion. Rather, Guellaty returned to Tunisia to find that many of his Young Tunisian colleagues had quickly resumed their political activities, particularly with the lifting of the state of emergency starting in 1919 (Mahjoubi 1982: 254). He joined with former allies Abdelaziz Thaalbi, Ahmad al-Safi, and Khairallah ben Mustafa to found Le Parti Tunisien, whose aim was to establish a constitution and secure legal equality for Tunisians. Yet Guellaty was soon alienated by Thaalbi and Ahmad Sakka’s publication of La Tunisie martyre in late 1919. The tract, a widely influential indictment of the French Protectorate administration, left little room for accommodation and negotiation with France. Guellaty held this to be a grievous mistake (Perkins 2004: 76–77).

Tunisia and the transnational left

  • 14 CADN, 1TU/125/29: Note de sûreté publique, 10 February 1917; CADN, 1TU/125/29: Note de sûreté publi (...)
  • 15 Benjamin Frederick Dawson, The French in Syria, Brooklyn, Independence Party of Syria, 1927: 40. On (...)

15Despite these disagreements, the immediate aftermath of World War I was in many ways a moment of optimism when it came to the promise of overseas political cooperation. Guellaty’s outlook was no exception: while active in the early incarnation of the Destour’s nationalist vision, he also remained connected to socialists, both French and North African, whose vision offered a gradualist approach to reform. Even during the war, despite restrictions on the press and political associations, Guellaty continued to cultivate ties with foreign-born and non-Muslim intellectuals. Many of Tunisia’s early socialists and communists were in fact settlers of French or Italian descent or came from among the urban middle-class Jewish communities. Guellaty’s longtime colleague André Duran-Angliviel, a representative in Tunisia’s Consultative Congress, was a settler from southeastern France. Guellaty also worked with Benjamin Frederick Dawson, an American who had earned a Croix de guerre for his volunteer service as a driver in the French Army during World War I. Dawson had been wounded in action and was monitored by Protectorate authorities during a visit to Tunisia while on convalescence leave in early 1917. A lawyer, he took great interest in Tunisian intellectuals’ political activities, attending the “Cercle tunisien” and visiting Guellaty at his study several times during his stay.14 It appears that this was the same Dawson who would later anonymously publish a critical investigative report titled The French in Syria for the Brooklyn-based Independence Party of Syria following a 1926 visit to Syria during its massive anti-colonial revolt.15

16The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, however, provoked controversy that revealed the extent of uncertainty among competing visions of reform in Tunisia. For the first time, a communist vision had been embraced by a major world power, and French leftists moved to come to terms with the implications of such events for their own aspirations as well as those of their counterparts in overseas colonies. Guellaty and Duran-Angliviel in fact served as Tunisian delegates to the Congress of Tours, held in December 1920 with the aim of determining whether French socialists of the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO) would adhere to the Third International. While the majority voted to join the Third International and form the Section française de l’Internationale communiste (later becoming the Parti communiste français), Guellaty and Angliviel voted against it (Mahjoubi 1982: 188–189). This path stands in notable contrast to the young Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh), who supported the Third International while criticizing France’s colonial enterprise. It is clear that the aftermath of World War I, much like the mid-century anti-colonial leaders around the French Empire, offered leftists no foregone conclusions about the exact shape of reform.

  • 16 CADN 1TU/2MI239/1700(2): Note du Commissaire spécial Clapier, 3 October 1921.
  • 17 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Note de Clapier, 21 November 1921.

17The Third International’s eighth article stipulated that member parties would work actively to end imperial oppression and liberate colonized peoples. In this sense Tunisian reformers were said to be able to count on the support of the international communist movement (ibid.). At first glance, al-‘Ayari, much like Guellaty, was exemplary of this optimistic trans-Mediterranean political collaboration. One of his closest allies was the French-born Robert Louzon, a vocal Dreyfusard and union activist who after the war became president of Tunisia’s branch of the Communist Party. Louzon helped al-‘Ayari publish his journal Habib al-Umma and was a vociferous critic of colonialism who frequently drew the attention of protectorate police.16 The Italian settlers Enrico and Mario Costa worked closely with al-‘Ayari and were frequently on hand at communist meetings,17 the latter being condemned in 1922 for publishing a pamphlet attacking colonial rule in Tunisia (Bessis 1981: 67–68). Tunisia had in fact long served as a haven for Italian reformers—Giuseppe Garibaldi notably stayed in Tunisia in 1834 and 1849.

  • 18 CADN 1TU/2MI239/1700: Rapport 200 de Clapier, “Renseignements fournis sur la réunion du Parti commu (...)
  • 19 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Rapport du Contrôleur civil de Bizerte au Résident général Lucien Saint, 30 M (...)

18In March 1922, al-‘Ayari organized a visit from French communist and parliamentary deputy Paul Vaillant-Couturier, a war veteran who had become a pacifist and vocal anti-militarist. Al-‘Ayari and Jean-Paul Finidori, the Tunisian communist party’s Corsica-born treasurer, helped arrange a reception and four speaking events for the deputy during his stay, each of which allegedly drew hundreds of attendees. The protectorate police agents who watched these communist meetings noted, however, that indigenous Tunisian turnout was underwhelming and posed little threat.18 The settler press and even outspoken attendees at some of Vaillant-Couturier’s events, for their part, questioned whether Bolshevik-inspired reforms would benefit Frenchmen in Tunisia, where they faced drought and fluctuating food prices.19

  • 20 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Rapport sur André Berthon, 6 June 1922.
  • 21 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Note de sûreté publique, 8 June 1922.

19A few months later, in June, al-‘Ayari helped arrange a five-day visit from another communist parliamentary deputy, the lawyer and journalist André Berthon. Berthon hoped to call upon the Resident General Lucien Saint, with whom he had a friendly personal relationship, to ease the anti-communist “persecutions” which he claimed were far harsher in Tunisia than in Algeria. In the weeks prior to his visit, the communist party of Tunisia had been suspended by protectorate authorities, and its leaders, including al-‘Ayari and Finidori, had been temporarily placed under arrest. Meeting with protectorate officials, Berthon claimed to come not as an “agitator” but in order to ensure the consistent application of the law. He distinguished the “spirit” of his visit from that of Vaillant-Couturier, to whom officials had likened him. Berthon’s request to use a public building for a conference titled “l’Action ouvrière” was also refused.20 Nonetheless, Berthon’s visit appeared to momentarily rejuvenate Tunisian communists. Al-‘Ayari’s ability to work effectively not only with settlers but with political figures from across the Mediterranean for a shared cause points to a moment of great confidence in visions for the future which transcended national and colonial boundaries.21

Global struggles, local debates

20Despite these moments of trans-Mediterranean cooperation, French socialists and communists remained bitterly divided on the urgency of reforms to French colonialism through the early twenties, with significant consequences for Tunisian anti-colonial activists. Even though a majority of French socialists had voted to join the Third International at Tours in December 1920, no vote was held on Lenin’s required 21 Conditions, including the eighth condition which called on its members to speak and act against their own nations’ oppression of colonized peoples. A 1922 French congress at Sidi-bel-Abbès, Algeria, for example, voted against the Third International’s stance on colonialism, arguing that the metropolitan workers’ revolution would have to come first (Dreure 2016), and that communist propagandizing to indigenous Algerians was “useless and dangerous” (Gallissot 1976: 101). In some French leftists’ paternalistic imagination, Arabs, without continued French tutelage, might otherwise succumb to an oppressive Islamic oligarchy (Kraiem 1997: 115.). Al-‘Ayari’s close ally Louzon called such a position “a repugnant hypocrisy” (Gallissot 1976: 101–102).

21Local Tunisian political developments were just as critical to the trajectories of both Hassan Guellaty and Mukhtar al-‘Ayari, and in some ways anticipated this broader schism. Just as al-‘Ayari and the Tunisian communists were organizing the visits of Vaillant-Couturier and Berthon in early 1922, Guellaty had grown weary of Thaalbi’s influence over the Destour and their attempts to woo the Bey to their increasingly caustic calls for a constitution and parliament. Guellaty, having been a co-founder of the Destour’s predecessor, now parted ways with Thaalbi to found the Parti Réformiste. Kenneth Perkins attributes this departure not only to Guellaty’s political outlook, but also to his personal upbringing and attitudes. He is described by the historian as a “highly Westernized” elite who “clung to the prewar notions of association and collaboration,” harboring “arrogant confidence in his superiority to the likes of Thaalbi” and his modest background (Perkins 2004: 81). According to this explanation, the Parti Réformiste was dismissed for its “sycophancy” and lack of popular support (ibid.). One wonders as well how Guellaty’s status as a French national, rare among Muslim Tunisians, might have influenced his views towards the Protectorate and its critics.

22It is certainly true that Guellaty and the Parti Réformiste struggled to gain much traction whether among the Tunisian public or the protectorate authorities, yet such evaluations of Guellaty’s character and outlook overlook key developments in 1921 and 1922. The leftist press in Tunisia reveals a more complicated story. An October 1921 article in the communist journal Le Moudhek sheds some light on the schism between Guellaty and the communists:

  • 22 CADN 1TU/2MI239/1700(2): “‘Moudhek’ du 12 octobre 1921.”

What has motivated Guellaty to change so much that he has become our adversary? Is it because he believes the heads of the communist party have committed some mistakes? If such is his motive, he should have warned the Tunisian people as soon as it appeared to him thus, so that we might have replaced those responsible. As for our grievances, they remain sacred and unflinching.
We are equally heartbroken to see how the Arab press treats this man, whose intentions are perhaps pure and who perhaps acted on a misunderstanding with the party heads. Is there someone among us who can restore the peace between the two adversaries and cut short this conflict? The situation is serious. We must not divide ourselves into parts and fractions of parts, as this would be to play our enemy’s game; they would seize this opportunity to harm us.22

23Nowhere are the accusations of elitist arrogance or of clinging to a foregone era of pandering to French authority. Rather, Le Moudhek’s communist editors call for unity in the face of a common colonial opponent, looking inwardly to try and understand the scope of this misunderstanding, or even of the party’s own missteps. Guellaty, more than just a “Westernized elite,” reflected the uncertainty and fluidity of the postwar political moment in Tunisia. The controversy surrounding his shifting convictions helps explain this brief window of diverse outlooks, one in which a Tunisian communist journal could defend and appeal to an Algerian-born French national who had argued for continued accommodation with France.

  • 23 CADN 1TU/2MI235/1697: Rapport de Clapier, “Parti communiste Section Indigène,” 8 April 1922; When p (...)
  • 24 McDougall describes the bid of exiles such as the religious scholar Salih al-Sharif to influence Tu (...)
  • 25 Also significant is the fact that a “transnational” socialism (and, to lesser extent, communism) wo (...)

24Al-‘Ayari and his communist colleagues, while slowly diverging from Guellaty and his new Parti Réformiste, found it just as hard to maintain a united front with the Destour and the emergent mainstream of Tunisian anti-colonial politics. Al-‘Ayari was “radical” in some respects, such as his espousal of violence as a means to achieve revolutionary ends.23 Yet despite an upbringing decidedly more middle class than that of Guellaty, al-‘Ayari nonetheless believed that Tunisian peasants were easily corrupted and needed guidance, a stance not far from that of the French communists at Sidi-bel-Abbes in 1922. His comments about conscripted soldiers reveal similar disdain for these “ignorant,” “poor wretches” who submitted blindly to French recruiters and their deputies (Rominger 2016: 252–254.). He believed it to be the duty of the Communist Party to educate his simple countrymen, sharing in some ways his French counterparts’ view that the fellahin were not yet developed enough to achieve (or even to appreciate the benefits of) a workers’ revolution. At the same time, al-‘Ayari’s position cannot be reduced to mimicry of a paternalistic French ideal. Rather, his self-assertion as an authoritative bearer of knowledge echoes a longstanding notion of political representation in the Arab world, one claimed by exiles, tribal leaders, religious scholars, and others eventually marginalized by the nationalist mainstream. James McDougall notes that such figures claimed such a role “in the belief that they, as bearers of an established socio-cultural authority, were naturally fitted to be the spokesmen for their community” (McDougall 2006: 45–46).24 Thus to conceive of al-‘Ayari only as a “radical” might suggest that he was alone figure stuck out of time, a forgotten visionary deserving of rescue by attentive historians. His trajectory is no doubt worthy of further study, but only within the specific and contingent context he inhabited: one in which competing forms of transnational communism and socialism represented, if only briefly, viable horizons for Tunisians.25

  • 26 For a more detailed treatment of the founding of the CGTT, see Azaiez (1980: 13–74).

25On the heels of the divergences and schisms within Tunisia’s early reformist groups, both al-‘Ayari’s and Guellaty’s political aspirations would be dampened by the mid-1920s. Guellaty and his Parti Réformiste never built the kind of popular support they had hoped for when he split with the Destour in 1921; aside from interjecting its voice into a number of debates between French authorities, the Destour, and the Communist Party in 1924 and 1925, it remained largely ineffectual. Al-‘Ayari and the communists, on the other hand, faced an abrupt end to its rising popularity. In 1924, Tunisian dockworkers in Tunis, Bizerte, and Sfax went on strike seeking wage parity with their European counterparts of the same union, the Confédération générale des travailleurs (CGT). European workers’ refusal to support this measure led Tunisian workers, with the support of the Destour and communist leaders such as al-‘Ayari, to found a nationalist offshoot, the Confédération générale des travailleurs tunisiens (CGTT) (Ahmad, Schaar 2006: 169.).26 The new union, emboldened by this show of support, organized strikes across the country which were met with a harsh crackdown by Protectorate authorities. The unexpected assertiveness of these working-class actions, combined with the ensuing violent repression by French authorities, led to a further splintering of Tunisian political alliances. The first to balk were the socialists and Guellaty’s Parti Réformiste; even the Destour, before long, began to distance itself from the CGTT and its communist base (Perkins 2004: 84–88). Now exposed and with few allies, just as Le Moudhek’s editors had feared in 1921, al-‘Ayari and his communist colleagues Mohamed Ali El Hammi and Jean-Paul Finidori were arrested and exiled. The Tunisian Communist Party never quite recovered from this blow.

Foreclosing possibilities

26The preceding illustration of the convergence and subsequent divergence of two individuals’ political careers in the early 1920s has not simply attempted to give voice to unsung heroes of anti-colonial nationalism in Tunisia. Rather, it has been a demonstration of the range of political possibilities catalyzed by World War I. A focus on early iterations of communism and socialism in Tunisia serves to highlight the degree to which migration and overseas cooperation were important components of reform efforts, even as Tunisians increasingly attempted to define themselves in terms free of French dominance. This evolving and sometimes precarious position reflected the conditions of possibility of Tunisia’s Mediterranean links. Such ambiguity, I have argued, is not particularly well served by categories such as “moderate” or “radical,” terms often deployed to make sense of such moments of uncertainty and fluidity. To reduce Hassan Guellaty to a “moderate” or even a colonial sycophant obscures the details of a shifting political atmosphere. Similarly, Mukhtar al-‘Ayari, deemed a “radical” by comparison to the Destour and its successors, would only slip into character as a violent threat (to colonial authorities) or an unsung hero (to revisionist historians). Furthermore, neither figure defined Tunisian socialism or communism, respectively, any more than Thaalbi alone defined Tunisian liberal nationalism. Instead, by placing Guellaty and al-‘Ayari into the same frame, and by focusing on the fleeting points at which they converged and eventually diverged, we better grasp the contingent circumstances that characterized Tunisians’ political horizons in the early 1920s.


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1 On political “lethargy” during World War I, for example, see Mahjoubi (1982: 147). On the teleological assumptions of nationalist historiography in Algeria, see McDougall (2006: 15).

2 For example, see Hassett (2019: 256), Fahrenthold (2019: 240), Arsan (2014: 420), Jacobson (2011: 264), and Manela (2007: 352).

3 On al-‘Ayari, see: Schaar (2016: 195–205). On Guellaty, see Perkins (2004: 77) and Mahjoubi (1982: 244).

4 An expanded study might also include the more well-known Mohamed Ali El Hammi, a founder of the influential Confédération générale des travailleurs tunisiens. Yet he falls slightly outside of the temporal scope of this “moment,” only having returned to Tunisia in 1924 after an extended educational stay in Germany. He was exiled along with Mukhtar al-‘Ayari to Italy the following year (Azaiez 1980: 13–17).

5 Tunisian anti-colonial reformer Mohamed Bach Hamba, for example, spent the war in Switzerland, representing Tunisia and Algeria at events such as the 1916 Congrès des Nationalités in Lausanne. See, for example, Mohamed Bach Hamba, “Algériens et Tunisiens,” in Compte rendu analytique de la IIIe Conférence des Nationalités réunie à Lausanne, 27–29 juin 1916, Lausanne, Office de l’Union des nationalités, 1916.

6 For example, see Campos (2011), Provence (2005: 223). Julia Clancy-Smith’s work on the rural Sufi leaders of Algeria and Tunisia marked an important turn towards previously marginalized, mobile groups in the study of political change in the modern Maghreb; see Clancy-Smith (1994).

7 See for example, Stovall (1998).

8 This included political dissidents in self-imposed exile from Algeria, such as Si Muhammad al-Madani, father of Algerian nationalist and historian Ahmad Tawfiq al-Madani.

9 Perkins notes that Guellaty returned to Tunisia after the war, but more recent evidence seems to put Guellaty in Tunisia during the war (Perkins 1997: 72; Gobe 2013: 96; Centre des archives diplomatiques de Nantes [henceforth “CADN”], 1TU/125/29: Note de sûreté publique, 10 February 1917).

10 CADN, 1TU/2 MI 239: Rapport 53 de Clapier, le Commissaire spécial, 21 January 1922. See also Schaar (2016: 6).

11 For example, see Betts (1960: 224) and Conklin (1997: 384).

12 On Bach Hamba, see Tlili (1978) and Laskier (1997: 36–37).

13 Poor harvests, the ousting of Tunisians from jobs and markets by returning French veterans, and protectorate attempts to boost the colonization of arable land provoked great discontent in 1919 and 1920.

14 CADN, 1TU/125/29: Note de sûreté publique, 10 February 1917; CADN, 1TU/125/29: Note de sûreté publique, 5 February 1917. The Cercle was a small group of intellectual elites who had met regularly in Tunis since the turn of the century to discuss political affairs in private.

15 Benjamin Frederick Dawson, The French in Syria, Brooklyn, Independence Party of Syria, 1927: 40. On Syrian nationalism in the Americas, see Fahrenthold (2014).

16 CADN 1TU/2MI239/1700(2): Note du Commissaire spécial Clapier, 3 October 1921.

17 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Note de Clapier, 21 November 1921.

18 CADN 1TU/2MI239/1700: Rapport 200 de Clapier, “Renseignements fournis sur la réunion du Parti communiste,” 4 March 1922.

19 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Rapport du Contrôleur civil de Bizerte au Résident général Lucien Saint, 30 March 1922.

20 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Rapport sur André Berthon, 6 June 1922.

21 CADN 1TU/2MI236/1697: Note de sûreté publique, 8 June 1922.

22 CADN 1TU/2MI239/1700(2): “‘Moudhek’ du 12 octobre 1921.”

23 CADN 1TU/2MI235/1697: Rapport de Clapier, “Parti communiste Section Indigène,” 8 April 1922; When police promised a 1,000 franc award for al-‘Ayari’s arrest, he allegedly replied that he would break the police commissioner’s neck on the day that Tunisians rose up to claim their independence.

24 McDougall describes the bid of exiles such as the religious scholar Salih al-Sharif to influence Tunisian politics from abroad.

25 Also significant is the fact that a “transnational” socialism (and, to lesser extent, communism) would return to play a key role in Tunisia’s mass politics of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the early years of Bourguiba’s rule. See Hendrickson (2012: 755–774).

26 For a more detailed treatment of the founding of the CGTT, see Azaiez (1980: 13–74).

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