Revolution, what revolution? In the spring of 2011, protests and revolutions rocked much of North Africa and the Middle East. Improbably, the immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor triggered the collapse of regimes not only in Tunis but also in Cairo, the heart of the Arab World. Whether the cause was Twitter or deeper-seated socioeconomic dysfunction, protests cascaded throughout the region, leading to regime collapse in Sana’a, a civil war and eventual regime overthrow in Tripoli, and Armageddon in Syria.
Against this gruesome background, Algeria—Africa’s largest country since the partition of Sudan in 2011—remained relatively calm. Anti-regime protests forced an end to a state of emergency that had existed since 1992. But President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not only stayed in power but managed to establish, in 2012, a record as the longest-serving head of state in Algerian history. The stability was all the more surprising given that Algeria had descended into civil war in 1991 once the ruling FLN (from the French Front de Libération Nationale) effectively cancelled elections that would have delivered Islamist parties to power.
Yet Algeria’s position as a stable authoritarian regime in a region rocked by the mutual learning processes of one “Arab Street” from the other is ironic, since, as University of British Columbia historian Jeffrey Byrne shows in his recent book, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization & The Third World Order, the country’s identity was from its founding deeply tied up with its identity as a “pilot state” for anti-colonial revolution. After all, Algeria gained its independence from France in the first place through combination of guerrilla warfare against the French military and the deft diplomacy of twenty- and thirty-something diplomats-cum-revolutionaries operating between Peking, Moscow, and the United Nations. From 1962–1965, when revolutionary Ahmed Ben Bella served as President of the young republic, Algiers was on the itinerary of every self-respecting revolutionary group out there, from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization to European Trotskyists. No less than Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Afro-Caribbean intellectual who was the psychologist of colonization and decolonization par excellence, used Algeria as the basis for his works like The Wretched of the Earth.
What happened? How did an avowedly revolutionary state and champion of Third World solidarity become one of the Arab World’s most entrenched authoritarian regimes post-2011—all the while never officially disavowing its revolutionary credentials? In Mecca of Revolution, Byrne argues that the trajectory of the Algerian cause was symptomatic of bigger shifts within the Third World more broadly. Originally, he explains, anti-colonial movements like the FLN were forced by virtue of their colonial oppressors to operate within an “open” international society of liberation movements liaising with one another, as well as their (often stubborn) patrons in Peking, Cairo, and Moscow.
Paradoxically, however, once these movements gained power through the vehicle of the post-colonial nation-state, they turned toward a “closed” vision of international society centered around states, not transnational movements like the FLN, ANC, or PLO. Even the post-colonial or anti-colonial forms of internationalism that self-proclaimed revolutionary states embraced, moreover, like the Organization for African Unity or the G-77, took the nation-state for granted as the default form of political organization. Byrne’s, in short, is a rich and demanding story constructed on the basis of painstaking work in Algerian, Yugoslav, and European and American archives. The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Professor Byrne to discuss it, beginning with Byrne’s own personal journey to writing Mecca of Revolution.
James Jeffrey Byrne grew up in Ireland at the end of history – or, more precisely, the early 1990s. Born and educated in Ireland, Byrne first toyed with the idea of studying history while living in an Ireland sandwiched between the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and the end of “the era of big government” in Bill Clinton’s United States. Listening to these claims about the end of ideology, however, Byrne was perplexed: what had the twentieth century been all about, then? Actors like Vladimir Lenin, not to mention Irish Republicans, had certainly made revolutionary claims, and they won many followers with such rhetoric. A need to understand what, exactly, led people to believe in the cause of revolution itched at him. At the same time, he explains, “because of the specialized nature of higher education in Ireland, where you pick one subject and study only that subject at university,“ Byrne was not ready to commit to history or physics, another favorite subject. Hence, when an admissions letter arrived from Yale University (where he could pursue a more balanced liberal arts education) Byrne decided to beat a path for New Haven.
There, Byrne earned a major in History, kindling an interest in Russian history. Perhaps surprisingly, his undergraduate studies left him insulated from trends in graduate education in history apace at Yale at the time, as Yale PhDs like Matthew Connelly, Erez Manela, and Jeremi Suri were pioneering the so-called “new international history” under the aegis of British historian Paul Kennedy. Byrne took classes in early modern Russian history with historian Paul Bushkovitch and on international communism with the Croatian historian Ivo Banac. Topics like the Algerian Revolution did not then figure in prominently into the teaching of such subjects—it was not until the work of scholars like Connelly and others was published a few years later that they did—and Byrne soon took his B.A. from Yale to work in private industry for several years.
After a few years had passed, however, his historical interests still itched at him. So, in order to test whether he actually wanted to do something with history as a career—“or if I just wanted to not get out of bed early”—he booked a return passage across the Atlantic to pursue a one-year Master’s Degree at the London School of Economics. There, he notes, he had originally signed up for courses on Soviet history and global history, but he remained undecided about a third year-long course to add to his schedule. So, he sat in on the session’s first lecture of a course on the Cold War in the Third World taught by Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad—then a professor at LSE and, in effect, developing what was to become the Bancroft Award-winning The Global Cold War through his lectures. Byrne was spellbound by Westad’s analysis of how the Soviet-American conflict impacted events in Algeria, Ethiopia, and Southern Africa, among other places. And after reading the work of the historian Piero Gleijeses on Cuban relations with Africa, he decided to write his Master’s Thesis on Cuban-Algerian relations during the Sand War, a 1963 conflict between Morocco and independent Algeria.
Soon, Byrne completed his analysis of that conflict. He had been fascinated by how Cuba and Algeria came to see one another as “natural” allies, in spite of the fact that Havana and Algiers had few meaningful historical ties. He had been intrigued by how the perception of mutual anti-imperialist solidarity led Castro to deliver tanks to the FLN. And what did it say about Algerian internationalism that the relationship with a revolutionary Caribbean island meant more than ties with another Maghrebi country? Byrne anticipated leaving LSE after the Master’s thesis, but, he says, Westad told him that the subject of Algerian internationalism had promise—why not stay for the PhD? Byrne did. Soon, he was off on his first flight to Algiers. Call it an omen if you like, but the flight (from Milan to Algiers) was delayed before take-off so that the French soccer star of Algerian descent Zinedine Zidane could be spirited on board.
Byrne soon settled into the North African city, but archival access proved difficult. He had been in touch with many of the leading scholars of Algerian history (most of whom are French or based in French academia), but they had told him to forget about access to the archives. Initial encounters with Algerian bureaucrats were also not encouraging. And making things worse, the aforementioned President of Algeria, Bouteflika, had served as Foreign Minister from 1963–1979. That meant that many of the potentially sensitive files the Irish historian wanted to see would have the current head of state’s signature on them. Leery of a foreigner turning up something embarrassing, many an archivist would have simply shooed him away. As Byrne corresponded with other graduate students of Westad, who rivaled their mentor for collecting frequent flyer miles between stops in Moscow, Beijing, the former Eastern Bloc, and points beyond, the pressure mounted. What to do?
Fortunately, a number of tactics got him in. “My starting point,” explains Byrne, “was that I didn’t want to get a ‘no’ in writing anywhere. It would be much, much easier for anyone to turn me down if they could wave that paper in front of me.” So, he started small. Even though most of the relevant Algerian newspapers for the period in question were freely available in Paris, and even London, Byrne requested archival access to see them in the reading rooms. The relevant authorities shrugged, and they let him in. That was step one.
But how to get access to the files themselves? Byrne broached the subject with the Algerian archivists. “I told them that I was going to write this history anyway,” he says, “and the real question was whether they wanted to have their Algerian voices in it. I asked them, too: weren’t they proud of this heritage? Weren’t they proud that they had supported Mandela? That they had supported Arafat? That they were against colonialism? They were, of course, and I think that helped.”
His Irish background may have played a role, too. Ireland doesn’t have an Embassy in Algiers, so it was more difficult for cautious functionaries to direct him to make his requests through official channels, which he suspected were more likely to result in the dreaded “NO” in writing. More subtly, though, Byrne notes that there are many parallels in the Irish nationalist imaginary and the Algerian nationalist tale passed on through public education in both countries. In what was to become a theme in the book itself, Algerians, like many in the Third World, formed affective imaginative geographies with those whom they imagined to share their situation, be they Fidel Castro or Gerry Adams.
Spending nearly a year-and-a-half in Algiers, Byrne accumulated the modest amount of prestige that allowed him to order more significant files—although, he notes, “order” is hardly the right word, since the Algerian National Archives did not possess a standardized procedure or schedule for delivering the types of documents he was asking for. Much patience was required along the way. But in the end, Byrne was able to become the first Western scholar to make serious use of post-independence Algeria’s archives. That accomplishment reflects some luck, to be sure, but it also illustrates how the right mix of perspicacity, perseverance, and perhaps post-colonial empathy can make the difference in the kind of research historians can pursue.
Flash forward several years later, and Byrne—having received his PhD in 2011 and recently tenured in 2016 at UBC—had transformed his dissertation into Mecca of Revolution. But before delving into the nuts and bolts of his book’s argument, we raise a question that may have occurred to many a skeptical reader of this piece thus far: why care about the Third World? Why care about movements, like the Algerians’, that claimed to speak on behalf of non-alignment or Afro-Asian unity? After all, one might object, few of the projects initiated at Bandung in 1955 or Belgrade in 1961 amounted to anything meaningful in the long-term. So, why care about them?
Byrne offers a number of rejoinders. Firstly, he notes, ideas about the unity of the Third World—of which there were many, and which all differed from one another—were not mere slogans but rather formed the intellectual context in which serious decisions about foreign policy were made. Byrne makes the parallel to the “archival revolution” in post-Soviet archives of the early 1990s. Sure, many a belief about this or that Stalinist purge was overturned, but perhaps the core finding was that the Bolsheviks spoke to one another in terms of “class struggle” or “international finance capital.” In other words, Communist élites were … Communists. The punch line when it comes to Algeria is that the same was true, except replace “class struggle” with “national liberation” and “international finance capital” with “colonialism.” Hence, understanding the intellectual discourses surrounding the Third World matters if we want to get the diplomatic history of perhaps a majority of mankind right.
Secondly, Byrne notes, the Algerian story helps us explore how lofty slogans were transformed into policy. Too often, he notes, works on Third Worldism not only make factual mistakes (such as placing Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah at the Bandung Conference) but also view leaders like Nehru or Tito almost as gurus of an impossibly idealistic new world order. This they may have been, but their day jobs consisted of managing the domestic and foreign policy of anti-imperialist states in what was, and what remains, an unsentimental and hierarchical international system. Following the Algerian case offered a novel lens to understand how ideas (in this case, revolutionary ideas) actually become policy.
Thirdly and finally, however, Byrne is keen to emphasize that while Third Worldism may have foundered as an institutional and intellectual project, the core issues of global (in)justice that the Algerians and their comrades in Delhi, Belgrade, and the refugee camps in Jordan raised are not past—they’re present. The real presentist arc of the high point of Third World activity may not necessarily lead to the Non-Aligned Movement in its present form. Rather, one could argue that it illuminates contemporary debates about whether former colonies or “underdeveloped” states should have to bear any significant burden in reducing global carbon emissions. Already in the 1960s, Algerian diplomats emphasized that they viewed foreign aid not as a neutral foreign policy unto itself, but rather as a form of reparations owed to them as a result of centuries of colonialism.
Now, readers in the Global North one may not agree with these zero-sum views of global justice and inequality. One might not think that one country’s economic growth necessarily came solely or primarily through colonial plunder. But the fact remains that they speak to many people outside of London, Paris, and Washington, and not just when it comes to issues of global economic redistribution. Hence, if we want to understand, say, why almost every member state of the Non-Aligned Movement supports Tehran’s right to nuclear energy, the diplomatic culture of Third Worldism—of which Algeria sits at the center—is an excellent place to start.
So much for the justification for studying the Third World in general. What does Byrne argue specifically in Mecca of Revolution? He emphasizes two major contributions. Firstly, he says, his book de-mystifies Afro-Asianism, Non-Alignment, and other forms of “South-South coöperation” (to use a neologism) that prospered in the 1950s and 1960s. “Guevara, Fanon, and Mao were not interested primarily in being cultural gurus or contributing to literary theory,” he says, “they were fixated on geopolitics and confronting what they saw as the stacked deck of imperialist power arrayed against them.”
The point, though, Byrne emphasizes in Mecca of Revolution, is that the internal debate over how to do this was intense. The late 1950s and early 1960s were marked by clashes over what form “the Third World” (itself a term dating from only 1952) should take. Yugoslav élites embraced the cause of non-alignment, arguing for what Byrne dubs the “programmatic” answer to this question. States like Yugoslavia, but not the Soviet Union (since it was anything but “non-aligned”) could band together against the superpowers. Throughout this period, however, the Chinese promoted alternative notions of “Afro-Asianism” that emphasized race, rather than politics, as the unifying trait of the wretched of the earth. Such a definition would include the “yellow” Asians and the “black” Africans, while conveniently excluding China’s “white” ideological rivals, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Soviets also got into the business of post-colonial solidarity themselves by doubling down on the old thesis that monopoly capitalism in Europe and North America generated imperialism abroad.
As Mecca of Revolution shows, Algeria offers an excellent vantage point from which to observe these shifting points of convergence and disagreement with the Third World scene. The FLN touted Algeria’s role as a “bridge” between different regions of the world, since it lay geographically between Europe and Africa, between the Arab World and what was then called “Black Africa.” Algiers also preferred to think of itself as socialist without slavishly following the formulas vended by Moscow, Beijing, or Belgrade. However, Algeria still remained heavily dependent on foreign aid from France throughout the post-independence period. Money from Washington, though small in quantity, helped, too; the Kennedy Administration being wary of Algiers falling completely into the “Communist camp.”
Notably, China’s conflation of identity politics with geopolitics did not really appeal to the Algerians or other like-minded Third World forces. Algerian diplomats openly celebrated their support for black African liberation movements in southern Africa, but they were also keenly aware how sensitive Arab-black African race relations could be. After all, sub-Saharan Africa had historically fed the slave markets of the Arab World, and with the experience of the European “civilizing mission” so fresh in the mind, many a black African revolutionary was irritated to hear the representatives of the revolutionary Arab states, Algeria and Egypt, describe themselves as the vanguards of revolution for the entire continent.
As if these Arab-African histories did not make Algerian engagement with various anti-imperialist imaginaries complex enough, the alternative anti-imperialist imaginaries on offer for the Arab World posed no fewer dilemmas for the FLN. Since the dialect of Arabic spoken in the Maghreb (including Algeria) is barely comprehensible to most speakers of Arabic in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, or the Arabian Peninsula, Algeria was an unlikely heavyweight within the Arab arena in any event. FLN élites were skeptical of the two great experiments in Arab solidarity that marked the era, namely Nasserist pan-Arabism and Ba’athism. Given their commitment to nationalism, the Algerians were skeptical of plans to create some federal United Arab Republic that would have its headquarters in Cairo, not Algiers.
This tension was even clearer when it came to the second major ideological program of the day, namely Ba’athism, which envisioned the fusion of all Arabs into one “Arab homeland.” While Ba’athist ideologues and the FLN shared a commitment to socialism and Arab nationalism, they diverged on whether the best means of doing so was through “al-qawmiya” (transnational Arab nationalism), which the Ba’ath embraced, or “al-wataniya” (Arab nation-statism), which was more what Algeria had in mind. When push came to shove, it seems, maintenance of the nation-state won out—unless, like the Pan-Arab Egyptians or the Ba’athist Iraqis, you envisioned Cairo or Baghdad as the heart of the Arab super-state to come. The broader point is that the 1960s were a buyer’s market when it came to ideologies of anti-imperialism. But a failure to distinguish between them—to lump them together under one heading of “the Third World” misses crucial nuances without which the broad impact of the Sino-Soviet Split, or later rivalries between Pan-Africanists, Pan-Arabists, and Ba’athists, becomes incomprehensible.
This brings us to what Byrne sees as the second major argument of Mecca of Revolution. This is that the Algerian Revolution had the effect of making international society more state-centric, not less. Readers of the aforementioned Matthew Connelly’s book A Diplomatic Revolution might do a double-take here, since in that celebrated work, Connelly argued that transnationally active Algerian actors ushered in a “post-Cold War” era where state-to-state diplomacy assumed less importance. How does Byrne reconcile the obvious clash between his and Connelly’s argument?
Responding, Byrne stresses that the broader structural conditions of international society in the mid-twentieth century forced transnational movements to be state-centered. The entire point of anti-colonial transnationalism, he notes, was the creation of nation-states. Moreover, in Byrne’s view, it was not ideology, but rather the praxis of anti-colonial resistance that led inexorably to this consensus on nation-statism. He portrays Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson not so much as ideological inspirations to anti-colonial activists, but more akin to promoters of the “best practices” for political mobilization. Crucially, both communist methods of revolutionary organization and Wilsonian liberal internationalism assumed that the state was the sole legitimate building block of a post-imperial international order. If the Leninist-Maoist strategy of revolution showed how to seize the apex of stae power or build a state from the ground up, then Wilsonian diplomacy encouraged transnational movements to seek recognition as sovereign entities, in jure if not in reality. In short, the leaders of transnational movements like the FLN were what Byrne dubs “method men,” concerned first and foremost with the means of seizing state power and gaining recognition as the legitimate owners of a (now) post-colonial state in the international system.
Where Byrne differs with Connelly might be most apparent in the case of movements that became arguably too transnational and never, or only partly, managed the transition to full nation-statehood in the international system. Think of the Palestinians, who managed to gain a measure of diplomatic recognition at the UN, but still lack full territorial sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza. Or, less obviously, consider the Taliban, a transnational Pashtun movement that unambiguously seized power in Afghanistan but was a miserable failure at securing international recognition for itself (only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates did so). Lacking the broad base of support that the PLO enjoyed in international society, the Taliban could swiftly be dismissed post-2001 as a glorified terrorist group and kicked out of Kabul.
So here is the lesson: transnational movements can, pace Connelly or American historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin, effect dramatic structural changes on the international system. But—here is where Byrne comes in—perhaps the more interesting development is why so many of these movements latched on tenaciously to the state embedded in the United Nations or other state-centric organizations once they managed to achieve independence.
The back half of Mecca of Revolution explores this conundrum, One answer that Byrne arrives at has to do with the centrality of the UN to postwar international society. Economically weak post-colonial states remained dependent on their former European masters for economic aid. And given the notoriously extractive nature of colonial transport infrastructure in Africa, building up new commodity chains between, say, Algeria and Tanzania, was going to be a project decades in the making, even if such regimes somehow got China or the Soviet Union to pay for it.
Hence, post-colonial regimes like Algeria felt compelled to band together in contexts such as the G-77 at the United Nations or the IMF to demand adjustments to international trade and development policy. But, as Byrne notes, statehood was a requirement to be a member of such institutions. Regimes like the FLN signed up to internationalist arrangements because they thought they offered a means of “fully subordinating the international economy to sovereign oversight.” That would be true if the absolute number of sovereign states behind this or that initiative, since by the 1960s post-colonial nation-states accounted for a majority of the states represented at the UN. Of course, in reality, it is often GDP, not a flag and a seat at the General Assembly, that counts for power.
As a result, over the long term, not only did this mission of sovereign oversight not work out (think of the 1980s debt crisis). More than that, the turn of post-colonial regimes to UNCTAD, the World Bank, and the IMF made “statehood a requirement [of interfacing] with the global economy, even in the case of institutions that would, in time, be seen to undermine the sovereignty of poor countries.” Not only did the Third World fail at its mission of regulating the global economy, it also arguably made it much more difficult for stateless groups like the Kurds, Assyrians, Rohingya, and others to interface with the global economy.
Another important factor behind the turn toward a “closed” system of post-colonial states was the primacy that post-colonial regimes understandably ascribed to territorial integrity and non-interference as key “rules of the game” for international order. Regional institutions like the Organization of African Unity (the OAU, headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) were based on the equality of sovereign post-colonial nations in Africa, the Algerians, along with other African nations in the OAU condemned movements like those for Katangan separatism, the Tuareg in Mali, or Kabyle separatism in Algeria itself as “neo-imperialist” mischief that deserved only to be crushed, not supported.
The Algerians were wary of neo-colonial interventions, then, but having freed themselves from the French through armed resistance, they were also sympathetic toward those trying to do the same from Portuguese colonialism or white minority rule. That meant that both the FLN as well as the OAU itself (through a “Liberation Committee” sponsored the training of the ANC and other black African national liberation movements in countries still under white rule (Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia, Namibia, and South Africa). It was through policies like these that Algeria earned the title of “mecca of revolution” as Cubans, Mozambicans, Palestinians, and others congregated in training camps there.
However, Algeria and other African states played a major role in freezing the post-colonial status quo of the early 1960s as the only possible legitimate interstate order for the continent (the white-ruled states excepted). Even for the aforementioned white-ruled states, the only legitimate goal was black majority rule, not a comprehensive territorial resettlement of colonial borders. An understandable fear of imperialist meddling effectively made any provincial ethnic uprising illegal, while simultaneously reifying the presence of Eritrea inside of Ethiopia, or the Igbo people inside of Nigeria, as permanent and irresistible to change. Arguably, it fetishized the acquisition of statehood by small states like Namibia or Zimbabwe, while rejecting any partition of a behemoth like the Congo into more governable units as imperialist.
As Byrne explains in the closing pages of the book, the Algerian experiment in “open” internationalism was short-lived, and not only because of the politics of decolonization. Algerian internationalism always had a ripple effect onto the domestic scene. In every country, but perhaps in particular one with such global pretensions as post-1962 Algeria, foreign policy forms a surface onto which ideas about national identity and national purpose are projected. When Algiers supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization, it tended to play up Algeria’s “Arab” identity, as opposed to its Berber elements or longstanding links to the Francophone world. When Algerian diplomats spoke (predominantly in French) to post-colonial black African élites from Mali or Guinea, they played up Algeria’s status as an “African” country, rather than, say, its position on the Mediterranean or its East-West links with the Maghreb. And when Algeria aligned itself with the Yugoslavs or the Soviets (who supplied much funding for gas and oil extraction and, later, military training), it appeared more as part of a socialist or non-capitalist commonwealth, often operating in tandem with regimes that had complex, to say the least, relationships with their Islamic populations.
These foreign policy moves affected the domestic political economy of Algerian élite politics and the regime’s relationship with the common people. The Civil War of the 1990s notwithstanding, Algeria was far from a hub for Islamist activity in the 1960s. But the FLN’s efforts at modernization, not to mention shifting global commodity markets, meant that more and more of the inhabitants of cities like Algiers, Boumerdès, and Oran were traditionally-minded, religious arrivals from the countryside who stood at a certain tension with the diglossic, more secular worlds of French and Arabic, of North Africa and international diplomacy, that the FLN had cultivated in Algiers. (One reason why post-colonial Algiers was so attractive to many a leftist intellectual was that it was had, until the mid-1950s, been the hub of a vibrant if also segregated pied noir world of beaches, cafés, and clubs.) The more it pursued a modernization program at home, the more the FLN created new social bases for Algerian politics upon which it rested uneasily.
Or, more specifically, upon which certain factions of the FLN rested uneasily. For it was élites around the Defense Minister, Houari Boumedienne, who feared that it would be impossible to remove Ben Bella from power if a proposed “Bandung II” conference, planned for the summer of 1965, were to take place. In an age of decolonization, more and more African leaders turned to Algiers for inspiration. Boumedienne and other parts of the FLN élite apparently feared that a successful Bandung II would rocket Ben Bella into the ranks of a Nasser-like figure for the Third World, making it possible that he could remove them from power, and not the other way around. Granted, with the benefit of hindsight one can wonder whether Bandung II would have really provided Ben Bella with as much prestige as Boumedienne thought. The Sino-Soviet Split had sewn deep fissures within the Third World. But lacking the benefit of hindsight, the conspiracy went ahead. In the middle of the night on June 19, 1965, tanks surrounded important military buildings and declared a coup d’état.
Third World leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Fidel Castro, and Cheddi Jagan protested the coup d’état. So, too, did Egypt’s Nasser, still a mountain of prestige in the Arab World in spite of his disastrous war in Yemen. But none of the protests secured Ben Bella’s release. As Byrne concludes Mecca of Revolution, a moment of Third World solidarity had passed. Boumedienne and others would champion solidarity in the guise of the New International Economic Order a decade later, true. And the ideological work done by many of these other actors, and others still like Amilcar Cabral, across the Continent, remains to be explored by future scholars. But with the ouster of Bella, what other scholars dub the “Bandung Decade” had ended with a whimper, not a bang. What came after remains for historians who follow in Byrne’s footsteps to investigate; what Byrne himself has in mind for his own research agenda is where we end this particular conversation.
As our interview draws to a close, we ask Byrne about his current research agenda following Mecca of Revolution. He is, he explains, beginning a new project that will broadly track the fate of non-alignment from the 1970s to the present. As we speak, Byrne is completing an article exploring the relationship between non-alignment and Cold War détente in the 1970s. “The traditional view,” he says, “is that détente created breathing room that allowed Third World internationalism to come to the fore.” Indeed, when we think about episodes like the oil price shock or demands–led by Algeria’s Houari Boumedienne–for a “New International Economic Order,” it is common to note that they took place against the background of Soviet-American détente. But by the late 1970s, Soviet-American tensions heated up again, engulfing parts of the Third World like Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Angola. This, goes the conventional view, pushed the debates of Third World actors to the side as the superpowers re-imposed their Cold War on the Southern Hemisphere.
Byrne is less convinced by this. He argues that, contrary to most of the public rhetoric of the Non-Aligned Movement, many Third World actors viewed East-West détente as a threat to their own geopolitical ambitions. “For many,” he explains, “the 1970s marked the realization of what the Chinese had been prophesying a decade earlier: namely that the Soviets, Americans, and Europeans would reconcile with one another, that the whites would once again divvy up the Third World.” Events like West German Ostpolitik and sale of American grain to the Soviet Union were taken as proof of the theory that the Global North was creeping toward forming a giant walled-off trading bloc that would consign the Third World to permanent economic subordination. Hence, Byrne argues, Third World actors like Algeria hardly viewed détente as a sacred cow. Few wanted nuclear war, to be sure, but seeding as much rancor and suspicion as possible between the Soviets and the Chinese, or the French and the Americans, was a tactic that they embraced.
Byrne sees this line of research dovetailing into a second book-length project that will examine the collapse of socialist projects in the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s. “For many of the countries that Mecca of Revolution examines,” he explains, “like Algeria, obviously, but also Yugoslavia, socialism was deeply entangled with national identity. The nation-state was often sold to post-colonial populations as an explicit promise: development. Both moral claims about building an equal society and material gains of having a roof over your head were part of the Algerian national identity during the apogee of the FLN’s rule.” Byrne is interested in tracking what happens in societies like Algeria or Yugoslavia when that social compact breaks down, when promise of socialism fails, creating a crisis of national identity that often leads to horrendous ethnically- or religious-oriented violence.
In order to build up the intellectual capital for this ambitious project, Byrne is using part of his summer vacation to read up on topics related both to international history as well as Algerian history. In addition to a steady post-tenure diet of novels (long overdue, he adds), Byrne has enjoyed Yale historian Timothy D. Snyder’s recent book Black Earth, a history of the Holocaust not only as history but as a possible model for his new project. The sands of Algeria might be far away from the “black earth” regions of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, but Snyder’s interest what happens in moments where prior regimes of political authority collapse into stateless aporia has spurred his thinking about how to write about the demise of socialism-as-nationalism in his Third World settings.
At the same time, Byrne has also been reading works on internationalism and Algeria. One of the most recent books on his bookshelf has also been one of the latest works we have featured on the Global History Forum, namely Robert Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Byrne hopes to bring not only Vitalis’ sensitivity toward the role of race in international relations but also a deep knowledge of Algeria to his coming works. Hence, he notes, he’s reading the recently-published Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence by the political scientist Jacob Mundy, as well as Luís Martínez’s The Algerian Civil War to shore up his knowledge of civil war and post-civil war Algeria. Although he’s only at the very beginning of developing his project, he notes that he’s fascinated by the ways in which the banditry and macabre violence that wracked the country in the early 1990s dovetailed with economic liberalization. This, to Byrne, speaks only more clearly for the need to conduct a historical postmortem of the death of Third World socialism and the linkage of that event on the violent civil wars to mark the early 1990s.
Perhaps that decade wasn’t just an end of history, then? Our conversation with Jeffrey Byrne has taken us full circle from a young man’s interests in revolutions in modern history, to a mature historian’s quest to determine the historical roots of the violence that cast a shadow on that first post-Cold War and, arguably, post-socialist, decade. Having completed our own pilgrimage to Byrne’s Mecca of Revolution, we are grateful for the journey he has led us on, and we wish him success as he continues to explore the past, and present, of Third Worldism in our shared world.