The Manifesto of the 121
(On the Right to Refuse Military Service)
By the fall of 1960 the war in Algeria had been going on for six years. Despite defeats, massacres and torture, the FLN was gaining in strength, and opposition in France was growing. The relative timidity of the official left, in particular the French Communist Party (PCF), which insisted on mass actions calling for peace, was offset by circles of independent leftists who actively supported the FLN. Led by one of Sartre’s lieutenants, Francis Jeanson, and the communist without a party, Henri Curiel, the porteurs de valise (valise carriers) ferried arms, men, money and papers for the Algerians. Called the Jeanson Network, the heart of the group had been arrested and was to go on trial on September 6, 1960.
The day before, the text of what was to come to be known as the Manifesto of the 121 (after the number of original signatories) was released. But it was a document more read about than read since – of the journals in which it was to appear, one was seized, and the other, Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, came out with two blank pages in its place, the result of government censorship. The government didn’t stop at censorship. As a result of the manifesto, they put in place stiff penalties for those calling for insubordination; jobs were lost and careers temporarily shut down.
The text was originally the work of Dionys Mascolo and Maurice Blanchot, and was revised by several others, including Claude Lanzmann. Though more than 121 were to sign the manifesto, the publisher Jerome Lindon decided to officially stop at that number because “it sounds nice.”
A very important movement is developing in France, and it’s necessary that French and international opinion be better informed about it at a time when a new phase in the War in Algeria cannot but lead us to see, and not to forget, the depth of the crisis that began six years ago.
In ever greater numbers, French men and women are pursued, imprisoned, and sentenced for having refused to participate in this war, or for having come to the assistance of the Algerian fighters. Distorted by their adversaries, but also softened by those who have the obligation to defend them, their reasons for doing so are, for the most part, not understood. Nevertheless, it isn’t enough to say that this resistance to public authority is respectable. As a protest by men wounded in their very honor and in their idea of the truth, it has a meaning that goes far beyond the circumstances in which it is affirmed, and which it is important to grasp, however the events turn out.
For the Algerians the struggle, carried out either by military or diplomatic means, is not in the least ambiguous. It is a war of national independence. But what is its nature for the French? It’s not a foreign war. The territory of France has never been threatened. But there’s even more; it is carried out against men who do not consider themselves French, and who fight to cease being so. It isn’t enough to say that this is a war of conquest, an imperialist war, accompanied by a racist supplement. There is something of this in every war, and the ambiguous nature of it remains.
In fact, in taking a decision that was in itself a fundamental abuse, the state originally mobilized entire classes of citizens with the sole goal of accomplishing what it called a police action against an oppressed population, one which had never revolted except out of concern for its basic dignity, since it demands that it at last be recognized as an independent community.
Neither a war of conquest nor a war of “national defense,” nor a civil war, the war in Algeria has gradually become an autonomous action on the part of the army and a caste that refuse to submit in the face of an uprising which even the civil power, aware of the general collapse of colonial empires, seems ready to accept.
Today, it is principally through the will of the army that this criminal and absurd combat is sustained,and this army, by the important political role that many of its higher representatives have it play — at times acting openly and violently outside any form of legality, betraying the ends confided in it by the nation — compromises and risks perverting the nation itself by forcing the citizens under its orders to become the accomplices of a seditious and degrading action. Must we be reminded that fifteen years after the destruction of the Hitlerite order, French militarism has managed to bring back torture and restore it as an institution in Europe.
It is under these conditions that many French men and women have come to put in doubt the meaning of traditional values and obligations. What is civic responsibility if, in certain conditions, it becomes shameful submission? Are there not cases where refusal is a sacred obligation, where “treason” means the courageous respect for the truth? And when, by the will of those who use it as an instrument of racist or ideological domination, the army shows itself to be in open or latent revolt against democratic institutions, does not revolt against the army take on a new meaning?
This moral dilemma has been posed since the beginning of the war. With the war prolonging itself, it is only normal that with greater frequency these moral choices are concretely made in the form of increasingly numerous acts of draft resistance and desertion, as well as those of protection and assistance to Algerian fighters. Free movements have developed on the margins of all the official parties, without their assistance and, finally, despite their disavowal. Outside of pre-established frameworks and orders, by a spontaneous act of conscience, once again a resistance is born; seeking and inventing forms of action and means of struggle in a new situation whose true sense and demands political groups and journals of opinion agree not to recognize, either out of inertia or doctrinal timidity, or from nationalist or moral prejudices.
The undersigned, considering that each of us must take a stand regarding acts which it is no longer possible to present as isolated news stories; considering that wherever they are and whatever their means, they have the obligation to intervene, not in order to give advice to men who have to make their own decision in the face of such serious problems, but to ask that those who judge them not to allow themselves to be caught up in the ambiguity of words and values, declare:
- We respect and consider justified the refusal to take up arms against the Algerian people.
- We respect and consider justified the conduct of those French men and women who consider it their obligation to give aid and protection to the Algerians, oppressed in the name of the French people.
- The cause of the Algerian people, which contributes decisively to the ruin of the colonial system, is the cause of all free men and women.
Arthur Adamov, Robert Antelme, Georges Auclair, Jean Baby, Hélène Balfet, Marc Barbut, Robert Barrat, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Louis Bedouin, Marc Beigbeder, Robert Benayoun, Maurice Blanchot, Roger Blin, Arsène Bonnefous-Murat, Geneviève Bonnefoi, Raymond Borde, Jean-Louis Bory, Jacques-Laurent Bost, Pierre Boulez, Vincent Bounoure, André Breton, Guy Cabanel, Georges Condominas, Alain Cuny, Dr Jean Dalsace, Jean Czarnecki, Adrien Dax, Hubert Damisch, Bernard Dort, Jean Douassot, Simone Dreyfus, Marguerite Duras, Yves Ellouet, Dominique Eluard, Charles Estienne, Louis-René des Forêts, Dr Théodore Fraenkel, André Frénaud, Jacques Gernet, Louis Gernet, Edouard Glissant, Anne Guérin, Daniel Guérin, Jacques Howlett, Edouard Jaguer, Pierre Jaouen, Gérard Jarlot, Robert Jaulin, Alain Joubert, Henri Krea, Robert Lagarde, Monique Lange, Claude Lanzmann, Robert Lapoujade, Henri Lefebvre, Gérard Legrand, Michel Leiris, Paul Lévy, Jérôme Lindon, Eric Losfeld, Robert Louzon, Olivier de Magny, Florence Malraux, André Mandouze, Maud Mannoni, Jean Martin, Renée Marcel-Martinet, Jean-Daniel Martinet, Andrée Marty-Capgras, Dionys Mascolo, François Maspero, André Masson, Pierre de Massot, Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Jehan Mayoux, Théodore Monod, Marie Moscovici, Georges Mounin, Maurice Nadeau, Georges Navel, Claude Ollier, Hélène Parmelin, José Pierre, Marcel Péju, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Edouard Pignon, Bernard Pingaud, Maurice Pons, J.-B. Pontalis, Jean Pouillon, Denise René, Alain Resnais, Jean-François Revel, Paul Revel, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Christiane Rochefort, Jacques-Francis Rolland, Alfred Rosner, Gilbert Rouget, Claude Roy, Marc Saint-Saëns, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean-Paul Sartre, Renée Saurel, Claude Sautet, Jean Schuster, Robert Scipion, Louis Seguin, Geneviève Serreau, Simone Signoret, Jean-Claude Silbermann, Claude Simon, René de Solier, D. de la Souchère, Jean Thiercelin, Dr René Tzanck, Vercors, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, J.-P. Vielfaure, Claude Viseux, Ylipe, René Zazzo.
MITCHELL ABIDOR is the principal French translator for the Marxists Internet Archive where a version of this translation first appeared. His books include, The Great Anger: Ultra-Revolutionary Writing in France From the Atheist Priest to the Bonnot Gang, Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told By Those Who Fought For It, the collection of Victor Serge’s writings on anarchism, Anarchists Never Surrender, selections from Jean Jaures’, Socialist History of the French Revolution, The Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the poetry of Benjamin Fondane and Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff.