Gilbert Naccache died in Paris on December 26, 2020. He was 81 years old. To pay tribute to him, we are republishing the interview we had with him in April 2011.
Fausto Giudice: We are in Tunis, April 30, 2011, on the eve of May 1. This interview is a first collaboration between Thawrah TV, a revolutionary online TV that is a work in progress; Tlaxcala, the international network of translators; Rebelión, the website of the Spanish-language left and Radio Fréquence Paris Plurielle, which broadcasts in the Paris region. If we wanted to interview you, Gilbert, it is because, whether you like it or not ...
Gilbert Naccache: I’m good looking ...
FG: ... you are good looking, but mostly you are one of the most veteran Tunisian revolutionary militants still with us, since you were born in 1939. You started as a Tunisian Communist Party activist in the fifties, then after a transition, according to your memoir, a not very successfully one, to Trotskyism and the Fourth International, you were led to the Tunisian Perspectives group1 and the prison at Borj El Roumi in 1968, and you thus spent nearly10 years in the jails of Bourguiba, the Supreme Commander.
NG: First of all I welcome this collaboration among these media and I think the solidarity it expresses
is an excellent thing and further proof of that Tunisian revolution is opening up internationally. This revolution is not a nationalist movement, traditionalist or conservative, it is a movement that is in today's world, which latched onto all the instruments of modern communication and, as such, cannot accept the values of the past. And for me that's great news.
With regard to my journey through life, I reject nothing from this route, in other words for me it was all very successful. I went from one movement to another, one set of certainties to another set of certainties, then to a number of reasonable doubts and, finally, I believe, to a critical thinking, through that which there were the best at the time when I did it. I must say, as much as the passages through the traditional Communist and Trotskyite world were passages of theoretical education, so was the transition to Perspectives a dive into action and the coordination of theory with the practice of youth, and it is perhaps because of this that today I am able to be on the side of the revolution and not the side of giving lessons in how to behave, because I lived the experience of the rebellious youth and I participated with it in its rebellion, although I was already not very young at that time.
So my path made me stick to the revolution ... viscerally and I must say that if I can bring something to the revolution, it has already given me more than anything I could bring. Therefore, I can refuse nothing, including interviews with questioners of debatable intelligence.
FG: Ah haha ha! He’s such a nice guy! ... He is really a sweetheart; he insults the comrades who interview him! Since I returned to Tunisia, for the first time since Ben Ali took over in 1987, I met with all the old comrades from Perspectives and then the young revolutionaries and what I noticed with the comrades was that, in the end, this group Perspectives did not evolve as did the equivalent groups in Europe, the leftist groups, the majority of whose well-known militants have long since largely betrayed their ideals of youth to become, as they say in Africa, "Great Somebodies," such as ministers, apologists for NATO, militarists, neoliberals, etc. And I see that in the historical militants of Perspectives, there was virtually no traitor, with a few rare exceptions. And another feature that strikes me is that I get the impression that there was a transmission from your generation to generation of those 20-25 years old today, those who are the main revolutionary force, skipping past the generation between. What do you think of this assessment? Is it correct?
GN: I do not know. In terms of betrayal, I have to say yes. I’ve said it myself on several occasions: What there is in Perspectives that is extraordinary is that the impulse that inspired us, that drove us forward, was sincere. None of us made the least calculation and I can’t stop myself from remembering (Michel) Foucault, who, when asked about May ’68, replied: "I have seen March ’68 in Tunis and I can’t go wild about May ’68 [in Paris], witnessing the poppas’ boys who were revolting against their fathers, when I had seen young people go to the slaughter, not to do battle with their fathers, not for forms of self-assertion, but animated by true ideals and ready to die for them." So yes, our generation is a generation of people without egotistical interests, of motivated people who wanted to participate in the construction of Tunisia and who were prevented by Bourguiba. We had not understood at the time what the Bourguiba regime really was, we did not understand the dynamics of the one-party system and we certainly made many mistakes, but there are things that all these people have always been unanimous about, and that is that freedom cannot be divided nor is it negotiable.
Still, there are a few of us who bargained for their freedom. We could locate them as ministers for Ben Ali ... but very few ...
FG: ... or ambassadors to UNESCO ...
GN: ... No, ministers for Ben Ali, but only a very few of them, one or two, and that's true even of people who have justified what might be called treason -- which they presented as a quest for effectiveness -- a design that was not clear, which was not accurate, but was implied, of a relationship with power. We can change things, they said, and they believed it, by taking power and influencing the leadership. It was not necessarily a treacherous position, it was a wrong position and a little paternalistic, right in line with the movements of the Bourguiba regime and all the revolutionary movements of the time, so I do not too blame even them.
FG: It was in the end a variant of entryism?
GN: Yes, it was a quest for effectiveness. There are things that accompanied this journey, and that are less attractive when it came to defending Ben Ali’s repression of the Islamists, and there was some confusion between principles and day-to-day policies -- that’s much more debatable -- but I must say that all these people who participated in Perspectives remained people with principles, who tried to apply their principles to what they did. Good or bad, their principles were to try to change the situation and regarding that, I have to admit that we took a very different path from that of the French or even the European far left, but it is above all because we had really no choice. People in the European far left confronted a very strong civil society, some strong structures that were able to win them back, which could offer opportunities individually or even collectively -- like the research centers where they were able to participate -- which involved them in the reconstruction of society post-May ’68. Maybe if the Bourguiba regime or the regime of Ben Ali had offered to have us participate as intellectuals in the construction, or reconstruction of the regime, maybe we would have had the same fate. But it was our fortune, intellectually speaking, of course, to live in a repressive regime that has always been suspicious of every word showing a difference. Therefore, it did not offer us the opportunity for betrayal. So we should receive no merit for not having betrayed.
FG: Ultimately, the result of this exclusion is the urban chaos of a city like Tunis, it is the catastrophic state of teaching and education, which according to what people have told and shown me, produces graduates who are bilingual illiterates. Maybe if this 68er generation had been in the business, it would have happened a little differently. Maybe ...
GN: Maybe. Or perhaps after a transition to places of reflection and conception, these people would have passed along to places of corruption and perhaps they would have been like others. No, we cannot remake history. Still, the alumni of Perspectives, despite all the leaves they have taken from the revolution, remained mainly people who were at least very progressive and very open and willing to understand and participate in what is happening. That said, I do not agree with most of them in detail but I cannot say they have crossed a line of some kind. None participated in a real way in the 23 years of Ben Ali, none had really supported Bourguiba, so I am very proud to have been part of an organization that although it has perhaps been unable to take power and transform society, has nevertheless transformed its members. I go back to your question: it is no coincidence if our ideas, in various forms, processed, diluted or otherwise, have survived. We were a generation that at a given moment, gathered together almost all those who were thinking people, at the University, that is to say that in five years, we had to educate perhaps several thousand people. And what is remarkable is that these thousands of people who were not formally members of the organization are nevertheless people who have transmitted these values to their children, they have transmitted a spirit, a look. So that when my book came out*, for example, they all rushed out for it, some finding the spirit of their youth, others finding out a little of what their parents were, what their parents did. And today I am very moved and very impressed by the fact that my book -- which was basically what? Testimony on a life’s journey, on a period -- this book still has an extremely powerful echo. So it proves that not only speaks to people involved, let us say to people of the past, but it also speaks to youth, it speaks to them of the future.
It proves that Perspectives was not a movement rooted in the past: Through its many openings, it offered and still offers some opportunities to dream. Because revolution -- it is first of all a dream.
FG: I am very struck because I get the impression that your generation, a generation of grandparents, is in tune with the generation of children and grandchildren who made the revolution of December 2010-February 2011. Finally, do you not think that this Tunisian revolution, which is really still under way, which is far from being complete, it is very 68-ish?
GN: I would go even further: the revolution of Tunisia is the only one in the world in which they killed the father. This strange civil society, apparently illiterate, without consciousness, unorganized, did what the people of May ’68 in France failed to do, it did what our generation did not even considered really doing: it killed its father. Now it agrees to accept step-fathers, that is to say, people who watch over it, that will eventually sustain themselves, but which have no authority, and they can say to them, "Oh no! You're not my father!" And this is very important: you spoke of May ’68. About May ’68, for a while they said that and then at some point, the magic was gone and [Jacques] Sauvageot and [Daniel] Cohn-Bendit***** led the assault against City Hall and they passed over from an uncontrollable revolt that offered no opening for repression, to an attempted coup that no longer had anything original and that the power in France knew how to confront ...
FG: ... easily controlled ...
GN: So, de Gaulle went from the craziest wandering among [Gen. Jacques] Massu and his advisers - he could no longer find anything he needed -- to a return to traditions. Here, there is no such thing: you cannot checkmate this revolution in Tunisia because you do not know how to grab hold of it. They went down to the Qasbah, they were at the door of the Prime Minister, it would have been enough just to push open the door, it was simple: They push the door, they say "Get out" to the people and settle down in their place. They did not. They said: "We do not want the power" but they also said: "We want to control the power." And they were asked, "But who are you, you people?" And the cops were brought in to dislodge them. When the cops came the people said, "You in Tunis, you believe that we cannot decide. But no: You cannot do things that we do not agree to. And we will stay there until you do them." And they stayed there until the government decided to call a Constituent Assembly. Of course, the interim government tried to maneuver, it tried to pit one portion of the population against the other, but it failed. Tunisia won the revolution step by step, up until the decision to make the Constituent Assembly. But it's still not over. The organized counter-revolution, more or less supported by the interim official authority, because the counter-revolution, that is to say, the RCD, is largely linked to the PSD,** that some of the financiers of the current regime are people who were connected to the most corrupt elements of the regimes of Bourguiba and of Ben Ali regime since its early stages, thus this power is sensitive to this kind of pressure and it does everything to block, to restrict the revolution to being a simple transition, that is to say, a transition between Ben Ali the wicked and Jegham or Morjane or anyone else the good***. But the revolution will not stop, it will find a way, it will seize the Constitution to transform the structures of the state, to impose another form of the state and, in any case, as it was able, at a brief moment in the past, to bring together all classes of society against the one-party system, it will certainly be able to do it again in the future and move forward.
It'll take the time it needs, but I think it will do it soon, because, it is confronting the living-dead and the symbol of the living-dead is terrible: we are dealing with a president of the Republic on an interim basis who is ill, a prime minister who is almost ninety and who leads in the name of a revolution made by young people under 25 years old. It is not possible that it should last a long time, if only because of the progress of the disease and the inevitable consequences of aging. It is unthinkable that old people already half in the grave can lead young people who have their whole future ahead of them.
To return to your question, to the astonishment that people of my generation should be in unison with their children or grandchildren, it can be joined to the first question, that is to say, that the people of my generation you speak of, are people of principle and when you have principles, you can make mistakes, you may hesitate, but you have guidelines, you have a compass and our principles were in any case the principles of refusal of absolute and arbitrary authority. And on this point at least, the revolution has joined with Perspectives: The fact that we did not want to allow the Father of the Nation to tell us what to, what was for our own good, we join the revolution, we join these young people who say, "Get out!" to whoever wants to teach them how to behave. No lessons, no intimidation. We believe - well, I think and I think my friends think so too - that our role is more than one of political leadership that we have to play more or less within certain limits, it is much more than that, it is a role of transmission, the role of intermediaries. We are intermediaries.
We have experience, we had an activity, we reflected, we had come following generations of activists, in a climate that has nothing to do with one today, so we have a responsibility: it is to tell people, young people, that's what happened, that's how it was, that's how we moved from Tunisia of Ben Ghedahem ****, that is to say, of the tribes that rebelled against the Bey, to colonialism, to the Protectorate, to the struggle against colonialism, to the confiscation of this struggle by a party that has become a one-party regime and which, along with its very important achievements -- because it needed them to reinforce its own rule - has gradually pulled Tunisia into nothingness, and you young people, who have refused this nothingness, you are actually going in full continuity of all the struggles that were waged against all the injustices that the Tunisian people suffered, perhaps from Elyssa *****, we know nothing of this.
FG: So if I understand correctly, there is a revolutionary movement in which large masses of young people are invested, which is polycentric, creative, simultaneously, that functions through networks and at its side, one foot in, one foot out, a sort of council of elders that illuminates this movement, without power, and without even wanting power. That's really the postmodern characteristics of the revolution. How will all this play out in terms of forming institutions? Do you think that Tunisia will be able to create the equivalent for the Arab-Berber-Mediterranean region that the Bolivians and Ecuadorians, with their multinational state, with their constitutions when they integrate Indigenous concepts such as the "good life"?
GN: It is the good fortune of Tunisia is to have been an urban country for a very long time. We are city dwellers. In this country, to be a city dweller means first agreeing to have neighbors, so inevitably to find a common ground, a basis for coexistence. The city dweller is someone who negotiates, negotiating his way of life, negotiating relationships and, therefore, coming more to reflection than someone who is not a city dweller and who reacts by impulse. That's the first advantage. The second, which may stem from the first, is that it is a cultured people, from a very long time ago -- it's not something that just happened today -- and that naturally produces leaders who have been leaders also regarding the development of culture, or at least of education. The result is that, whereas in conditions quite similar, Algerians rushed with stones and Molotov cocktails against security forces and finished by abandoning the struggle, Tunisians, virtually empty-handed, held on, because, in addition to the rebellion, there was consciousness that the situation was unacceptable ...
FG: It is the power of the mind ...
GN: Exactly, it is the strength of mind and spirit that had been nourished. You spoke earlier of a failed education, graduates who are often illiterate. Possibly, but you should compare the current situation to that which we inherited at independence. At independence, we had a very well-educated elite -- Sadiki College, French universities, etc., -- and an enormous mass that was completely illiterate, completely separated from modern life. Today we have a youth that is globally literate, perhaps to a limited degree, but the elite is numerically something like 100 times larger than it was before independence, so that we export brain workers, in conditions quite unequal, for we educate brains, we train people for dozens of years and we sell them at market prices in Europe. Normally, we should get paid for the education as well. A young software engineer who works in France costs about fifty times his annual salary before leaving. So, there will have to be some returns. The problem of Tunisian society, specifically, is that it is not able to give all these people who are trained any hope of succeeding in their country. Again, this is unforgivable: a regime that does not give hope to the youth cannot last.
So first of all the revolution was essentially an ideological leap. It was a burst of conscience against what prevented conscience from existing. And then, in parallel, it was a set of demands, for work, dignity, equality, and above all, it was the refusal -- of course, implicit, unconscious, unexpressed -- of this situation where the majority of young people were educated and where society could only reject them. And that is impossible. Society can reject people with no training -- as Pompidou said: "It is very difficult to lead a cultured people" -- but society cannot reject people who have culture, however little it may be, and Ben Ali is the evidence.
1- Perspectives tunisiennes was the name of the review published by the Tunisian Socialist Study and Action group (GEAST), a Marxist group which existed from 1963 to 1975 and was mostly known under the name of the review. The group was submitted to a strong repression by the Bourguiba regime.
* Qu'as-tu fait de ta jeunesse ? Itinéraire d'un opposant au régime de Bourguiba (1954-1979) suivi de Récits de prison [What have you done with your youth? A journey of an opponent to the Bourguiba regime (1954-1979) followed by Stories of prison], Éditions Les Mots passants, Tunis & du Cerf, Paris, 2009. Les Mots passants has just republished Crystal, written by Gilbert Naccache during his prison years (first edition 1982). By Gilbert Naccache, one can also read, Le Ciel est par-dessus le toit, Nouvelles, contes et poèmes de prison et d'ailleurs [Heaven is above the roof, news, stories and poems from prison and beyond], published by Cerf 2005. To be published in autumn 2011 by Les Mots passants: Vers la démocratie [Towards Democracy].
** PSD/DSP: Destourian Socialist Party, the name of the single ruling party in Tunisia from 1964 to 1988, when it was renamed RCD by Ben Ali.
*** Mohamed Jegham and Kamel Morjane: politicians of the RCD of Ben Ali. Jegham, who was interior and defense minister for Ben Ali, was approached for a moment as his successor. After the fall of Ben Ali he has created with Ahmed Friaâ the El Watan party. Kamel Morjane, lawyer and international civil servant, was the last foreign minister for Ben Ali, and was kept at this post by Mohamed Ghannouchi, until his resignation Jan. 27, 2011. He also created a party, Initiative.
**** Ali Ben Ghedahem: leader of the great revolt of 1864 against the Bey. He arrived with his army on the outskirts of Tunis, he was treacherously executed when he had come to negotiate with the Bey.
**** Elyssa: Phoenician founder of Carthage, according to Greek mythology; she was called Dido by the Romans.
*****Jacques Sauvageot and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Dany the red) were youth leaders of the May 1968 revolt in France.
Photos Fausto Giudice, Tlaxcala