What We Are Reading – Mecca of Revolution


In the first of our new book review series, Elizabeth Banks is reviewing Jeffrey James Byrne’s Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization and the Third Word Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) ISBN: 9780199899142. If you have suggestions for works to be reviewed, please get in touch.

9780199899142Jeffrey James Byrne’s Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization and the Third Word Order is an international history of Algerian independence that uses Ben Bella’s FLN (Front de libération nationale) as a nexus from which to explore internationalism among Third World political elites in the second decade of the Cold War, from the first Bandung conference in 1955 to the eve of the second in 1965. Byrne begins his account with the claim that decolonization created a world that is more state-centric than ever before, and goes on to trace how anti-colonial elites shifted from active, vibrant and multifaceted international cooperation that opened up possibilities, to a mutually reinforcing state-centred world order in which international institutions are used to hold up the nation state. Among scholars of African de-colonization, Byrne is far from the first to point out that the nation state was not the only post-imperial future imagined by anti-colonial activists. But Mecca of Revolution stands out in how clearly the author demonstrates both the vibrancy of post-imperial possibilities and the process by which this openness to transnational possibilities disappeared into a single state-centred vision. This, in turn, foreclosed the types of international imaginings that made the third world movement possible in the first place.

Byrne’s first two chapters, “Method Men” and “Our Friends Today” cover the period from FLN’s founding in 1954 through Algeria’s independence in 1962. In “Method Men,” Byrne side-steps the ideology/practice divide that permeates – and limits – so much scholarly endeavour by demonstrating that his elite actors understood ideologies primarily as “competing practices of political organization” rather than sets of ideas (18), and prioritised action over discussion. The chosen methods that Byrne names as central to third world internationalism were armed struggle, which FLN used to build Algeria from the ground up, and diplomacy, which was used to reinforce sovereignty from the outside. The second chapter, “Our Friends Today,” explores the wide political and geo-political variety of FLN’s third world milieu, and argues that diplomacy was activism for this generation of third world leaders through the example of the setting up of FLN representation in newly-independent Ghana and Guinea, even before Algeria herself gained independence. The insights of the first two chapters follow into the third and middle chapter of the book, “Real Existing Third Worldism,” which follows Ben Bella and members of his government in their efforts to secure Algeria’s economic independence through diplomatic relations with a wide range of benefactors from East, West and South. The final two chapters also cover the first years of independence, and focus on the ways in which Ben Bella’s Algeria took up their new self-appointed role as leaders of Third World internationalism. In “The Allure of Globlalism,” Byrne recounts specific ways in which FLN elites converted their sense of self-identity as leaders of the non-aligned world into foreign policy by providing concrete support to new organizations such as the OAU as well as other national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. A major contribution of the final chapter, “Mecca of Impatience and Anxiety”, is the way in which Byrne uses the vantage point of the FLN to demonstrate not only how much national liberation movements played more powerful states off one another, but also how much these myriad world powers – of greater and lesser status – competed against one another for internationalist recognition in the Third World. In doing so, Byrne makes an argument for the great vibrancy of a multi-polar world order even in the earlier stages of the Cold War. The Mecca of Revolution ends in June 1965 when the Defence Minister Boumédiène removed Ben Bella in a coup, and the mantle of African transnational activism moved from Algiers to Dar es Salaam.

Byrne consciously builds on the “global turn” in Cold War studies, but departs from it through his choice of language and perspective. Mecca of Revolution, he says, is a history of the Third World’s Cold War and not of the Cold War in the Third World. The Third World’s Cold War, he argues, was never bi-polar, at least in part because the North-South differential was more significant than the East-West or even Sino-Soviet divide. Byrne uses the term “Third World” deliberately, seeking to reclaim the hopes for collective action against an integrated colonial system that this term offered anti-colonial activists from the Caribbean to Cape Town to Calcutta. This shared sense of purpose was integral to the Third World’s internationalism that Byrne charts in this book. Equally important was how the historical actors in Mecca of Revolution approached internationalism as a method of enacting connections – real or imagined – with another place, rather than simply a set of ideas about that place. Perhaps we might call this work an anti-intellectual history of a revolutionary movement? In either case, the idea of method obviates the ideology/practice question by combining theory and action into one analytical term that can be of use to scholars of internationalism working with different examples.

Mecca of Revolution consists of five dense, long chapters based on extensive archival research in Algeria, France, Serbia, the UK and the US, including national archives and those of international organizations; memoirs; and oral histories. In a way, Byrne’s method highlights an on-going challenge of studying internationalisms and the importance of luck. While Byrne makes very clear in his introduction that FLN was an exemplar and figurehead of the third world movement, the crux of his book is made possible by the fact that there are archives for him that allow the “thick layers” of description and subsequent analysis he provides. Would Algeria be such a useful case study if the paper trail had disappeared? Thankfully it did not as Mecca of Revolution offers insights to African, Cold War and International historians, as well as scholars of internationalism.

Elizabeth (Betty) Banks is a PhD candidate in the history department at New York University. Her dissertation is a cultural history of the political, economic and social relations between Mozambique and the Soviet Union 1962-91. She holds an MA in Russian Studies and has carried out extensive research in Russia and Mozambique with the support of the Mellon Foundation, ASEEES, and NYU’s Africa House. Her broader research interests include gender history, transnational history, political narratives, and the era of the Cold War. Betty can be contacted at