The Rif rebellion in Morocco – an inspiring anticolonial uprising

This year marks the centenary of the Rif rebellion in Morocco, an anticolonial uprising by the Amazigh people – commonly known as the Berbers. Fighting against their Spanish colonial overlords, the leader Muhammad Ibn Abd al Karim al-Khattabi (1882/3 – 1963) was a skilled political and guerrilla commander whose tactics inspired Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara.

In Eastern Europe, the wartime ultranationalist Nazi collaborators and war criminals, heroised as freedom fighters by today far-right and nationalist politicians, should be condemned for what they were – fascist accomplices and racists whose ideology advocated genocidal violence against ethnic minorities. Their statues should be taken down – not for the purpose of ignoring history, but because their criminal ideology of white supremacy is a threat to humanity.

The Spanish enclave in Morocco faced a serious rebellion in 1921 by the people of the Rif mountains – mainly Berbers. Although France occupied Morocco, Spain carved out a portion of Moroccan territory in its bid to be a colonial power. The Riffian peoples, under Abd al-Krim’s leadership (that is the abbreviation of his name) fought Spanish troops to a standstill, and inflicted a humiliating loss on Spain at the Battle of Annual. The numerically superior Spanish army lost thousands of soldiers against the smaller and determined Berber guerrillas.

Abd al-Krim’s forces established the Rif republic – complete with a constitution, ministerial cabinet, courts, flag, telephone system, and plans to issue a currency. Waging a nationalist revolt, he also implicitly declared his opposition to the centuries-old Moroccan dynastic family, the Alawis, from whom the Sultan originated. The sultan had become a compliant figurehead, taking orders from Spain. So the Riffian republic was redefining Moroccan nationalism, and what a Berber state should look like.

The Riffian revolutionaries attempted to gain international recognition for their republic. In America, still in the grip of Wilsonian idealism, it was African American groups, such as the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who extended solidarity to the Berber guerrillas. France, which had by now joined Spain in a combined military effort to suppress the Rif rebellion, deployed Senegalese troops, from its west African colony, to break down interracial solidarity.

The French authorities, in their campaign to defeat the Rif insurgency, employed white American aviators to carry out aerial bombardments – which resulted in mass civilian casualties – of the Rif strongholds. Spanish forces used chemical weapons to crush the Rif republic.

By 1925, the colonial offensive was overwhelming, and the rebellion was defeated. However, the Rif republic’s example inspired neighbouring Algerians, in the decades that followed, to launch their successful anticolonial revolution against the French.

A young Spanish officer in the Rif war was Francisco Franco, who would go on to lead the 1936 ultrarightist uprising in Spain, plunging the country into civil war. He learned the ruthless tactics of scorched earth – and accompanying atrocities – when fighting in Morocco. In fact, the Spanish officers in the Rif developed an ultranationalist, white supremacist Africanist chauvinism.

It is important to stress that, because the ethnic chauvinist ideology that Spanish fascism advocated was strikingly similar to the Eastern European ultranationalist collaborators who served as auxiliaries to Nazi German imperialism. The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) claimed to be fighting both the USSR and Nazi Germany to achieve Ukrainian independence, but in reality cooperated with German fascism out of an ideological correspondence with the Nazi party.

The anticommunism of the OUN, similarly to other East European Nazi collaborators, was not borne out of any rational critique of Marxist philosophy, but was an extension of their vicious antisemitism. The Ukrainian, and Baltic, white supremacist insurgents did not make a thorough critique of Marx’s Das Kapital after reading its contents and hold political discussion clubs. Their anticommunism derived from the ultranationalist identification of Communism with Judaism. The latter, the alleged authors of socialist doctrine, were accused of masterminding a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy against the Ukrainian nation.

The ultranationalism of Eastern European collaborators was necessarily a racially paranoid, exclusive nationalism. Defining themselves in racially purist terms, the OUN, and similar groups, defined their nations as ethnically purified entities, purged of Jews, Roma, Russians and other undesirable elements. The armed militants of the OUN aided and abetted the genocidal Nazi project out of an ideological similarity with their German protectors.

When the Ukrainian authorities erect statues to Stepan Bandera, they are not merely remembering their history or respecting a ‘freedom fighter.’ They are advocating the cause of a racist killer, and rehabilitating the ideology he espoused. That is why it is important to support the Moscow-proposed UN general assembly resolution to condemn the glorification of Nazi collaborators, because by overlooking their criminal history, they are helping to revive racist doctrines today.

The anticolonial uprisings of the past, such as the Rif rebellion, contain many lessons for our times.

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