Reclaiming Sartre

Issue: 102

Rebecca Pitt

A review of Ian Birchall, Sartre Against Stalinism (Berghahn Books, 2004), £36.50

Jean-Paul Sartre is first and foremost known for his philosophical works, especially the seminal work of existentialism, Being and Nothingness. However, Sartre was also a biographer (of Flaubert, Genet and Baudelaire), novelist, and author of many articles on an extensive array of subjects—from the Vietnam War to the meaning of literature.

Sartre (1905-1980) lived through many of the great events of the 20th century. As Birchall points out in the introduction to Sartre Against Stalinism:

One of Sartre’s earliest political memories was of the Russian Revolution in 1917; he died just before the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980. His life thus encompassed the rise and fall of Eastern Bloc Communism. After witnessing the early days of Hitler in power, he lived through the Popular Front, the German Occupation and the crisis years of France’s disastrous colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria, before participating in the rebirth of the left in 1968.1

It is these key events which provide the structure to Sartre Against Stalinism’s understanding of Sartre’s political development.

The debate

Ian Birchall’s primary aim in Sartre Against Stalinism is to critically reclaim Jean-Paul Sartre for the anti-Stalinist left, in response to a variety of criticisms levelled at Sartre both during and after his lifetime. For example, Birchall cites the author and philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy’s recently translated Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century as examining Sartre’s political record from an anti-revolutionary perspective; alternatively, ‘many of Sartre’s sternest critics in recent years have come from the ranks of those who once shared his alleged illusions’.2 By switching their political allegiances, Sartre’s old allies became those who were quickest to condemn Birchall takes the ex-Maoists Claudie and Jacques Broyelle and the writer Michel-Antoine Burnier as cases in point. However, the most important criticism which Birchall discusses and which he also concludes is a ‘negative point’ for Sartre is Sartre’s 1952-1956 ‘four-year romance with the PCF’ (French Communist Party).3 The PCF was the largest left wing political party for the majority of Sartre’s lifetime and was also at least from its higher ranks Sartre’s most constant critic.

It is ironic then, as Birchall points out in his introduction, that ‘Sartre’s critics fail to explain why, if he was in fact such an abject and sycophantic admirer of Stalinism, the PCF felt the need to launch such violent denunciations of him’.4 With this in mind, it becomes apparent that it is difficult to argue that Sartre held a consistently Stalinist position when he was under almost constant attack from French Stalinism. In fact, Sartre’s political position is a complex one, in which Sartre frequently appears to ‘embody the contradictions of a whole historical period’,5 requiring the type of historical analysis Birchall offers in order to make sense of the changes in his political allegiance.

In order to reclaim Sartre for the anti-Stalinist left, Sartre Against Stalinism reassesses Sartre’s politics and writings. To make this possible, two things are necessary for Birchall. First, criticisms of Sartre must be placed within their historical context. Sartre Against Stalinism does not base its structure around a list of criticisms of Sartre. Instead each criticism is analysed chronologically and within its wider political context.

Second, a fuller understanding of the French left must be developed than that of previous commentators, who have been content to argue that the French left were a homogeneous grouping. As Birchall points out, this skewed understanding of French politics is not helped by Sartre’s refusal at various times to acknowledge that there were elements within the French left more left wing than the PCF.6 In fact there was a small but resolute anti-Stalinist left in France, many of whom, such as activists Colette Audry and Daniel Guérin, were in close contact with Sartre. Birchall makes it clear that from the 1930s Sartre was exposed to anti-Stalinist ideas through his personal relationships with people like Audry and Guérin. For example, Audry visited POUM leaders during the Spanish Civil War,7 while Guérin was more perceptive than most of the French left in understanding the true nature of fascism.8 What is noticeable in Sartre Against Stalinism is that, unlike other critics of Sartre, for example the intellectuals of the PCF, Audry and Guérin were both critical but constructive in their approach to Sartre’s political development. Their debates with Sartre were also public ones—Sartre critiqued Guérin in The Problem of Method and both were contributors to Les Temps Modernes. Sartre also defended Audry against the PCF’s criticisms during his period of closest alliance with the PCF.9 This understanding and separation of different elements of the French left is one of the strengths of Birchall’s book.
Sartre’s philosophical background

In assessing Sartre’s writing, Sartre Against Stalinism does not attempt to examine Sartre’s philosophical ideas fully. One can, after all, either consult the texts themselves or look at one of the many commentaries devoted purely to explaining Sartre’s philosophy. However, Birchall does devote sections to discussing Sartre’s philosophy. First, Birchall looks at Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism, originally a 1945 lecture, which also contains a debate that took place between Sartre and the Marxist Pierre Naville. Another section focuses on The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), its introduction The Problem of Method (1957), and shorter texts that were written during this period.

The reason for these inclusions becomes clear when these writings are put into perspective. Birchall perceives The Critique of Dialectical Reason and The Problem of Method as examples where Sartre ‘paradoxically…had begun to construct a philosophy on the basis of a reluctance to make a clear choice for or against Stalinism’.10 For Birchall, Sartre’s reassessment of his philosophical position arose from the political contradictions of the time.11 The Problem of Method and both volumes of The Critique of Dialectical Reason discuss the nature of historical materialism and dialectics, and attack deterministic interpretations of Marxism. Sartre also develops the individualistic understanding of freedom and of what it means to be a human being in Being and Nothingness into a discussion of the relation of individuals to history and different types of groups (including classes), with reference to examples such as the French Revolution. Existentialism was, from now on, to become a subsection of Marxism, ‘a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge, which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated’.12 For Sartre, ‘Knowledge’ is Marxism, which he refers to as ‘the humus of every particular thought and the horizon of all culture’ and which cannot be surpassed unless a radical change of our current conditions occur.

That ‘political contradictions’ had an effect on Sartre’s philosophical thought is difficult to deny. In The New York Review of Books in 1975, Sartre emphasised the importance of Russia’s repressive role in the Hungarian uprising in 1956 as the impetus for distancing himself from the PCF. Subsequently, he notes that ‘writing the The Critique of Dialectical Reason represented for me a way of settling my accounts with my own thought outside of the Communist Party’s sphere of influence over thought. I felt that true Marxism had been completely twisted and falsified by the Communists’.13 Similarly, the year before in 1974, in a series of ‘Conversations’ with Simone de Beauvoir taped in Rome (constituting the majority of her Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre), Sartre does not deny that post-1952 (the beginning of his close involvement with the PCF) his interest in Marxism rapidly increased.14 However, shortly after this point in the interview, he also mentions his growing interest in ‘dialectics’ post Being and Nothingness.

Sartre’s earlier works such as Existentialism and Humanism and Being and Nothingness express ‘Sartre’s basic message that the world can be changed; that we are free to change it; and if we fail to do so we bear the responsibility’.15 Birchall does not attempt to develop a full analysis of existentialism he barely discusses Being and Nothingness. His main focus instead is to expose the nature of Sartre’s debate with Pierre Naville (‘a longstanding revolutionary socialist’16 ) on the relation of existentialism to politics, which is reprinted at the end of Existentialism and Humanism. Birchall makes it clear that this kind of encounter was very different to those Sartre had with the PCF: the head of the PCF, Maurice Thorez, for example, had condemned Sartre’s ideas as ‘the existentialist putrescence’ showing the threat that the PCF perceived from Sartre.17

That Sartre’s interest in freedom was not purely philosophical is made clear in the example of Sartre’s 1943 occupation play The Flies. The Flies originates from the Greek myth of Electra and Orestes, and discusses the nature of fate and freedom via a comparison of Electra and Orestes’ reactions to matricide committed as revenge. Yet the play, Sartre commented in 1947, was an attempt to show that ‘remorse was not the attitude Frenchmen should choose after our country’s military collapse. Our past no longer existed… But the future even though an enemy army was occupying France was new…we were at liberty to make it a future of the defeated or a future of free men’.18 Birchall recognises there was a tactical reason why Sartre chose to initiate performances of The Flies during the occupation. The Flies was intended to make clear to the French people that they were responsible for how they responded to the occupation. With this in mind, it becomes obvious that the writer Gilbert Joseph’s criticism of Sartre for collaborating with occupying forces by allowing his work to be performed fails to understand the very objective of the play.19
Putting Sartre in perspective

In 1974 Simone de Beauvoir (philosopher, novelist and author of The Second Sex) asked Sartre how he perceived the relation between himself and organised politics. He replied:

Whenever I committed myself in one way or another to politics and carried out an action, I never abandoned the idea of freedom. On the contrary, every time I acted I felt free. I’ve never belonged to a party… I have…been in touch with various groups but without belonging to them.20

This makes it clear that there was never a formalised relationship between Sartre and the PCF following their ‘four-year romance’ in the 1950s. He refers in the same interview to French Maoism – which he was interested in during the 1968 period – and to the fact that he could not completely ‘commit’ himself to one political organisation. In the introduction to his book, Birchall discusses why this may have been the case, pointing to the nature of revolutionary organisations as being ‘always the choice of the future against the present’ as a possible cause.21 The size and standing of the PCF were to remain an issue fundamental to assessing the meaning of political actions for Sartre as late as 1956.22

As Birchall points out, despite his lack of party membership Sartre often represents a more principled and consistent position than political parties of the left. One example is Sartre’s support (for Dominique Desanti of the Socialisme et Liberté group) during the occupation for the Trotskyist position that every German was not necessarily a Nazi, and did not necessarily support the Nazi regime.23 This was in direct opposition to the nationalism of the PCF, which had ‘among its slogans…”Chacun son boche” (Let everybody kill a German)’.24

Birchall not only tackles critics of Sartre but also uses his conclusion to draw together what he sees as the genuinely ‘negative’ points of Sartre’s political conduct. Likewise, he also has a number of ‘positive’ conclusions drawn from his contextualisation of Sartre’s life.

There are several areas which Birchall identifies as ‘positive points’ in Sartre’s favour with respect to anti-Stalinism:

(1) Les Temps Modernes: Sartre co-founded this left wing journal with fellow philosopher Merleau-Ponty in 1945. Even during the 1950s, when Sartre became closer to the PCF, Birchall makes it clear that Les Temps Modernes remained a non-aligned forum for debate.25

(2) Sartre’s involvement in the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly (RDR): The RDR was formed in early 1948 as a response to the Cold War, the Stalinist PCF and Gaullism, and made clear where its principles lay:

Between the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of freedom and human dignity by binding them to the struggle for social revolution.26

Formed as a left wing anti-Stalinist assembly, the RDR was able to ‘achieve a larger membership than any Trotskyist grouping between 1945 and 1968’.27 However, as Birchall points out, the RDR contributed to its own downfall by failing to provide a clear position on the quickly developing political situation.

(3) Sartre’s record on opposing different forms of oppression: Birchall emphasises Sartre’s lifelong anti-racism and anti-imperialism as two ‘positive points’ of Sartre’s life. He notes, ‘For Sartre racism, and the associated phenomena of fascism, colonialism and imperialism, were a central concern from his very earliest works to the very end of his life… Racism was not simply an obsession with Sartre, it was a key element which provided the bridge between writing and action’.28 Sartre’s views on racism are not central to his philosophy but are certainly indicative of his specific thoughts on freedom.

The relation between ‘writing and action’ is important to understanding that Sartre did not conceive of politics as separate from philosophical discourse. Birchall gives the example of Sartre’s concept of ‘bad faith’ (an idea developed in Being and Nothingness) and how it relates to racism while pointing out racism’s political importance. Likewise in Anti-Semite and Jew Sartre discusses the philosophical idea of ‘authenticity’ in relation to anti-Semitism.

Sartre wrote about (in Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism), and supported, many anti-colonialist causes. Sartre comments in one of the ‘Conversations’ with de Beauvoir that ‘it was certainly original freedom that made me at 16 look upon colonialism as an anti-human brutality, as an action that destroyed men for the sake of material interests. The freedom that made me a man made colonialism something abject. In making me a man it destroyed other men and for that reason setting myself up as a man meant being opposed to colonialism’.29 Birchall offers many examples where Sartre allies himself with the oppressed. This is especially the case with regard to the French colonies. Sartre, during his time in the RDR, spoke out in 1948 against colonialism in relation to Morocco and later supported the Algerian struggle for independence—criticising the PCF’s position, signing the 1960 ‘Manifesto of the 121’ and using Les Temps Modernes as a clear anti-colonialist platform for debate. Sartre Against Stalinism emphasises the importance of Sartre’s opposition to the Algerian War by dedicating a whole chapter to the issue.

Birchall also notes that it is important to recognise that Sartre was not just anti-colonialist and anti-racist. In the 1952 book Saint Genet ‘Sartre canonised the homosexual thief and jailbird as a “saint”…provok[ing] a widespread homophobic response’.30 Sartre could not have failed to realise that at that time he was addressing the difficult, if unacknowledged, issue of homophobia – Daniel Guérin, on the anti-Stalinist left, ‘failed to see the link between “patriarchal, bourgeois and capitalist society” and “the repression of sexuality”.’31 Meanwhile the PCF was in a dangerous position: ‘On the one hand, the PCF’s theory reduced all questions of oppression to a mechanical model of class; at the same time, in practice the PCF often capitulated to the most backward prejudices of its proletarian membership’.32 As a response to Saint Genet the PCF conspicuously failed to review the book.33 Birchall therefore argues that Sartre never retreated from examining ‘questions of oppression’.

Furthermore, Birchall makes the case for consistency in Sartre’s opposition to oppression. In April 1980, shortly before his death, Sartre returned to the subject of Genet and homosexuality in an interview for Le Gai Pied – he also ‘observed that both fascism and Stalinism had committed terrible crimes against homosexuals’.34 Besides reinforcing Sartre’s anti-Stalinism – Sartre could hardly be a wholesale supporter of Stalin if he was criticising its ‘terrible crimes’- Birchall also notes that ‘the interview revealed a remarkable continuity with Sartre’s work of earlier decades’.35 For Birchall, it is Sartre’s steadfast return to all types of ‘questions of oppression’ which is one of the most consistent and compelling arguments for a reclaiming of Sartre to an overall anti-Stalinist position.

(4) 1968: Birchall is keen to stress that Sartre was also clearly politically radicalised by the events of 1968. He cites three ‘positive points’ in his conclusion which relate to Sartre’s role during this period. It was during this period that Sartre not only quite literally took to the streets and involved himself in activities such as selling political papers (La Cause du Peuple),36 but also greatly involved himself with the student movement. Sartre Against Stalinism also makes it clear that it was 1968 that provided the impetus for Sartre’s final severing of relations with the PCF.

(5) The Problem of Method: Birchall is keen to stress the anti-Stalinist nature of The Problem of Method as an important addition to the literature of the period in assessing the aftermath of Khrushchev’s speech on Stalin and the events in Hungary of 1956.

There are three ‘negative points’ which Birchall takes into account, following his analysis of Sartre’s political record:

(1) 1952-1956: Birchall makes it clear that the political situation during this period was complex. Although Sartre had a close relationship with the PCF at this point, he also remained in contact with the anti-Stalinist left. However, as Birchall notes in his conclusion, Sartre committed himself in writing and action to a pro-Communist viewpoint during this period. For example, Sartre’s report on the state of the USSR following a visit in 1954 was ‘a naively uncritical view of Russian society…[in which Sartre] made some appallingly dishonest claims about the freedom of criticism permitted there’.37

(2) The Critique of Dialectical Reason: Birchall’s second ‘negative point’ criticises Sartre’s two-volume Critique for failing to achieve its aims and for remaining unfinished. Although Sartre disappoints the reader by failing to complete the work, he himself did not see this as particularly problematic. Admitting in his ‘Conversations’ with de Beauvoir that the constraints of both time and the relevance of what he was writing to the present-day situation affected his ability to finish various writing projects, he says, ‘It’s not a disaster that they are unfinished, because people who are interested in those things could finish them or produce similar works’.38 Although not an entirely satisfactory defence of Sartre, against Birchall one must take into account Sartre’s own conception of his work and its importance. However, it is true that the Critique was written as a response to Stalinism and that Sartre did not finish this work.

(3) Sartre’s ‘failure to provide adequate strategic guidance for the revolutionary left in the 1960s and 1970s’: Sartre Against Stalinism argues that even during the last decades of his life Sartre did not have a clear political analysis which could offer ‘guidance’ to ‘the revolutionary left’. However (as is seen in the last chapters of the book), Sartre often used his status to further left wing causes during this period. It must also be remembered that during the 1970s Sartre was to undergo a steady decline into ill health, which must have affected the amount of time he could dedicate to political causes.


Sartre Against Stalinism provides a useful and accessible historical analysis of Sartre’s writings and politics, and offers a full, convincing and critical account of why Sartre should be reclaimed to an anti-Stalinist position, in response to other accounts which Sartre Against Stalinism discusses that appear more selective in their approach to Sartre’s political record (such as Burnier). Sartre Against Stalinism also achieves its goal of providing a useful analysis of the anti-Stalinist left in France during this period. However, there are several points which are underdeveloped in Birchall’s analysis of Sartre.

First, there is the fundamental question of why it is necessary to reclaim Sartre to an anti-Stalinist position. Birchall does not tackle this question explicitly, citing the need to re-examine the facts surrounding criticisms made of Sartre’s political conduct and to reveal the richness of Sartre’s political influences. Yet Sartre Against Stalinism is not a book fuelled by altruism or the mere desire to give Sartre ‘a fair hearing’. Birchall consistently points out that Sartre’s understanding of freedom and responsibility is important for understanding his stance on issues such as colonialism and racism, and in the conclusion states that Sartre’s conception of human freedom is ‘more lasting’ than the political issues he had to engage with. Yet Sartre’s philosophical views on freedom are not explicitly brought out as a separate ‘positive point’ for his political record and serve as background to his ‘positive’ record on anti-racism.

Second, Sartre Against Stalinism could have developed – and, admittedly, it is slightly out of its remit – its analysis of postmodernism post-1968. Birchall emphasises the difference between the fragmentary nature of understanding the world that postmodernism presents and Sartre’s views on freedom and responsibility, but does not develop a fuller analysis of the relationship between Sartre and later thinkers. It is certain that Sartre was not unaware of postmodernism (people such as Foucault were involved in various forums held by Les Temps Modernes) and it would have been interesting to see more information on the politics of the postmodernists in comparison to Sartre.

Third, Sartre Against Stalinism claims Sartre is anti-oppression, but does not further explore how this fits with Sartre’s relation to Israel. Birchall argues that Sartre’s sympathy for Zionism is irrelevant to the overall project of Sartre Against Stalinism.39 However, it would have been beneficial to the book’s claim that Sartre is against oppression if this area had been developed more fully.

Birchall’s overall project is to examine Sartre’s relation to Stalinism and the anti-Stalinist left. Therefore, if the reader requires a deeper analysis of Sartre’s philosophical ideas or life, biographies such as Ronald Hayman’s Writing Against: A Biography of Sartre and Joseph Catalano’s A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ would be of use. However, as a clear outline of Sartre’s relation to the French left Sartre Against Stalinism is an interesting and informative read.

In addition to this, it is not just a reclamation of Sartre for an anti-Stalinist position that is important to Birchall, but also the relevance of his work to the left today. Although huge political changes – Birchall cites the fall of the Berlin Wall as one such event – have occurred since Sartre’s death, Sartre Against Stalinism points out that there is much more for ‘a new generation’ of activists to be engaged with in Sartre’s writings than his somewhat outdated debates with Stalinism. As Birchall notes in his conclusion, Sartre’s writings on ‘human freedom’ and responsibility have the potential to provide a powerful antidote to the idea that resistance and change to the capitalist system we live in today is impossible.40


1. I Birchall, Sartre Against Stalinism (Berghahn, 2004), p1.

2. As above, p3.

3. As above, p214.

4. As above, p4.

5. As above, p335.

6. As above, pp9-10.

7. As above, p47.

8. As above, pp41, 22.

9. As above, p223.

10. As above, p280.

11. See above, pp279-280.

12. J-P Sartre, The Problem of Method (Methuen, 1963), p8.

13. The New York Review of Books, vol 22, no 13, 7 August 1975.

14. S de Beauvoir, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (Penguin, 1985). See discussion around p172.

15. I Birchall, as above, p2.

16. As above, p105.

17. As above, p87.

18. M Contat and M Rybalka (eds), Sartre on Theater (Quartet Books, 1976), p191.

19. I Birchall, as above, p66.

20. S de Beauvoir, as above, p367.

21. I Birchall, as above, p10.

22. As above, p325.

23. As above, p61.

24. As above.

25. As above, p221. Especially with reference to Birchall’s analysis of Les Communistes et la paix on p215.

26. As above, p152.

27. As above, see ch 8.

28. As above, p129.

29. S de Beauvoir, as above, p367.

30. I Birchall, as above, p204.

31. As above, p206.

32. As above, p128.

33. As above, p207.

34. As above, p356.

35. As above, p356.

36. As above, p351; R Hayman, Writing Against: A Biography of Sartre (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), p408.

37. I Birchall, as above, p220.

38. S de Beauvoir, as above, p410.

39. I Birchall, as above, pp331-332.

40. As above, p364.