Sartre’s century

Issue: 107

Ian Birchall

This year’s centenary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre will be an ambiguous affair.1 In France, and even in Britain, there will be academic conferences and articles in the more intellectually inclined papers and magazines. But enthusiasm will be distinctly restrained. As Lenin pointed out long ago, the bourgeoisie tries to convert dead revolutionaries into ‘harmless icons’.2 But Sartre – like Lenin himself – remains resistant to conversion. It is scarcely possible to deny that he was both a great writer and an important philosopher, but his political commitment still sticks in the throats of our rulers and their intellectual errand-boys.

His steadfast opposition to French colonialism in Algeria and American imperialism in Vietnam has all too many echoes for today’s occupation of Iraq. His insistence on the unity of theory and practice is anathema to the postmodernists, for whom the rejection of the ‘unitary subject’ provides the ideal alibi for intellectual and political inconsistency. Even on the socialist left some will try to prove their political virility by stressing their differences with Sartre rather than what they have in common.3 So we can expect tributes to Sartre to be qualified with quibbles about his role during the German Occupation,4 and above all with the claim that he was a supporter of Russian Stalinism.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s things looked very different. For those of us who discovered Sartre in the aftermath of the political crises of 1956 (Suez and Hungary), his plays and novels reflected on the one hand alienation and the loneliness of individual freedom, on the other a demand for responsibility, commitment and action. It was a potent combination at a moment when the old certainties of Stalinist Marxism had crumbled forever, and a new left was still struggling to be born. In France Sartre’s opposition to the Algerian War made him a hero for those campaigning against the war, many of whom went on to be leaders of the student revolt in 1968. In the 1960s Sartre and Bertrand Russell, the two most renowned living philosophers, albeit from very different traditions, came together to oppose the Vietnam War. They inspired many thousands of young people who joined the anti-war movement, and in May 1968 Sartre backed the insurgent French students from the very first day. In the aftermath of 1968, when he sold banned socialist newspapers on the streets to defy the state5 and addressed a meeting outside the Renault car factory, he seemed to embody the hope that Marxist theory and revolutionary practice were coming together for the first time since the 1920s.

h2. Sartre’s century

Even the French so called ‘new philosopher’ Bernard-Henri Lévy, hostile to Sartre’s politics, calls the 20th century Sartre’s century.6 He was born in the year of the Russian ‘dress rehearsal’ revolution of 1905 into a bourgeois family; one of his earliest political memories was of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He died just before the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980. His lifetime covers the historical epoch stretching from the birth of Leninism to the death of Stalinism. Sartre witnessed the great events of his lifetime, commented on most of them, and took part in a number of them. He lived through a period marked by violence and social upheaval.

He had a successful academic career in the inter-war years, studying in Berlin in 1933-1934, but scarcely seeming to notice the Nazi regime. He was then best known for his novel, _Nausea_ (1938). In 1940 he was taken prisoner by the German army, and spent time in a prisoner of war camp, where he wrote his first play. Later he returned to France and briefly attempted to organise a resistance grouping, Socialism and Liberty. In 1943 he published his first major philosophical work, _Being and Nothingness_.

After the war he became famous with several plays and novels; he launched the monthly journal _Les Temps modernes_, which was intended to publish political and literary material from an independent left standpoint. He was involved in the launch of the RDR, a movement that stood for a socialism independent of both Washington and Moscow. When this collapsed, Sartre moved for a time very close to the French Communist Party (PCF), though he preserved his political independence. But in 1956 he violently denounced the Russian invasion of Hungary, and broke his links with the PCF. In 1964 he refused the Nobel Prize.

The years 1939-1962, in which most of Sartre’s major work was produced, were a period of almost uninterrupted violent conflict for his native land. The German Occupation gave way almost immediately to national liberation struggles, first in Indochina, then in Algeria. The centrality of violence in Sartre’s work cannot be detached from this context. The question of racism, a central issue in the politics of the 20th century, was of great importance to Sartre. His 1946 book _Anti-Semite and Jew_ attempted to give a psychological and political explanation of anti-Semitism.

But if it is clear that Sartre’s work is deeply rooted in the events of his own time, is he relevant to the 21st century? For most of his life Sartre believed that the solution to the problems of humanity must consist in some sort of socialist reorganisation of society. For those who believe that the very idea of socialism is obsolete, Sartre’s work can have little value other than as purely aesthetic documents. Many would be only too glad to let Sartre’s corpse fester under the ruins of the Berlin Wall. But for those of us who believe that socialism – stripped of the monstrous deformations of Stalinism – still offers hope to humanity, Sartre’s work belongs not just to the 20th century, but also to the 21st.

h2. Existentialism

Sartre first became famous – or notorious – as the representative of the philosophy of existentialism. He did not choose the label; it was imposed on him. He was often caricatured as being a pessimistic philosopher, a gloomy figure who dwelt on the most squalid and miserable aspects of human existence. And some of his statements seem to justify such criticism. His novel, _Nausea_, depicts a young writer confronted by the absurdity of existence, the realisation that in a godless universe nothing has any meaning. It contains the statement: ‘Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance’.7

Sartre’s attack on conventional moral values and his defence of the oppressed made him a natural enemy for those on the political right. In the 1950s the young Jean-Marie Le Pen declared that ‘France is ruled by homosexuals: Sartre, Camus, Mauriac’.8 Sartre’s main philosophical work, _Being and Nothingness_, is several hundred pages long and frequently obscure, and it is not altogether surprising that Sartre’s philosophy was often misunderstood. However, some sections convey their message vividly, notably the section on what Sartre called ‘bad faith’ (the strategies we adopt to evade responsibility for our own freedom), with its portraits, almost like short stories, of the cafe waiter and the woman unsure how to respond to her lover’s advances.

A closer study of Sartre’s thought makes it clear that what characterises it above all is a vigorous and indeed scandalous optimism. Sartre acknowledged this in his 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, saying of his critics:

bq. Their excessive protests [against existentialism] make me suspect that what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism but, much more likely, our optimism… What is alarming in the doctrine…is…that it confronts man with a possibility of choice.9

The most fundamental assertion of Sartrean philosophy is that we are condemned to be free – free in all circumstances. Even with a gun held against my head, I can choose to resist – and die. Since we are free, we make the world – there are no external obstacles other than those we determine by the choice of our own projects. We are responsible for the world as it is – and free to make it other if we so choose. For Sartre there is no human nature: human society is something quite independent of the laws of nature. Hence society does not have to be as it is; it is possible to change the world. Each of us is free to accept or reject our condition in the world; even if we fail, we are always free to rebel. The laws of the economy are quite different from meteorological laws, since they result from human choice. There is no such thing as an ‘economic climate’.

Thus in _Being and Nothingness_ Sartre argues that ‘destruction is an essentially human thing and…it is man who destroys his cities through the agency of earthquakes’.10 Earthquakes are a human creation. If there were no human beings, an earthquake would be a purely meaningless movement of matter. It becomes a catastrophe only when it comes up against the human project of building a city. Sartre’s point is very relevant to the recent tsunami. This was not a simple ‘natural disaster’ or an ‘act of god’; the disaster was very largely the product of poverty, inadequate precautions and the fact that warning systems were too expensive.

The central theme of all Sartre’s work is the question of the unity of theory and practice. Sartre’s whole philosophy is geared to the fact of human action; it centres on the question of values, and hence is a highly moral philosophy, even though Sartre disavows any kind of conventional moralising. This sets him firmly in opposition to postmodernism, which is based on a quite willing disjunction of theory and practice, leading to a fatalistic attitude towards both knowledge and action.

This concern for the unity of theory and practice led Sartre to become less interested in pure philosophy or pure literature, and more directly interested in political questions. For Sartre writing was not an activity separate from other human practices that could be judged only by its own standards. In 1964 he caused great consternation when he stated in an interview that ‘alongside a dying child, _Nausea_ does not make the weight’.11 That he should put Third World starvation and a novel in the same scales seemed outrageous to many people. But such a comparison is central to Sartre’s whole worldview.

h2. Sartre and Marxism

Sartre’s concern with political action brought him into dialogue with Marxism. This was not only a dialogue with the intellectuals of the French Communist Party such as Roger Garaudy and Jean Kanapa, but also with a number of independent anti-Stalinist Marxists such as Pierre Naville, Claude Lefort and Daniel Guèrin.12

In 1960 Sartre published the _Critique of Dialectical Reason_, in which he proposed to reconcile existentialism with Marxism. It is a very long and difficult work; perhaps if Sartre had been less famous, his publisher might have sent him away to cut it to half the length, which might have been a great improvement. He never completed the second volume, and he certainly failed to resolve all the theoretical questions he had posed. But it does contain some very illuminating passages, notably the section on the bus queue and the storming of the Bastille discussed below.

For me, the question of whether Sartre was a Marxist does not seem very important – indeed, such questions easily become almost theological. What is important are the questions that Sartre asks about Marxism, the challenges he puts to Marxists. (In general Sartre is more interesting for the questions he asks than for the answers he gives.) Certainly in the period after 1956, when many Communist intellectuals in France and elsewhere broke with Stalinism and started looking for ways to renew Marxism, Sartre made an important contribution to the rebirth of Marxism as a critical and radical method of thought rather than a sterile dogmatism.

For Sartre one of the most important questions was the place of the individual human being in the Marxist explanation of the historical process. This had long been a preoccupation of Sartre, but it acquired additional relevance in the crisis of Marxism after 1956. In 1956 the Russian leader Khrushchev had given his so called ‘secret speech’ in which he denounced the crimes of Stalin. But Khrushchev’s account was very much a psychological account. It is undoubtedly true that Stalin was an extremely unpleasant and brutal person – what Khrushchev did not and could not explain was why such an unpleasant individual had become all-powerful in a so called workers’ state.

In the introduction to the _Critique of Dialectical Reason_ Sartre discussed Marxist literary criticism and the ways in which Marxist critics had analysed the French poet Valéry. As he put it, ‘Valéry is a petty bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petty bourgeois intellectual is Valéry’.13 It is important to point out that Sartre was not innovating here, but rather reviving a current in Marxism which had been suppressed by Stalinism. At the time of the rise of Hitler Leon Trotsky had written, ‘Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but an article of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois’.14

By raising the question of the role of the individual in Marxism, Sartre asked important questions for political practice which had been neglected in the classic Marxist tradition. Marx argued that class struggle was the motor of history; Lenin contended that a revolutionary party was necessary for the conquest of state power. But neither of them posed the existential question ‘Why should _I_ join, why should _I_ get involved?’

Sartre thus came into conflict with the deterministic philosophy that was current in the French Communist Party. In a polemic against Sartre, Roger Garaudy wrote a passage in which he denied that he exercised any free choice, or that he had any responsibility for his own actions:

bq. I AM A COMMUNIST WITHOUT ANGUISH. First of all because I didn’t choose to be a Communist. I didn’t choose it because it is not for me to deny the reality of the internal contradictions of capitalism, of its crises and of the class struggle which is the motor of its development. Since the day when the analyses of _Capital_ taught me the dialectic of history, I have found myself faced by a compelling force. And at no moment have I the choice between Marxism and those who deny it. I should gladly say, as Luther did to his judges: ‘Here I stand: I can do no other’.15

That Garaudy himself began as an orthodox Communist, became a dissident Communist, then a Christian and finally a Muslim shows that the explanation of individual conduct through historical laws is not so easy.

Here again Sartre was not saying anything new. Rather he was counterposing the genuine Marxist tradition to the crude determinism of the Stalinist tradition. He quoted with approval the position argued by Engels that ‘men make their own history, but in a given environment by which they are conditioned’.16

Sartre developed his view that we are not the products of our circumstances, but that we choose ourselves within our given circumstances, in various biographical studies. Jean Genet was born illegitimate, abandoned at birth and farmed out to a peasant family; he soon found himself in a juvenile penal colony. He might have seemed condemned to a life of crime on the margins of society; instead he became one of the finest writers of his generation. Sartre attempted to resolve this enigma in his book _Saint Genet_ (1952). Later he spent many years on a biographical study of the 19th century novelist Flaubert, designed to develop in concrete fashion the themes of the _Critique of Dialectical Reason_. Flaubert was born into the middle class, yet instead of becoming a doctor or lawyer like other members of his family he became a writer. Sartre traces this back to his childhood slowness in learning to read. Yet at the same time he analyses what it meant to choose to be a writer at this time, examining ideas of literature in the post-Romantic period. Sartre never completed the study, The Family Idiot, but he provided a fascinating example of what biographical writing involved. (He was, incidentally, strongly influenced by Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky.)

Sartre’s concern for the role of the individual led him to confront the question of morality. In 1947-1948 he wrote a manuscript of over 600 pages on the question. He never completed it to his satisfaction, and it was published only after his death. Here he argues that the question of morality cannot be evaded: if we attempt to exclude it from our analyses, it returns in one way or another. As Sartre points out, the PCF had a private and a public doctrine. In the manuals of Marxist theory capitalists acted according to immutable historical and economic laws, but in the pages of the party’s daily newspaper, _L’Humanité_, employers were described as ‘wicked’.17 At the same time Sartre insists that morality is not autonomous, that it is impossible to impose universal moral standards in a world in which human beings live in a situation of gross inequality. It would only be possible to have a real morality in a world where all human beings found themselves in an equal situation; in the meantime the most important moral imperative is to change the world.

The question of morality is therefore tied up with the question of history. In his discussion of ends and means, Sartre rejected the idea, held by some Marxists, that history has a pre-given end, which it is possible to know, and towards which the historical process is making its way. For Sartre there is no pre-given end to history – how history develops will depend on human action and human choice. Thus he wrote during the Second World War, ‘Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be’.18

Today it is very clear that not only can we not talk about an inevitable future, we do not have any certainty that, in human terms, there will be a future at all. In his last play, _Altona_, Sartre gave a vision of the world in the 30th century, when humanity had disappeared and the only beings able to judge the history of humanity were a court of crabs. Sartre was thinking of nuclear war, but the crabs could well be swimming in the waters that will have overwhelmed our cities after centuries of global warming.

Here again, Sartre stands in the classic Marxist tradition, the tradition of Karl Marx, who wrote that each stage of the class struggle leads either to a new and higher form of society, or to the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’.19 As Rosa Luxemburg put it, ‘socialism or barbarism’.

Sartre was also very much concerned with the question of collective action. In his play _In Camera_ three people are brought together in a hotel room – a Latin American radical journalist, a snooty upper class woman who has killed her baby and an aggressively working class lesbian (the true heroine of the play). Slowly they realise that they are all dead, and that they only have each other to give meaning to their past existence. The play contains what is perhaps the best known quotation from Sartre: ‘Hell is other people’.20 But Sartre does not argue that human beings are inevitably in conflict with each other and that collective action is impossible. He notes the fact that it is very difficult to achieve. This puts him in opposition to the rhetoric of the PCF in the 1940s and 1950s, which presented the working class as an already formed collective which could be counted on to act in a united and cohesive fashion, a collective generally seen as identical with the Communist Party or the trade unions under its control, a rhetoric which announced that, for example, ‘the working class will not permit’ certain policies.

In the _Critique of Dialectical Reason_ Sartre argued that human groups could take two different forms. On the one hand there was seriality, of which he gave the example of the bus queue.21 In the bus queue a number of human beings come together in the same physical space. They share the same objective – to get on the bus. But because of scarcity – there are not enough places – each of them opposes the interests of the others, each is an obstacle to the aims of the others. But sometimes seriality is replaced by the ‘fused group’. Here the example is the crowd storming the Bastille.22 Again human beings come together in the same physical space to pursue the same aim. But this time, rather than each being an obstacle to the other, nobody can achieve their aim without the assistance of the others. I cannot storm the Bastille on my own.

h2. Sartre, Stalinism and political action

Sartre did not content himself with merely confronting Marxism on the theoretical level. From 1945 onwards he made a consistent effort to involve himself in political activity that was compatible with his principles.

Many of Sartre’s critics have attempted to discredit him by claiming he was naive about Stalinism or even corrupted by it. The recent study of Sartre by the former Maoist Bernard-Henri Lévy is based on total rejection of Communism in its very essence – ‘it was revolution as such which was perverse and criminal’. For Lévy Communism is ‘that Sartrean passion, the object of his desire for at least 30 years’.23 The actual story of Sartre’s relations with the USSR, the PCF and Communism is rather more complicated. He made mistakes, some of which deserve vigorous criticism. But they were mistakes made amid the difficulties of a multifaceted historical period, and Sartre’s motivation was rather more complex than is often suggested.

At the Liberation Sartre did not as yet see himself as a Marxist, but he certainly used many ideas borrowed from Marxism. In October 1945 he decided to launch _Les Temps modernes_ as a journal of the independent left. Sartre was quite happy to co-operate with the PCF, while at the same time maintaining a dialogue with other Marxists and socialists. He recognised that the majority of French workers felt an allegiance to the Communist Party, and considered that the USSR, whatever its weaknesses, still at least aspired towards socialism.

The PCF, however, saw Sartre’s popularity as a threat to its own hegemony, especially over intellectuals and students. A flood of books and articles were published to denounce Sartre and existentialism. Roger Garaudy wrote a book about Sartre and others entitled _Gravediggers of Literature_ (1947). Sartre responded, ‘Gravediggers are honest people, certainly unionised, perhaps Communists. I’d rather be a gravedigger than a lackey’.24 He was attacked by name by Stalin’s cultural policeman Zhdanov, and _Les Temps modernes_ was condemned by the same figure for publishing the decadent work of Jean Genet. In 1952 complaints were made at a meeting of the PCF Political Bureau that factory libraries (run by factory committees controlled by the PCF-led CGT union federation) were ordering a book by Sartre.25

As the PCF attack got stronger Sartre began more and more to stress his independence of both Washington and Moscow. In 1948 he wrote:

bq. It would be strange if I were accused in New York of anti-Americanism at the very moment when in Moscow Pravda is denouncing me as an agent of American propaganda. If that did happen, however, it would show one of two things – either that I am indeed unhandy at my job, or that I am on the right track.26

In 1948, at the time of the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade, Sartre joined with the former Trotskyist David Rousset, and various other activists from the social democratic, non-Communist and Trotskyist left to form the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly) (RDR). Its founding statement in February 1948 stressed independence of both blocs:

bq. 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.

As Sartre put it in December 1948, ‘To refuse to choose between the USSR and the US does not mean yielding first to the one, then to the other, letting ourselves be tossed about between them. It means making a positive choice: that of Europe, socialism and ourselves’.27

Initially the RDR seemed to have great potential, with large meetings and many enthusiastic supporters.28 But the bureaucracies of the Socialist Party and the PCF succeeded in preventing its further expansion. Then Rousset and other leaders moved more and more towards a pro-American position. By the autumn of 1949 it had collapsed.

Rousset then launched a campaign against the labour camps in the USSR. Sartre’s position on this question is often misrepresented. Sartre did not deny the existence of the camps, as some PCF members did. _Les Temps Modernes_ published several articles, including one by Victor Serge, about the Russian camps. In an editorial in January 1950 Sartre and his fellow editor Merleau-Ponty declared:

bq. There is no socialism when one out of every 20 citizens is in a camp… Two years ago one of us wrote here that Soviet society is ambiguous, and that both signs of progress and symptoms of retrogression are found in it. If there are 10 million concentration camp inmates – while at the other end of the Soviet hierarchy salaries and standard of living are 15 to 20 times higher than those of free workers – then quantity changes into quality. The whole system swerves and changes meaning; and in spite of nationalisation of the means of production, and even though private exploitation of man by man and unemployment are impossible in the USSR, we wonder what reasons we still have to speak of socialism in relation to it.29

However, Sartre refused to associate himself with Rousset’s campaign because the latter had launched it in a right wing newspaper – _Le Figaro Littéraire_ – and refused to condemn repressive regimes in the Western bloc, such as Greece and Spain.

However, Sartre now seems to have despaired of the possibility of an independent left. He later claimed that before 1968 ‘there was nothing to the left of the PCF’.30 In fact his own writings show that this was untrue. In the 1950s Sartre polemicised against Ernest Mandel, Claude Lefort and Pierre Naville;31 he was certainly aware of the existence of the Fourth International and of the Socialisme ou barbarie grouping which argued that Russia was state capitalist.

In 1952, when the government was taking repressive measures against the PCF at the time of mass demonstrations against General Ridgway, the new head of NATO, Sartre announced his ‘agreement with the Communists on certain precise and limited subjects, reasoning from my principles and not from theirs’.32 For four years Sartre became – almost – the model fellow traveller. But his motivation was not the totalitarian mentality which Bernard-Henri Lévy attributes to him, but a much more complex set of tactical considerations.

Firstly, as he had put it in 1947, ‘The majority of the proletariat, strait-jacketed by a single party, encircled by a propaganda which isolates it, forms a closed society without doors or windows. There is only one way of access, a very narrow one, the Communist Party’.33 The crucial fact about the Communist Party for Sartre was not its doctrine nor its link to Russia, but the fact that it had the votes of some 5 million workers and, through the CGT union federation, led the best organised section of the working class. And secondly Sartre’s alignment with the USSR was motivated by Karl Liebknecht’s principle that for revolutionaries ‘the main enemy is at home’. In a world divided into warring blocs, both of them guilty of aggression, brutality and repression, Sartre insisted that his first priority was to attack the crimes committed on his own side.

It is undoubtedly true that Sartre, especially between 1952 and 1956, defended the indefensible in Russian society. In particular he published five articles in _Libération_ in which he took a naively uncritical view of Russian society and made some appallingly dishonest claims about the freedom of criticism permitted there.34 However, it should be added that Sartre’s concessions to Stalinism were relatively small in comparison to those of some of his contemporaries. He never wrote anything comparable to Brecht’s defence of the Moscow Trials.35 British writers like Raymond Williams, Eric Hobsbawm36 and Edward Thompson,37 who made an enormous contribution to Marxist understanding were, before 1956, far more deeply implicated with Stalinism than Sartre ever was. In fact his alliance with the PCF was short-lived. In 1956 Sartre denounced the Russian intervention in Hungary, saying that socialism ‘is not brought at bayonet point’.38 But he denied the right of criticism to those who had backed US imperialism in Guatemala in 1954, or who supported the Franco-British invasion of Egypt taking place at that very moment.

But even before this break with the PCF Sartre’s position had sharply diverged from that of the Communists over the war in Algeria. As early as 1955 _Les Temps modernes_ committed itself to a course of opposition to the war that would soon run up against the limits of legality. In October of that year an editorial statement appeared under the title ‘Refusal to Obey’. This described Algeria as a ‘colony’ (rejecting the official fiction that it was an integral part of France) subject to ‘the most obvious exploitation’. It went on: ‘A war is starting in North Africa; it is up to the government whether to stop it, or, on the contrary, to make it inevitable… To this war, we say no.’ At this time almost the only active campaigning against the war was coming from a handful of anarchists and Trotskyists.39 In 1956 the PCF voted in favour of ‘special powers’ for the government to deal with the situation in Algeria.

Over the next few years, Sartre’s consistent anti-imperialism, and his courage and outspokenness in the service of Algerian independence, were an inspiration to a new generation who had been radicalised by Algeria, and who were repelled by the role played by the traditional left in the PCF and the SFIO. In September 1960 Sartre was one of the most prominent signatories of the celebrated Manifesto of the 121, drafted by Maurice Blanchot and Maurice Nadeau. (Nadeau had been a Trotskyist in the 1930s and 1940s and close to surrealist circles.) The statement declared:

bq. We respect and consider justified the refusal to take arms against the Algerian people. We respect and consider justified the actions of those French people who regard it as their duty to offer assistance and protection to Algerians oppressed in the name of the French people.

The PCF did not support the Manifesto. But it was signed by Alfred Rosmer, a veteran opponent of the First World War, the surrealist André Breton, the historian and anti-imperialist campaigner Daniel Guérin and others from the non-Stalinist left.

In 1968 Sartre, siding with the students against the authorities from the very outset, denounced the PCF for its attitude, which he said was not revolutionary and not even reformist.40 His position on Russia also became much firmer. After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia he spoke of ‘Soviet imperialism’,41 while saying that it followed different laws to US imperialism. He argued that ‘it is impossible to reach socialism by starting from Stalinism, for one will never reach anything except something whose instrument has been Stalinism’.42 In 1973, Sartre developed the argument further by claiming that there was nothing specifically socialist about nationalisation. If an enterprise was nationalised while the capitalist structure was preserved, then what resulted was ‘state capitalism’.43

This was scarcely a man who worshipped Stalin or who was essentially a totalitarian.

Sartre, violence and resistance

One of Sartre’s most important articles is called ‘To Write for One’s Own Age’.44 The strength of Sartre’s work is that it is rooted in the problems of his own age, and it is therefore dangerous to try and argue what Sartre would have thought of the very different world in which we live. Yet such speculation may have some value. Sartre lived through an age of violence, and much of his thought revolved around the question of violence. So it may be interesting to enquire what Sartre might have thought of the war against terrorism in our own day.
Sartre is often seen as an apologist for violence and terrorism.
Many of his critics recall his visit to Andreas Baader of the armed German group, the Red Army Faction, in 1974. But Baader scarcely felt that Sartre was a supporter. He commented, ‘I thought I was dealing with a friend but they sent me a judge’.45

Sartre observed that throughout the course of history the holders of power and privilege have not lightly abandoned their positions, and that it has almost invariably been the case that they had to be violently removed. Human history is, whether we like it or not, the history of violence, and our present ills and privileges are rooted in violence. Hence in Algeria, and later in Vietnam, he refused to equate the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressors. As he wrote:

During the Algerian war I always refused to make a parallel between the terrorist use of bombs, the only weapon available to the Algerians, and the actions and extortions of a rich army of half a million, which occupied the entire country. It’s the same in Vietnam.46

The text often quoted to show Sartre’s support for violence is his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Eartfi. The language is angry and at times provocative, but time and again Sartre repeats the point that the violence of the national liberation struggle is a product of, a response to, the existing violence of colonialism:

For at first it is not their violence, it is ours, which turns back on itself and rends them… It is the moment of the boomerang, it is the third phase of violence; it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realise any more than we did the other times that it’s we that have launched it. We have sown the wind: he [the peasant fighter] is the whirlwind… If violence began this verv evening and if exploitation and oppression had never existed on the earth, perhaps the slogans of non-violence might end the quarrel…47

Sartre was first practically confronted with the questions of violence and terrorism during the German occupation of France. The PCF, like the Iraqi resistance today, had a policy of killing as many occupying soldiers as possible. Often the PCF was in fact sending its own members to a certain death, so there is a close parallel with suicide bombers. Moreover, the Nazis executed hostages in response to attacks by the French Resistance. Sartre commented in 1944 that when he wrote The Flies, ‘the real drama, the drama I should have liked to write, was that of the terrorist who by ambushing Germans becomes the instrument for the execution of 50 hostages’.48 Though Sartre saw the necessity for armed resistance, he was not entirely happy about the means advocated by the PCF.

One of the philosophical questions that preoccupied Sartre throughout his life was that of ends and means. His most extensive consideration of the problem occurs in the incomplete manuscript on morality from 1948. Here he was heavily influenced by a reading of Trotsky’s short book Their Morals and Ours, where Trotsky rejects the formulation that the end justifies the means in favour of an argument that there is a dialectical interrelation between ends and means. Sartre’s formulation was very close to Trotsky’s.49 As he put it later, ‘We are of those who say: the end justifies the means; adding, however, this indispensable corrective: these means define the end’.30

So, for Sartre, the question exists on two levels. On one level the violence of the oppressed may be justified by the greater violence of the oppressor. But there is also the second question: the effectiveness of terrorist methods in achieving the goal of a more just society. Such a distinction is very relevant to today’s war on terror.

Sartre’s work does not give us a doctrine or a strategy in face of today’s world. No organised political tendency can claim his legacy. But in studying Sartre we see a man facing the problems of his own age, a man grappling with the question of freedom and responsibility, of morality and politics, of violence, of the possibility of collective action. The way in which he asked the questions may help those who are still seeking answers.

Note on reading

The main themes of Sartre’s work come across most powerfully in his plays and novels. The best plays to read (or see if possible) are The Flies (in which Sartre uses a Greek myth to condemn the Nazi occupation), In Camera (where three dead souls form an eternal triangle), The Respectful Prostitute (for which Sartre was criticised for suggesting that there might be racism in the US!), Dirty Hands (a political drama based on the assassination of Trotsky), Lucifer and the Lord (a moral and political allegory set in 16th century Germany), and Nekrassov (a satire of the right wing press which still rings true today). There is a collection of short stories entitled Intimacy (also published under the title The Wall) in which ‘The Wall’ (on the Spanish Civil War) and ‘Childhood of a Leader’ (on how a middle class adolescent becomes a fascist) are particularly interesting. The three novels of the Roads to Freedom trilogy (The Age of Reason, Tire Reprieve and Iron in the Soul) give a fascinating picture of France before and during the outbreak of the Second World War, where a group of individuals are caught up by the historical process and have to remake their lives.

Sartre’s major philosophical works tend to be very long and very difficult. Sartre’s 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism and Humanism’ contains manyoversimplifications, but is a useful introduction. It also contains a confrontation with the Trotskyist Pierre Naville (who organised the founding conference of the Fourth International). Anti-Semite and Jew is a lucid and thought-provoking study of the roots of racism. While the Critique of Dialectical Reason is hard going, the opening section, published separately in English as The Problem of Method, is fairly readable and introduces a number of key problems.

Note that many of Sartre’s works have been published or performed in English under several different titles. There are various political articles and extracts from the Critique of Dialectical Reason at reference/archive/sartre The full text of No Exit (In Camera) is available at

I: This is a revised version of a lecture given in March 2005 at the Club Voltaire in Frankfurt. Thanks to Mary Phillips and Pete Glatter for comments and encouragement.
2; VI Lenin. State and Revolution’, in Collected Works, vol 25 (Moscow, 1964),
3: For example the bizarre claim that ‘Sartre was the wealthy, well-connected chump who so often hangs around revolutionary circles and understands nothing’. Ben Watson in Radical Philosophy 129 (Jan-Feb 2005), p44-
4-‘ In recent years a number of Sartre’s critics have raised questions about his behaviour under the German occupation, for example the fact that The Flies was first performed at a theatre formerly named after the Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt and renamed by the German occupiers- Such criticisms generally come from people of a later generation, who fail to realise that the institutions of a fascist occupation cannot be boycotted like South African oranges. To survive one had to compromise. In the immediate post-war period Sartre worked with a number of people who had impeccable Resistance records, and some of whom, like Claude Bourdet, had been in German concentration camps. None of them questioned Sartre s conduct. Certainly he was not a Resistance hero—he never claimed to be—but the attacks on his record seem to be motivated by spite rather than fact-
5: At a recent conference I asked Alain Geismar, then a leading Maoist, what Sartre’s paper-selling technique had been like. Unfortunately Geismar had been in jail at the time and was not able to observe him in action.
6: B-H Levy, Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2OO3). The French title is simply ‘Sartre’s Century*. For a critique of this work by the so called new philosopher’, see I Birchall, The Kiss of Death’, Historical Materialism, I0/3, 2O02.
™: J-P Sartre, The Diary of Antoine Roquentin [Nausea] (London, 1949/ • pl8o.
8: Cited in M Winock, La Repuhlique se
meurt, 1956-1958 (Paris, 1985), p23-
9.- J-P Sartre. Existentialism and Humanism (London, 1948), p25-IO: J-P Sartre, Being and Nothingness (London. 1957), p9-
II: Le Monde, l8 April 1964.
12: For a full treatment of Sartre’s debates with the anti-Stalinist left see J Birchall, Sartre Against Stalinism (New York and Oxford, 2004).
13: J-P Sartre. The Problem of Method (London. 1963), p56.
14: L Trotsky. Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front (London, 1989). p259-
15^ R Garaudy. Les Fossoyeurs de la lit-terature (Paris, 1947). p79-
16: Engels in a letter to W Borgius (and not H Starkenburg as some previous compilations incorrectly have it); K Marx and F Engels. Collected Works, vol §0 (London, 2OO4). P264.
17 = J-P Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics (Chicago. 1992). p346.
18: J-P Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, as above, p40.
19: ‘Communist Manifesto’, section I in K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, vol 6 (London 1976), p482.
20: J-P Sartre. The Flies & In Camera (London, 1946). pl66.
21: Many younger readers will be unfamiliar with the concept of a bus queue. They should ask their grandparents about the days when people stood in an orderly line at a bus stop rather than clawing their way over other people s bodies to get on the bus.
22: J-P Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason I (London. 1976), PP256-69, 35I-63-
23: B-H Levy. Sartre, pp378, 3.
24: J-P Sartre, What is Literature? (New York. 1965), p258.
25: P Robrieux, Histoire interieure du parti communiste II 1945~J97% (Paris, 1981). P299.
26: Sartre on Theatre (London, 1976), P205.
27; Franc-Tireur, IO December 1948.
28: I was told by Jean-Rene Chauvin, a veteran Trotskyist who was active in the RDR, that Sartre not only spoke at large public rallies, but attended local branch meetings in the fifth arrondissement of Paris.
29: The editorial was drafted by Merleau-Ponty, though fully endorsed by Sartre. The text is reproduced in M Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Northwestern University, 1964), pp264-265.
30: J-P Sartre, Ph Gavi, P Victor, On a raison de se revolter (Paris, 1974)- P41-
31.• For details see I Birchall. Sartre Against Stalinism, as above.
32: J-P Sartre, The Communists and Peace (London, 1969), p62.
33: J-P Sartre, What is Literature?, as above. p247-
34: 15. 16, 17-18, 19, 20July 1954. (This was not the present-day Liberation, which Sartre helped to found, but an earlier paper of the same name.)
35: ‘With total clarity the trials have proved the existence of active conspiracies… All the scum at home and abroad, all the parasites, professional criminals, informers joined them.’ R Hayman, Brecht (London, 1983), p2IO.
36: In 1939 just after the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Hobsbawm and Williams wrote a pamphlet defending Russia in the Russo-Finnish War (R Williams, Politics and Letters (London, 1981). PP42-43). For Hobsbawm’s pre-1956 Stalinism see N Carlin and 1 Birchall, ‘Kinnock’s Favourite Marxist’, International
Socialism 21 (summer 1983).
37; Yesterday, in the Soviet Union, the Communists were struggling against every difficulty to build up their industry to the level of the leading capitalist powers: today they have before them Stalin’s blueprint of the advance to Communism… Thus have the “claims”…of William Morris, the unpractical” poet, been promised fulfilment!’ E P Thompson, William Morris (London, 1955), pp76o-76l.
38: France-Observateur, 8 November 1956.
39: For a full study of the role played by Trotskyists in solidarity with the national liberation of Algeria, see S Pattieu, Les camarades des freres: trotskistes et liber-taires dans la guerre d’Algerie (Paris, 2002).
4O: Interview in Der Spiegel, 15 July
41: Theatre de la Ville/Journal, November 1968.
42: J-P Sartre, Situations VIII (Paris 1972), p354-
43: Der Spiegel, 12 February 1973.
44: Ecrire pour son epoque’. Les Temps modernes 33, 1948.
45: See The Slow Death of Andreas Baader’ at
46: J-P Sartre. Situations VIII. as above. PP34-35-
47: E Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth (London, 1965), ppl6, 17, 20. 21.
48: Sartre on Theatre, as above, pl88.
49: Notebooks for an Ethics, as above. ppl59-68.
50: J-P Sartre. The Spectre of Stalin (London, 1969). p87.