By Ronald Aronson
University of Chicago Press, 2004
Many leftist intellectuals over the age of, say, forty, probably cannot hear the names “Camus” and “Sartre” without being immediately plunged into an ideological drama freighted with symbolic meaning. Those old enough to remember the quarrel between Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and even many of those old enough to remember the Soviet Union, most likely have their minds made up about which larger-than-life protagonist was right and which was wrong, which philosopher won the argument and which philosopher lost. For these readers, Raymond Aronson’s excellent Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It will serve as history burdened by memories of a distant yet dramatic past.
For some younger readers, however, the conflict between these two major voices of the postwar French Left probably means nothing at all. The specific issues about which they fought—the Soviet Union, the French Communist Party, the Algerian War—have been resolved. Today, few young activists outside the strident Marxist fringe mourn the passing of “actually existing Socialism,” and those who do mourn its loss usually keep quiet. Probably just as important for younger activists, the men involved in the quarrel were, to begin with, egomaniacal white men, and, worse yet, French intellectuals. What could be duller? What could be more hopelessly Old Left?
And yet Aronson’s book, and the quarrel it brings to life, has a certain timeless quality that makes it worthwhile reading for activists of any generation. You see, Sartre, the brilliant philosopher, founder of existentialism, and sometime Marxist, and Camus, the magnificent writer, Algerian pied-noir, and fervent anti-communist, were fighting about much more than communism and the Soviet Union. They were battling about means and ends, about realism and idealism, about colonialism, about morality of revolutionary violence. What issues could be more timeless? Moreover, as Aronson notes, “after their split, a dispiriting ‘either/or’ would prevail on the left: supporting revolutionary governments and movements meant agreeing to ride roughshod over freedom; defending freedom meant opposing the only significant project challenging capitalism. In a deep sense, we are talking about the defeat of the
Left in the 20th century.”
The defeat of the Left in the 20th century? Hm. Well. Perhaps this is more important than it seems.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were philosophers and writers who fought for the French resistance in World War II and emerged from that war as the voices of a new generation. Both men were labeled “existentialists” (though Camus was unhappy with the term), and both men sought to create an alternative to the decadent French society that had collapsed under the Nazi onslaught in 1940. Both were suspicious of the Soviet Union, and both detested American capitalism. In short, both men saw themselves as independent leftists.
Under the pressure of the Cold War, however, the intellectual space available for independent leftism of any kind was quickly shrinking. As Aronson recounts, Camus came to see oppression within both the Soviet Union itself and the Soviet system as the primary problem for the left in the postwar world, while Sartre began to see the seeds of global injustice in capitalism. Though both men had been friends and intellectual allies during World War II, they found themselves increasingly at cross-purposes. A break seemed inevitable.
Finally, in 1952, the two had a vitriolic public falling out in the pages of Les Temps Moderns, a dispute that captivated the French public and literary classes for weeks. At the time of Camus’ death in 1960, the two men were still bitter enemies. As Sartre became increasingly militant in his Marxism, he condemned Camus for his “bourgeois liberalism.” Camus, for his part, grew increasingly hostile to Marxism and flirted with anarchism, writing for a time in Revolution Proletarienne and advocating revolutionary trade unionism as a substitute for the leadership of the Communist Party.
With big-c “Communism” largely relegated to the dustbin of history, Sartre’s dispute with Camus regarding the Algerian War is probably the argument most immediately relevant in our contemporary world. Camus, whose aversion to violence only grew after his break with Sartre and whose personal roots in Algeria increased his opposition to the terrorism of the FLN, naively called for a negotiated settlement up until his death. “I believe in justice,” he famously vowed in 1954, “but I will defend my mother before justice.” Sartre initially saw violence in Algeria as inevitable, then as commendable, and, finally, as a goal in and of itself, an attitude which climaxed in his remarkable preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. “The rebel’s weapon is proof of his humanity,” he wrote “and to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the many he oppresses at the same time.” As we watch the increasingly violent struggles against the brutality of both modern and postmodern American imperialism, from the neo-colonialism in Iraq to the tyranny of the WTO, the stark perspectives offered by Camus and Sartre are like a bracing splash of cold water.
As with any fight between former friends, the roots of the angry split would stem as much from differences in temperament as from changing ideological views, and Aronson pays attention to both the personal and political differences that divided Sartre and Camus. What’s more, Aronson is remarkably fair in his judgments; it’s not hard to see that he has genuine sympathy for both men. Some familiarity with Cold War history and the writings of Camus and Sartre might be helpful when reading this book, although (fortunately) Aronson’s primary focus is on the men’s accessible literary output rather than their weighty philosophical work.
Aronson ends his book on a hopeful note. With the Cold War over, he contends, perhaps we can go beyond the dichotomy posed so sharply by Sartre and Camus.
“We can imagine some one speaking truth at all times, and opposing oppression everywhere, uniting each man’s characteristic power of insight under a single moral standard. A Camus / Sartre?” he asks. My own thoughts upon finishing this book, I have to admit, were a bit more modest. Watching these two brilliant men struggle honestly with oppression and injustice, maybe it is not too much to hope that, one day, we might once again have a left worth fighting for.