The Nation.



Sartre's Roads to Freedom

By Daniel Singer

This article appeared in the June 5, 2000 edition of The Nation.

May 18, 2000

Asked where he was coming from, my friend's son replied, "From the demo against the death of Sartre." It was April 19, 1980, and the definition fitted perfectly, for Sartre's funeral, attended by some 50,000, could be described as the last demo of the New Left. It was posthumous in another sense. The engagement associated with Sartre--the intellectual's or writer's social and political commitment--had been cast aside five years earlier by the self-appointed "new philosophers"--crude in thought but skilled in propaganda--who loudly proclaimed that any attempt to alter society radically was bound to end with the gulag. Indeed, the cliché fashionable well into the eighties was that Sartre's fellow at the highly competitive École Normale, Raymond Aron--an intelligent pillar of the Western establishment, a sort of superior Daniel Bell--had always been right, whereas son petit camarade Jean-Paul had always been wrong. But such was the pressure of propaganda that the other side merely snapped back that it was better to be wrong with Sartre than to be right with Aron.

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Has the mood changed twenty years on? Six books devoted to Sartre have just been published here for the anniversary. Newspapers have been full of portraits, weeklies and monthlies replete with extracts, comments and assessments. Are these not signs, as many titles suggested, of a comeback, a resurrection? On the international scale, judging by the conferences held and books printed, Sartre has never quite been forgotten. Yet even in the narrow Parisian and political sense, one can talk only of a partial revival. Sartre is feted not because of his engagement but in spite of it. Of the books mentioned, only the smallest, that of Benoit Denis, which is devoted to literary commitment from Pascal to Sartre, does justice to the latter's contribution to the struggles of the intellectuals. Philippe Petit, who seems sympathetic to la cause de Sartre, writes essentially about that extraordinary monument of literary criticism, The Family Idiot, Sartre's 2,988-page unfinished analytical portrait of Flaubert. And Olivier Wickers elegantly muses on various aspects of this literary figure. But three others start from the premise that Aron was always right. Indeed, since they describe Sartre as Stalin's stooge and a servant of totalitarianism, we shall have to return to the heart of the matter. But first, why so much talk about the man at all?

Younger people cannot remember the impact, the extraordinary charisma, of this far from handsome little man with a lazy eye. I am not referring here to the postwar craze, when tourists invaded the caves and cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in search of existentialists and innumerable youngsters took as their model the "free couple" of Jean-Paul and Simone (known as le castor, French for beaver, of which her name de Beauvoir was apparently a reminder). No, I am talking about the crucial part performed by Sartre for at least three decades after the war in the cultural and political battles on the international stage, about his role as the chief critic of the Western world (in retrospect, and considering the importance of The Second Sex, one should probably talk of the influence of the couple).

Prolific and many-sided are ridiculous euphemisms when applied to Sartre. We know from The Words that he acquired in childhood the habit of writing for six to seven hours a day, and much more (with the help of all sorts of drugs) when the issue fascinated him or the timetable required it. He wrote some philosophy with literary elegance and put philosophical ideas into his novels. But he was also a playwright, a major literary critic, a screenwriter and a cultural and political essayist, not to mention the innumerable petitions he wrote or signed whenever he thought injustice was involved. He turned down all the honors bestowed by the establishment, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. Herbert Marcuse once called him "the conscience of the world."

Fame and political involvement came rather late. Sartre was almost 40 when World War II ended. A teacher by training, he had already published an important novel (Nausea), a collection of short stories (The Wall); had had two plays staged (The Flies and No Exit) and had finished his major philosophical work (Being and Nothingness). Though he was vaguely leftish, he was not very involved in politics. More serious was his hatred for his own milieu, the bourgeoisie, which cannot be explained in purely psychoanalytic terms (his father died when he was 1, and his happy life with his widowed mother was interrupted eleven years later by his bourgeois manager stepfather). Sartre's Resistance record, while not heroic, was honorable. Yet it was only after the war that he began to preach the imperative of political commitment.

Most commentators attribute the change to his brief stay in a German camp for French prisoners of war. Sartre the individualist found himself for the first time in a popular collectivity and enjoyed it. This certainly helped, but the reasons were much deeper: It was the war, the Resistance and the situation after the conflict. Like Mathieu, one of the heroes of his Roads to Freedom, Sartre the libertarian individualist had finally to answer the question: freedom for what purpose? The subject of literature, he now said, has always been man in the world. The writer "must show the reader his power to make, or to unmake, in short to act--for man is to be reinvented every day." He even suggested that the task of the writer was "to struggle in favor of the freedom of the person and of socialist revolution."

This activist message accounts for Sartre's tremendous popularity as well as for the hatred he aroused as "the corrupter of youth" (right-wingers actually paraded with the slogan "Shoot Sartre"). This attitude corresponded to the mood of the times. France was torn, radicalized by war and occupation. The movement of colonial liberation was spreading. And the world was soon to be split in two by the cold war. It is interesting to note that at war's end, though he was unquestionably a leftist, Sartre took several years to choose his side. While now interested in Marxism and the class struggle, Sartre was very often the target of attacks by Communists, both French and foreign. He was among the writers about whom the Soviet hack A. Fadeyev said, at an intellectual congress in 1948, that "if hyenas could use fountain pens and jackals could use typewriters" they would be writing like them. But it was give and take. Sartre wrote that "the politics of Stalinist Communism are incompatible with the honest exercise of the literary profession." He argued that Stalinism had rendered Marxism sterile, because you cannot turn "dialectics into formulae for catechism." His monthly magazine, Les Temps modernes, did admit that "there is no socialism when one citizen out of twenty is in a camp." Indeed, for a time Sartre and other leftists tried to create their own movement, for a socialist Europe separate from the Soviet Union as well as the United States. It was only in 1951-52 that he chose sides.

The last days of Stalin's reign, with ghastly trials in Eastern Europe, may not have been the best period for conversion, but with the Korean War, the witch hunts and the hardening of lines on both sides, this was a time when choice was thrust upon people. Sartre reacted to the demonstration against NATO commander Gen. Matthew Ridgway, smashed in Paris by the police, with his famous "an anti-Communist is a dog." His basic premise at the time was that the Communist Party was the only revolutionary representative of the French working class and that the Soviet Union was a socialist state in need of repair (en panne). He then wrote a pamphlet in honor of a French Communist sailor resisting the French invasion of Indochina; he spoke at the peace congress in Vienna in 1952; he also traveled to Russia and wrote things that he should not have: for instance, that "freedom of criticism there was complete." Yet even then, collaboration between Sartre and the Communists was mutually suspicious, and it broke off in 1956, when Soviet tanks entered Budapest. Sartre then proclaimed that he would sever links with Soviet writers who did not condemn this massacre; "as to the men who at this time direct the French CP, it is not, and it would never be, possible to resume relations."

Never say never. Circumstances altered. There was some hope of a thaw in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the putsch that brought de Gaulle to power in 1958. Add the anticolonial struggle (Sartre discovered Castro's Cuba and wrote the violent preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth), especially the war in Algeria, during which, incidentally, Sartre's Paris flat was blown up by rightist OAS thugs. And so he reappeared on common platforms with Communists and resumed his fairly frequent journeys to the Soviet Union (we now know that these also had a sentimental reason: his beautiful translator and guide, Lena Zonina). But the collaboration was always strained, since Sartre was no man to march to a party line. For instance, he signed and published in his journal the famous "Manifesto of the 121," approving the desertion of French soldiers in the Algerian war, whereas the CP was against it. But the final break came in 1968: In May the student demonstrations and the strikes ultimately convinced Sartre that the French CP was not a revolutionary force. In August the tanks entering Prague persuaded him that the Soviet Union and its bloc needed much, much more than repairs. He ceased to believe in its progressive function.

Sartre was thrilled by the radical spirit of French students and young workers, and this prompted his Maoist phase. He didn't quite share all the mad ideas of his protégés; ideologically, he was closer to the Il Manifesto group, the left-wing dissidents from the Italian CP. But he duly protected his French favorites, taking up the title of editor of a paper whenever his predecessor was indicted or imprisoned (and de Gaulle had the wit to tell his subordinates that "one does not jail Voltaire") or selling the Maoist weekly La Cause du Peuple in the street. But when his comrades advised him to write populist novels, he stuck to his "bourgeois" task--the unfinished Flaubert. Then in 1975 came the terrible tragedy--full blindness. Sartre could still sign petitions and give interviews, but real creation was over.

After this thumbnail sketch, we can face the three political prosecutors. The first two can be dismissed quickly. Denis Bertholet is the author of a biography full of facts; since his purpose is not pamphleteering, one wonders why he picked Sartre as a subject, so obvious is his allergy to his hero's political philosophy (when he gets interested in Marxism, "he gets down on his knees"; and the mood of the Russell tribunal, presided over by Sartre, which investigated US war crimes in Vietnam, is described as quasi-fascist in its treatment of the "American scapegoat"). Michel-Antoine Burnier is a former groupie (to walk with Sartre to the newsstand, he recalls, was like going up the Champs-Elysées with Brigitte Bardot) who, now repentant, insists on Sartre's one-sidedness and repeats the hackneyed catalogue of things Sartre should have said and didn't, or vice versa.

It is best to tackle Bernard-Henri Lévy, known for publicity's sake as "BHL." As one of the inventors of the "new philosophy," he was the enemy of engagement, but now he describes this century as belonging to Sartre. He is visibly fond of the man and, inevitably, impressed by the extraordinary fame achieved before the full reign of television.

This time BHL has done his homework. He shows us how Sartre picked from Kierkegaard, Husserl or Heidegger whatever he found useful for his own phenomenology. BHL actually portrays two Sartres. One is the good man--the author of Nausea and Being and Nothingness--who cares about freedom and does not give a damn about the world. The second, the villain, wants to improve mankind and, in so doing, becomes the servant of the totalitarians. Naturally, the story has shades and even a happy ending. You may remember that the blind Sartre had as his reader and companion Pierre Victor, a k a Benny Levy. This former Maoist leader was in the process of conversion from the Little Red Book to the Talmud. They even produced a joint text just before Sartre's death. BHL sees in it the makings of a Jewish Sartre, following in the footsteps of Emmanuel Lévinas.

There is another Parisian paradox in the book. Whatever his politics now, BHL still claims as his great master Louis Althusser, the best-known French Communist philosopher. He even argues that Sartre went wrong when he abandoned the Althusserian "anti-humanism." Be that as it may, Althusser was a party cardholder throughout his political life, whereas Sartre was never a member of the CP and, as seen, could not even be described as a real fellow-traveler. Why, then, is the master spared, while Sartre is described as "a fanatic," "a preacher of voluntary servitude," suffering from "totalitarian delirium"? The trouble is, all these indictments are written outside historical context. Vae victis: This is the story as written by the victors. What happened had to happen. One does not even contemplate, for instance, whether--with a different policy from above and pressure from below--the course of events might have been different in the Soviet area.

And the victors are also morally right. When the knights of cultural freedom meet in Berlin at the time of the Korean War, they are splendid, and it in no way disturbs our authors that they were financed by the CIA. They cannot even understand why Sartre was always worried that his action might help the "other side." There is no other side. When BHL proclaims that Marxism is dead and the evil spirit of revolution buried forever, he does not mean that Stalinist theology is in the historical dustbin where it properly belongs or that the radical transformation of society will now have to take a different form from the storming of the Winter Palace. He means that we must be content with small changes and that the reign of capital is eternal. Our new literary dandies do shed tears for victims in one place or another. Unkind critics suggest that they do so only if TV cameras are nearby and if it does not disturb the establishment. But even if we assume that they are genuinely grieved by the millions of children who die through sickness or starvation, it will never cross their minds to question the system that produces such results. No wonder they cannot understand Sartre's struggle and his hatred for his own class.

One quality BHL cannot be denied is his sense of the coming fashion. He claims that he started this book five years ago, that is to say, immediately after the strikes and demonstrations that shook France in 1995. By then, the "new philosophy" was old hat, and clearly something more than the gulag was needed to persuade the French people to resign themselves to their fate. But he wrote it before Seattle, which suggests that sooner or later there may be an international search for an alternative society. Only when this happens shall we see books doing justice to Sartre. I don't mean hagiographies--there will be full portraits, with warts and all. Thus, from documents published we now know that the famous couple was not quite as ideal as it was painted. There will be questions about the identification of socialism with the Soviet Union and about Sartre's coolness toward left-wing critics of Stalinism. One will have to re-examine the many quarrels, including the most famous break, with Albert Camus in 1952. Retrospectively, there is no doubt that Camus had more sensitivity, more sympathy for the victims of Soviet repression; yet when it came closer to home, during the Algerian war, it was not Sartre "the politician" but the moralist Camus who claimed--when getting his Nobel in Stockholm--"I believe in justice, but I will put my mother before justice."

Above all, there will be the inner contradictions between Sartre's original philosophy and its further development, illustrated by the fact that he never published Morale, which was to follow Being and Nothingness, or the promised second volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason. But out of all these contradictions will emerge the picture of a small man of tremendous vitality, extraordinary generosity and real grandeur. It will also show the tragic dilemma, in the second half of the twentieth century, of a leftist who wanted to change things at home, where the bulk of the working class voted Communist, and in the world, where for all its ambiguity the Soviet Union was the only brake on US imperialism. To be active while saying a plague on both their houses was not easy at the time.

Yet this, however interesting, is history. The Soviet Union, with its subordinate Communist parties, is gone. But we still have plenty to learn from Sartre the freedom fighter, Sartre the activist, who told writers that "to keep quiet is not to be mute; it is to refuse to speak and hence to speak in a way." In the years after the "demo against his death," intellectuals abandoned politics, particularly progressive politics, and not only in France. Now there are some hopeful signs of a move in the opposite direction. Sartre the champion of commitment still has plenty to teach us as we resume our advance along the Roads (plural on purpose) to Freedom, Les Chemins de la liberté.

About Daniel Singer

Daniel Singer was, for many years, The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent. His books include Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (1970), The Road to Gdansk (1981), Is Socialism Doomed?: The Meaning of Mitterrand (1988) and Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? (1999). He died on December 2, 2000, in Paris.

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