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[Source: Political Affairs Magazine. 3/05]

Sartre at 100

By Thomas Riggins

The French are honoring their most famous 20th century thinker – Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The French National Library in Paris is mounting a major exhibition dedicated to his life and works. Although Sartre had a rocky relationship with the French Communist Party he considered himself a "Marxist" of sorts. The New York Times has even weighed in with some opinions about this ("To Honor Sartre, France Buffs A Pedestal the Writer Rejected" by Alan Riding, 3/16/05).

I can’t say that Riding’s article is always informative. Take this observation, for example, regarding Sartre’s image as a "Left Bank intellectual." "Even for many French people, his embrace of Communist causes placed him on the wrong side of history." This was at a time when a fourth of the French were voting for Communists, so its also true that many French people (and not only the French) think he was on the right side of history.

Those causes, by the way, were for world peace, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and freedom for the colonial peoples. Whatever may have happened to Communism – these were (and are) the right causes. As for "causes," we can learn something from Sartre when we reflect on his statement that "if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing." You can’t be on the wrong side of that.

Riding observes that Sartre’s reputation is approaching that of the great French pantheon (which he may soon join) of Voltaire, Hugo and Zola. But Riding shows his true colors when he states that as "political visionaries," Raymond Aron (the conservative pro-US cold war intellectual) and Albert Camus "stand taller because their view of freedom was untainted by association with Stalinism or Maoism." Guilt by association! While Camus couldn’t bring himself to back the right of the Algerians to throw the French out, Sartre risked his life (he survived a bomb plot) speaking out against French repression in Algeria. So much for standing tall!

Camus died young, while he was still developing, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about him. But Aron was a typical conservative. He supported the so-called "Free World." He is dead so I don’t know how he would think about the "freedom" we are bombing the people of Iraq into.

Riding asks "is Sartre remotely relevant today?" He seems to think not. But this is a difficult question. He seems to base his judgment on the fact that Sartre is no longer fashionable or as fashionable as he once was. This is a different question from relevance. Sartre was both a popular writer and a philosopher. His big philosophical tomes (Being and Nothingness: The Critique of Dialectical Reasoning) were never best sellers. He articulated a philosophy of human freedom known as "existentialism" and tried to hook this up with Marxism. I think as long as there is a struggle to attain a more just and free world, and as long as society is dominated by class struggle and exploitation, serious people will find Sartre’s philosophy relevant even if they do not ultimately accept it.

Riding briefly outlines some of Sartre’s politics but his readers will get the wrong impression from his presentation. He writes that Sartre played no political role until after the liberation of Paris and that he "cheerfully" produced his plays and books during the German occupation after having been a prisoner of war for "a few months." The implication is that Sartre did not do his duty. Riding fails to mention that Sartre did have a role in the Resistance during the occupation. He ended up with a minor role because the Resistance was practically run by the Communist Party and Sartre was unwilling to commit himself, as pointed out by Thomas Baldwin (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy) to the Party or the Gauillists. After the war no one thought Sartre derelict in his duty.
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Riding next wishes to put Sartre "in the dock." "Placed in the dock today," he writes, Sartre would face two charges: between 1952 and 1956, he was a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, albeit breaking with it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956." The charges should be amended. Sartre was more than a "fellow traveler." According to Baldwin, Sartre was member of the French Communist Party having joined during the Korean War. While he left the Party over the 1956 Hungary issue, his final break with it did not occur until 1968.

What about this first charge. Only a typical right-wing anticommunist knows nothing would want to put Sartre in the dock on this charge. Throughout France and Italy the Communists were extremely popular in the years before the invasion of Hungary. Europeans knew to whom their liberation from Hitler and his Nazi armies was due. We Americans like to say we saved the French, that we defeated the Nazis, etc., and carry on as if we should get most of, or even all of, the credit.

You would think it was the Battle of the Bulge that decided the war. But 80% of the German forces were in the East confronting the Soviets. That is where the war was won. D-Day was a mopping up operation in comparison. Throughout Europe everyone knew it was the Communists who were the main force in the resistance movements against the fascists. For Sartre, who had committed himself to anti-imperialism, to peace, and to the working class as the most progressive class in society, it was only natural that he should join the Party.

The second charge was that in the years 1970-1974 he "supported French Maoists." This is a bogus charge, and Riding knows it. It was Voltaire, one of Sartre’s fellow pantheon members, who said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And Riding says Sartre’s "counsel" could claim "he was defending their right to exist more than their views."

Riding reports on four more of Sartre’s position – on which "time favored him." Independent intellectuals can often mess up – even with good intentions – and Sartre was no exception. I say this because I think we made errors in two of the four positions mentioned by Riding. But first the positive. One, he was one of the first to support the right of Algeria to independence. This took a lot of courage as French fascists tried to assassinate him for being so outspoken, Two, he was an opponent to the US war against the Vietnamese people. Riding could have elaborated a bit here. Sartre co-chaired (with Bertrand Russell) the International War Crimes Tribunal that exposed the acts of war crimes in Asia by the US (still, as usual, going on in Iraq and elsewhere.)

Now the negative. Three, he went to Cairo in 1967 and made a speech on the right of Israel to exist. That is all well and good but he should have also called for the creation of a Palestinian state. But this was before the 1967 war and the take over of the West Bank and the true nature of Zionism was not so clear to many European intellectuals. Finally he broke with Fidel and Cuba (1971) over the perennial question of "persecution" of dissidents. I can only say that Sartre was too shrill. He forgot that the full force of US imperialism was (and still is), as far as possible, being directed against Cuba and in order to survive it is only natural for the Cubans to take corrective action against those they perceive as helping the US against them internally. Sometimes Voltaire has to take a back seat until we can create the conditions to seat him front row center.

He had two other worthy actions according to Riding. He stood with the students in May 1968 and, near the end of his life, he supported the demand that Vietnamese boat people be given refuge in France. One should also note that he refused, in 1964, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Riding quotes him: "a writer should refuse to be allowed to be transformed into an institution."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union progressives around the world are being forced to rethink the Marxist tradition. Sartre wrote, "I consider Marxism the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond and.… I hold the ideology of existence and its ‘comprehensive’ method to be an enclave inside Marxism, which simultaneously engenders it and rejects it." Whether Sartre is relevant or irrelevant will depend on how interested students of the future are in engaging with his thoughts on Marxism.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net


  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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