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Ian H. Birchall

Sartre and the Myth of Practice

(November 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.45, November-December 1970, pp.20-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

GOETZ: Charlatan! Will you make them wait till the Day of Judgment? I tell you Good is possible, every day, at every hour, at this very moment. [1]

More books and articles have probably been written about Jean-Paul Sartre than any other living writer, and some justification is needed for an addition to the total. Sartre has had his cliques of admirers – from the disoriented middle-class youth of Saint-Germain-des-Pres in the late forties to the editorial board of New Left Review in the mid-sixties. He has equally had his enemies – from the 5,000 ex-servicemen who marched down the Champs Elysees in 1961 chanting ‘shoot Sartre’ to Roger Garaudy of the French Communist Party who described Sartre as a ‘gravedigger’. [2]

The aim of this article is not to make a moral judgment on Sartre – to question his sincerity would be a speculation of small interest. He has frequently shown political and personal integrity; he virtually abandoned a career as novelist and dramatist in favour of the less glamorous and rewarding pursuits of philosophy and political polemic. His personal history in the post-war period was a succession of breaks with close friends – Raymond Aron, Camus, Koestler, Merleau-Ponty – because he found their anti-Communist politics unacceptable. His farewell to Koestler was typical – ‘When people have such different opinions, they can’t even go to the pictures together.’ [3]

Yet Sartre’s politics and his whole world view are radically different from those of International Socialism, and there is little point in pretending that they are not, though equally the common view of Sartre as a naive fellow-traveller with Stalinism must be challenged.

Sartre has been a witness to a historical period. The Popular Front and factory occupations of 1936, the German Occupation and the Resistance, the Algerian war, Gaullism, the May events of 1968, the twin themes of fascism and Stalinism – these have been the very substance of Sartre’s work. To understand him is to attempt an understanding of them. In his preface to Nizan’s Aden Arabie in 1960 [4] Sartre summed up the experience of the French Left:

But we have nothing more to say to the young: 50 years of life in this backward province that France has become, it is degrading. We have shouted, protested, signed, countersigned; we have, according to our various ways of thought, declared “it is not acceptable” or “the proletariat will not accept ...” And in the end here we are; so we have accepted everything. Can we communicate to the unknown young our wisdom and the fine fruits of our experience? From defeat to defeat we have learnt only one thing: our complete impotence.’

But it is precisely from this impotence, and a study of its causes, that the new revolutionary movement must learn.

Moreover, Sartre has made a serious contribution to modern Marxism. There is no need to accept the grotesque claim that Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason ‘has dispensed with the theoretical paraphernalia of the Stalin-Trotsky debate and thus is able to comprehend both positions’ [5]; no need even to pose the theological question whether Sartre is a Marxist. His works have confronted many of the central problems of Marxist theory and practice; their failures are as interesting as their successes.

Thirdly, Sartre has had most influence as a creative writer, as a novelist and dramatist. He has been not only an original thinker, but an effective populariser of his own ideas. Sartre, whose concept of commitment has often been misunderstood or wilfully distorted, has shown, like Brecht, Orwell and Serge, that revolutionary politics need not necessarily lead to a renunciation of literature, but rather to a specifically revolutionary literature.

Sartre’s work is of an extraordinary richness. Philosopher, psychologist, novelist, dramatist, politician, journalist: there seems to be a full lifetime in each of these fields. This article will not try to cover every stage and aspect; in particular there will be no treatment in depth of the more strictly philosophical aspects of Sartre’s work. But it will attempt to show the essential unity of his work, the nature of the preoccupations that run through all his actions – including his writings, for to Sartre writing is always an act.

Sartre the Existentialist

The popular image identifies Sartre as an ‘existentialist’, a title shared with the Nazi Heidegger and the Moral Rearmer Gabriel Marcel. But the view of the world developed in Being and Nothingness, in the novel Nausea and the short stories in the collection Intimacy, has themes in common, not only with other so-called existentialists, but with writers as varied as Kafka, Malraux, Camus, Gide and Beckett.

The ideology of any ruling group involves a theory not just of man and society, but of the natural order. The prevailing state of affairs in society is justified as deriving from eternal facts of nature; inequality is a fact of human nature, competition is sanctified as part of the process of the survival of the fittest among all forms of life.

In this justification of society from nature, the idea of God has a key role to play. God guarantees the values which preserve the social order; God designs man with a certain nature and a certain purpose, just as, Sartre says, a manufacturer designs a paper-knife. Previous versions of atheism had acted as though God’s non-existence changed nothing; the existentialist, on the other hand, takes the consequences of God’s non-existence to their logical conclusion. If God does not exist, there is no rationality, no intelligible values, implicit in the universe. Man is alone and anguished, in the face of a meaningless universe. [6]

This view of the world is a response to the development of European capitalism after the First World War. Two distinct and to some extent opposite processes were taking place. On the one hand war and revolution were showing that the existing social order was not eternally established, but fragile and temporary. But at the same time monopoly capitalism was replacing competition; the old vision of the harmonious interplay of competing individuals was replaced by a world in which the individual became insignificant.

In his autobiography Words, Sartre tells how, as a child, he became aware of the irrationality of the universe.

‘Mademoiselle Marie-Louise (his teacher) was sapping my morale. I believed that wages were in proportion to merit and I was told that she was deserving: why then was she so badly paid? ... When I passed on her complaints, my grandfather burst out laughing; she was far too ugly for any man to want her. I didn’t laugh: could you be born condemned? In that case, I had been told lies: the order of the world concealed intolerable chaos.’

This recognition of the contradictions in bourgeois ideology contains already the seeds of a socialist critique. Similarly in Nausea, Roquentin’s recognition of the absurdity of the world shows him just how vain are the pretentions of the bourgeois of Bouville, who believe their status in society is rooted in the very order of nature. But they are only seeds; Sartre’s early existentialism is still ambiguous.

Existentialism does not lead naturally on to socialism. Many Marxists have preferred to draw outjts links with the irrationalism and individualism of fascism. Lukacs, in his Existentialism or Marxism? [7] sees fascism and existentialism as having the same starting-point in the crisis of imperialism. Sartre’s friend, the Communist novelist Paul Nizan, wrote a novel in 1935 called The Trojan Horse, where a character apparently based on Sartre developed from anarchism to fascism. But Sartre did not take that path.

What Sartre’s existentialism presents is the world-view of the bourgeoisie of late capitalism, stripped of the mystifications that are normally attached to it. It is a view of society founded on the competition between individuals, where no individual is able to see and comprehend the social process as a whole.

The view of society is a brutal and pessimistic one. Since the bourgeoisie does not like to look at itself in an honest manner, Sartre’s philosophy was denounced by the right-thinking bourgeois, and found a home only among the disenchanted elements |on the fringe of the class. Among such people we find, on the one hand, those who break with the bourgeoisie to adopt Marxism; on the other hand, those who develop irrational and terroristic philosophies that the bourgeoisie may adopt under extreme threat.

Sartre claims, in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, that ‘the very concepts used by Marxist science to describe our historical society – exploitation, alienation, fetishisation, reification, etc. – are precisely those which refer most directly to existential structures’. These concepts are already present in his early work, but in a form which is far from Marxist. Sartre’s world-view still starts with the individual – and often finishes there too. The most vivid expression is the play In Camera, where three dead people find that for them Hell is simply to be confined together for all eternity: each seeks to absorb the others into his plans, to realise his freedom by denying theirs.

Sartre’s main concern in his early work is to describe the human situation, to analyse the common features of the situation which every individual finds himself in.

For Sartre, the essential fact of the human condition is freedom of choice. Previous philosophies had tied themselves in knots over the question of free-will – does man have freedom of choice or are his actions predetermined by external factors? Sartre cuts through all the speculations and starts from the experience of the individual; we are free because we feel we are free. When we are faced with a choice we feel anguish at the knowledge that the choice is ours and no one else’s; after we lave taken the decision we have a sense of responsibility for our own acts.

This freedom of choice is not destroyed by external circumstances; in fact it may be made more real by them. For the option of death always remains. Even if we are ordered to do something at gun-point, we can choose to die rather than to obey. If we obey to save our life, the responsibility is still ours.

Sartre has himself criticised his early affirmations of absolute human freedom as being naive [8], and his later work has aimed at a clearer and more concrete view of the scope of human freedom. But the central theme of Sartre’s philosophy, its belief in the possibility of action under any conditions, was already settled. It was to affect the whole of his political and intellectual development.

Even in his early work, Sartre is aware of the ways free choice is distorted, and he attempts to analyse these, though he is still more concerned with the human condition in general than with the features of a particular society.

Thus in Being and Nothingness Sartre is very interested in the way in which the social process tends to turn people into things, to destroy their human qualities. This is a feature, for example, of sexual relations. A girl experiences the ambiguous nature of a man’s desire for her. On the one hand she requires to be recognised as a person, as having freedom; yet the desire must be for her body as an object. So, when the man tries to hold her hand, she cannot decide what to do. She may let him take her hand, yet feel her hand to be merely a physical object, not part of her real self.

A similar form of dehumanisation arises from the way human beings play roles in society. Sartre describes a cafe waiter’s behaviour; his gestures and manners appear exaggerated. Why? Because he is acting, he is ‘playing at’ being a waiter. He is being what he knows he is supposed to be. He defines himself as others define him, thereby losing part of his freedom – ‘A grocer who indulges in day-dreams is offensive to the customer because he is no longer wholly a grocer.’

Similarly, the writer Genet was, as a child, told he was a thief. He decided his elders and betters must be right, and embarked on a life of crime.

Sartre’s insights here have much in common with ideas developed by Marx and later Marxists (the theory of ‘reification’ – transformation of men into things). But in general Sartre does not locate the basis of the problem in specific social factors – the increasing specialisation in the division of labour, the gearing of industry to the production of commodities for exchange on the market rather than for human use.

Another important theme in the early Sartre is ‘bad faith’.Essentially ‘bad faith’ is the making of excuses, the evasion of freedom. To have freedom of choice means the experience of anguish and responsibility. Therefore men try to deny their own freedom by inventing theories which exclude human freedom.

One is guilty of bad faith if one uses an argument of the form: I could not do otherwise because I am female, black, homosexual, stupid, alcoholic, etc.

Bad faith takes many forms. At one extreme is Freudian psychology, which tries to explain the conscious action by the unconscious mental process. Our conscious experience of freedom is seen as merely the effect of a cause which is outside the grasp of our consciousness.

At the other extreme is the respectable bourgeois who believes in absolute and eternal moral standards, or in a God-given purpose to his life. He hides from the essential uniqueness of every human situation, and takes refuge in truths and values for which he is not responsible, which existed before he was born.

This concept of ‘bad faith’ offers the foundation for a critique of ideology. Class society tries to conceal the fact that oppression and exploitation are the result of human action, and attributes them to non-human forces. The oppressed are told they have no freedom, and as long as they believe this they continue to be unfree. Sartre’s recognition of freedom offers the basis for a revolutionary critique of society. But from the recognition of freedom to its realisation there is a long way to go.

The Discovery of Politics

For if Sartre’s philosophy was always a philosophy of action, political action was not one of his major preoccupations in the pre-war period. In 1936, the year of the Popular Front Government, he neither voted in the elections nor participated in any of the demonstrations – though he went to watch them.

If Sartre was already of the left, it was in a rather indeterminate anarchistic manner. Stalinism had no great attraction for him; he supported the CP as an anticapitalist force only in a negative sense; and his view of Russia already in 1929 was to dismiss it as a ‘civilisation of engineers’.

Trotskyism offered more of an intellectual appeal, and he read with interest the works of Trotsky. But French Trotskyism offered little hope of practical results; his closest contact, Simone de Beauvoir’s friend Colette Audry, belonged to a tendency with five members.

The most important Marxist influence on Sartre in the prewar period was from the members of a group of intellectuals who had joined the CP in the late twenties – including Paul Nizan and Georges Politzer. Politzer had given up the attempt to develop a ‘concrete psychology’ compatible with Marxism to devote himself to the study of economics as required by the Party. Nizan, a novelist and essayist, broke with the Party over the Hitler-Stalin pact; after his death the CP denounced him as a police spy.

But political preoccupations make themselves felt only indirectly in Sartre’s pre-war writing. His early fiction studies a variety of cases in which individuals seek a personal escape from the absurdity of existence. In Nausea, for example, the Autodidact seeks a sense to his life through the acquisition of knowledge – but in a culture in which knowledge has no accepted order, he has to pursue it by reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

In the collection Intimacy a number of cases of political psychology are treated. In the story The Wall it is the sceptical element of existentialism that prevails; prisoners in the Spanish Civil War find that in the face of imminent death any values that go beyond the individual seem absurd. In The Childhood of a Leader, Lucien Fleurier, a young bourgeois, is unable to understand what he is. He constantly seeks definition of himself in terms external to himself – he discovers with joy that he has complexes, that he is a homosexual, finally that he is a racialist who is quite unable to stand the sight of a Jew. As a study of ‘bad faith’, the story is a brilliant satire of racialism – but as a psychological, not a political phenomenon.

Intimacy belongs to a period when it was still possible to have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to politics. But Sartre was rapidly thrust into a world where it was no longer possible to leave it. Sartre went into the Army, was taken prisoner by the Germans, released after the capitulation of France. Fascism was now no longer a personal aberration, but the dominant fact of history. Sartre, still far from having a political perspective of any coherent sort, was concerned to fight it.

In an essay published in 1944 Sartre wrote: ‘We have never been so free as under the German Occupation.’ This is not just a literary paradox; it sums up what Sartre learned from the German Occupation. The existentialist abstraction that man is always free became the concrete experience that political action is always available.

The Resistance gave Sartre his acquaintance with extreme situations, the moments of anguish that haunt his post-war work – the threat of torture, the need to assassinate, the knock at the door with someone hidden in the back-room. But it also showed him that writing itself was not an intellectual exercise but a political act. While still in the prisoner-of-war camp Sartre wrote his first play – Bariona – ostensibly about the birth of Christ. The fact that it dealt with the Roman occupation of Palestine was not lost on the audience. Later on, Sartre managed to get The Flies, which despite its use of Greek myth and allusions to German philosophy was overtly pro-Resistance, performed under the very nose of the German censors.

Early in 1941, when the CP was still unwilling to support the Resistance because of the Hitler-Stalin pact, Sartre, together with Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and other intellectuals, founded a group called Socialism and Liberty. Sartre’s attempts to persuade other intellectuals to co-operate were, however, limited. Malraux assured him that Russia and the USA would win the war and there was little to be done in France; Daniel Mayer proposed sending a letter to congratulate Leon Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, on his birthday. The Communist Party saw fit, however, to denounce Sartre as an ‘agent provocateur’. But when Russia entered the war, the CP entered the Resistance; Sartre dissolved his group, and worked closely with the Communists in the CNE (National Council of Writers). He had neither undue affection for the Communists, nor any real analysis of their line. The first task was to fight fascism.

Sartre was still in a state of confusion, torn between his preoccupation with individual choice and his concern for social questions. But this tension helped to produce a major work of literature, the three novels of the Roads to Freedom trilogy (a fourth volume was planned, but only fragments produced).

Roads to Freedom occupies a unique place in Sartre’s work. It is one of his finest and most profound works, yet it was something he could never repeat – indeed he never again wrote a novel. The three volumes trace the fortunes of a group of individuals in the period just before and after the outbreak of the Second World War. Sartre is looking back on his own past, seeing the convergence of individual development and social evolution.

The first volume, The Age of Reason, deals with a whole group of people, mainly middle class, students, etc., all guilty of various forms of ‘bad faith’. The main plot hinges around Mathieu, who is trying to get an abortion for his mistress, in order to preserve his own freedom – a freedom which in fact is the evasion of action.

Politics intrude only rarely into this volume; the Spanish war, the heightening European crises are mentioned, but nothing that any character does relates meaningfully to them. One character, however, is ambiguous – Brunet, the Communist, probably based on Nizan. He criticises Mathieu’s pseudo-freedom, claiming that CP membership gives a meaning to life. Yet the language he uses is almost religious in its tone; the Party is not an instrument of collective action, but a means of personal salvation. He tells Mathieu: ‘And let us get this quite clear: the Party doesn’t need you. To the Party you represent nothing but a little capital of intelligence – and we’ve got all the intellectuals we want.’ Foreseeing his own death, Brunet says: ‘Nothing can now deprive my life of its meaning, nothing can prevent its being a destiny.’ In one sense he is a satirical figure, another example of ‘bad faith’; but he also embodies Sartre’s preoccupation with the possibility of meaningful action.

The second volume, The Reprieve, deals with the Munich crisis. The threat of war impinges on every individual; projects are diverted; relationships broken; people, who would otherwise never have known, learn that they are cowards or heroes. In the third volume, Iron in the Soul, the focus narrows to Mathieu and Brunet; Mathieu reaches the final form of ‘bad faith’ in the belief that he has found freedom in the face of imminent death; Brunet is left alive to cope with the more difficult problems of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the turns in the CP line.

Roads to Freedom is a historical novel, which illuminates historical events through the experience of individuals. Sartre is here confronting the same problem as the great realists of the 19th century, Balzac, Tolstoy or Zola – the interweaving of individual and social destiny. Yet the form he adopts is very different; The Reprieve in particular adopts a fragmentary effect borrowed from Dos Passos where a number of separate narratives are mixed together – sometimes with the transition in mid-sentence – without any link between them. As in a disjointed film we cut from the politicians at Munich to a private love-making and back.

The form of the 19th century novel presupposed a commonly accepted framework within which meaningful historical action was possible. Sartre, unlike the ‘socialist realists’, recognised that to imitate 19th century forms was futile in a society in which the possibility of meaningful historical action was problematical. The fragmentation of Roads to Freedom evokes precisely the sense of individual impotence in face of the uncontrollable forces of history. Sartre now sought to solve this problem, not just on the level of literary technique, but on the level of political practice.

Action and Pragmatism

Sartre never accepted the kind of view of the Occupation suggested by Camus’s allegorical novel The Plague. For Camus, fascism was comparable to bubonic plague – an extraordinary challenge of non-human origin, in face of which solidarity was required. Sartre knew the political struggle must go on; but he had to come to terms with its changing forms.

At the Liberation, in 1944, there was a large Resistance movement, armed, and with substantial CP influence; workers were occupying factories in the liberated areas; American soldiers were demonstrating in support of the demand for immediate return home. The possibility that the defeat of fascism could be the beginning of a rapid process of social revolution was clearly present. But J.V. Stalin decreed otherwise; in return for his share of Eastern Europe he sent the French Communist Party into the Government to play a vital role in the re-establishment of French capitalism. The CP was willingly abetted by the French Socialist Party. [9]

Sartre, a committed socialist, but still rejecting Marxism, had no analysis for this period; on the one hand, his sympathy for the us shows that he did not recognise its imperialist ambitions at this stage; on the other hand he told Aron as early as June 1945 that he would support Russia against America in the event of a new war.

Sartre has given several different accounts of what were the available choices at the Liberation; but the most radical self-criticism appears in the obituary of Merleau-Ponty written in 1961 [10]:

In 1945 it was possible to choose between two positions. Two, and no more. The first and the better one, was to turn to the Marxists and to them alone, and to denounce the aborted revolution, the murdered Resistance, the disintegration of the Left. Some periodicals bravely adopted this position and disappeared; those were the happy days when people had ears so as not to hear and eyes so as not to see. Far from thinking that their failure damned their attempts, I claim that we could have imitated them without collapsing: the strength and the weakness of these reviews was that they concentrated on politics; ours published novels, literary essays, eye-witness reports and documents: these floats would have kept it going. But to denounce the betrayed revolution, one would first have had to be a revolutionary: Merleau was not one, and nor was I as yet. We did not have the right to proclaim ourselves as Marxists, despite our sympathies for Marx. Now revolution is not a state of mind: it is an everyday practice illuminated by a theory. And if it is not enough to have read Marx in order to be a revolutionary, one converges with him sooner or later if one militates for the revolution. The result is clear: only men formed by this discipline could effectively criticise the Left; so at this time, they had to be more or less closely linked to Trotskyist circles; but, at the same time, this connection disqualified them, though it was not their fault: to this deluded Left dreaming of unity, they appeared as ‘splitters’.

... The other attitude remained. We had no choice, it was forced on us. Coming from the middle classes, we tried to make a link between the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie and the Communist intellectuals. This bourgeoisie had begotten us: we had received as a heritage its culture and its values; but the Occupation and Marxism had taught us that neither one nor the other was automatic. We asked our friends in the Communist Party for the necessary tools to take humanism out of the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Without what he aptly described as an ‘everyday practice illuminated by a theory’, but with the conviction that political action was always possible, Sartre’s political development over the second half of the forties was necessarily erratic. The concern for action was healthy in comparison with the complete divorce between long-term objectives and short-term practice that existed in the Communist Party – and even more so in the still professedly Marxist Socialist Party. But the dangers of pragmatism and reformism were clearly large.

Sartre made no full-scale revision of his philosophy at this time; his promised sequel to Being and Nothingness, which would deal with moral questions, never appeared; all we have are two essays, Existentialism and Humanism and Portrait of the Anti-Semite (both 1946). [11] Here he developed a more concrete theory of freedom.

Firstly the concept of commitment becomes more prominent. For Sartre commitment is both a fact of life and a desirable value. We cannot choose except to choose – we are ‘condemned to be free’ – but we can choose to accept our responsibility and to make meaningful choices.

Secondly, he tries to elaborate the nature of this responsibility. His position is essentially that of Kant. We must act in such a way that our actions can be the basis for a universal principle. By exercising my freedom I am by implication willing the freedom of every other man. Though Sartre makes reference to the role of the working class, this universalism is basically a liberal position; it does not start from the fact that men are divided into social classes.

Sartre’s philosophy is a philosophy of abstract humanism. The practice that flows from it will therefore tend to be reformist. Sartre’s reformism was summarised thus in Saint Genêt:

‘To refuse is not to say no, it is to modify by work. One should not believe that the revolutionary rejects capitalist society as a whole: how could he since he is inside it? On the contrary, he accepts it as a fact which justifies his revolutionary action. “Change the world,” says Marx. “Change life,” says Rimbaud. Very well, change them if you can. That means that you will accept many things in order to change a few.’

Sartre was concerned to act at all costs; but what means of action was open to him? He was only too well aware that he was an intellectual, and as such had a particular relation to the political movements of the left. For the French Communist Party, there were two possible roles for intellectuals. One was as Party hack, ever ready to turn out a pseudo-intellectual justification for a tactical change in line (though the recent Garaudy affair has shown that even the most abject worm can turn); the other as an independent figure, whose purely intellectual work may be quite irrelevant to the Party, but who will give his name to any cause publicly supported by the Party.

Sartre accepted neither of these roles; he constantly criticised the CP for its dogmatism and lack of intellectual life, and though he signed many petitions in his time, he never accepted that this was the main use for a writer’s pen. But Sartre’s concept of a Party is always conditioned by his experience of French Stalinism. Nowhere is there a vision of what a Marxist party might be – an organisation in which workers and intellectuals are both taken out of their own milieu into the practical and intellectual life of the Party, in which a genuine internal theoretical debate can exist together with disciplined action.

Without a Marxist theory of the Party, Sartre could have no analysis of Stalinism; without an analysis of Stalinism he could have no strategy towards the CP; without a strategy towards the CP he could engage only in pressure-group politics.

In the late forties, Sartre made two attempts at pressure-group politics. The first was the founding of the magazine Les Temps Modernes. In one sense this was a success; for nearly 25 years the magazine has maintained a standard of serious theoretical debate that has certainly never been equalled in Britain.

But would-be imitators should be warned that such a venture is necessarily parasitic. An ‘independent’ journal can only exist in relation to a movement which offers it not only readers but positions to criticise. Sartre can scarcely have hoped to convert the leaders or change the leadership of a Stalinist party, but he did not offer the perspective, in the long or short term, of building an alternative to the CP. The positions of the Temps Modernes took each issue in isolation; they were both moralistic – for they offered no means of achieving their aims – and reformist – since they offered concrete policies at every point. The positions of Sartre and his friends were certainly better than those of the CP – they opposed the Indo-Chinese war long before the CP left the pro-imperialist Government – but they were not part of a revolutionary strategy.

On one important point, however, the record should be put straight in Sartre’s favour – the question of the disclosures about the Russian labour camps. The account of the affair in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins and the criticisms of Camus and others have suggested that Sartre was in some way soft on Stalinism in this matter. In fact Sartre had arranged an article denouncing the Soviet camps before the right-wing Figaro took up the matter. Sartre insisted, however, that the condemnation of Russian atrocities should in no way be used to justify French atrocities in Indo-China, Madagascar, etc.; the main enemy was at home. Sartre’s attitude was a perfectly principled one compared with the sickening hypocrisy of Camus (who astoundingly has a reputation for integrity even on the left) who wept crocodile tears over the Russian camps, but refused to sign a petition for negotiations in Indo-China because it was ‘playing the Communist game’. [12]

Sartre’s desire for effective action could scarcely be fulfilled by the Temps Modernes. Early in 1948, therefore, he took the more adventurous step of participating in the founding of a political movement, the RDR (Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire – Democratic Revolutionary Alliance). The movement was explicitly not a party; it sought members from those who were already active in the Communist and Socialist parties. Sartre’s pragmatism led him to think that regroupment could come first and theoretical clarity later. Nothing could have been more illusory at the very moment when the Cold War was causing catastrophic splits in the French labour movement. By accepting a minimum practical basis for unity Sartre found himself co-operating with some very curious elements – notably the ex-Trotskyist and future Gaullist David Rousset. For Rousset the anti-Stalinism of the RDR provided a convenient point of transition in his journey to the right. By late 1949 Rousset was conducting an openly pro-American campaign, and the RDR had collapsed.

The failure of the RDR challenged the very basis of Sartre’s political philosophy. In an unpublished note quoted by Simone de Beauvoir in Force of Circumstance he summed up the experience as follows:

My fundamental idea at the time: one can do nothing but bear witness to a way of life that is condemned to disappear but which will be reborn; and perhaps the best works will in the future bear witness to this way of life and allow it to be saved. Therefore, fluctuate between a taking of ideological positions and action. But if I advocate an ideological position, at once people incite me to action. What is Literature? brought me to the RDR ... But if I’m wrong, then my situation is one where synthesis is impossible. Even transcendence of it is distorted. In this case I must renounce the optimistic idea that in any situation one can be a man. An idea inspired by the Resistance: even under torture one could be a man. But that was not the problem: it lay rather in the fact that certain situations are perfectly livable but unbearably distorted by objective contradictions.


1. Lucifer and the Lord, Act 2.

2. To which Sartre replied: ‘Gravediggers are worthy people, certainly trade unionists, perhaps Communists. I would rather be a gravedigger than a lackey.’ (What is Literature?)

3. Most of Sartre’s works are available in English, some in more than one edition and under different titles. Rather than give a mass of page references, I have given merely minimum indications to anyone who wishes to follow up a point. In most cases the translations are my own.

The main sources of biographical and political background information are M.A. Burnier, Les Existentialistes et la Politique, (Gallimard, 1966), and the three volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance – all in Penguin). Any references can be checked at the appropriate points in these chronological accounts.

4. English translation published by Monthly Review Press, 1968.

5. Ben Brewster in New Left Review 37.

6. See particularly Existentialism and Humanism (Methuen 1948).

7. Existentialisme ou Marxisme? (Paris, Nagel, 1948); not translated.

8. See Sartre’s critique of his earlier ideas in Itinerary of a Thought, New Left Review 58.

9. For details, see Cliff & Birchall, France: The Struggle Goes On, chapters 3, 4 and 5.

10. Translated in Situations, Hamish Hamilton, 1965.

11. Existentialism and Humanism also translated as Existentialism (New York, 1947); Portrait of the Anti-Semite (Seeker & Warburg 1948), also translated as Anti-Semite and Jew (New York, 1948).

12. Such criticism is not meant to deny that Camus is a major novelist.

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