Jean-Paul Sartre 1974

Introduction to “It is Right to Rebel”

Source: P. Gavi, J-P Sartre, P. Victor, On a rasion de se Révolter. Gallimard, Paris, 1974;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor 2007;
Interview: Tuesday, February 26, 1974;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

An adventure that begins on a certain day, that ends on another, with ideas that aren’t always the same... (November 1972-March 1974)

Philippe Gavi: The discussions began in November 1972. They finished in March 1974. During this period of almost a year and a half many things happened, many events took place. Upon re-reading this manuscript it can be seen that some of our ideas have changed, changed because confronted with each other in the course of these discussions, changed also because confronted with what was happening elsewhere, at Lip, for example. It is important that each of us is clear about his evolution. We can recall that at the origin of these discussions there was the birth of the daily “Libération;” at least, it was only a project during the winter of 1972. We thought that the newspaper would begin appearing February 5, 1973; in reality, it came out May 22, 1973. It was a matter of finding the money, and we thus thought we would earn money with this book that would going into the “Libération” cash box. Personally, it is for this reason I accepted to do this. I want to be clear that in this book I am not speaking in the name of the “Libération” team, no more than does Sartre. We were only delegated to express our personal points of view. All of the money will go to the newspaper, which really needs it. To be sure, it’s strange to see three people talk to each other and then put out a book with their names on the cover, but we didn’t talk behind closed doors. Each had his “praxis.” And nothing prevents others, many others, from also forming “speak out groups.” It should also be said that we had no doubts that these conversations would take on such importance for us.

Jean-Paul Sartre: I am in complete agreement with Gavi in all that he said; that is, that this one of the frequent cases in politics where chance finally becomes reality, with a meaning that goes along with the general line that we are seeking. For example, here there was one meaning, which was “Libération,” which was the Maoist movement, and it is this that we wanted to try to express through the dialogues. And then little by little, the sense of these dialogues became clearer. Finally, it’s because we found ourselves there, that we had a certain sympathy and a certain manner of handling those problems that were our own that we had these discussions. They thus absolutely appeared as a contingency, as chance. And then little by little, in function of the newspaper that was developing, in function of social events, we perceived that that this simple chance undertaking was in fact an undertaking that had a meaning. It is thus the transformation of chance into necessity that is represented by the evolution of these discussions.

Is this your opinion, Victor?

Pierre Victor: Exactly. I can say, perhaps more categorically than you, that in the course of these discussions my position changed. It isn’t simply ideas that evolved, but even my position: at the beginning I was – and you took me for – a leader of the Maoist movement...

Sartre: We took you for someone “coming here as leader of the Maoist movement"...

Victor: Yes. And then, at the end of these discussions, I am no longer precisely a leader. In November 1972, when we began these discussions, there is behind it what I call the Maoist movement, which had a rich experience of revolutionary action and which already had a quite burdensome image; it’s quite normal that this image be a particular burden on the leader. Throughout the first part of the discussions you provoke me, you want constantly to place yourself at the edges of the Maoist movement. This, incidentally is what was interesting; you question me about what the Maoist movement didn’t do, couldn’t do, didn’t think or thought our poorly. In particular, the questioning is concentrated on the question of the struggle against ideological institutions, the question of minorities, sexual minorities, and we can say that in that first part of the discussions I am constantly provoked. I think that in our discussions that method has a certain effectiveness. I insist on this: there was an efficacy of “discussion,” unlike traditional debates where we leave just as we came in, where the roles remain fixed. This was not at all the case. So here is the primary factor: the discussions made me change my ideas because my interlocutors put their finger on weaknesses, limits, that could be corrected, or that can’t be. The important thing is that they be put in perspective, so we can see beyond them. There was a second factor in the evolution of this position of leader of the Maoist movement. This second factor is the evolution of the Maoist movement itself. These discussions are stretched out over a period when the contradictions concerning organization as it is structured, thus the idea of an organization and its reality, was sharpened and headed towards a point of explosion. In other words, it was a “bad year.” But we are yet seeking this putting in question. So that contradiction between organization and the social movement, even if it led at the time to the holding of false positions, ended by provoking an explosion and an enormous shake-up of ideas as a whole. In the end, the evolution of this contradiction is a positive factor. This is the second factor in my evolution. The third factor, which I place last, but which is really the most important, is Lip. I am speaking for myself, because it is precisely Lip that will correspond to a change in my position. By laying out my ideas on Lip I found myself at loggerheads with the ideas and the state of the Maoist movement at the moment of Lip, and I was to find myself, in a certain manner, in a purely personal position...not exactly, because there will still be the authority acquired after five years of experience. The Lip event is the most important factor. There had been certain conservative aspects of traditional Marxist thought in my head that I hadn’t succeeded in putting in question in May 1968, in particular the heavy, massive and redoubtable concept of organization as it was left to us by the so-called heirs of Leninism. I hadn’t succeed in truly putting it in question in May 1968. As long as the worker doesn’t speak about organization we can always be tempted to have recourse to the old, conservative Marxist discourse; we can claim that it is a working class discourse, which it is, in part. What was needed was that worker event, Lip, for me to put in question certain very profound things about organization, thus on its theory and power, and I fell from on high, thus also on my position as leader. It was the combination of these three factors that provoked my evolution, from the beginning of these discussions up to the end.

Sartre: Very clear. And now the reader must be put in a position where he can judge the depth of our changes.

Victor: Have you changed?

Gavi: These discussions took place in two stages; in the first stage two individuals, Sartre and I, question the representative of a movement we feel close to, while all the while remaining critical. At that time the Maoist movement exists, we question obviously on what it does, and we spend much time on what separates us; the front pages of “La Cause du Peuple” where it says: “The guillotine, but for Touvier.” A total absence of reflection on the contradictions within the people, the lack of transparency in the organization. We insist much on the importance of struggles that you still considered marginal or whose meaning you didn’t grasp: the struggles of women and homosexuals...We attack your concept of organization. Sartre explains the nature of his relations with the PCF and with the Maoists.

In a second period, beginning in the spring, two things have fundamentally changed:

  1. In the first place the Maoist movement is a hair’s breadth from no longer existing as such. It is coming apart, dissolving. So much so that we come together as three individuals, each implicated differently and at the same time in common, in the revolutionary movement. Victor is no longer the representative of a movement. He appears more as an escapee. We then speak less of Maoists, more of the present and the future in function of the event that spring up as the days pass.
  2. And then, “Liberation’ appears and there I am with daily responsibility.

Victor: ...and power

Gavi: ... and power, yes it’s true; the newspaper is an instrument of power. The editors, the manufacturers, those who make the newspaper write what they see happening. They obviously have power in relation to what is happening, a political power. The situation is thus in a certain way reversed: at the beginning of the discussions it is Victor who, through his daily practice, has more political power, and towards the end of the discussions it’s the journalist at “Libération.” I questioned Victor. It is now he who is going to question me. Sartre, always the same, questions both of us and even though his name doesn’t often appear in the newspaper still plays an important role in its evolution, for his criticisms have dual repercussions: through Victor on the Maoists who work at “Libération” and constitute half the team, and on me, journalist at “Libération.” The evolution of the Maoists, or of Sartre, then takes a backseat. Many questions are concretely posed for us at the newspaper: reflecting on the union movement, reflecting on the balance of power at present, on the union of the left. In short, I find myself in a situation where I must make concrete our reflections on organization, authority, and socialism. At the current time I think there cannot be a revolution without a simultaneous overturning of economic and ideological relations. In this lies the interest and the contribution Chinese Cultural Revolution. Anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian; this is the meaning of our current approach, and the reality of what is called “leftism,” still seeking its own identity after five years of gestation. We are in a minority within the left, and we have the problems that go with every minority. Imagine one day a government of the left; obviously we would be in a minority in relation to that left, and we would thus be condemned to the position of followers, critical followers, but followers nonetheless, even if totally provocative and adventurist. Either we would be dreary, personality-less fellow travelers, or we would open the gates to fascism by provoking a radicalization when the balance of power isn’t favorable to us, and we would emerge defeated from an armed confrontation. In other words, as long as we remain in the minority, as long as our ideas remain marginally influential any government of the left can only lead to three failures: the first is fascism, for a simple reason: this government hasn’t understood that power isn’t plucked like a flower, that the bourgeoisie is ready for anything. It isn’t ready for a confrontation. It thinks there can be a peaceful transition o socialism. This is what happened in Chile: the Communist Party and the extreme left were both liquidated. Second failure: social democracy. In order to avoid confrontation the government of the left concedes so many things to the bourgeoisie that we find ourselves, like under the Fourth Republic, with Socialist ministers who, less well than the UDR, manage the interests of the bourgeoisie and repress the popular movement. Third failure: authoritarian bureaucracy of the Soviet type, this after a violent confrontation. The authoritarian left not having ideologically “worked on” the middle class not able to rally them with economic measures that were inadequate, the middle class could do nothing else but become fascist. And the inevitable confrontation concludes either in fascism or in authoritarian bureaucracy. If we want neither fascism, nor social-democracy, nor authoritarian bureaucracy, we will thus fight the right, against capitalism, by making a common front with the left, and then against the left in order to overturn the balance of power within the left by introducing there the struggle against the division of labor, the fight against hierarchy, the fight against all authoritarian relations. It’s a political struggle we are undertaking, not intellectual ideas we are tossing in the air. It will have its own forms of action, a profoundly democratic practice, and spaces in process of liberation where direct democracy and the control of each over everything is concretely inscribed in daily life: communities, investigative commissions, occupations, parallel press, legitimacy of illegality, speak-out groups, rotation of tasks, mutual aid networks. And in every space in which we take a bit of power and carry out an apprenticeship in new democracy we will pose the question of power as a whole, until the day when we will together occupy the entirety of the space at the end of a series of confrontations which we will also have prepared ourselves for.

Victor: You, Sartre, what did you learn in these discussions?

Sartre: I re-learned, if you will...

Victor: A reminiscence...

Sartre: Yes, the reminiscence of a theory that is entirely mine, the theory of freedom: I think that every man is free. I explain within the discussions what I mean by this, and it must be said that until 1968 that freedom didn’t appear clearly to me in the political domain, and my relations with the PCF managed more to disgust me with this than anything else. The PCF and freedom don’t go together.

Victor: From which comes “Dirty Hands"...

Sartre: From which comes “Dirty Hands.” And now I see, I see again the possibility of conceiving a political struggle centered on freedom. It’s a very important thing for me to rediscover today what I thought 25 years ago, to rediscover it through different strange and twisted paths, but I have rediscovered it and it is what I will speak of. I spoke of freedom over the course of the discussions, but we count on having a conclusion to these discussions, and I will speak in that conclusion of the role of freedom in the current praxis of the organizations we have to create. And so for me, I have simply rediscovered the realistic truth by approaching reality with you. This seems quite important for an intellectual who in general no longer knows reality, and I noted with pleasure that on this notion of freedom we were, in the end, not so very different. I think that in the beginning we were totally different, but at the end of the discussions we are close enough on this question, and this is important to me; to a point where I’ll tell you that for me the dialogue, from beginning to end, was the increasingly precise, increasingly progressive bringing out of the idea of freedom. It isn’t always seen in the discussions, but deep down it presided over all that I said through its rebirth and its clarity. I had with you, Victor, more important discussions on freedom, but unfortunately they aren’t published here. It can be said that freedom has a place in these discussions only through its absence, except it is the reverse side of all that I said. This is what I can affirm. Insofar as under other names than freedom you are quite close to me, in certain areas I have the impression that you are quite struck by these ideas of freedom. This is why I would even have proposed, though not insisting that we keep it, the words “Discussions on Freedom,” had we been a bit more explicit on this question. It was “freedom within organization.” It seems to me that at the current time that it is the freedom of the militant that is in question and not the vague freedom of the person, the individual, but the freedom of the militant. If you want my opinion, we will attempt to define it in the conclusion, for we mustn’t abandon this point of view.

Victor: I could perhaps add a word. And that is that it seems to me that this change that we can feel the length of these discussions, and that permutation of roles which obviously isn’t complete, is not unique to the three of us. I think this reflects a profound change that we glimpsed in the final discussions on the position of the politico, a shakeup in ideas let us say of traditional Marxist thought that doesn’t come from the three intellectuals gathered here. This is a mass fact.

Gavi: I’m in complete agreement: five years after May 1968 something extremely important is happening. This concept of freedom, so marginal, if not “idealist,” is beginning to be made concrete politically. It is present in all conflicts. Re-appropriated by the workers. A new relationship of forces is in the process of being established. We have gone beyond the stage of the active minority, and the working class has taken up the baton from the petit bourgeoisie. There is a tiny Lip in the head of more and more people, thanks to the evolution of production relations, to confrontations... thanks also to the ideas that have been developed over the years by the revolutionary movement, but marginalized. These ideas aren’t new, but they have a new strength. For a long time they were either the work of tiny groups who didn’t manage to assume their identity and who become even tinier groups or allowed themselves to be liquidated, or the saws of a few intellectuals who had no relationship to reality, who were cut off from reality, whose voices were stifled, or who were used by the bourgeoisie. Today they are taking on a new breadth, and this is why I think that we have arrived at a third moment of the revolutionary movement; after the religious movement, after the Marxist religion, freedom had become a daily practice.

Sartre: We still have to conclude this introduction

Gavi: What do you think?

Sartre: If the reader wants to truly understand this book he must accompany us on the path we’ve taken from the first discussions up to the last. In other words, it’s not a matter of reading the experiences of a few people on a distant isle, ion an unknown continent; it’s a matter of seeing people who are the reader himself, of passing from a kind of necessity for the struggle to the idea in libertarian form in conjunction with current struggles. It’s a matter of doing this because in doing this the reader is penetrated by us, there are several themes that are present and often in competition that take place... that are treated in these discussions, these are currents of ideas in him, and he must take them as such. It must be the idea defended by Gavi, then the idea defended by Victor, then the idea that I defend. There are currents we can have in spirit that are contradictory, and he must see to what extent we become closer towards the end. In other words, there is a labor and a time to be used in reading a manuscript. You can’t take just any page with the idea that it’s a page that says what it says for eternity. It’s a page that says what it says but that can be refuted on page 150 or 200: it must be read as temporal. This is what seems to me to be the most important things in these discussions, and it’s obviously what happens in political or philosophical discussions with any people who want to have them: they sit down, they talk, and if it’s well conducted it can modify them and this will become known through their dialogue, and little by little the dialogue will take on a temporal form. So we have here a temporal form, not a written form with a gentleman who has suppressed time, produces some work of which he has the principles and the conclusions; but an idea is a form made in time. Time counts enormously in this book, the time at which we began in fall ‘72, the time at which we finished; in the meanwhile Chile was victim of a coup d’état, in the meanwhile there was Lip and there were many other things as well, the war in the Middle East, etc., and all of this influenced us, not that we always speak of it, but it can be felt that we were influenced. So it’s necessary, if we absolutely want the reader to take this book as the temporal unity that it is, that we think of the events in the background. It’s necessary that the reader who reads it see the dates and reflect, saying to himself: here Chile wasn’t going well, on all this they have different opinions but each of these opinions is more open than those they once had. So I advise the reader to read this book as something that is an event, an adventure that begins on a certain day and ends on another, with ideas that aren’t always the same within the temporal development but which ends by arriving at a coherent thought which for its part demands at that moment to be developed in a “Second Discussion,” etc, but which we leave where it is in 1974. So there is a fourth interlocutor in these discussions, and that’s the reader. This should be considered as a dialogue between us and the reader, and the conclusion of this reader upon finishing the book is that which I hope we would like to have as well ,a conclusion concerning the book and the ideas that were developed and varied within the project itself. Voila....