Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 2, 2005

Camus and Sartre

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:22 am
Fraying Friendship
Ronald Aronson’s Camus and Sartre
by Louis Proyect
Book Review
Aronson, Ronald: Camus and Sartre: the story of a friendship and the quarrel that ended it, University of Chicago Press, 2004, ISBN 0-226-02796-1, 291 pages, $32.50 (hardcover)
(Swans – August 1, 2005) Ronald Aronson’s Camus and Sartre is a penetrating study of the friendship of two French philosopher/activists and the political differences that eventually led to their breakup. Like a drama in three acts, the book first explores the growing ties between the two men during WWII; next, their confrontation during the early years of the cold war; and finally imagines a possible reconciliation through a kind of dialectical synthesis.
If “Camus and Sartre” were a screenplay, then Simone de Beauvoir would certainly be a major supporting character. Along with other key figures in the radical French intelligentsia, her shrewd observations as recounted by Aronson serve as invitations to the original works, especially The Mandarins, a roman à clef devoted to the Camus-Sartre feud. Indeed, Aronson’s major contribution — besides dealing with the feud itself — is to rekindle interest in this period, which has so much in common with our own. If you substitute our “war on terrorism” for the Cold War, you will find the same sorts of preoccupations in both periods. Furthermore, these two conflicts come together in the War in Algeria, which was simultaneously a Crusade against Islamic radicalism and the looming Soviet menace. With Sartre putting everything on the line to defend the struggle for Algerian independence and Camus supporting — albeit in liberal terms — continuing French control, the contrast could not be sharper.
Although Sartre and Camus identified with the left, they could not be more unalike physically, psychologically, and in terms of their class origins. Sartre, born in 1905, was eight years older than Camus, who came from Mondovi, Algeria, and was the son of an impoverished agricultural worker. His Mediterranean and proletarian origins, as well as his movie star looks, provided a mystique that made him irresistible to middle-class intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir.
Camus was a politically-committed journalist and a theater director in Algeria in the 1930s and belonged to the Communist Party from 1935 to 1937. Ironically, he was expelled from the party for objecting to a growing disdain for Arab rights taking place during the Popular Front turn. Although Camus never championed the cause of Algerian independence, he appeared genuinely concerned about the impoverished state of its non-French inhabitants.
Using skills acquired as an editor of Alger republican and its successor Le Soir republican, Camus threw himself into the French Resistance. In 1944 he assumed editorial responsibilities at Combat, the underground newspaper. This was dangerous work. Other activists associated with Combat had been arrested by the Germans and sent to concentration camps. André Bollier, the paper’s printer in Lyon, committed suicide just before the Germans were about to arrest him. While awaiting a Nazi search, Camus handed his lover — famed film actress Maria Casarès — the design for the masthead of Combat. Fearing that women would also be searched, she swallowed it.
Camus’s courage in this period stands in stark contrast to his epigones. They appropriate his cold war politics without ever having displayed such mettle in the face of danger. Paul Berman, who self-consciously models Terror and Liberalism on Camus’s The Rebel, has spent his entire life writing defenses of US foreign policy in liberal publications. Whatever Camus’s flaws, he at least demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his life for higher principles, while Paul Berman only seeks fame and fortune through his flattery of men in positions of power.
In the 1930s, Sartre had begun to search for a new philosophical method. Drawing upon the insights of phenomenology, a largely Germanic school founded by Edmund Husserl devised as a means to reconcile Cartesian dualisms, Sartre sought to apply them to the ultimate philosophical question: how should we live our lives. In the beginning, existentialism posited the answer in terms of the relationship of the individual to the world. As Sartre grew more political during the Nazi occupation, existentialism took on more and more of a political aspect.
Sartre made fitful attempts to confront the Nazis. He created a group in 1941 called Socialisme et Liberté with Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the foremost adherent to phenomenology in France and a supporter of the Communist Party. Unfortunately, this group was “prematurely anti-fascist.” In 1941, the nonaggression pact between Nazi German and Soviet Russia was still intact and the CP was acquiescing in the Occupation. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party in France had voted to recognize the treacherous Vichy government.
Sartre’s disgust for the Vichy government was registered in The Flies, a 1943 reworking of Aeschylus’s tale of Orestes. The play is a masked call for resistance to Nazi occupation. Camus first became acquainted with Sartre on the opening night of this play. That year Camus had begun to show signs of the moralism that would lead him to break with the radical movement. In his Letters to a German Friend, Camus constantly refers to the French moral high ground, as if World War Two came about because of German wickedness rather than economic crisis. In promoting the Resistance, Camus rejected nationalism while reaffirming French national superiority. Even Aronson, who is far more partial to Camus than his self-described Marxist beliefs would conceivably allow, is forced to acknowledge his moralizing tendencies:
But Camus’s appeal to morality became moralizing. After all, what was he implying about all those who had not waited, who began the Resistance on the first day of the Occupation, many of them rallying to de Gaulle? And those who, like the Communists, were ready to resist violently and with great heroism as soon as the order was given? Camus suggested that all those resisters, as well as all those who fought on the battlefield before France fell, were premature or impure, that they came to violence too easily. They had dirty hands. Defeated France, nonviolent France, the France that was ambivalent about making war was now slowly rising, propelled by the right reasons. This France had never made a mistake — it was morally right when it refused to fight and was defeated; now it was morally right in its violent determination.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy27.html

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