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Sartre: He missed the boat but he kept on swimming

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905–1980

(May 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 5, 18 May–14 June 1980, pp. 32–33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From the flood of obituaries of Sartre a clear bourgeois party-line emerges. Sartre was on the wrong side politically, being ‘soft on communism’, an uncritical supporter of Russian labour camps, terrorism, etc., etc.; his influence has waned and he is virtually unknown to the younger generation; yet somehow, despite all that he was a ‘great man’. Much of what has been written is marked by a combination of patronising smugness and pig-ignorance. Thus the Sunday Times (April 20th) quotes Mary Warnock as having consigned existentialism ‘to the intellectual dustbin’. Ms Warnock’s main claim to fame is a book on Sartre’s evolution to Marxism in which she quotes Marx’s ‘fourteenth thesis on Feuerbach’. (NB for new readers – there are only eleven.)

In The Observer (April 20th) John Weightman laments that Sartre did not agree with Voltaire’s statement: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. (Actually Voltaire never said any such thing.) But precisely one of the things Sartre always insisted on was that words were a form of action. Sartre never took refuge in ‘theoretical praxis’, ‘relative autonomy’ or any of the other mystifications whereby a whole generation of would-be Marxist intellectuals have sought to disconnect what they said from what they did – or more likely didn’t do.

For Sartre the unity of theory and practice was paramount, and it is nothing less than an insult to him to suggest that one can acclaim his ‘philosophy’ while dismissing the practice it led to. The only obituary Sartre deserves is one that defends him against the smears and lies of his would-be friends, while at the same time rigorously criticising his political practice.

Contrary to received opinion Sartre was never a Stalinist and never a Maoist. Nor, contrary to the wishful thinking of some, was he ever a consistent revolutionary socialist. Sartre’s work is a long dialogue with the revolutionary left; a dialogue full of hesitations and misunderstandings. From the failures of this dialogue we can learn something of the weakness of the left in our age.

Clive James (Observer, April 20th) thinks Sartre supported Stalin and Mao because ‘he was taking revenge for his bad eye’. (I don’t know if Mr James has any physical disability to blame his inanity on.) A more fruitful approach to tracing Sartre’s development would be to start with a story he tells in his autobiography Words. As the child of a rich bourgeois family he had for a while a governess called Marie-Louise who used to lament to her pupil that she couldn’t find a husband. For the young Sartre her unhappiness called into question the values which his family had tried to instill into him.

‘I thought wages were proportionate to merit: so why did they pay her so badly? If you had a job, you were proud and dignified, happy to work: since she had the good fortune to work eight hours a day, why did she speak of her life as being an incurable ill? When I reported her grievances, my grandfather burst out laughing: she was much too ugly for any man to want her. I didn’t laugh: so you could be born condemned? In that case they had lied to me: the order of the world concealed a state of intolerable disorder.’

It is this gulf between theory and practice, between ideology and reality, that led Sartre to break irreconcilably with his own class. His whole work is devoted to the quest for values which can be taken seriously, which can be implemented in practice. If God does not exist, if human beings have freedom of choice, then we must follow through the logic of those propositions, accept all the consequences they entail.

Sartre and Socialism

The only solution was socialism. But for Sartre the road to socialism was far from easy. Too young to participate in the great social upheavals which followed the First World War, Sartre came of age politically as Stalin was consolidating his power over the Comintern, and fascism was rising throughout Europe. He was never in much doubt that he was an anti-fascist, but the question of positive political alignment was a much more difficult one. In the thirties his circle of friends included at least one Trotskyist, Colette Audry, and Sartre was certainly familiar with the debates of the period; but the revolutionary left was too peripheral to political reality to exert any real influence on him.

The major Marxist influence on him at the time was Paul Nizan, Communist, novelist and journalist: Nizan was a loyal Stalinist up to the Stalin-Hitler pact, after which he left the party; shortly after he was killed. After the war a number of CP intellectuals – notably Aragon and Henri Lefebvre – spread the totally unfounded story that Nizan had been a police informer. From this whole affair Sartre retained a distrust of the French Communist Party, which survived whatever tactical alliances he might make.

The German Occupation was a crucial period for consolidating Sartre’s political commitment. Not that he was in any sense a Resistance hero; but the experience made clear to him the nature of writing as a political act. In 1943 his play The Flies was performed in Paris; Sartre’s choice of a theme from Greek mythology had concealed from the German censor the fact that the play was a clear encouragement to Resistance. Sam White (Evening Standard, April 18th) dredged up the tired old slander that Sartre was somehow ‘collaborating’ with the Germans by cheating the censorship this way. This slander was first launched by Andre Malraux in 1959 when he was a minister in de Gaulle’s government. Sartre was able to reply that the performance had been approved by the main Resistance organisation for writers, the CP-controlled National Writers’ Committee.

Up to the end of the German Occupation, then, Sartre was a man of the mainstream left: against fascism, for socialism, agnostic about Marxism. It was in 1944–45, when revolution was on the agenda for France, that Sartre faced a real choice as to whether to take the reformist or the revolutionary road.

Many years later, in 1961, Sartre described the choice he faced at the time of the Liberation:

‘It was possible, in 1945, to choose between two positions. Two and only two. The first, and better, one, was to address the Marxists and them alone, to denounce the aborted revolution, the slaughtered Resistance, and the disintegration of the left. Some journals adopted this position courageously, and disappeared unheard: it was the happy time when people had ears not to hear and eyes not to see. I am far from believing that these failures condemned their attempts, and I claim we could have imitated them without sinking ... But to denounce the revolution betrayed, it would first have been necessary to be a revolutionary: Merleau (Merleau-Ponty, his collaborator – I.B.) wasn’t one, and nor was I yet. We didn’t even have the right to declare ourselves Marxists, despite our sympathies for Marx. Now revolution is not a state of mind: it’s a day-by-day practice illuminated by a theory. And if reading Marx isn’t enough to make you a revolutionary, you converge with him sooner or later if you are fighting for revolution. The result is clear: only men formed by this discipline could effectively criticise the left; so, at that time, they had to be more or less closely linked to Trotskyist circles; but straightaway this affiliation disqualified them, without it being their fault: in this mystified left dreaming of unity, they appeared as splitters.’

So Sartre turned his back on the revolutionary road; instead he adopted a reformist line; unwilling to join the Communist Party, which he saw as manipulative and dogmatic, he sought, through his journal Les Temps Modernes, and later through his own political group the RDR (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly), to put pressure on the CP from outside, though without any clear critique of the CP’s non-revolutionary nature.

Ironically, it was just at this time that the revolutionary left had some chance of breaking through. With the CP deeply buried in a coalition government, following a no-strike line, the Trotskyist left offered the only militant alternative. There were modest electoral successes, and gains in the Socialist Party Youth; in 1947 Trotskyists took the lead in the strike at the Renault car-plant. But it was too little and too late; with the Cold War and the consequent turn by the CP, there was set-back and demoralisation for the whole working-class movement. The French Trotskyist movement dissolved into factionalism and unprincipled blocs. Instead of Trotskyism being a force of attraction to Sartre, it was the other way round. Many Trotskyists entered the RDR, seeing it as a short-cut to building a mass organisation. But the RDR, with its woolly programme, was bound to disintegrate. For some, like David Rousset, briefly a close associate of Sartre, the RDR was nothing more than an easy bridge from Trotskyism to Gaullism.

Dirty hands?

Yet the ghost of revolutionary politics still walked in the corridors of Sartre’s mind. In his play Dirty Hands the young Communist Hugo denounces the old Party leader Hoederer as follows:

‘The party has a programme: the achievement of a socialist economy, and one means to achieve it: the use of the class struggle. You’re going to use it to carry out a policy of class collaboration in the framework of a capitalist economy. For years you’re going to lie, cheat and manouevre; you’ll go from one compromise to another; you’ll defend to our comrades reactionary measures taken by a government that you are part of. No-one will understand: the hard ones will leave us, the others will lose the political education they’ve just acquired. We shall be contaminated, softened, disoriented; we shall become reformists and nationalists; to end up with, the bourgeois parties will only have to make the necessary effort in order to liquidate us.’

For Sartre, Hoederer, not Hugo, is the hero of the play; yet it would be hard to find a more acute, and indeed prophetic, indictment of the policy of the French CP in 1944–47, and the sorry price it paid for it in the following decade.

But as French Trotskyism collapsed into factionalised irrelevance in the early fifties, Sartre was more and more pulled towards the Communist Party. At a time when many representatives of the bourgeoisie were calling for the banning of the CP, Sartre argued that, whatever the weakness of the CP, to liquidate the main organisation of the working class could only bring disaster for French workers. Moreover, he claimed, those thinkers of the extreme left who denounced the CP were in effect allying with those who wanted to see it banned.

Sartre’s position was sadly wrong. In the 1950s there was no short-cut available, no alternative to the slow patient task of rebuilding the revolutionary current from scratch. But Sartre was never an uncritical pro-Stalinist. In 1952 he published a long article called The Communists and Peace, the aim of which was ‘to declare my agreement with the Communists on precise limited subjects, arguing on the basis of my principles and not theirs.’

George Steiner (Sunday Times, April 20th) tells us that Sartre was ‘damnably wrong – on the Soviet camps for example’. Now in 1952, when the CP were still denying the very existence of labour camps, Sartre wrote in a polemic against his former friend Camus:

‘Yes, Camus, like you I find these camps unacceptable; but just as unacceptable is the use that the “so-called bourgeois press” makes of them every day. I don’t say: the Madagascan before the Turkoman; what I say is that you mustn’t use the suffering inflicted on the Turcoman to justify the suffering we impose on the Madagascan. I have seen the anti-communists rejoicing at the existence of these prisons? I’ve seen them use them to give themselves a clean conscience; and I had the impression that they were not, bringing help to the Turcoman, but rather exploiting his misfortune just as the USSR exploits his labour.’

One can only assume that George Steiner thinks it was ‘damnably wrong’ not to applaud the camps.

But even in this period Sartre’s dialogue with the revolutionary left continues. The Communists and Peace contains long passages of polemic, directed both against Germain (Ernest Mandel) and against an ex-Trotskyist, non-Leninist grouping called Socialisme ou Barbarie (political ancestors of the Solidarity group in Britain).

The right choice

Sartre’s honeymoon with the CP ended with the Hungarian Revolution, and thereafter his main commitment was to anti-imperialism. Sartre had close links with those groups in France which gave active material support to the Algerian liberation struggle. François Jeanson, an old friend of Sartre’s, organised one of the best known of the pro-Algerian networks; he tells how, when he visited Sartre in 1959, ‘within two hours, I had an interview from him for our clandestine paper, as well as some addresses which were going to be very precious to us.’ Sartre’s giving of a signed interview to an illegal paper was a deliberate challenge to the state.

Apart from the Jeanson network, one of the main groups involved in giving aid to the Algerians were the French Trotskyists. Slowly, through the Algerian struggle and subsequently the Russel Tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam, Sartre rebuilt his links with the revolutionary left, and saw the increasing passivity of the CP, caught in the logic of its parliamentary aspirations.

1968 was the first time since 1945 when revolutionary politics came out of the wilderness. This time Sartre made the right choice; there was no ambiguity as to his support for the students, no doubt that this could be the beginning of a revolutionary process had not the CP diverted it back into safe channels.

From then until his death Sartre was always on the side of the revolutionaries. Yet Sartre could not escape the decline and crisis which afflicted the French left in the seventies. His main alignment was with the Maoists, though that never meant an uncritical support for Maoist politics, let alone for the Chinese regime. When Michele Manceaux published in 1972 her book The Maoists in France, Sartre contributed a preface which began with the words ‘I am not a Maoist.’ Sartre admired the Maoists for their activism and their total break with bourgeois legality; he rather naively hoped that Maoist students taking jobs in factories would come to be a new type of intellectual.

Sartre’s determination, his continuing activism, inspire respect even where his political judgement require the most thorough criticism. If Sartre was a failure, his failure was a part of our collective failure; the corpse is ours to dissect; not a drop of blood must go to the smug ignoramuses of the bourgeois press.

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Last updated: 21 September 2019