December 19, 2009


Bad Ideas Never Die: Jean-Francois Revel’s career-long argument against utopian thinking: a review of Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, by Jean-Francois Revel (Guy Sorman, 18 December 2009, City Journal)

French public intellectuals have a reputation—well-deserved—for being socialists, Marxists, or Trotskyists. One thinks in this regard of popular figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Simone de Beauvoir, all with fan clubs on American campuses. Some French thinkers, however, have carried forward another intellectual tradition, that of classical liberalism—pro-democracy and pro-market—and running from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville to Albert Camus to the philosopher and journalist Jean-François Revel, who died at 82 in 2006.

Revel, as demonstrated in the newly translated edition of his 1999 book, Last Exit to Utopia, hated all utopias, and always put reality first. For him, the plain facts showed that capitalism worked better than socialism. Yet self-proclaimed intellectuals stuck to socialism even after it had clearly failed. Throughout his career, Revel would attack, with vivacity and much humor, the blindness of these leftist thinkers. In Last Exit to Utopia, Revel systematically contrasted the indisputable realities with the stubborn leftist commitment to dubious social experiments.

Which is all you really need to know to understand this story, No Panthéon for Camus (Benjamin Ivry, 17 December 2009, New Statesman):
Normally, honoring a writer as conventionally admired as the Nobel-prizewinning French author Albert Camus (1913 -1960) fifty years after his accidental death in a car crash should not be a controversial matter. But these are not normal times in France. The author of The Stranger, The Fall, and The Plague was proposed in mid-November by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for honorary reburial in the Panthéon, the vast monument in Paris' Latin Quarter which entombs many Gallic heroes, from Voltaire to Pasteur. In response, Jean Camus, 64, one of the late writer's twin children, told Le Monde newspaper that he feared Sarkozy was attempting an "appropriation" (récupération) of his father through a "misinterpretation" (contresens). [...]

Camus was indeed highly suspicious of political power and panoply, believing it corrupted those who possess it, and his play Caligula alleges that "to govern means to pillage, as everyone knows." Having known poverty in his own youth, Camus defended the rights of the poor and downtrodden, and while considering himself a leftist, criticized the Soviet system of gulags in the 1950s, which can make him look prescient today, at least compared to blinkered Communists among French intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir. Unlike the free-market capitalism strenuously advocated by Sarkozy, Camus was a devout libertarian, some writers remind us. Yet does this really matter? Other observers point out that in a few decades, few if any will remember under which French presidency Camus was reburied in the Panthéon, with accompanying hoopla. The philosopher and radio personality Raphaël Enthoven asked in L'Express: "Why deprive Camus of a hero's burial, after having accorded Sartre a papal funeral? Why deprive Camus of what was given to Rousseau, Voltaire, Hugo and Zola?" The filmmaker Yann Moix concurred in the political journal La Règle du jeu, pointing out that since the Panthéon is the "Académie française for dead people," these days Camus is surely both "sufficiently academic and sufficiently dead to repose there." Moix adds, ironically assuring readers: "His works, great, lovely, and noble as they are, will not dynamite anything. Camus is not a dangerous author."

In fact, Camus is one of the few dangerous French authors, because a threat to the Revolution. Had he lived no one, least of all himself, would have considered him a man of the Left.

Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, February 7, 2004, NY Times)

Consider the period just after the Second World War, when another tyranny had just collapsed. It seemed as if the Allies had, through their trials, learned something about totalitarianism and democracy. Could those concepts be used to understand the Soviet Union, the West's erstwhile partner? Was it something very different (a humanitarian revolutionary state gone awry) or something very similar (a fascistic state beyond saving)?

Such issues affected the impassioned arguments between the two most important writers in postwar France, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In his new book, "Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It" (University of Chicago), Ronald Aronson, who teaches at Wayne State University, traces the nuances of their friendship, their mutual influences and hostilities, and the themes that still haunt contemporary debates.

Their schism over Communism was not academic. At the time of France's liberation, buoyed by its Resistance role, the Communist Party had 400,000 members; that figure almost doubled by 1946, and the party joined a coalition government. In addition, according to Mr. Aronson, the party dominated the largest trade union, published dozens of newspapers including the country's two largest, and had a payroll of more than 14,000. The Communist Party was part of the mainstream in a way it never was in the United States.

But its allegiances were just as open to question: it slavishly followed Soviet leadership; fellow travelers idealized the Soviet Union, despite readily available accounts of horrors. André Gide, who visited Russia in the 1930's, said he doubted whether anywhere, even in Hitler's Germany, the "mind and spirit are less free, more bowed down."

Camus had joined the party in Algeria in 1935 and left two years later in dismay. Mr. Aronson even implies that Camus' views on absurdity and freedom grew out of that experience.

Then, in France, during the German occupation, Camus did heroic work as editor of a Resistance newspaper, Combat. Sartre, in their developing friendship, called Camus an "outstanding example" of a life lived in "engagement." After the war, both men saw an opportunity to remake the world, redressing social ills. Both also wanted to steer the French left away from the Communists while distancing themselves from the growing cold war.

But by 1948, Sartre had become a fellow traveler, even giving the party the right to censor one of his plays. He called freedom under capitalism a "hoax" and France a "society of oppression." He refused to denounce Soviet labor camps or the show trials. And he justified revolutionary violence, praising the African revolutionary Franz Fanon.

Meanwhile, Camus found himself ever more repulsed by Communism, which he called "the modern madness." He saw Communism as a desperate attempt to create meaning and certainty. He wrote, "Those who pretend to know everything and settle everything finish by killing everything." If there were a choice between justice and freedom, meaning a choice between the ideal Communist state and the flawed Western state, he wrote: "I choose freedom. For even if justice is not realized, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open."

After Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes, panned Camus's influential counter-revolutionary book "The Rebel" in 1952, the friends never spoke again. Sartre's influence was so strong that Camus' French reputation was not repaired even after winning the Nobel Prize in 1957.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 19, 2009 6:47 AM
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