January 30, 2017

SARTRE WAS FRENCH:

How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free  (Sam Dresser, Aeon)

In October 1951, Camus published The Rebel. In it, he gave voice to a roughly drawn 'philosophy of revolt'. This wasn't a philosophical system per se, but an amalgamation of philosophical and political ideas: every human is free, but freedom itself is relative; one must embrace limits, moderation, 'calculated risk'; absolutes are anti-human. Most of all, Camus condemned revolutionary violence. Violence might be used in extreme circumstances (he supported the French war effort, after all) but the use of revolutionary violence to nudge history in the direction you desire is utopian, absolutist, and a betrayal of yourself.

'Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate,' Camus wrote, while 'absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom.' The conflict between justice and freedom required constant re-balancing, political moderation, an acceptance and celebration of that which limits the most: our humanity. 'To live and let live,' he said, 'in order to create what we are.'

Sartre read The Rebel with disgust. As far as he was concerned, it was possible to achieve perfect justice and freedom - that described the achievement of communism. Under capitalism, and in poverty, workers could not be free. Their options were unpalatable and inhumane: to work a pitiless and alienating job, or to die. But by removing the oppressors and broadly returning autonomy to the workers, communism allows each individual to live without material want, and therefore to choose how best they can realise themselves. This makes them free, and through this unbending equality, it is also just.

The problem is that, for Sartre and many others on the Left, communism required revolutionary violence to achieve because the existing order must be smashed. Not all leftists, of course, endorsed such violence. This division between hardline and moderate leftists - broadly, between communists and socialists - was nothing new. The 1930s and early '40s, however, had seen the Left temporarily united against fascism. With the destruction of fascism, the rupture between hardline leftists willing to condone violence and moderates who condemned it returned. This split was made all the more dramatic by the practical disappearance of the Right and the ascendancy of the Soviet Union - which empowered hardliners throughout Europe, but raised disquieting questions for communists as the horrors of gulags, terror and show trials came to light. The question for every leftist of the postwar era was simple: which side are you on?

With the publication of The Rebel, Camus declared for a peaceful socialism that would not resort to revolutionary violence. He was appalled by the stories emerging from the USSR: it was not a country of hand-in-hand communists, living freely, but a country with no freedom at all. Sartre, meanwhile, would fight for communism, and he was prepared to endorse violence to do so. [....]

The violence of communism sent Camus on a different trajectory. 'Finally,' he wrote in The Rebel, 'I choose freedom. For even if justice is not realised, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open.' From the other side of the Cold War, it is hard not to sympathise with Camus, and to wonder at the fervour with which Sartre remained a loyal communist. Camus's embrace of sober political reality, of moral humility, of limits and fallible humanity, remains a message well-heeded today. 

Posted by at January 30, 2017 7:02 AM

  

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