Sartre's quest for human freedom

Issue 

Jean Paul Sartre: A Life
By Annie Cohen-Solal
The New Press, 2005
602 pages, $29.95 (pb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

"Shoot Jean-Paul Sartre!" was the slogan of the 5000 ex-soldiers demonstrating in the Champs-Elysees in 1960 in support of France's war to keep Algeria French. The year 2005 is the centennial of Sartre, and the re-issue of Annie Cohen-Solal's biography of the militant intellectual shows why this philosopher angered military and other conservatives, but won the respect of all who rebelled against colonialism and other shackles on human freedom.

Born in Paris in 1905, the spoiled, narcissistic child of well-off parents fell in love with words and ideas from very early on but for many years there was no political counterpart to Sartre's active intellectual life. At university, Sartre joined no parties, went on no demonstrations and supported no causes.

As a high school teacher, however, Sartre's teaching style aimed at the "systematic demolition of all the artificial barriers of hierarchy and authority", but he still remained politically adrift. His artistically impressive first novel Nausea, in 1938, was a seductively atmospheric account, saturated with chronic melancholia, of what he saw as the dismal pointlessness of existence.

Fascism and war, however, sparked Sartre's political metamorphosis. Drafted into the French Army, Sartre's experience as a POW during the German occupation forced a reappraisal of his values — "all I had learned and written during the years before seemed to me no longer valid", he later wrote of this time. In a Nazi POW camp, Sartre found a common humanity, and solidarity, with his fellow prisoners.

Escaping with the aid of a fake medical certificate, Sartre helped to organise the resistance group Socialism and Freedom. Yet the inexperienced and narrowly based group — which at its peak claimed only 50 members from the intelligentsia — soon expired, swamped by the infinitely better organised and broader-based resistance movement led by the French Communist Party (PCF).

Sartre remained above-ground and his first play The Flies, in 1943, escaped censorship by the Nazis who failed to see Sartre's remake of a theme from Greek mythology as a justification for resistance. Soon after the war, Sartre founded Les Tempes Modernes, which became a valuable decades-long forum for debate within the non-Stalinist French left.

Post-war, Sartre was a celebrated public intellectual who attracted hundreds to his lectures. He also attracted abuse from the right who blamed Sartre and his companion of 50 years, the socialist and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, for corruption, moral depravity, atheism and treachery. The Stalinist PCF were not to be out-abused, condemning the anti-Stalinist Sartre as a "rat" and "hyena", and his philosophy of existentialism as middle-class "intellectual fornications".

People are alone in a meaningless universe, said existentialism, and Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy of novels evoked a sense of individual impotence in the face of uncontrollable forces of history. This philosophical framework, however, had been increasingly at war with Sartre's socialist development, manifested in his founding of the Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire (RDR) in 1947 as a regroupment of the non-Stalinist left.

It was not the attacks on RDR meetings by rightist youths with brass knuckles that saw the project collapse, but its lack of political clarity and organisational coherence. Sartre's anarchistis prejudice against parties was fed by his revulsion against the undemocratic and dogmatic PCF but, as the RDR discovered, organisational laissez-faire equalled neither democracy nor effectiveness.

Sartre had left the RDR before its demise when the group's Stalinophobia saw it tilt to the US in the Cold War 1950s. Agnostic about Marxism, but sharing "communist values", Sartre's criticisms of the Soviet Union (which he saw as betraying the revolution) were never a cover for a rejection of socialism. The PCF, however, did not see it that way and it was only the Cold War frenzy of right-wing anti-communist hysteria that saw Sartre and the PCF overcome their mutual suspicion in an emergency tactical alliance from 1952. The PCF was the target of state repression, and because the PCF had a significant working-class base, Sartre rightly saw an attack on the party as an attack on the working class.

Nevertheless, Sartre's judgement was not always sound, and he frequently crossed over into euphoric praise of Stalin's Soviet Union, seeing criticism of Stalin's political and human-rights injustices as grist for the anti-communist mill. Russian tanks in Budapest in 1956 ended Sartre's brief romance with Stalinism, however, and he returned to independent left-wing politics.

Anti-colonial struggles, particularly in Vietnam, propelled Sartre onto the world stage as an ambassador for the French left. It was, however, Sartre's support for the liberation forces in Algeria, at a time when nearly all sides of mainstream French politics were fiercely denouncing them as "terrorists", that displayed Sartre's socialist integrity and personal courage. By publicly urging French soldiers to refuse to fight in Algeria, Sartre was at risk of criminal prosecution. Right-wing extremists twice bombed his apartment.

These early '60s struggles consummated Sartre's political evolution. Looking back in his autobiography, he wrote that 30 years ago when writing Nausea, "I lacked a sense of reality. I have changed since. I have served a slow apprenticeship ... I have seen children die of hunger. In front of a dying child, Nausea has no weight." In 1960, Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason signposted his philosophical journey towards a liberationist Marxism.

Sartre lived his ideas. He refused the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964 because he rejected the principle of official honours and distinctions. When student revolt and mass working-class strikes erupted in 1968, Sartre felt honoured to be sought by non-official society as a speaker in occupied universities and on picket lines.

He thrust himself into the political tumult while simultaneously being absorbed in, as Cohen-Solal writes, "dissecting the neuroses of the most bourgeois French writer of the nineteenth century", Gustave Flaubert, whose stance of disengagement in politics and literature was the direct opposite of Sartre's. It was a massive, three volume, largely unread but heroic dialectical experiment to analyse his own theory of the literature of commitment through the study of its negation.

This period also saw Sartre's final involvement with the organised left. The Maoist groups of the French New Left were targeted with legal suppression and, for survival, three of them turned to Sartre, with his illustrious name, to become editor-in-chief of their papers. Knowing that the government would not want the political embarrassment of a trial of an internationally respected philosopher, Sartre agreed to become the shield against state censorship and suppression.

But this was more than just the tactical gesture of a liberal celebrity defending freedom of the press. It was also an expression of Sartre's renewed revolutionary impulse. His choice of the Maoists was dictated by his sympathy with their ultra-militancy but, unlike his earlier fling with the PCF, Sartre did not fall into uncritical endorsement of the regime that generated the "ism".

Ill-health put the brakes on Sartre's intellectual and political life. Blind in his right eye since age four, he lost the sight of his left at age 68 in 1973 and, seven years later, Sartre was dead.

Cohen-Solal's book is as rich as her subject but it is more anecdotal and impressionistic than analytical. Like a butterfly, Cohen-Solal flits, gracefully and colourfully, from character to character, from Sartrean theory to Sartrean theory, but without always the weight needed for adequate diagnosis. By focusing on "process rather than product", as she describes her method, the fine storytelling can result in a shallow examination of Sartre's philosophy, like a biography of Einstein without relativity theory or of Freud without psychoanalysis.

Where Cohen-Solal excels, however, is in portraying a fascinating socialist of occasional faulty judgement, but never faulty courage or integrity, whose life's work, at his desk and in the street, was the quest for human freedom.

From Green Left Weekly, January 25, 2006.
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