Swans Commentary » swans.com August 1, 2005  



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.

In the immediate postwar period, when progressive hopes seemed greater than ever, Camus and Sartre began to drift apart over how to assess the Soviet Union, the primary factor in making those hopes realizable. As the leading intellectuals in France and veterans of the Resistance, Camus and Sartre had considerable authority.

Sartre would use the journal Les Temps Modernes as a platform for his admixture of existential and socialist ideas, while Camus continued to write for Combat. By this time, Sartre's new philosophy had become all the rage. In October of 1945, he spoke to an overflowing audience at the Centraux meeting hall who behaved like audiences at rock concerts today. Aronson reports that "In the hall, chairs were broken, women fainted, and the aisles were so packed that Sartre took fifteen minutes just to get to the stage." His lecture, titled somewhat misleadingly in English as "Existentialism and Human Emotions," put forward some of the key insights of the new philosophy: "Existence precedes essence" and "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself."

Although Camus has usually been categorized as an existentialist, he disavowed that label. His Myth of Sisyphus rejects the idea that humanity can supersede blind historical forces, even through the heroic act of will celebrated in existential philosophy. If Camus rejected existentialism out of an almost Schopenhaueran sense of pessimism, there were other detractors in the Communist intelligentsia who found Sartre's philosophy too subjective and middle class and declared that they would "fight against the literature of the absurd and despair." Sartre responded by accusing the party of promoting a "naïve and stubborn" scientism.

Camus got raked over the coals as well. CP intellectual Pierre Hervé objected to the moralizing tendency in Combat that had already been on display in Letters to a German Friend. Although the CP was in no position to pass judgment on others, having only recently hailed the bombing of Hiroshima and condemned Algerian anti-colonial protests as "Hitlerite," there is something in Hervé's comments that rings true:

I understand that the French editorialist who is the most widely read in the world doesn't find things to his taste and that he arrogates to himself the right to sovereignly distribute blame and encouragement one after the other. Like a bishop conducting a service, he objects to a dog's barking in his neighborhood. To him, the truth! To him, honesty! Unhappily, authorship of several remarkable literary works doesn't keep one from being, in political matters, a false spirit. When the cold-fish tone exasperates me, I say so. I don't hide my exasperation behind the hypocritical haughtiness of the moralist.

In 1946, just as the Cold War was taking shape, Camus began to break ranks with the left. In France, this ineluctably involved what posture to take toward the French Communist Party, which had led the Resistance against Nazi occupation and which enjoyed the overwhelming support of the industrial working class. Since Camus was much thinner-skinned than Sartre, the attacks on him in the French CP press no doubt accelerated his defection. For Camus, the personal and the political almost always coincided.

A key figure in Camus's transformation was the fervent anti-Communist Arthur Koestler, who had replaced Sartre in his affections. The two men began calling each other "tu" from the beginning. In social gatherings with Koestler, Beauvoir felt "a bit embarrassed by his self-taught pedantry, by the doctrinaire self-assurance and the scientism he had retained from his rather mediocre Marxist training." With Koestler's Darkness at Noon as an obvious inspiration, Camus began to view Marxism as a murderous ideology. In a notebook entry that appears in October 29, 1946, he writes:

- You're a Marxist now?
- Yes.
- Then you'll be a murderer.
- I have already been one.
- I too. But I don't want to be one anymore.

Eventually Camus fleshed out his ideas and committed them to paper in The Rebel, the English title for L'Homme révolté or Man in Revolt. This 1952 work became an international best seller. With its aggressive attack on Marxism and revolution, posed within the context of an overall assault on all sorts of totalizing ideologies, it retained enough of a liberal cachet so that it could remain attractive to college students. Camus's good looks helped as well. For Camus, revolt was acceptable; revolution on the other hand was strictly taboo. If you stripped his lofty prose of its philosophical abstractions, you are left with banal recipes for reform. Missing from Camus's calculations is anything having to do with economics or history. Thus, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution becomes less a product of military pressure and economic underdevelopment than of misbegotten ideas.

At this very moment, Sartre was beginning to move away from existentialism's individualist tendencies and toward revolutionary commitment, which he understood as a project involving the masses and their party. In 1952, this meant the Communist Party, which enjoyed hegemony on the French left, mostly as a result of its role in the Resistance and its willingness to challenge the bourgeoisie around economic demands.

Sartre took an immediate disliking to Camus's book and asked for volunteers from the Temps Modernes staff to review it. Given his long standing friendship with Camus, one can understand his reluctance to do it himself, especially given the author's prickly nature. The assignment was taken on by Francis Jeanson, the journal's managing editor.

The brunt of Jeanson's 30-page critique was that Camus condemned revolutions because they supposedly had some sort of built-in intellectual defect. Camus became a prophet of quietism based on a fear of excess, a stance very much in tune with the 1950s. In the course of the review, Jeanson referred to Camus as a "beautiful soul," an apt description for somebody whose moralistic tendencies were now on full display. The Rebel was nothing less than the full flowering of ideas that had been present in Letters to a German Friend.

Camus responded with a 17-page rebuttal that failed to mention Jeanson by name. It was clear that he regarded Sartre as a Svengali orchestrating the attack from the background. The rebuttal took on the question of Marxism directly. He states "everything proceeds in your article as if you were defending Marxism as an implicit dogma." To embrace Marxism is to open the door to "terror" and "concentration camps."

Sartre followed with his own reply that made the essential point: it was impossible to stand outside of history and outside of struggle, even when the revolutionary movement errs on the side of excess. He advises Camus that "if you really hope to prevent any movement of the people from degenerating into tyranny, don't begin by condemning it without appeal, and by threatening to retreat into a desert. To merit the right to influence men who are struggling, one must first participate in their struggle, and this first means accepting many things, if you hope to change a few of them."

Karl Marx once wrote something similar to this in the pages of the 18th Brumaire: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

Although Aronson does not mention it, Francis Jeanson would go on to provide important support for the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) within a few years. During WWII Jeanson had escaped to Spain to join the Free French underground movement but had been captured and thrown into a concentration camp, where his health was permanently ruined. On his release, he relocated to Algeria where he made many nationalist friends. When the Algerian war began, Jeanson put together a network of forty French men and women who put their lives on the line by sheltering FLN militants and smuggling funds for the movement into Swiss banks. Eventually Jeanson was arrested in 1960. On the day of his trial, 121 French intellectuals signed a statement titled "Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the War in Algeria." Although it should not come as a surprise that Sartre and Beauvoir were signatories, so were composer Pierre Boulez, director Alan Resnais and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Substitute the word Iraqi for Algerian and American for French in their statement and you'll note how well the statement lends itself to the current situation:

For the Algerians the struggle, carried out either by military or diplomatic means, is not in the least ambiguous. It is a war of national independence. But what is its nature for the French? It's not a foreign war. The territory of France has never been threatened. But there's even more; it is carried out against men who do not consider themselves French, and who fight to cease being so. It isn't enough to say that this is a war of conquest, an imperialist war, accompanied by an added amount of racism. There is something of this in every war, and the ambiguous nature of it remains.

It should come as no surprise that Camus was opposed to Algerian independence. In following the moralistic tone of his wartime letters to a German friend, Camus had similar advice in a 1955 Letter to an Algerian Militant:

But you and I know that this war will not have any real victors and that, once it is over, we shall still have to go on living together forever on the same soil. We know that our destinies are so closely linked that any action on the part of one calls forth a retort from the other, crime engendering crime, madness replying to lunacy, and, finally, that if one stands aloof the other suffers from sterility. If you Arab democrats fail in your work of pacification, the activity of us French liberals will be doomed to failure in advance. And if we falter in our duty, your poor words will be swept away in the wind and flames of a pitiless war.

As it turned out, the French did not go on living forever on Algerian soil. Camus was spared what would have seemed a sorry spectacle by an untimely automobile accident on January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six. Although Sartre had kind words for Camus after his death, there is little doubt that they would no longer have a common political project. Aronson seems more favorably disposed to the course that Sartre followed:

What Camus lacked, as did the liberal Cold Warriors who embraced him, was the saving insight that Sartre had been struggling toward since Dirty Hands: in many of its key structures our world is constituted by violence. In The Communists and Peace, the first part of which he wrote just before breaking with Camus, Sartre confronted the violence of the democratic capitalist system. And when he turned his attention to colonialism in 1956, Sartre showed how, in the colonies, violence created the social order and its people. He proclaimed the reality of Algeria to which Camus had closed his eyes. His most intense statement came a year after Camus died, in his foreword to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Where Camus was constitutionally unable to hear the Algerian point of view, Sartre invites his readers into their world: "Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it. After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading-centers and to the hired soldiers who defend them." While Camus denied any guilt, Sartre spreads the net of responsibility. "It is true that you are not settlers, but you are no better. For the pioneers belong to you; you sent them overseas, and it was you they enriched."

Camus and Sartre ends on a wistful note with Aronson trying to reconcile the two thinkers partially on Sartre's profession of friendship. He also makes a tenuous attempt to bridge their two political positions based on Sartre's evolution away from hard-line support of the French Communist Party. In a reference to a 1975 interview with Sartre, which has him remembering Camus "as the last good friend I had," Aronson reads far too much into a statement that "I retained a liking for him although his politics were completely foreign to mine, particularly his attitude toward the Algerian war."

This leads Aronson to speculate:

This "particularly" was an odd recollection, because it had been their differences about Communism five years earlier, and not about Algeria, that had driven them apart. Was he now suggesting that he had softened toward Camus after Hungary and with the thawing of the Cold War, but that their separation had been reconfirmed by their new political differences?

Aronson answers his own question by positing a synthesis of Sartre and Camus in the final sentences of his book:

The Cold War is over. The specific issues dividing the two men have vanished, and to this extent we live in a different world. We can now appreciate both Camus and Sartre and reject the either/or that broke them apart. Accordingly, I cannot keep from speculating that the time is ripe for a new type of political intellectual who might bring together each man's strengths and avoid each man's weaknesses. We can imagine someone speaking the truth at all times, and opposing oppression everywhere, uniting each man's characteristic power of insight under a single moral standard. Such an intellectual would illuminate today's systemic violence while accepting the challenge of mounting an effective challenge against it without creating new evils. A Camus/Sartre? As Sartre once said in another connection, this may be imagining an angel, an abstract embodiment of exactly what is needed in our situation. Angels do not exist, but they can be a yardstick for human beings.

With all due respect to Ronald Aronson, who has written a very sensitive and insightful study of Camus and Sartre, the last thing on Sartre's mind was a "single moral standard" or looking to angels as a yardstick. If anything, this is exactly what Camus stood for and what led to their breach. Sartre was not a moralist. He understood that the path toward the socialist future was strewn with blood and broken dreams. But he never tried to transcend the actual history of working people and peasants who in their imperfect way sought to challenge exploitation and oppression. Even when the Algerians or the Vietnamese were denounced as violators of human rights and being guilty of terror, he never wavered in his support.


· · · · · ·
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)

It can also be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Book Reviews on Swans


About the Author

Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Louis Proyect 2005. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

Quit Kidding Us, Professor: Journalism Is Not Public Relations - George Beres

Words, Words, Words - Deck Deckert

Balkans' Blind Spot: Questioning the Lemmings - Gilles d'Aymery

New Actuality In The Old Set? - Milo Clark

Blowback From The A-Bombs - Philip Greenspan

Living Simply, Simply Living - Thoreau's Message in a Century of Hyper-Capitalism - Michael Brooks

Defenders Of The Witch Hunt - R. & A. Radosh's Red Star Over Hollywood - Charles Marowitz

Paris Hilton: Spec Obit (2041) - Charles Marowitz

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy27.html
Published August 1, 2005