Eminent American Sartrean scholar Ronald Aronson begins a short piece on JPS in the Times Literary Supplement (November 30th) with an account of his subject’s fall from favour after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet system a little more than twenty years ago. Favour would be too mild a word really – adulation would be more appropriate ‑ for how Sartre was seen by most of the French left, and in particular the young gauchistes who lived with their parents in comfortable western Paris and thought that China, lurching from the Great Leap Forward (at least eighteen million deaths) to the Cultural Revolution, was an immeasurably more exciting place than dull old France.
While Aronson is certainly prepared to admit that there are quite adequate reasons to take issue with Sartre’s political stances and in particular his support of “progressive violence” there may also be in the piece a slight suggestion that in the period of great opportunity for the intellectual right wing after 1989 a bandwagon was being jumped on.
Someone who was certainly not jumping on the bandwagon however (since during his lifetime it was careering in the opposition direction) was Sartre’s one-time friend Albert Camus, who died nearly thirty years before communism collapsed and had himself been a party member (he was expelled) and later an active member of the Resistance. George Orwell, who of course fought in Spain, took exception to the pacific WH Auden’s liking for revolutionary roleplaying: his phrase “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder”, Orwell wrote, “could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word”. Similarly, Camus accused Sartre, whose (considerable) capacity for violence was entirely verbal, of having “turned his armchair in the direction of History”.
Aronson’s essay is entitled “Place your bets”. He explains: “[Sartre] regarded life as a process of placing one’s bets ... He bet on the Soviet Union while it was still possible to imagine that it might one day be transformed into a socialist society worthy of the name; he bet that violence from below might lead to a genuinely humane new society after colonies such as Algeria had achieved independence. He lost both bets.”
But “to explain is not to excuse. Ideas have consequences, and the consequences are not always easily forgiveable.”
Sartre wished to give as good as he got in his quarrel with Camus. In response to the latter’s increasing identification with non-violence he protested that those who were “looking pleased with themselves” on the grounds of their opposition to revolutionary struggles and terrorism were nonetheless complicit in violence by virtue of their participation in ‑ and therefore legitimation of ‑ liberal democratic societies which nonetheless continued to fight imperial and colonial wars, as France and Britain did in the 1950s. So it didn’t matter if you protested against torture by the French army in Algeria; if you broadly speaking supported the liberal democratic system, or perhaps “racket”, there was blood on your hands.
This seems to me logically if not philosophically dodgy, but certainly an eminently useful position to a man who refused to denounce Stalin even after Khrushchev had denounced him and who finally gave up on Moscow (only after it had become a little dull) and embraced Beijing – more exotic terrain, more liberating and therapeutic revolutionary violence.