Jean-Paul Sartre's support for radical opposition to all forms of oppression and Albert Camus' advocacy of restrained solidarity set the two political moralists at odds and caused a rift in their friendship. But in the recent swell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement we find a reconciliation of their positions, writes Ron Aronson - radical opposition to oppression coupled with generous solidarity.
June 2020 was a breakthrough moment in America. The largest movement in U.S. history began as a protest against police violence towards Black Americans, called for the “defunding” of the police, and has since been attacking racial inequality virtually everywhere, down to the most subtle “microagressions.” Spontaneous, without central leadership, untheorized, and unanticipated, it was immediately joined by people of all ethnic backgrounds, while strong voices insisted that it remain under Black leadership. More a mass wave than a coherent movement, the protests spread virtually everywhere in the country, even in all-white neighborhoods and small towns.
It may have been outrage that moved people into the streets at first, but something deeper has clearly kept the momentum going. What kept people coming out night after night to face tear gas and police charges? Why, on a quiet Sunday July evening in deserted downtown Royal Oak, Michigan, did a tiny band of white high-school students march around carrying homemade signs chanting criticisms of the local police and “Black Lives Matter”?
Armed with his insights, Sartre appreciated violence from below—by workers, by native revolutionaries—as a response, the only effective one, to bourgeois and colonial dominance.
One striking feature of this movement is how deep and wide the awareness has been of racial inequality. During a pandemic whose watchword has been “We’re all in this together” is anyone not aware that the death rate among black people is three times higher than white, or that people of color are suffering far more from the economic fallout of the pandemic? The protesters know this. Moreover Americans of all ages and colors are determined not merely to call for racial equality but to enact this by expressing their solidarity and marching together. It is as if the truth of systemic inequality - from schools to housing to employment to health – has finally dawned on the white population.
This amorphous wave is a sea change that demands to be appreciated. The great majority now agrees that “Black Lives Matter” and rejects the retort that “all lives matter” as a bad-faith evasion of the essential issue.
There is a liberation in declaring equality openly. Calling it a liberation may help explain why it has been spreading like wildfire: by acknowledging that “Black Lives Matter” and demonstrating alongside black people for racial equality, white citizens are freeing themselves to express solidarity and at the same time to understand and assert that this means radical change.
The fact that this uprising has drawn together the diametrically opposed impulses of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the two great political moralists of the last century, is striking. Their friendship, and their historical world, broke apart over the irreconcilability of Sartre’s radicalism with Camus’s restraint. To appreciate the depth and novelty of what is happening today it’s useful to see how Camus and Sartre, and their unresolvable conflict of nearly seventy years ago, throw light on our events. And in turn, what today’s moment teaches us about the break between Sartre and Camus.
What stands out today is the presence together of what were once two opposite notes: Sartre’s intransigent radicalism about systemic oppression and Camus’s no less determined emphasis on solidarity and self-restraint. Both thought it was necessary to choose between these, and their either/or became a political/moral demand seemingly imposed by history itself, specifically by the Cold War. Now when white and black poeple march together today, they are being at once non-violent, acting in racial solidarity and respectful of their intended audience, and are calling into question the history and structure of American society. By bringing together these contraries, today’s wave of protest creates hope for the kind of politics that eluded both Sartre and Camus - demanding systemic change without giving up its generous animating impulse.
There could often be a lack of realism in Camus’s generosity.
Black Lives Matter contains a fierce radicalism reminiscent of Sartre specifically because of its consistent opposition to all forms of oppression. Sartre’s hallmark is his refusal to normalize any instances of humans subjugating other humans. In 1952 he began his unique approach to the problem of violence—analyzing and demonstrating the structural violence imposed by bourgeois society on workers. He began to ask how violent human domination of other humans became interiorized in political, social, and economic forms. Armed with his insights, Sartre appreciated violence from below—by workers, by native revolutionaries—as a response, the only effective one, to bourgeois and colonial dominance.
During the war of Algerian independence Sartre was one of the first to talk about colonialism as a system, and his searing denunciation of government torture of Algerian rebels was banned by the government. His famous 1961 preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth captures the systemic dehumanization of natives by colonialists and justifies their recourse to violence to reclaim their humanity. In these writings Sartre identifies with the oppressed, describes their oppression both at an individual and a structural level, and justifies their violent response. As the years passed he again and again supported the weak against the powerful: the Hungarian workers’ rebellion against the Communist Party and government, the Cuban revolution, the Vietnamese being subjected to genocide by the Americans, the 1968 uprising of French students and workers, immigrants living in the Paris suburbs.
In the climate of either/or nurtured by the Cold War, he went overboard. In the Fanon essay he extolled revolutionary violence as leading to “the beginning of humanity, refused to criticize terrorism, gave a blank check to anti-colonial rebels for any and all atrocities, and even accepted the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes as the “only means of struggle” by an oppressed people. These were more than momentary excesses: the oppressed experience violence through every pore, and they can only overthrow the structural violence imposed on them through turning this back on their oppressors. Sartre believed that to demand from the outside that such violence be measured and controlled is to undermine the capacity to struggle. His logic was sweeping: nonviolence only perpetuates oppression; violence, the essential tool of oppression, is the only possible path of liberation.
Camus’s strength, and his blind spot, lay in the other direction. He was the voice of militant nonviolence. He was keenly aware that revolutionary violence always entailed much more than the rejection and overcoming of oppression. In The Just Assassins and The Rebel, he explored it as a deep psychological and even metaphysical urge stemming from our desire to overcome the fundamental absurdity of existence that became displaced from its original and impossible-to-achieve goals. In 1956 he made a courageous effort to resolve the Algerian conflict with minimal violence. He was, after all, behind the last significant effort of Europeans and Arabs in the history of Algeria to unite behind a common project. In 1956 he was one of the heroic voices against the violence being unleashed in Algeria, sponsoring and speaking at the last mass meeting in Algiers to explore a peaceful solution to the conflict.
There is no need to choose - at least not yet - between mutual respect and radical change.
But he did not know as he spoke to the crowd that the meeting, threatened with violence and disruption by pieds-noirs who rejected any accommodation, was in fact being protected by a disciplined cadre surrounding the hall belonging to the Algerian rebels, the FLN, who had decided to let the meeting proceed. There could often be, in other words, a lack of realism in Camus’s generosity. Further, although he was deeply committed to restraining violence and was no less committed to an ethic of solidarity and mutual respect. Camus never accepted the principle of Algerian independence. For all his belief in equality, he toyed with solutions that would keep Algerian under French control, and—as French Algeria’s most famous son—he refused to tell the truth about their colonial privileges to his pied-noir community. Camus repressed the reality of the FLN. He refused to connect their violence with the facts of Arab life in French-ruled Algeria, ignoring the violence-imposed privileges of his own community. In his principled, opposition to overt violence and his commitment to mutual respect, he never talked about the oppressions of native life or their reason for demanding independence.
Such were the blind spots about violence of these two brilliant critics of violence. Camus managed to combine his insight and bad faith in a single provocative statement during his Nobel Prize visit to Sweden in December 1957: “I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn a terrorism that is carried out blindly—in the streets of Algiers for example—and may one day strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Sartre’s most outrageous statement appeared in his The Wretched of the Earth preface. This essay starts by analyzing and denouncing colonial violence, then asserts that its damage was being undone by the natives’ own violence, then celebrates that violence being turned against Europeans “by every means within their power.”
The themes of Camus and Sartre call out eloquently, but they became cut off from each other in their work and lives. Their compelling insights were constantly abraded by the either/or to which both subscribed and in terms of which each criticized the other. Yet this guaranteed that each writer-activist would possess no more than a half-truth. Sartre kept silent about, or excused, the atrocities committed by movements of national liberation while fiercely denouncing every misstep of the French government, and Camus came close to being obsessed by anti-Communism, and then never questioned the (violently imposed and maintained) Frenchness of Algeria while dismissing as irrational the Algerian demand for independence. Like the sides that embraced them during the Cold War, each man obscured his contradictions by employing a double standard of judgment, accepting behaviors on the one side that he declared reprehensible on the other. The fact that they did so with almost perfect symmetry in relation to each other suggests that each one was in bad faith, intentionally hiding from an uncomfortable part of the truth.
What does this history have to do with today’s uprising? This moment is characterized by analytical depth, moral coherence, solidarity, radicalism, mutual respect, and restraint at the same time. There is no need to choose - at least not yet - between mutual respect and radical change. The system’s economic violence, health-care violence, and police violence have not yet provoked a massively violent response. For once the minority has the majority with it, and in any case has the deep certainty that history and right are on its side. Solidarity and equality are still the dominant notes of the uprising, and the protestors are still engaged in a productive dialogue with the larger society, including its media representatives. Arguing and thinking through the meanings of “defund the police” is part of that dialogue, as is the renewed conversation about reparations. In Sartre and Camus’s world, lines were drawn more tightly between two sides, and it was necessary to choose. Will this happen today? Violence is still one of our central issues because it always becomes part of oppression and generates resistance. Indeed, the Confederate generals and military bases named after them stand as sentinels reminding us of what the military power of slavery has meant in American history.
Today’s anti-racist movement emerged by refusing to choose between what has long been given as opposing and irreconcilable impulses, a radical understanding of Black oppression and an impulse of racial solidarity. Not yet in theory, but in practice and at the level of grass-roots action, it has insisted on uniting a kind of Sartrean intransigence towards systemic oppression with a mutually respectful Camusean sense of solidarity. Generosity and radicalism: will it be possible to hold these together, or will it once again be necessary to choose?
In the conclusion to Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It I speculated whether the time was ripe for going beyond the Either/Or of generosity/radicalism imposed by the Cold War that broke apart their friendship and so much else.
5 After all, by the twenty-first century the specific issues dividing the two men had faded: along with the need to pick one side or the other, hadn’t the demand vanished by supporters of either side to tell half-truths and partially blind themselves – specifically about the systemic violence so deeply understood by Sartre (for example of capitalism or colonialism) or the perils of violent resistance (for example encouraged by Communists or anti-colonial revolutionaries) warned against by Camus? Instead, I hopefully imagined a Camus/Sartre: a political-intellectual stance that might, as I said, “illuminate today’s systemic violence while accepting the challenge of mounting an effective struggle against it without creating new evils.”
Perhaps today’s uprising points the way. On the one hand, as I have argued in trying to look beyond their unresolved conflict, the particular need to choose that destroyed their friendship, rooted in the Cold War, made a coherent moral-political position impossible. There was no way Sartre or Camus could combine analytical depth, moral coherence, solidarity, radicalism, mutual respect, and restraint at the same time, which is precisely how tens of millions of Americans responded to the police killing of George Floyd. Camus and Sartre, and their world-historical conflict, help us to understand the achievement of this moment.