Sartre vs Camus: Violence and force

Fighting oppression in the face of state violence

Sartre's unfaltering support of anti-colonial movements, and his fearless condemnation of state sanctioned violence, have never been more prescient. Meanwhile, Camus' position during the Algerian war of independence should serve as a reminder that calls for truce too often overlook the force exerted by socially dominant groups to preserve the status quo, writes Oliver Gloag.

(Click here to read Ron Aronson arguing that Sartre and Camus' positions have been united in the recent protest movement.)

The outrage and anger at the filmed murder of George Floyd at the end of May, 2020 at the hands of the police ignited a movement that brought together a multitude of people from all races, social classes and nationalities in the streets of nearly every city in the United States - as well as major cities in England, Germany and France. The notion of formerly separate people becoming “groups in fusion,” which come together united by a desire for radical social change, was first theorized by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) – a radical re-adaptation of Marxism in the context of global anti-imperialist struggles of the post-war period. Sixty years later, it is more relevant than ever.

But that is not the only echo of Sartre’s ideas and commitments that can be heard today: with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ensuing popular mobilization against police violence and discrimination, it is worthwhile to recall that Sartre's commitment to black liberation across the globe and to the struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism was unyielding from the moment he travelled to the United States right before the end of World War II. This was no accident.

As Camus would write later in The Rebel, revolt was to remain the exclusive purview of Europeans.

In January of 1945, Sartre visited the USA for a 4-month trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department to promote the Franco-American alliance.  Its purpose was propaganda.  Sartre did not play along. With what would become his trademark caustic irony, Sartre denounced the injustices he saw: “In this country, rightly proud of its democratic institutions, 10% of the population is deprived of their political rights, in this country there are 13 million untouchables.  They serve you food, shine your shoes, operate your elevators, carry your luggage, but they do not interact with you, nor you with them: they interact with elevators, luggage, shoes; they perform tasks, like machines.  They call themselves “third class citizens”.  Sartre would go on to write a play, The Respectful Prostitute, set in Alabama, based on the Scottsboro trials. It was a powerful denunciation of Jim Crow.  Needless to say, the play was not well received by mainstream US critics at the time.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in May 1945, France was simultaneously celebrating the end of the war in Europe and starting new ones in Africa.

On VE day, in the towns of Sétif and Guelma, in what was still French Algeria, hundreds of Algerians – among them many French army veterans who fought to free France from Nazi Germany – demonstrated under the Algerian flag. Riots ensued, French authorities lost control, and some police officers and settlers died.  The repression was ruthless: what followed was a series of massacres of thousands of Arab civilians by the French army and by police and settler militias. These massacres were, and still are to this day, severely underreported. Even by conservative estimates, there were 10,000 Algerian victims. This is a permanent trauma for the Algerians, and in effect, the war of independence comes out of it. Although the repression set the revolution back by about ten years, it also anchored the conviction among Algerian nationalists that a complete break with France was the only way forward. (In the literary field, the massacres in Sétif have a central role in Nedjma by Kateb Yacine.)

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What was Camus’ reaction to the massacres at Sétif and Guelma?  On the one hand, he described the systematic killing of thousands of Algerian civilians – who were bombarded by the French air force for weeks – as “repression”.  On the other, the loss of local police and settlers in much lesser numbers were described as “massacres”.   This echoes what we hear today: those who beat demonstrators or kill African-Americans for no reason use “force.”  The perpetrators are protected by the state, by politicians and,   in America today, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s doctrine of qualified immunity - all the while the US judiciary ruthlessly applies a series of laws that send millions of African-American men to jail for peccadillos; in effect a powerful  counter to civil rights victories as described persuasively by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.

At the time of the massacres of Sétif and Guelma, Camus’s absurd had given way to his theory of revolt: a spontaneous, sincere reaction to oppression that came into being during the German occupation and led to his late entry in the French resistance.  Yet revolt was not the revolution he specified, and it was not to be applied to the colonial setting. As he would write later in The Rebel, revolt was to remain the exclusive purview of Europeans.

An illustration of the differences between Sartre and Camus regarding colonial violence was their respective positions on France’s war with Indochina (1946-54).  Sartre was one of the only public voices – alongside surrealist Andre Breton – to immediately condemn France and liken its action to that of the German occupier, much to the outrage of members of the French literary establishment such as novelist François Mauriac.

When France was finally and resoundingly defeated in May of 1954, Camus compared it to the defeat of June 1940 – in his way of seeing things, the Indochinese were like the Germans: an invading force.

Freedom from colonialism is not merely political freedom but a liberation of the mind.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, as the anticolonial fervor took over the world, Sartre and Frantz Fanon engaged in a long and substantive dialogue, and each was profoundly influenced by the other. Sartre’s preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth was a complete and resounding endorsement of Fanon’s variation on Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. (“Herrschaft und Knechtschaft”, from Hegel's Phenomelology of Spirit (1807), more accurately translated as “Lordship and Vassalage”. In Hegel, the slave submits but knows the truth of the world, while  the master is a drone, simply supported by the slave’s work.)

Fanon’s development of the Master-Slave dialectic in The Wretched of the Earth is about striking fear in the heart of the master, or killing the master. “There is no question for [the colonized] of competing with the colonist. They want to take his place.” Fanon further states: colonialism “(…) is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.” (Fanon 2004: 23). The violence also has therapeutic value, namely, it allows the colonized to overcome neuroses and thus produces mental and intellectual rehabilitation. Freedom from colonialism is not merely political freedom but a liberation of the mind. For Fanon, then, violence is redemptive in the sense that the recognition of the former slave as human grows out of the master’s fear of the threat of violence. Notice that this is not a call to mindless slaughter but a more complicated Hegelian drama of recognition, the former slave purchases this recognition by armed resistance.

Fanon’s dialectic was synthesized in Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth in which he unequivocally condemned colonialism and supported armed resistance against settlers and colonial powers.  Sartre was and continues to be violently attacked for this position.  The controversy of this quote hinges on the crucial distinction between force and violence. As we saw, force is the one that the state has a right to use, and violence, which is by definition illegal, is left to the underclasses, the colonized. As Max Weber famously stated, the state has the monopoly on violence, it is thus legalized, legitimized, it is force. In the 1960s, the wars of liberation began to reveal the violence at the heart of the state and question its legitimacy. This sheds a new light on the ongoing attacks on Sartre. Such attacks are but an emanation from the state, via its organic intellectuals, to reclaim its legitimacy and its monopoly on violence. Together, The Wretched of the Earth and Sartre’s preface, and Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason have transformed the Hegelian struggle for recognition by including armed struggle, even though much of the left has overlooked this development and focused purely on recognition. This is what Herbert Marcuse called repressive tolerance: the idea that recognition is granted by an elite, by institutions, while for Fanon and Sartre recognition comes out of the actions of the disenfranchised. (This concept of repressive tolerance sheds light on William Clinton’s attack on Black Panther founder Stokely Carmichael during the funeral services of Representative John Lewis.)

Contrast Camus’ position: he wrote a series of articles in the immediate aftermath of World War II styled “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” where he famously equated the violence of the colonizer and the counter-violence of the colonized.  This effectively favoured the status quo, as Sartre would pointedly note in a conference some 20 years later.

When the Algerian war of Independence began in the fall of 1954, Camus first opted for silence. He then made a very public plea for a “civil truce,” a reprisal of the idea of absolute neutrality expressed in 1945.  This plea equated the long-standing violence of the French state since 1830, when it first occupied Algeria, with the resulting Algerian resistance.  In the shorter term, it objectively equated the violence of the French army and police in the 1950s, with the popular violence of the FLN and the MNA, the leading pro-independence organizations at the time.  This convinced no one.  The French settlers considered him a traitor: this was no longer the time for hiding behind humanistic homilies; this was the time to fight for French Algeria. The Algerians themselves tried to co-opt him: the January 1957 conference for a civil truce where he spoke was effectively, although unbeknownst to him, organized by the FLN. 

In the midst of this civil war, his compromise was unworkable, a pipe dream: it seemed that on the ground everyone realized this. All parties reviled him for his neutral stance, including his former settler friends who accused him of being willfully unclear on the issue of Algerian independence, for example the poet Jean Sénac, who famously called him a coward and eventually broke with him.

Faced with the fiasco of the conference and pressured by friends and ultimately by historical developments, Camus unraveled: he eventually made public his (long-standing) categorical rejection of Algerian independence (“a purely emotional expression”), and supported a “compromise” put forth by a maximalist European settler member of parliament, a compromise which would share power but not grant genuine sovereignty to the Algerian people.  He was quoted as saying in Stockholm after receiving his Nobel Prize for literature that though he believed in Justice, “I would defend my mother before Justice.” Which implicitly recognized the injustice of the colonial system. He would later write in his diary that the duty of a writer was ultimately to be alongside and defend his people.  By which he meant, the pied-noir, the French settlers in Algeria.  His last, posthumous novel, The First Man, would reflect this.

Camus and Sartre are paradoxically inseparable because they are opposites in this most central and binding debate on racism and all kinds of social oppression.

Sartre continued his commitments alongside oppressed people, and used his prestige to publish authors (who otherwise would have been ignored or censored) from the former colonies, including Fanon.  According to V-Y Mudimbe, he was an “African-Philosopher.” Sartre also opened his influential publication “Les Temps Modernes” to many voices of de-colonization and many African-American authors as well (including Richard Wright who was a close friend.)

He famously called for French troops to desert, to refuse to fight against Algerians, and publicly declared he hoped for France’s defeat.  He participated in the Russel tribunal, organized to condemn the US crimes in Vietnam.  In all these interventions – and many others –, he followed Fanon’s theory that violent resistance to oppression is the motor of history.  He fought with little care for the consequences, exposed himself to arrest, and indeed was the target of two assassination attempts: his apartment was bombed twice by pro-colonial terrorist organizations. 

In the end Camus and Sartre are paradoxically inseparable because they are opposites in this most central and binding debate on racism and all kinds of social oppression.  As the public standing of one rises, that of the other falls.  They have come to represent two very different responses to systemic violence: appeasement on the one hand, resistance on the other. 

Yet for us today, beyond the dispute with Camus, perhaps the most relevant Sartrean commitments are on the one hand, his unconditional support for anti-colonial struggles worldwide, and on the other, his fearless public condemnation of state-sponsored violence, be it that of France (and later the U.S) in Vietnam, or that of the French police against immigrants in the streets of Paris and elsewhere. With the crucial reemergence of Black Lives Matter influenced movements all over the western world, perhaps this is the time for a Sartre revival?

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Bryan Kehler 18 August 2021

LOL @ "Sartre's fearless condemnation of state sanctioned violence..."

It only took him like 5 years to weigh the pros and cons before he "fearlessly" denounced tyranny of the Soviet Union. Camus did so as soon as word of the gulags got out.

Also, it takes a pretty willful misreading of Camus' statement about choosing his mother to arrive at: "I would defend my mother before Justice."
I believe the original quote was: "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." Which I think ought to speak for itself.

To simplify Camus' and Sartre's views as being either pro- or anti-colonizer, I think, does a great disservice to these complex figures who lived and wrote with far more nuance. But if snappy soundbites are what you are after, perhaps the most appropriate one is where Camus simply says that he is on the side of Life.

Maciej Kaluza 18 August 2020

Thank You for that comment Valerie! I guess this must be the fault of my ebook edition then. I'm glad it is in the text!

Valerie Ceriano 17 August 2020

Just for the record, the footnote regarding Lidice does appear in English in the Vintage edition of "The Rebel" (p.185, Vintage International,1991, trans. Anthony Bower).

Maciej Kałuża 14 August 2020

In "The Rebel", when Camus mentioned the destruction of Czech village Lidice, he made a footnote, which is not in the English text of "The Rebel": "Il est frappant de noter que des atrocités qui peuvent rappeler ces excès ont été commises aux colonies (Indes, 1857 ; Algérie, 1945, etc.) par des nations européennes qui obéissaient en réalité au même préjugé irrationnel de supériorité raciale"

So, he did in fact compare the "repressions" in Algeria in 1945 to the nazi crimes in the occupied Czech republic. Following the Malagasy uprising, he wrote, concerning The French are doing the same thing, for which they condemned the Germans. (Camus at Comabt, p. 291).

So, in conclusion, I'd say no, he was not as much in opposition to Sartre. He is sometimes forced into an opposite side, several times by Sartre, many times by Sartre scholars, but it usually results from selective or arbitrary reading. His position was much more ambiguous. As, in truth was Sartre's.