Even at their closest, they may have been on divergent political paths--Camus easing away from orthodox political radicalism and Sartre moving toward it. Camus preceded Sartre into active politics of the Communist Party and the Resistance. Only several years after they met, however, Camus was challenging conventional leftist assumptions about revolutionary violence--ideas that found expression in his 1951 The Rebel. At the same time, Sartre, moving in the opposite direction, was embracing the French Communist Party--ideas that found expression in his 1952 The Communists and Peace. Sartre's slashing putdown of Camus's angry response to the unflattering review of The Rebel sealed the break, but hardly initiated it. The elite graduate upbraided the scholarship boy: "I have at least this in common with Hegel: you have not read either of us."
However, even if preordained, the Sartre-Camus standoff well deserves attention, and Aronson has given us a thoughtful and engaging account of its vagaries. Inasmuch as he elsewhere identifies himself as a "Sartrean," Aronson knows he has a difficult task. The tide of historical judgment has emphatically been running against Sartre. From almost every point of view Camus shows up as more attractive--even physically, of which the wall-eyed Sartre was well aware. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir often appear as intellectual bullies; they sought and found minions. The office of Sartre's journal was known as the temple. Slow to become political, Sartre compensated by becoming an extremist and changing positions regularly; he disdained the Communist Party; he celebrated it; he left it behind; he became an anti-colonialist, a 1960s radical; a Maoist. By the end of his life he seemed to have succumbed to an erstwhile follower, the late Benny Lévy, who himself moved "from Mao to Moses," or Orthodox Judaism.
By comparison, Camus was a loner, and more consistent. If not as philosophically accomplished as Sartre, he developed a critique of violence and Marxism that has aged well. Today it is toasted everywhere. Camus represents an independent, sometimes quirky, leftism. It seems fitting that another maverick thinker, the American Dwight Macdonald, translated and published Camus's 1946 articles calling for a new peace movement, Neither Victims nor Executioners.
Yet attractiveness is not a political category. To seriously assess these figures we must resist Camus's considerable charms and look into Sartre's difficult face. On the issue of colonialism Camus's moral philosophy showed signs of fraying. For the French in the 1950s, Algeria was the problem of the day. Unlike Sartre, Camus, of course, knew Algeria well; he grew up there and set his stories there. But though Camus spoke out movingly in favor of reconciliation between French Algerians and Muslims, he proved incapable of grasping the national aspirations of Algeria's Arabs and Berbers. He wanted peace, agreements, freedom and nonviolence. But he refused to accept the end of French rule. As Camus dithered, Sartre denounced the French use of torture in Algeria and came out in favor of independence when the idea was unthinkable to most of his countrymen. Twice the OAS, a terrorist paramilitary group devoted to the cause of Algérie française, bombed Sartre's apartment.
Aronson comes down hard on Camus's ambivalent response to French colonialism. On this issue Sartre shows the greater realism--perhaps the greater toughness of the two. It may have been easier for Sartre, but that is not the question. Sartre understood that sometimes a third option--peaceful accommodation or new accords--does not exist; and that the hour for a French Algeria was past. "A fine sight they are too, the believers in nonviolence, saying that they are neither executioners nor victims," wrote Sartre in his preface to Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, alluding to Camus. "Very well then; if you're not victims when the government which you've voted for, when the army in which your younger brothers are serving without hesitation or remorse have undertaken race murder, you are, without a shadow of doubt, executioners." Touché.