Toward the end of his recent memoir, Jean Daniel, the last surviving friend of Albert Camus and the most distinguished journalist in France, permits himself an anecdote. It’s the summer of 1951, and Camus’s book-length essay The Rebel will soon be published. The writer has taken his mother to a party with friends in Paris. After dancing with several women, Camus leans over and tells his mother that he’s been invited to the presidential palace. She is nearly deaf, so he repeats: “Mother, I’ve been invited to the Elysée!” Madame Camus is silent for a long moment. Then she takes her son’s ear and shouts: “Don’t go, my boy! It’s not for us! It’s not for us!” Camus smiles and gives a shrug to the table. “He didn’t say anything,” recalls Daniel, “but he seemed proud of his mother.” Camus never went to the Elysée, of course. The only palace this son of a cleaning woman ever entered was in Sweden to collect the Nobel Prize, and even then he went with reluctance.
For almost any other French intellectual, a humble background like Camus’s might have been a handicap, but for him it was a source of pride. Born in Algeria into the lowest stratum of the pieds-noirs—the French-speaking settlers who had lived on the land for more than a century—Camus was a pure product of the Third Republic. His family received a state pension after his father was killed fighting in World War I. He was a scholarship student educated by charismatic schoolmasters who had whisked him through the standard lycée curriculum. While the rest of the French intellectuals made a pastime of hating their bourgeois upbringing, Camus reveled in his hardscrabble origins. He was less prone to romanticizing the proletariat because he came from it: words like “exploitation” and “subsistence” were gleaned not from revolutionary brochures but from life itself. Whereas his great antagonist, Jean-Paul Sartre, grew up in a family that made him feel “indispensable to the universe,” Camus described the world of his childhood as one of “gentle indifference.” “I was not poor enough to feel my desires as demands,” Sartre declared in his autobiography. This was not a problem for Camus, whose passions often overwhelmed him.
But Camus’s outsider status also narrowed his vision. Coming from one of the rougher quarters of Algiers, he found it hard to feel implicated in the long history of French colonial oppression: his family, too, had felt the heel of the grands colons. Camus could never see with the same icy clarity as Sartre that colonies are the truth of the metropole. For him, the version of national independence propagated by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which was founded in 1954, spelled a catastrophe for France, Algeria and the rest of the West. It meant not only turning Algeria over to a group of terrorists and forcing the exodus of more than a million pieds-noirs, but also handing a victory to Egypt’s “new Arab Imperialism” and the USSR’s “anti-Western strategy.” There was a deeper dimension to the analysis as well. As Camus and Sartre both understood, the Algerian Revolution was also a French revolution—one that would test the very foundation of the Republic. Could France finally embrace its Arab and Berber subjects with true equality, or would its universalist credo remain a cover for colonial interests? For Sartre, it was the latter; Camus thought the Republic still had a chance to redeem itself.
In the Anglo-American West, where Camus is often revered as a kind of French Orwell, his stand on Algeria is typically taken as the sole mark against him. He gets a score of two out of three: right about Vichy, right about Stalinism, wrong about Algerian independence. Yet, as the historian Tony Judt once argued, to reduce Camus’s views to a score card is not very helpful if you want to understand his thinking. Judt admired Camus for opting out of the French intellectual obsession with taking an endless series of correct “positions” on every issue. In the fractious case of Algeria, where his views were complicated, and where the course of the war threatened to turn every statement into a weapon for the belligerent forces on all sides, Camus believed the most responsible move for an intellectual was, very often, to remain silent. It was this sort of moral stoicism and intolerance of illusions that Judt had in mind when he titled his book championing Camus The Burden of Responsibility (1998).