Sartre's Roads to Freedom | The Nation


Sartre's Roads to Freedom

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Sartre was thrilled by the radical spirit of French students and young workers, and this prompted his Maoist phase. He didn't quite share all the mad ideas of his protégés; ideologically, he was closer to the Il Manifesto group, the left-wing dissidents from the Italian CP. But he duly protected his French favorites, taking up the title of editor of a paper whenever his predecessor was indicted or imprisoned (and de Gaulle had the wit to tell his subordinates that "one does not jail Voltaire") or selling the Maoist weekly La Cause du Peuple in the street. But when his comrades advised him to write populist novels, he stuck to his "bourgeois" task--the unfinished Flaubert. Then in 1975 came the terrible tragedy--full blindness. Sartre could still sign petitions and give interviews, but real creation was over.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

After this thumbnail sketch, we can face the three political prosecutors. The first two can be dismissed quickly. Denis Bertholet is the author of a biography full of facts; since his purpose is not pamphleteering, one wonders why he picked Sartre as a subject, so obvious is his allergy to his hero's political philosophy (when he gets interested in Marxism, "he gets down on his knees"; and the mood of the Russell tribunal, presided over by Sartre, which investigated US war crimes in Vietnam, is described as quasi-fascist in its treatment of the "American scapegoat"). Michel-Antoine Burnier is a former groupie (to walk with Sartre to the newsstand, he recalls, was like going up the Champs-Elysées with Brigitte Bardot) who, now repentant, insists on Sartre's one-sidedness and repeats the hackneyed catalogue of things Sartre should have said and didn't, or vice versa.

It is best to tackle Bernard-Henri Lévy, known for publicity's sake as "BHL." As one of the inventors of the "new philosophy," he was the enemy of engagement, but now he describes this century as belonging to Sartre. He is visibly fond of the man and, inevitably, impressed by the extraordinary fame achieved before the full reign of television.

This time BHL has done his homework. He shows us how Sartre picked from Kierkegaard, Husserl or Heidegger whatever he found useful for his own phenomenology. BHL actually portrays two Sartres. One is the good man--the author of Nausea and Being and Nothingness--who cares about freedom and does not give a damn about the world. The second, the villain, wants to improve mankind and, in so doing, becomes the servant of the totalitarians. Naturally, the story has shades and even a happy ending. You may remember that the blind Sartre had as his reader and companion Pierre Victor, a k a Benny Levy. This former Maoist leader was in the process of conversion from the Little Red Book to the Talmud. They even produced a joint text just before Sartre's death. BHL sees in it the makings of a Jewish Sartre, following in the footsteps of Emmanuel Lévinas.

There is another Parisian paradox in the book. Whatever his politics now, BHL still claims as his great master Louis Althusser, the best-known French Communist philosopher. He even argues that Sartre went wrong when he abandoned the Althusserian "anti-humanism." Be that as it may, Althusser was a party cardholder throughout his political life, whereas Sartre was never a member of the CP and, as seen, could not even be described as a real fellow-traveler. Why, then, is the master spared, while Sartre is described as "a fanatic," "a preacher of voluntary servitude," suffering from "totalitarian delirium"? The trouble is, all these indictments are written outside historical context. Vae victis: This is the story as written by the victors. What happened had to happen. One does not even contemplate, for instance, whether--with a different policy from above and pressure from below--the course of events might have been different in the Soviet area.

And the victors are also morally right. When the knights of cultural freedom meet in Berlin at the time of the Korean War, they are splendid, and it in no way disturbs our authors that they were financed by the CIA. They cannot even understand why Sartre was always worried that his action might help the "other side." There is no other side. When BHL proclaims that Marxism is dead and the evil spirit of revolution buried forever, he does not mean that Stalinist theology is in the historical dustbin where it properly belongs or that the radical transformation of society will now have to take a different form from the storming of the Winter Palace. He means that we must be content with small changes and that the reign of capital is eternal. Our new literary dandies do shed tears for victims in one place or another. Unkind critics suggest that they do so only if TV cameras are nearby and if it does not disturb the establishment. But even if we assume that they are genuinely grieved by the millions of children who die through sickness or starvation, it will never cross their minds to question the system that produces such results. No wonder they cannot understand Sartre's struggle and his hatred for his own class.

One quality BHL cannot be denied is his sense of the coming fashion. He claims that he started this book five years ago, that is to say, immediately after the strikes and demonstrations that shook France in 1995. By then, the "new philosophy" was old hat, and clearly something more than the gulag was needed to persuade the French people to resign themselves to their fate. But he wrote it before Seattle, which suggests that sooner or later there may be an international search for an alternative society. Only when this happens shall we see books doing justice to Sartre. I don't mean hagiographies--there will be full portraits, with warts and all. Thus, from documents published we now know that the famous couple was not quite as ideal as it was painted. There will be questions about the identification of socialism with the Soviet Union and about Sartre's coolness toward left-wing critics of Stalinism. One will have to re-examine the many quarrels, including the most famous break, with Albert Camus in 1952. Retrospectively, there is no doubt that Camus had more sensitivity, more sympathy for the victims of Soviet repression; yet when it came closer to home, during the Algerian war, it was not Sartre "the politician" but the moralist Camus who claimed--when getting his Nobel in Stockholm--"I believe in justice, but I will put my mother before justice."

Above all, there will be the inner contradictions between Sartre's original philosophy and its further development, illustrated by the fact that he never published Morale, which was to follow Being and Nothingness, or the promised second volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason. But out of all these contradictions will emerge the picture of a small man of tremendous vitality, extraordinary generosity and real grandeur. It will also show the tragic dilemma, in the second half of the twentieth century, of a leftist who wanted to change things at home, where the bulk of the working class voted Communist, and in the world, where for all its ambiguity the Soviet Union was the only brake on US imperialism. To be active while saying a plague on both their houses was not easy at the time.

Yet this, however interesting, is history. The Soviet Union, with its subordinate Communist parties, is gone. But we still have plenty to learn from Sartre the freedom fighter, Sartre the activist, who told writers that "to keep quiet is not to be mute; it is to refuse to speak and hence to speak in a way." In the years after the "demo against his death," intellectuals abandoned politics, particularly progressive politics, and not only in France. Now there are some hopeful signs of a move in the opposite direction. Sartre the champion of commitment still has plenty to teach us as we resume our advance along the Roads (plural on purpose) to Freedom, Les Chemins de la liberté.

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