“One does not jail Voltaire.” So responded the president of France to calls that Jean-Paul Sartre be arrested for backing an independent Algeria. The year was 1960, and Sartre was traveling the world as a radical ambassador, the guest of Castro, Tito and Khrushchev. He spearheaded a politics that denounced colonialism and imperialism. He would soon write what may be his most famous short piece, the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in which he lyrically defends the violence of Algerian rebels against French settlers. In 1960 Sartre seemed to be everywhere. In that year too, Albert Camus died, when the sports car driven by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, slammed into a tree. Camus was 46, Sartre 55.

In death and life Sartre and Camus seem inextricably linked. Their first important works breathed of existential philosophy and the “absurdity” of life. Both Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea and Camus’s 1942 The Stranger expressed a spirit of unease and meaninglessness. Yet their authors were political animals, as much by instinct as circumstance. The onset of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France gave a hard edge to their existentialism. It also brought them together. They had reviewed each other’s books, but first met in 1943 at the Paris opening of Sartre’s allegorical play denouncing Nazi collaboration, The Flies. By that time Sartre was already working on No Exit, and Camus, who loved the theater, accepted Sartre’s suggestion that he stage it. Nothing came of this plan, but for some years the paths of Sartre and Camus would cross and crisscross.

Each became an editor of a left-wing periodical that emerged from the Resistance. Sartre asked Camus to join his editorial staff; Camus gave Sartre newspaper assignments. At the end of the war, they loomed as the new French intellectual stars. Even the American press took note. In 1946 Vogue ran “Portraits of Paris” that featured dark and moody photographs of Sartre and Camus. A year earlier, the magazine had described Sartre “like the men on the barricades in pictures of the Paris Insurrection. Just forty, he is small, intent…[with] his worn trench coat, his pipe, his heavy-rimmed glasses…indeed, a man of the Resistance.”

By 1952 they had broken with each other and never spoke again. What happened? To be sure, to pursue this question requires taking French intellectuals as seriously as they take themselves. This is not always easy. Perhaps only in France could a dispute between two intellectuals generate so much print. It began with a critical twenty-one-page review of Camus’s The Rebel in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes. Camus’s reply took up seventeen pages. Two rejoinders to Camus clocked in at twenty and thirty pages, and that issue sold out twice. The daily and weekly press covered the row as big news. “The Sartre-Camus break is consummated,” announced a typical headline. Does it matter?

Yes, according to Ronald Aronson, who gives us the first full-scale inquiry into the Sartre-Camus fallout. Aronson, who has written books on Sartre and Marxism, argues that only now, with the end of the cold war, can we assess the issues that drove Sartre and Camus apart. More to the point, he believes that both of them have something to offer leftist thought and practice; that Sartre’s rigid radicalism and Camus’s rigid anti-Communism divided the world into a fallacious either/or that we must now overcome. To reconsider their dispute, then, is to reconsider contemporary radicalism. He may be right.

Aronson may be wrong, however, in framing the break as a great friendship that went awry. Perhaps it was the coming together of Sartre and Camus that was the accident, not their falling out. Much separated them. Camus came from a poor French family in Algeria and attended local schools. Sartre came from the old French bourgeoisie and attended the elite École Normale Supérieure. Camus sometimes seemed conceptually uncertain and felt more at home in fiction than Sartre, who confidently scaled the philosophical heights. In 1943 Sartre published a tome that tackled nothing less than Being and Nothingness.

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.

Camus’s political Achilles’ heel may be his moralism. It is what makes him appealing, but also sometimes questionable. Political realities vanish in fine phrases. This was the heart of Sartre’s charge against Camus: He preferred ethereal truths to disorderly choices. Camus’s anti-Communism, according to Sartre, became a seductive pose that defended the establishment. Camus was eloquent about the Soviet invasion of Hungary and mealy-mouthed about the French rule in Algeria. To Sartre, Camus sought an unattainable political purity; he did not live in the real world. “I see only one solution for you,” Sartre remarked, “the Galapagos Islands.” Sartre’s existential realpolitik required making hard choices. Yet the Sartrean ethos could easily slide into justifying political misrule and violence–and it did.

Perhaps Camus flinched when it came to Algeria; perhaps his anti-Communism became too strident, his moral purity too precious. Yet he gave us some fine philosophical pieces and some brilliantly wrought novels from The Stranger to The Plague and The Fall. As Sartre admitted in his eulogy, “He reaffirmed the existence of moral fact within the heart of our era…against the Machiavellians, against the golden calf of realism.” This is of no small account. Camus protested the leftist pieties, once far more prevalent than now, on the imperatives for revolutionary violence. He also objected to the cheap argument that political reception determines truth and that The Rebel must be suspect if conservatives cheered it. A “book is not true,” he pointedly observed, “because it is revolutionary”; it may be revolutionary because it is true.

And Sartre himself? His faults are increasingly obvious–personal, intellectual and political–yet how much poorer would we be without his oeuvre! It is almost the vastness that is startling, the extent that Sartre poured himself into everything–and that words poured out of him. Indeed, his autobiography, which does not get beyond the age of 10, is called The Words. But with all the words he wrote Sartre finished virtually nothing. The hapless reader who makes it through the 800 pages of Being and Nothingness will discover that the last sentence evokes questions that will be taken up in a “future work.” Sartre considered his five volumes on Flaubert a preface to his unwritten sixth volume. Yet his shortest works may endure the longest–his What Is Literature?, Anti-Semite and Jew, Existentialism and Human Emotions and other essays, plays, prefaces and lectures.

Aronson bravely challenges the anti-Sartrean sentiment of our day. After all, why assess a chapter in two lives if only to confirm the prevailing sentiment that Camus was a mensch and Sartre a no-goodnik? Unfortunately, Aronson is less convincing than he might have been. His account is ultimately somewhat airless; he opens too rarely the window to larger issues. We circle in and around the comments, writings and gestures of Sartre and Camus. What was the significance of Camus slamming the door after an argument at a party in 1946? Did Simone de Beauvoir misrepresent this incident in her memoirs? How do Sartre’s comments about Camus in 1944 tally with his remarks of 1952 and 1970? An impatient reader might want to jump straight to the exemplary collection Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation. This includes not only the pertinent documents–the review of The Rebel by Sartre’s protégé Francis Jeanson, which spurred the break, and the responses to it–but essays by American scholars that give the background and context of the fallout.

Aronson is surely right to remind us that both Sartre and Camus fastened on part of the truth–the need, on the one hand, for real, if unpretty choices and, on the other, for moral verities. About Algeria the half-blind Sartre saw further than Camus. Yet Camus possessed a superior moral compass. The early death of Camus precludes a wider comparison. We don’t know how he would have evolved as a political thinker, but this may not be urgent. If Sartre and Camus wrangled with each other, they mainly wrangled with the issues of the day. On this they agreed: the necessity of seizing the political moment. The French intellectuals who followed them–the Althussers, Lacans, Foucaults, Derridas–failed to address politics with the same passion and clarity. We return to Sartre and Camus because they were supplanted but not surpassed.