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Sartre and Terror

17 December 2011

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by Ian Birchall

It is one of Sartre’s greatest strengths that his declared aim was ’to write for his own time’.1 From the 1940s onward he became ever less interested in ’timeless’ questions, and ever more concerned to explore the concrete realities of his own age. Yet paradoxically this engagement with the contemporary makes it particularly tempting to speculate about what would have been Sartre’s response to the events of our own age. Ever since his death in 1980 those of us who have drawn insight and inspiration from Sartre’s works have tended to ask how Sartre might have judged particular political developments. And because of the central place given to violence in Sartre’s thought, as well as his detailed reflections on the Second World War and the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, it is only too natural to ask how Sartre would have responded to the appalling events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent ’war on terror’.2

a) Sartre and the Twenty-First Century

To raise the question of what Sartre might have thought of the events of 11 September provokes the response that, if he had been able to comment on them, he would have been ninety-six years old. I was present in 1966 at the meeting where the 94-year-old Bertrand Russell launched the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, and I have no ageist prejudice against nonagenarian philosophers. But the point is not a flippant one. Sartre was deeply rooted in the history of his own age, and to apply Sartre to a later period necessarily implies an appreciation of how Sartre’s thought was formed in the context of his own age. The period 1939-1962, in which most of Sartre’s major work was produced, was a period of almost uninterrupted violent conflict for his native land. The German Occupation gave way almost immediately to national liberation struggles, first in Indochina, then in Algeria. The centrality of violence in Sartre’s work cannot be detached from this context.

Sartre reacted to and learnt from the events of his own age; his was a mind in constant evolution, perpetually trying to make more concrete his central notion of freedom, permanently negating and transcending his own earlier positions. It is unwise to seek total consistency in an intellectual figure from the past. [As one who has admired and defended Sartre over nearly fifty years, I feel very uncomfortable with the label ’Sartrean’; it implies taking on rather more baggage than I am prepared to accept responsibility for.] The tangled and self contradictory narrative of Sartre’s various stances on the Middle East should be a clear warning that, while there are important insights and contentions that can be explained by Sartre’s own experience, there is no coherent Sartrean position.

This does not mean that there is no consistency at all. Sartre’s whole adult development involves a dialogue with various currents of the French left. And it is certainly no coincidence that the vast majority of those devoted to the study of Sartre whom I encounter are in one way or another are actively opposed to the current Bush Blair ’war on terror’.

b) The French Revolution

What did the term ’Terror’ mean to Sartre? There can be little doubt that for the schoolchild his first acquaintance with the term (other than in the primary sense of ’fear’) would have been in the context of the French Revolution. He would have heard of Robespierre, perhaps read Balzac’s gripping short story Un Épisode sous la Terreur (1830). If the young Sartre had looked up ’Terreur’ in the Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe. Siècle, edited by Pierre Larousse - which might well have been on his grandfather’s bookshelves - he would have found one-and-a-half large pages of very small print presenting a vigorous defence of the Terror of 1793-94, contrasting it to the far worse persecutions perpetrated by the Church:

Terror, that is, defence to the death, was therefore of necessity inevitable and unavoidable. A nation does not resign itself to death any more than an individual does, indeed less so, and in these moments of supreme danger, there was nothing at all extraordinary in the fact that France followed the example of all the ages and that she had recourse to a dictatorship of despair, which was in some sense the establishment of martial law throughout the land.
As for the terrible acts of this period, we can never deplore them enough, in the name of principle and of humanity, and even in the name of the new institutions, whose implementation was compromised by them. But it cannot be denied that, if the Revolution had not been attacked so relentlessly, had not been so surrounded by plots and betrayals, it would not have given the world such sights. Left to itself and to the regular development of its forces, it would probably have established that free government which France has awaited for so long.3

This was not the terror of individual assassins and bombers, but the terror of a revolutionary state, based on the mass involvement of hundreds of thousands of people, defending its very existence against the subversion of the representatives of the old regime who were conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the revolutionary government and restore the old order.

The French Revolution remained at the heart of Sartre’s concept of Terror. In preparing the Critique of Dialectical reason he read widely on the French Revolution.4 His discussion of Terror in the Critique links it closely to Fraternity (from the revolutionary triad Liberty, Equality and Fraternity) and to the ’Oath’, based on the Tennis Court Oath sworn by the Third Estate deputies at Versailles, to which he refers explicitly more than once.5

In showing terror as an integral part of the revolutionary process, Sartre was addressing the inhabitants of a post-revolutionary society. The institutions of modern France and their associated symbolism derive from the Revolution, and all but a tiny right-wing fringe respect revolutionary legitimacy. The device ’Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ stands over the door of every police-station in France, and until the advent of the euro was printed on every coin and banknote that passed through the Paris Stock Exchange. As the current debate about the hijab shows,6 the traditions of the ’Republic’, dating back to 1793, are part of the discourse of politicians of both left and right. It was Clemenceau who, faced with the argument that the Terror could be separated from the more ’moderate’ aspects of the Revolution, insisted that the Revolution must be seen as a bloc.7

By situating the origins of his own society in revolutionary terror, Sartre was addressing a question which is central to his whole treatment of violence. Human history is, whether we like it or not, the history of violence, and our present ills and privileges are rooted in violence. As he points out in the Cahiers pour une morale, the whole institution of private property is based on past violence.8 (The point is neatly summed up by the old story of the Yorkshire miner walking across moorland near his home. The local landlord, on horseback, rides up to him, and tells him he is trespassing on private property. When the miner enquires how he comes to own the moor, the landlord replies that one of his ancestors won it in a battle. The miner takes off his coat, saying ’I’ll fight you for it now’.)

Violence, then, is not, as all existing law codes and the dominant ideology insist, simply an attack on the existing order. The existing order is based on and embodies violence. The millions who die every year, not as the result of ’terror’, but because of the existing economic arrangements in the world, are just the most obvious manifestation of this principle.

c) Russia

Sartre doubtless knew of the Russian Revolution from the time it happened, if only through the hostile comments of his stepfather.9 He must have been aware of the heated discussion that took place in the years following the Revolution, in which the Russian experience of 1917 was often superimposed onto that of 1789. Much of the enthusiasm felt in France for the Bolshevik Revolution derived from a more or less explicit belief that Russia was following the French example. The distinguished historian and admirer of Robespierre Albert Mathiez briefly joined the French Communist Party and wrote articles drawing parallels between the two revolutions.

Once again it was a case of a revolutionary state (originally established with a relatively small degree of violence) defending itself against foreign invasion (armies from fourteen foreign states) and a counterrevolutionary civil war. Once again terror was not simply imposed from above but grew out of the experience of mass involvement. Victor Serge - a former anarchist who was never a wholly committed Bolshevik, and later became one of the sternest critics of Stalinism - gave a vivid picture of the way revolutionary terror was born out of the very logic of the situation:

If, later on, the newspapers in London and Paris accuse Peters [a leading Bolshevik] of being responsible for the Red terror, they will be lying. I saw terror voted by acclamation by the people of Petrograd, coming up from the streets, freely, at the call of danger.10

As Ronald Aronson and others have shown,11 the question of Russia was at the very centre of the two Critiques. In the period after 1956, when the Khrushchev ’secret speech’ opened up a new debate about the nature of Stalinism, Sartre was concerned to explore the question of the historical rôle of ’great’ individuals like Stalin and the extent of historical necessity. Sartre seems to have largely accepted the view of the French Communists that there was a direct and unbroken continuity between Lenin and Stalin. But the fact remains that his major discussions of terror are based on a study of the French and Russian Revolutions, both instances of terror being exercised by revolutionary states based on mass popular struggle. And it was in this sense that the word ’terrorisme’ was long commonly used. Trotsky’s Terrorisme et communisme (first published in 1920)12 deals exclusively with the question of state terror.

d) Ends and Means

Sartre’s most extensive consideration of the problem of ends and means occurs in the Cahiers pour une morale.13 Here he was heavily influenced by a reading of Trotsky’s short book Their Morals and Ours.14 Trotsky’s work was a polemic, explicitly directed at a number of his left critics who shared Trotsky’s antagonism to Stalinism, but believed that he had helped to lay the foundations of dictatorship in the immediately post-revolutionary period.

Trotsky rejects the facile formulation that ’the end justifies the means’. (It is interesting to note that this principle, once denounced as the evil at the heart of ’Communist’ thinking, has now been adopted by the pro-war right. The death of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the blatant lies about weapons of mass destruction are justified, because Saddam Hussein has been deposed.) For Trotsky a simple balance sheet of profit and loss could not do justice to the problem; he argued that there was a dialectical interaction whereby the means used conditioned the end arrived at. Since socialism involved the self emancipation of the working class, then the only means permissible were those which raised proletarian consciousness - the working class could not be liberated behind its own back. ’To the terrorist we say: it is impossible to replace the masses; only in the mass movement can you find expedient expression for your heroism’.15

Sartre’s formulation was very close to Trotsky’s. As he put it in Le Fantôme de Staline ’We agree with those who say: the end justifies the means; but we add the indispensable corrective: it is the means which define the end.’16 As he shows in the Cahiers pour une morale this is an integral part of his view of history; since history has no pregiven end, means cannot be selected without consideration of their impact on the end.17

It is in this context that the question of what Trotsky referred to as ’individual terrorism’ must be discussed.18 The problem was not a new one. There had been several anarchist bombings in France in the late nineteenth century. Two of Zola’s novels deal with the question - Germinal, where Souvarine destroys the mine, and Paris, where Guillaume Froment plans to blow up the Sacré Coeur, killing ten thousand pilgrims.19 The Russian Narodniks (whose successors were depicted by Camus in Les Justes) were responsible for many acts of bombing and assassination. Yet the question received far less attention than the argument about revolutionary state terrorism.

Trotsky’s critique of ’individual terrorism’ is rooted in the very same principles as underlie Their Morals and Ours. He is not primarily concerned with the ’innocence’ of the victims; in a political assassination like that by Friedrich Adler (who killed the Austrian Prime Minister as an act of opposition to World War I) the victim may well deserve all s/he gets, but that is not the point. The key question is that actions by solitary individuals or small secretive groups do not contribute to raising the self consciousness of the mass of the exploited; on the contrary, in Trotsky’s words such action ’lowers the masses in their own consciousness’.20

It should be added that Trotsky’s notion of ’individual terrorism’ is clearly not entirely identical with the idea of ’terror’ currently being deployed by Blair and Bush. The latter involves a very clear double standard about violence, and it would not be too cynical to summarise it as defining terrorist violence as being violence exercised by anyone who has not bought their weapons from one of the large international arms companies. For as George Orwell observed, expensive weapons inherently favour despotism. ’Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons.’21

e) The Resistance

Sartre was first practically confronted with the questions of violence and terrorism during the German Occupation of France. At the Liberation he recalled that the French had had the experience of being bombed by the British and Americans, who claimed to be the ’liberators’ of the French people.22 (The parallels with Iraq scarcely need to be made explicit, though it is unlikely that Iraqis would be as indulgent towards civilian casualties as Sartre describes the French as having been.) Though Sartre himself took no part in the armed struggle, he was clearly influenced by his proximity to those who did.

When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 the French Communist Party (PCF) immediately flung itself into the Resistance, from which it had hitherto stood aloof. Before the development of the maquis as a sort of national liberation movement, PCF members engaged in individual actions against the German occupiers. While the PCF did not actually use ’suicide-bombers’, it was confronted with a situation where the Germans took hostages and executed them in retaliation for acts of violence. The PCF deliberately provoked Nazi repression, because this made it easier to encourage its members to engage in indiscriminate acts against the occupying forces, something which was demanded by Moscow, but was foreign to its own traditions.23 The PCF seems to have been quite happy to have martyrs; it exploited them both during the war and at the Liberation, when it styled itself the ’Party of the executed’. The slogan ’Chacun son boche’ (Let everybody kill a German), invited the killing of individual German soldiers. In many ways the strategies of the French Resistance anticipated the methods of colonial liberation movements in the post-war world, a fact generally elided in France, where the possession of a Resistance record, real or concocted, was for many years essential for a political career. The German authorities responded by denouncing Resistance fighters as terrorists and common-law criminals who did not deserve to be treated as prisoners of war, rather as the United States was to treat its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay some sixty years later, following on the example of the French themselves in Indochina

As some of the PCF’s left critics pointed out, the Party’s strategy represented a retreat from a Marxist revolutionary position to a nationalist one. They countered that it was more effective to try to fraternise with German soldiers (who were, after all, workers in uniform) than to kill them at random. The French Trotskyists had some small success with a strategy of fraternisation, and produced a German-language paper aimed at German troops.

Sartre’s attitude during the war was ambiguous. From 1941 onwards he worked with the PCF and did not criticise their strategy. Yet it is not clear that he entirely shared it. At the time of Socialism et liberté he had been in favour of trying to distribute propaganda to German soldiers, though nothing came of it.24 Later he commented that when he wrote Les Mouches, ’the real drama, the one I would have liked to write, is that of the terrorist who, by shooting down Germans in the street, brings about the execution of fifty hostages’.25 Clearly he had some misgivings about PCF methods.

f) Violence

Sartre’s views on violence were formed during the Resistance. His later positions taken during the Algerian War developed on this basis. It is sometimes claimed that Sartre believed in the ’emancipatory’ nature of violence. This does not appear to have been his position at the Liberation. On the contrary, in his novel La mort dans l’âme (1949) he satirises the belief that violence alone can achieve anything. His hero Mathieu, the man in perpetual bad faith, finds himself on a bell-tower shooting at the advancing Germans. As he shoots them down - ’one shot at Odette whom I didn’t want to fuck, one for the books I didn’t dare write, one for the journeys I never made’ - his bad faith is ever more blatant.26 Mathieu was intended, in the unwritten final volume, to achieve ’authenticity’ not through violence, but through participation in a mass Resistance movement.27

Likewise, in his 1962 essay on Tarkovsky’s film The Childhood of Ivan he draws out the point that however historically necessary violence may be, the reality of individual suffering remains:

Human society progresses towards its ends, the living will achieve these ends by their own strength, and nonetheless this little corpse, this tiny piece of straw swept aside by history, remains like an unanswered question, which compromises nothing, but which reveals everything in a new light: history is tragic. Hegel said so. And Marx too, who added that it always progresses by its worst side. But recently we have scarcely said this any more, we insisted on progress, forgetting the losses that nothing can compensate.28

The text often quoted to demonstrate Sartre’s cult of violence is his preface to Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre. But this needs to be read carefully. The language is angry and at times provocative, but time and again Sartre repeats the point that the violence of the national liberation struggle is a product of, a response to, the existing violence of colonialism:

...for first of all [my emphasis IHB] it is not their violence, but ours, turned back, which grows and lacerates them....
It’s the moment of the boomerang, the third phase of violence; it comes back on us and strikes us, and just like the other times, we don’t recognise that it is ours.
The metropolitan left [...] knows the true fate of the natives [...] it does not condemn their revolt, knowing we have done all we could to provoke it.
We have sown the wind; he [the peasant fighter] is the whirlwind.
... if violence had begun only this evening, if exploitation and oppression had never existed on earth, then the display of non violence might perhaps settle the dispute... 29

This text can only be read as a glorification of violence by those who have so far internalised the values of the existing order that they do not perceive the violence inherent in it, and see violence solely in the disruption of that order.

Moreover, to reduce Fanon to the view that Algerian emancipation was to be achieved by the killing of individual Europeans is to grievously distort a complex and subtle thinker whose work was in full development at the time of his early death. Thus Fanon wrote a long essay - first published in Les Temps modernes - in which he explicitly rejected the notion that Europeans in Algeria formed a ’monolithic bloc’ and paid tribute to the large numbers of them who gave practical support to the FLN.30

Of course, if Sartre has been misunderstood, he must take some of the blame. A writer has a responsibility to avoid ambiguity when pronouncing on an important moral and political question. But there does seem reason to doubt whether Sartre actually believed in the emancipatory power of violence. Rather he seems to have observed that throughout the course of history the holders of power and privilege have not lightly abandoned their positions, and that it has almost invariably been the case that they had to be violently removed. Hence in Algeria, and later in Vietnam, he refused to equate the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressors:

During the Algerian war I always refused to make a parallel between the terrorist use of bombs, the only weapon available to the Algerians, and the actions and extortions of a rich army of half a million, which occupied the entire country. It’s the same in Vietnam.31

g) The Algerian War

Ironically, it was to be the PCF which condemned the first outbreak of the national liberation struggle in Algeria as ’individual acts liable to serve the ends of the worst colonialists’32; the thrust of the argument put the PCF very much in the camp of those who have denounced ’terror’ more recently. The PCF, whose ability to forget its own previous positions was integral to its capacity for survival, does not seem to have noticed the parallels between the Algerian struggle and its own involvement in the Resistance.

Sartre, of course, did not fail to notice. His play, Les Séquestrés d’Altona, (1959) drew its dramatic force precisely from the parallel between the racism and use of torture by the Nazi occupiers and by the French in Algeria. It was doubtless Sartre’s disgust at the PCF’s repeated failure to play its internationalist rôle that led him to take such an active part in opposition to French colonialism in Algeria.

Sartre’s apparent failure to criticise the National Liberation Front (FLN) was probably inspired by the principle enunciated by Karl Liebknecht in 1915: ’The main enemy is at home’. Sartre was not in fact wholly uncritical of FLN strategy; as is shown by an unpublished interview with Jean Daniel, in which he spoke contemptuously of the positions advocated in El Moudjahid. (the party organ of the FLN) as ’ raving’.33 But he chose not to make those positions public, believing that as a Frenchman, his main responsibility was to denounce his own country’s imperialism.

Sartre’s position - like that of Francis Jeanson and others of the Les Temps modernes circle - deserves respect; they showed principle and courage, and undoubtedly played at least a small part in helping to condition the political climate in which the French population became unwilling to pay the price of continuing the war. (The FLN never came close to actually winning a military victory.) But Sartre’s impressive public activity should not blind us to the existence of some of his contemporaries who were actually more successful in balancing the rôles of necessary solidarity and equally necessary criticism.

Thus Daniel Guérin opposed the war from the very outset; indeed, even before it began he had pointed to the grim effects of French imperialism in a powerful article in Les Temps modernes called ’Pitié pour le Maghreb’.34 Early in 1956, he participated alongside Sartre in one of the first public meetings against the war, a gathering of intellectuals of the independent left from which the PCF was notable by its absence.35 Guérin had also long been a friend and associate of Messali Hadj, once the leading figure in the movement for Algerian liberation. But when the FLN was formed it increasingly saw Messali’s Mouvement National Algérien (MNA) as a political rival which had to be eliminated. For a time the national liberation struggle was conducted in parallel to a vicious internecine struggle between FLN and MNA, with frequent assassinations on French soil.36 (The MNA’s main base was among Algerian workers in France.) Guérin protested at the slanders against the MNA and urged the two movements to unite their forces against French imperialism. But this never obstructed his willingness to oppose French imperialism - alongside Sartre he was a signatory of the Manifesto of 121. Guérin polemicised vigorously against Francis Jeanson’s uncritical advocacy of the FLN - but later did not fail to add his tribute to Jeanson’s courage as a porteur de valises.37

Jean-François Lyotard, later one of the leading figures of ’post modernism’, had worked in Algeria as a young man and seen the realities of French rule. In the late fifties and early sixties he was a member of Socialisme ou barbarie, a small revolutionary group in which one of the leading figures was Claude Lefort, a member of the editorial board of Les Temps modernes who had polemicised with Sartre at the time of Les Communistes et la paix. He contributed to the journal a series of articles38 in which he made a highly original and perhaps unique attempt to analyse from the standpoint of an unorthodox and critical Marxism the evolution of the FLN, and the way in which its bureaucratic structures were crystallising into the new ruling class of a post-independence Algeria. Lyotard had no illusions that, despite occasional rhetoric, the FLN was leading Algeria towards any sort of socialism, but his critical analysis did not deter him from giving practical assistance to the national liberation struggle, and he was a member of the réseau organised by the Egyptian Communist Henri Curiel, which gave practical support to the FLN.39

Such examples deserve to be studied alongside that of Sartre.

h) The "War on Terror"

Sartre gives us no ready-made solutions for our own day; he does give us the example of a man who grappled with the problems of his own period. In the spirit of Romain Rolland’s device ’Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ we can be both inspired by his resolution and educated by his mistakes.

Many have claimed that 11 September 2001 opened up a new period in which everything is changed. The 96-year-old Sartre - presumably a non-smoker - who had lived through and commented on the great atrocities of the twentieth century, might have been a little sceptical. 11 September was an atrocity in which nearly three thousand civilians died - but in scale it pales beside Hiroshima, Dresden,40 or the bombing of North Vietnam in the 1960s (when a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped than in the whole of World War II). In all these cases civilians were the main victims.

The involvement of civilians in war is nothing new; it has been a growing phenomenon since the nineteenth century. In World War II, when the East End of London was subjected to daily German bombing, there is a story of a woman who, asked what had become of her husband, responded: ’The bloody coward’s gone and joined the army.’

The rhetoric of ’innocent civilians’ plays a major part in the mythology of ’terrorism’. It needs to be exposed for the rhetoric that it is. In 1956 Albert Camus launched a well-meaning campaign for a ’civilian truce’ in Algeria. It was doomed to failure from the first day, for it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Guerrilla warfare by its very nature transgresses the boundaries between civilian and military. (Guerrilla warfare is the natural form of struggle of oppressed colonial peoples, technologically at a disadvantage but operating in their own territory. As early as the 1840s a British officer, John Jacob, complained of ’cruel bloodthirsty cowards’ who hid and ran rather than give the British ’a little honest fighting’. Clearly these ’savages’ weren’t playing by the rules.41) It is scarcely possible to argue that European settlers in Algeria, or Jewish settlers in Palestine, were ’innocent’ just because they didn’t wear uniforms.

Indeed the main novelty of 11 September is that the victims were Americans. I do not say this facetiously - 11 September was undoubtedly a great atrocity. Those who died were for the most part ordinary working people who had no control over their nation’s foreign policy. But for the first time since the crushing of the Native Americans (the basis of a whole industry of books and films which has demonised the ’Indians’) the United States was subjected to guerrilla struggle on its own territory. That this involved a huge psychological shock for the American population is undoubted. But in terms of the underlying moral and political arguments, nothing has changed.

More significant was the change that took place in 1989. With the collapse of the Russian Empire - the self-styled ’Soviet Union’ - the label socialism was no longer popular among those opposing Western imperialism. In the period 1945-89 the leaders of national liberation struggles, impressed by Stalin’s rapid industrialisation, and hoping for economic assistance if not political guidance from Moscow, tended to adopt the language of socialism. It provided a comfortable excuse for Western intellectuals, who could imagine that anti-imperialist violence was part of a struggle for world-wide socialism. Sartre, at least until the 1970s, when he discovered the existence of something called ’Soviet imperialism’,42 was frequently gullible in this respect. (Only a tiny handful of individuals navigated their way through the Cold War epoch with the firm conviction that there was nothing ’socialist’ about the Stalinist bloc, while still giving total opposition to Western capitalism. Castoriadis, CLR James, Tony Cliff, Alfred Rosmer, Raya Dunayevskaya are names still marginalised from the history of socialism, though the course of events has confirmed their perspicacity.43 As early as 1947 the young Claude Lefort in Les Temps modernes challenged the claim of the Vietnamese Communists to be pursuing a socialist strategy, though he unconditionally supported their right to national self-determination.44)

Modern ’terrorism’ offers no such comfortable evasions. Yet though the rhetoric of socialism is absent, terrorism is still deeply rooted in the gross disparities of wealth that characterise the modern world, even if individual exponents - like Osama bin Laden - may come from wealthy backgrounds. For Bush and Blair the enemy seems difficult to define - one day it is Al-Qaida and the Palestinian suicide bombers, the next the states of the ’Axis of Evil’. Those who still seek to oppose imperialism must do so without any illusions about the nature of the forces aligned against it.

i) Responsibility

Perhaps there may be more to be learnt from Sartre’s earlier work, written under the influence of the German Occupation, than from his later more explicitly Marxist work written at the time of the Algerian conflict. In 1946 Sartre argued that ’man is responsible for all men’.45 It is a tough burden, but it clears away much of the confusing nonsense about ’innocent civilians.’ Sartre would undoubtedly have agreed with the Sex Pistols that ’No one is Innocent’.46

This simple point should cut through the whole ideology of ’Evil’ that is so widely propagated. When Saddam Hussein was captured, his picture was plastered over all the newspapers; the comforting message was that this was what ’evil’ looked like - the rest of us could console ourselves that we were not evil and therefore innocent. In Britain Saddam’s face alternated with those of serial killer Dr Harold Shipman and child murderer Ian Huntley, all bearing the same message that journalists and newspaper readers could rejoice that they did not have ’dirty hands’.

Sartre’s self-allocated task, to take the non-existence of God seriously and construct a morality for a godless world, means that we have to be very careful about the concept of ’justification’. History has no predetermined end, and there is no guarantee that it will be a happy one. As Sartre wrote just after the end of World War II:

Tomorrow, after my death, men may decide to establish fascism, and others may be cowardly and helpless enough to let them succeed; in this event, fascism will be human truth, and so much the worse for us; in reality, things will be as man has decided they should be.47

Indeed the whole future of humanity remains at risk. The threat of nuclear war which loomed over the mid-twentieth century has given way to impending environmental disaster. Already far more people are dying as a result of global warming than of terrorism.48 The crabs of Les Séquestrés d’Altona may give way to the fishes who will inherit the earth as the waters rise.

In Les Mots Sartre discovered that there is no salvation. Nor is there any justification; all we can do is act as best we may in the light of our self-generated principles and our inevitably limited knowledge, and then wait for history to be our judge. But it is action that counts, not criticism. Sartre’s belated Cold War critics like Tony Judt and Bernard-Henry Lévy belabour Sartre for not having condemned Stalinism vigorously enough. In one sense they are right; yet to denounce without presenting an alternative is merely self-indulgence, preserving one’s personal freedom from guilt while leaving the world as it is. Nothing is easier than to condemn suicide bombers; to do so has no impact whatsoever on the continuing crisis of the Middle East.

The world since 11 September offers a paradox and a choice. On the one hand terrorism seems ever more tempting, because, in a certain short-term sense, it works. Osama bin Laden can die happy, knowing that his assault on the twin towers has certainly weakened American imperialism politically and economically by leading it into two ill-judged wars from which it seems, at the time of writing, to have no idea how to extricate itself.

Yet the aftermath of 11 September has also produced some of the biggest mass demonstrations in human history. The 15 February peace march in London, estimated at around two million, made the demonstrations of 1968 look tiny. (The biggest in Britain, against the Vietnam war in October 1968, was probably around one hundred thousand.) Only May 13 1968 in Paris bears comparison.

One of the central themes of Sartre’s work is the problem of collective action. From Huis clos to the Critique he grapples with the notion that collective action is not easy, but also not impossible. The juxtaposition of seriality and the fragile but glorious ’fused group’ is one of the most illuminating sections of the Critique.49 Terrorism remains firmly within the confines of seriality; the mass demonstration (especially when, as in May 1968, it spills over from demonstration to strike) offers the possibility of the fused group. If Sartre’s work can help point the way towards mass collective action then it will have served its purpose. Perhaps we shall storm our Bastille.

(The above has been reprinted from Sartre Studies International, Vol 11, Nos 1-2, Spring 2005, pp. 251-264, with the kind permission of the author and publisher)


1 ’Écrire pour son époque’, Les Temps modernes, June 1948, pp. 2113 21.

2 See the interesting and provocative discussion on ’Sartre and Terror’ in Sartre Studies International 9/2 (2003), pp 3-25.

3 Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe. Siècle, tome XIV, Paris, 1875, pp. 1657-8. Even in 1923 the Larousse dictionary gave the primary meaning of ’terrorisme’ as the regime of 1793-94, and saw the use of the term for other governments or revolutionary groupings as being ’by analogy’. (Larousse universel, Paris, 1923, tome II, p. 1081.

4 See S de Beauvoir, La Cérémonie des adieux, Paris, 1981, pp.236, 258, 260.

5 J-P Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, Paris, 1960, pp. 439-79, etc.

6 See A Boulangé, ’The hijab, racism and the state’, International Socialism 102 (2004), pp. 3-26; D Drake, ’Intellectuals, Demonisation and Exclusion in the Dreyfus Affair and L’Affaire du Foulard’, in K Chadwick & T Unwin (eds.), New Perspectives on the Fin de Siècle in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century France, Lewiston, 2000, pp. 43-60.

7 G Dallas, At the Heart of a Tiger, London, 1993, pp. 292-7.

8 J-P Sartre, Cahiers pour une morale, Paris, 1983, pp. 150-1

9 Sartre J-P, Ph Gavi, P Victor, On a raison de se révolter, Paris, 1974, pp. 171 72; J Gerassi, Jean-Paul Sartre — Hated Conscience of His Century, vol. I, Chicago, 1989, p. 57.

10 V Serge, Revolution in Danger, London, 1997, p. 20.

11 R Aronson, ’Sartre and the Dialectic’, in F Jameson, (ed.), Sartre after Sartre, Yale French Studies 68: Yale, 1985, p. 96.

12 Republished Paris 1963.

13 Cahiers pour une morale, pp. 167-76.

14 Reprinted in I Howe, (ed.), The Basic Writings of Trotsky, London, 1964, pp. 370-99.

15 The Basic Writings of Trotsky, p. 397.

16 J-P Sartre, Situations VII, Paris, 1965, pp. 276-77.

17 Cahiers pour une morale, p. 191.

18 For Trotsky’s critique see ’The Moscow Trials and Terrorism’ in The Basic Writings of Trotsky, pp. 290-98.

19 See I Birchall, ’Zola and the War Against Terrorism’, Bulletin of the Emile Zola Society , No 25 (April 2002), pp. 4-11.

20 G Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Harmondsworth, 1970, p 24.

21 The Basic Writings of Trotsky, p. 295.

22 J-P Sartre, Situations III, Paris, 1949, pp. 34-5.

23 P Robrieux, Histoire intérieure du parti communiste, tome I, 1920-1945, Paris, 1980, pp. 528-31.

24 A Cohen-Solal, Sartre, Paris, 1985, p. 303.

25 Carrefour, 9 September 1944.

26 J-P Sartre, La mort dans l’âme, Paris, 1962, pp. 280-1.

27 S de Beauvoir, La force de l’âge, Paris, 1960, p. 387.

28 J-P Sartre, Situations VII, Paris, 1965, p. 340.

29 J-P Sartre, Situations V, Paris, 1964, pp. 179, 181, 182, 185, 187.

30 F Fanon, ’La minorité européenne d’Algérie en l’an V de la Révolution’, Les Temps modernes , May-June 1959, pp. 1841-65.

31 J-P Sartre, Situations VIII, Paris, 1972, pp. 34-5.

32 Statement of Political Bureau of the French Communist Party, November 1954.

33 J Daniel, Le temps qui reste, Paris, 1973, p. 252.

34 Les Temps modernes, January-February 1953, pp. 1190-1219.

35 D Guérin, Quand l’Algérie s’insurgeait, Claix, 1979, pp. 83-4.

36 Quand l’Algérie s’insurgeait, pp. 116-23.

37 Quand l’Algérie s’insurgeait, pp. 80-83.

38 Later reprinted as J-F Lyotard, La guerre des Algériens, Paris, 1989.

39 P Gottraux, "Socialisme ou Barbarie", Lausanne, 1997, p. 117.

40 Unfortunately the best-known English account of the bombing of Dresden is David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (London, 1963), the falsifications of which are ably exposed in Richard Evans’s Telling Lies about History (London 2002). Yet there is no denying that Dresden was a war crime, for which Britain takes prime responsibility.

41 VG Kiernan, European Empires from Conquest to Collapse 1815-1960, Leicester, 1982, p. 39.

42 J-P Sartre, Un théâtre de situations, Paris, 1973., p. 368.

43 See P Gottraux, "Socialisme ou Barbarie"; T Cliff, Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis, London, 1955; CLR James, State Capitalism and World Revolution, Chicago, 1986; ’From Syndicalism to Trotskyism: Writings of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer’, Revolutionary History Volume 7, No. 4; R Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, New York, 1964.

44 Les Temps modernes , March 1947, pp 1068-1094.

45 J-P Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme, Paris, 1966 p. 24.

46 Virgin VS 220 (1978). Hopefully some young band will rerecord this great song with updated references.

47 J-P Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme, Paris, 1946, pp. 53-4.

48 Mark Lynas, ’The Sixth Mass Extinction’, (New Statesman, 23 February 2004, p. 25), estimates, on the basis of World Health Organisation figures, that at present, 150,000 people a year die from global warming as compared to perhaps one thousand from terrorism.

49 Critique de la raison dialectique, pp. 381ff..


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