There is no shortage of either scholarly or popular works on Jean-Paul Sartre, or on the intellectuals with whom he sparred in post-war France.  Yet if the number of studies continues to expand, the themes they treat tend, at the same time, to narrow: friendships, paramours and quarrels are laced into larger, moralizing narratives of alleged Sartrean backsliding on camps in the Soviet Union and show trials under its client regimes in Eastern Europe. This tradition found its own shrill champion in Tony Judt, whose Past Imperfect (1992) dwelt on the silence or complicity of intellectuals in and outside the pcf who, ‘in the name of the proletarian and the class struggle made a daily contribution to the legitimation of the enslavement of the satellite states.’ A methodological consensus has meanwhile congealed around the work of Anna Boschetti, itself heavily indebted to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which interprets Sartre’s long career through the lens of self-promotion and the accumulation of—and competition for—intellectual capital.
These approaches, dominant since at least the mid-1980s, are in need of revision. It is not just that they have aged poorly since the polemics attendant upon the end of the Cold War, but that they depend on the most pious and rudimentary of mises-en-scène. Sartre is given the role of villain in an anti-totalitarian passion play in which his anti-colonialism is all but ignored: essays, newspaper articles, speeches, interviews, correspondence and well-publicized speaking tours and voyages that extended from the immediate post-war period up through the 1970s. A portion of Europe over which Frenchmen exerted no control has obscured debates about the vast empire whose destiny France never willingly ceased to direct. Sartre pronounced the necessity of colonial independence well in advance of his apparent moral betters, and did more than most to secure it as a matter of fact.
Such a reassessment is necessary not only for making sense of Sartre’s diverse theoretical insights into racism and anti-Semitism, the extent and shape of human freedom, or the meaning of literary engagement, but just as much for appraising the intellectual constellation within which Sartre was enmeshed. Les Temps Modernes, the journal Sartre founded in 1944 with Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Ollivier and Jean Paulhan, adopted an intransigently internationalist outlook from the start. Sartre and Beauvoir also travelled widely on intensive fact-finding missions. The information they gathered on race relations in the us during trips in 1945 and 1947, respectively, made its way into novels, memoirs, reportages and plays. Their journey to Cuba in 1960 was the occasion for interviews, speeches and articles aimed at publicizing the revolution for a global audience.
Sartre’s own evolving critique of racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism was extensive and varied. The racial problem in the us was the focus of a number of post-war works, including the 1946 play La Putain respectueuse, unfolding the prostitute Lizzie’s dubious struggle to protect a black man accused of her rape in the South. Sartre’s contribution to the inaugural issue of Présence Africaine (1947) and his introduction to a selection of Francophone poets in 1948 marked his early appreciation for the négritude movement and the way in which, by refashioning the French language for their own ends, its poets might play an important role in the process of colonial emancipation. As early as 1956 Sartre argued against the idea that economic reforms could ever seriously attenuate the basic political demand for Algerian independence in ‘Colonialism is a System’ (Les Temps Modernes did so a year earlier in ‘L’Algérie n’est pas la France’). His 1962 preface to the political writings of Patrice Lumumba analysed the challenges confronting newly independent states in a world in which different forms of domination had emerged even as formal colonization ended. In 1967 Sartre agreed to chair the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam, and his activism continued through the 1970s even as his health began to deteriorate.
Despite the chronological and thematic breath of these writings—and the trade winds blowing scholars in the direction of global histories of empire—little systematic attention has been devoted to them in either French or English. Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre by Paige Arthur, and the translation of some of Sartre’s anti-colonial writings by Routledge in 2001 (first published by Gallimard in 1964 in Situations V), suggest renewed interest among Anglophone scholars in this aspect of Sartre’s oeuvre. Arthur’s study draws needed attention to the early Sartre, attempting to place his most famous and controversial preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) in the context of a continuous and less hortatory engagement with the Third World. Her contribution to the most recent sedimentation of scholarship on Sartre is twofold. On the one hand, Arthur fills a void in the biographical feuilletons assembled by Annie Cohen-Solal and Bernard-Henri Lévy, both of whom omit any mention of their subject’s anti-colonialism before 1961. On the other hand, by reading the Fanon preface alongside his other writings on colonialism and neo-colonialism, she suggests that Sartre’s attitude towards violence was neither adulatory nor ‘curiously ambivalent’, but historically situated, intriguingly consistent.
Arthur’s simultaneous focus on Sartre’s philosophical writings, and the way they respond to, modify or create theoretical frames in which to understand his anti-colonialism, draws her attention to four discrete moments: an early set of works, from the publication of Being and Nothingness in 1943 to Notebooks for an Ethics in 1949; the period between 1957 and 1960, in which Critique of Dialectical Reason is written and published, in part in response to the events in Algeria; and a moment of Third Worldism characterized by certain texts on the Congo, Vietnam and Bolivia from 1962 to 1968. The final chapters contain an appraisal of Sartre’s interventions on behalf of immigrant workers and regionalist movements in France and Spain in the early 1970s. These gauche prolétarienne years offer lessons for France today, where republican lip service to the rights of man belies the failure of policies aimed at integration and assimilation.
What Arthur ends up producing is less a genealogy than a kind of cross-pollination between Sartre’s philosophical ideas and his anti-colonialism. His introduction to Francophone poets chosen by Senghor in 1948, ‘Black Orpheus’, presents the poetry of négritude as the quintessence of engaged literature, the concept elaborated earlier by Sartre’s presentation to Les Temps Modernes in 1945, and published in instalments as What is Literature? during 1947. The section of Notebooks for an Ethics published in Combat in 1949 describes the bad faith of the Southern slave-owner, who must first acknowledge the humanity of his slave (if only by taking precautions against the possibility of his escape or in preventing him from learning the scriptures), before reducing him to the status of subhuman—a category to which Sartre would return repeatedly to describe the racism of colons in Algeria. Sartre’s engagement with American blacks in the immediate post-war period was especially significant, Arthur argues, because it led him to understand European colonialism as under-girded by a form of structural racism. He devoted special numbers of Les Temps Modernes to the us in 1946, with Richard Wright contributing stories and helping secure Horace Cayton Jr and St Clair Drake’s Black Metropolis. Sartre described each article as a face, ‘un visage inquiet, d’une émouvante liberté.’ In his contribution to Alioune Diop’s new review Présence Africaine, though, he cautioned against complacent French indignation at segregation in America. The few blacks from Senegal, Martinique or the Congo allowed to filter into France were ‘hostages and symbols’, whose equality—at Parisian universities, concerts, these ‘handsome courteous strangers who dance with our women’—depended for its charm on their strict exclusion from white society in the colonies. It is perhaps worth emphasizing the extraordinary internationalism of Les Temps Modernes. Seventeen articles on Indochina appeared in its pages between 1945 and 1951 alone, with thirty-one on colonial struggles in Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Martinique, Guadeloupe, South Africa and Algeria. In the 1960s its coverage extended to the Congo, Guinea Bissau, Rwanda, Angola, China, India, Laos, Vietnam, Egypt, Brazil, Cuba, Tahiti and to the civil rights and black power movements in the us.
‘Black Orpheus’ is the centrepiece of Arthur’s excavation. Sartre’s address to white readers began with an inflection of the duelling gazes in Being and Nothingness: ‘Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground?’ ‘Here are black men standing, looking at us’, he announced, ‘and I hope that you—like me—will feel the shock of being seen.’ The poetry of négritude was the only revolutionary verse being written in French, and Césaire’s calamitous lyricism had nothing to learn from the surrealist leftovers of Eluard or Aragon. Yet négritude and the notion of a black soul, Sartre insisted, were transitory revindications. Blacks were unlike other victims of capitalism: they could not choose to deny their difference, as some Jews might, and unlike his white counterpart, a black peasant or worker, ‘oppressed in his race and because of it, had first to become conscious of his race.’ The identitarian reflex was the precondition for a much broader solidarity with the toiling classes in Europe. ‘And because he is the most oppressed’, Sartre writes, in a reformulation of Marx to which he would return with insistence in the 1960s, ‘in working for his own deliverance, it is the liberation of all he necessarily pursues.’
These late-40s writings presage concerns about alterity and the formation of revolutionary groups out of serialized collectivities in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, the next stop on Arthur’s survey of Sartre’s philosophical prospectus. If she is less concerned about the intervening years, even the Critique is primarily background for a discussion of the ethics of violence in its wake. The analysis of Algeria in the Critique revolves around two conceptual axes: the practico-inert structures erected by colonizer and colonized, and the praxes, or bonds of alterity and reciprocity, between individuals and groups. In the first case, Sartre unfolds the history of the French colonization of North Africa since Charles X and the pacifications of Bugeaud, focusing on the role of low wages in driving expansion in the nineteenth century, and the need to keep them low if colonizer and colonized were to retain their roles in the twentieth. By the 1950s the only possible response to a history of expropriation and exploitation, conquest and occupation, was a decision to return to sender and therefore a choice of particular praxes—the fln, for example. For Arthur the affirmation of the fln’s revolutionary violence in the preface to The Wretched of the Earth, the following year, must be read in the context of the Critique, for two reasons. Sartre’s voluble rejection of political compromise takes on explanatory clarity in light of his account of petrified violence: the policies of Jules Ferry, the creation of the first colonial banks and maritime transports, the army as both an institution and a war machine, and colonial administrators—these had made violence the original situation, the fundamental relation, of daily life in French Algeria. On the other hand, his earlier pessimism of the intellect serves to temper the somewhat sanguine portrait of the fln and its political prospects in the preface. In the Critique Sartre was mindful of the tendency of groups-in-fusion to relapse into serial collectivities, or to turn inwards, resulting in fraternal bloodshed. The criticism of an ‘embrace of violence’ levelled by Raymond Aron and somewhat clumsily reprised by Judt becomes difficult to sustain. For Sartre armed struggle was not a requisite form of negation on the road to freedom nor an end in itself, but a tool of counter-violence to which workers, peasants, the colonized, had recourse in given historical situations.
The 1960s entailed a seemingly contradictory turn of events for Sartre—both the erosion of his position in France, due to the challenge posed by structuralism, and the opening of a new phase of intellectual and political relevance announced by the Critique. Its appearance, notes Fredric Jameson, coincided with the Cuban revolution, the radicalization of the civil rights movement in the us, the intensification of the war in Vietnam, and the worldwide development of the student movement. In the Third World, Sartre’s earlier stress upon the revolutionary capacities of the colonized in essays such as ‘Black Orpheus’ had returned as movement and conjuncture. Sartre was deeply imbricated in both: a signatory to the Manifesto of the 121 in 1960; prefaces for Fanon in 1961 and Lumumba in 1963; interventions on behalf of Régis Debray, the Russell War Crimes Tribunal and visits to Egypt and Israel, all in 1967. Arthur might also have included his and Beauvoir’s trip to Cuba in 1960, a personal and political escape ‘to keep from shrivelling up in the French misery’. Meetings with Che Guevara and university students in Havana, trips to the countryside in the company of Fidel Castro, attendance at the funeral for victims of the La Coubre explosion made a profound impact on Sartre. He promoted the young revolution, in need of friends abroad, as a popular model only partially foreseen by the Critique. A reportage entitled ‘Storm over Sugar’ appeared in sixteen instalments in France Soir in the summer of 1960, while in forums, interviews and essays he argued that Cubans were forging their ideology out of praxis, radicalizing in response to offshore pressures from the us and to the objective need to alter the production processes in their single-crop economy. In 1968, too ill to travel to an international conference on culture in Havana, he still told the newspaper Granma, ‘I think that at the present time, it is in Vietnam, Cuba and Latin America that a European’s own fate is at stake.’ Arthur understands this and similar expressions of support for the Third World by Western intellectuals to represent ‘a new ethics of personal responsibility, based on an idea that, in an increasingly interconnected world, people’s actions can have distant consequences.’ With the intention of explicating this ethical turn she focuses on three discrete moments of Sartre’s involvement: his preface to the collected writings and speeches of Patrice Lumumba, assassinated in 1961 by us and Belgian-backed forces within the Congo, his Rome Lectures in 1964, and his chairmanship of the Russell Tribunal.
Sartre’s preface is a subtle portrait of Lumumba and the forces which conspired, both in his own social makeup as a colonial évolué and in the tutelary form decolonization took under Belgium, to defeat his drive for real independence for Congo. Yet ethics are arguably a more prominent feature in both the Rome Lectures and the declarations of the Russell Tribunal. In the first instance, Arthur argues, Sartre attempted to determine an ethical basis for resistance to colonialism and neo-colonialism, both of which made individuals into subhumans whose passage to humanity was conceived in strictly passive terms. For the colonized, real freedom meant risking one’s life to obtain it. In an essay Sartre produced in connection with the Russell Tribunal, ‘Genocide’ (published in these pages), Arthur finds another example of his ethics of the least favoured. The asymmetry of power between the us and its peasant opponent meant that any war was bound to be genocidal. The guerrilla tactics employed by the Vietnamese, the only ones which stood any chance of success, made the entire population suspect. ‘Since civilians were the only visible enemies, their extermination became a criterion for victory.’ The moral imperative to resist worked in both directions. Americans and Europeans had a responsibility to support the Vietnamese who, by resisting the hegemonic designs of the us, were quite literally ‘fighting for all of us’.
Though blindness and other accumulated ailments slowed his pace for much of the following decade, Sartre nevertheless contributed several short speeches and texts on the subject of immigration and immigrant workers, in ‘The Third World Begins in the Banlieue’ and ‘The New Racism’, and on regional rights for Basques, Bretons and others, in Le Procès de Burgos. These applied theories of colonialism developed earlier to new contexts within Europe. Just as the metropole had once imported raw materials from its colonies, explained Sartre in ‘The Third World Begins in the Banlieue’, today it extracted human labour: unskilled workers whose low wages allowed France to remain competitive in Europe and who, as in the Congo, were denied professional advancement because of their race. The process of ‘reconstituting within itself the colonies it had lost’ took physical form in the bidonvilles rising on the outskirts of Paris, and in the ‘farce of clandestinity, the very kind of immigration favoured by the bosses’. This was an ideal labour regime in which workers were under the permanent apprehension not merely of dismissal but of expulsion. The following year the civil-rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi went to observe the trial of sixteen eta members in the Basque town of Burgos and edited a volume, to which Sartre contributed the preface. Sartre argued that the success of national liberation struggles—in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam—had spurred regional movements in Europe where geopolitical divisions began to seem as arbitrary as the departments imposed by force in Algeria. Militants, awakened by the Third World, had, moreover, every right to assert their linguistic and cultural singularity, against an ‘abstract universalism’ imposed by the centralizing state. Despite their prescience these late interventions were pushed aside by the French Socialist Party, as Arthur notes, in favour of ‘a new form of universalism’ which ‘valued human rights over the protection of particular identities.’
Arthur’s Unfinished Projects carries the distinct trace of the conditions under which it was produced. Its interest in questions of human rights and global responsibility, the ethics of violence, international justice and cultural identity, responds both to trends in intellectual history in academia and to Arthur’s occupational hazards since leaving it. Since 2006 she has occupied posts at the International Center for Transitional Justice, an ngo funded by the Ford Foundation, whose timely presence in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone or—in places where the dust from intervention has yet to settle—Iraq, encourages decision makers to prosecute the human-rights abuses of past regimes. Arthur’s focus on Sartrean ethics is inflected by her work at a centre that bills itself as ‘offering guidance on the great moral issues of war, peace and social justice’. If the influence of the pro-interventionist journal Arthur edited until 2006, Ethics and International Affairs, is evident in the sorts of questions she poses, Unfinished Projects is nevertheless to some extent critical of the turn to human rights and identity politics. Yet her positive and, at first, agreeably imprecise suggestion—that Sartre’s current use-value may lie in helping us to think through new relationships between identity and democracy in the age of globalization—may be less open-ended than it sounds.
It is remarkable that in a study ostensibly devoted to bringing the history of decolonization and Sartre’s philosophical oeuvre into closer correspondence, the colonial wars themselves—the major insurrections, battles and defeats; the parliamentary schisms, inquests and scandals they provoked; and the seemingly permanent menace of De Gaulle waiting in the wings—are rarely mentioned. Arthur leads one to suppose that Sartre entered the anti-colonial struggle gradually but ahead of time, his post-war literary engagement overlaying empirical encounters with race and racism in America and France. Humanism remains on the philosophical horizon for the next thirty years. Readers who wish to enter the history of Sartrean anti-colonialism in their turn are, however, entitled to ask through which door Arthur proposes to invite them. The upshot of her initial formulation—that Sartre’s theory of colonialism relied on both ‘an analysis of the material (i.e. economic) forces at work in the development of structures of exploitation and an analysis of the phenomenological conditions of oppression that set individuals in asymmetrical relations of recognition’—is the disappearance of the first variable and the analytical dominance of the second. Intellectual chronology gives way to imagistic homology and the treatment of individual texts jumps skittishly between articles and interviews from different decades (a comment made by Sartre in 1967 that he now believed ‘only an historical approach can explain man’ serves to introduce the challenge posed by Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology in the 1950s), or else returns repeatedly to issues treated fragmentarily elsewhere.
In contrast to Noureddine Lamouchi’s otherwise excellent Jean-Paul Sartre et Le Tiers Monde (1996), Arthur rightly refuses to divide Sartre’s work between an early abstract and humanistic anti-colonialism and a post-1956 ‘total radicalization’. But beyond the rough-and-ready chronological divisions noted earlier, no alternative periodization is given theoretical grounding. How then to explain the change that occurs between Sartre’s writings on black literature in the American South, Caribbean or Africa, and his discussion of torture by the French army in Algeria? Arthur’s ethicization of Sartrean anti-colonialism is distortive in a double sense. It not only passes over his important economic analyses of exploitation in Algeria, Congo or Vietnam, it also ignores his intellectual and political modulations over time. Sartre’s methodological commitment to Marxism after 1952 implied decolonization as its praxis. When he wrote about responsibility or rebellion Sartre was generally not speaking in an ethical but in a political register, and it is the force of post-war circumstances which is too often missing from Unfinished Projects.
Simone de Beauvoir writes of first becoming aware of the ‘disgrace and shame of colonialism’ at the same time as she was ‘converted to internationalism and anti-militarism’, at the Sorbonne, even if active politicization awaited the post-war. Literature may have been one of the ways Sartre became aware of the struggle for colonial emancipation, but it was not the only one. The lendemains de guerre were not the same thing as peace, he insisted; the Cold War was on its way, and in October of 1945 in ‘La fin de la guerre’, Sartre recounted the story of a young woman, born in Russia but a French citizen, who on the day of victory cried, ‘I’m from a tiny country! I would like to be from a great country, a truly victorious power!’ Then in 1946 the war began in Indochina and Les Temps Modernes argued that for France to remain, ‘because we have finally found, in our dilapidation, a country weaker than us, would be the worst of all mockeries’. When François Mauriac objected to this editorial—‘Et Bourreaux et Victimes’—on the grounds that one could not compare the beneficial French presence in the Far East with the Nazi occupation of France, Les Temps Modernes responded by giving over much of the March 1947 issue to coverage of Indochina. If the Germans had stayed three quarters of a century in France, they too would have built some factories and roads. Since military re-conquest would prove disastrous, leaving, it argued, was the only option. Even ‘Black Orpheus’ explains the power of négritude not merely as the inversion of an impersonal gaze, but in terms of the altered balance of power in Europe, and between France and its colonies:
Once Europeans by divine right, we were already feeling our dignity crumbling beneath American or Soviet looks; already Europe wasn’t anything but a geographical accident, the peninsula that Asia shoves into the Atlantic. We were at least hoping to find a little of our lost splendour reflected in the domesticated eyes of the Africans. But there are no more domesticated eyes; there are wild and free looks which judge our world.
The political demand for decolonization had not waited for the Algerian War to be invented.
In 1950 the intensification of the Cold War made colonialism more, not less, central to intellectual debates in France. The editorial in Les Temps Modernes on the Soviet gulag (written by Merleau-Ponty and signed by him and Sartre) took the position that, while offering no indulgence to Communist crimes, ‘neither must we make pacts with its enemies’. To attack only the Soviet Union was to absolve the West and its own dismal record. ‘The colonies are—mutatis mutandis—our slave labour camps.’ ‘Perfectly indifferent to the 40,000 people killed at Sétif, the 80,000 murdered Malgaches, the famine and poverty in Algeria, the burned out villages of Indochina, the Greeks dying in their camps and the Spanish shot by Franco’, recalls Beauvoir of the climate at the time of Merleau-Ponty’s editorial, ‘Les Jours de Notre Vie’, ‘the hearts of the bourgeoisie suddenly burst when confronted by the misfortunes of the people imprisoned by the Russians.’ The breaking point Sartre reached in 1952 receives scant attention from Arthur. She does note that Sartre’s initial turn towards the pcf in 1952 was due to the Henri Martin Affair. But it is only ‘interesting’ that Martin, a communist sailor serving at Toulon at the time of his arrest, was accused of writing tracts against the war in Indochina, while Sartre’s involvement is portrayed as a matter of personal inclination, a passion he had for defending the wrongly accused. Sartre’s falling out with Camus in the same year had similar colonial roots, originating in the latter’s condemnation of violence in the pages of Combat in 1946—made without reference to the fact that, at the time, France was engaged in putting down the Annamites in Indochina. During their public split in 1952 Sartre replied to the accusation that he had been silent on the Soviet camps by linking the Cold War and colonialism. ‘Yes, Camus’, he wrote, ‘like you, I find these camps inadmissible, but equally inadmissible is the use which the so-called bourgeois press makes of them every day. I am not saying, “The Malagasy before the Turkestani.” I am saying that you cannot utilize the sufferings inflicted upon the Turkestani to justify those to which we subject the Malagasy.’ It is not a question of substituting the narrative of decolonization and the Third World for that of the Cold War, as Arthur sometimes suggests, but of discerning the intricate ways in which they were interconnected.
If the lack of historical contextualization tends to rob Sartre’s anti-colonialism of much of its early political piquancy, it also leads to an extended explanatory faux piste, reinforcing the misguided treatment of his Third Worldist turn as primarily an ethical engagement. Les Temps Modernes was wary of discussing the ethical behaviour of the main actors in the Algerian War, whether colonizer or colonized. Nor was it especially concerned with debates about cultural identity, otherness or republican universalism, subjects to which Arthur (along with many other contemporary historians) is devoted. In October 1955, five months after the war began, an article titled ‘Refusal to Obey’ described Algeria pointedly as a ‘colony . . . subject to the most obvious exploitation.’ Across November’s cover ran the headline: ‘Algeria is Not France’. In 1956’s ‘Colonialism is a System’ Sartre rejected all proposals for reform—that economic improvements could or should precede political ones, that educating the native population was even possible while ensuring Algeria’s profitability—as either neo-colonialist mystification or cynical stalling. ‘People who talk about the abandonment of Algeria are imbeciles’, he wrote, ‘there is no abandoning what we have never owned.’ In the preface to Henri Alleg’s The Question—published in L’Express in 1958 after the French state confiscated the entire print run of the book—Sartre wrote that, in 1943, under the German occupation, ‘only one thing seemed impossible to us: that one day, in our name, people would be made to scream.’ He continued: ‘If 15 years are enough to change the victims into torturers it is because circumstances alone dictate. Depending on the circumstances, anyone at any time will become a victim or a perpetrator.’ One struggles in vain to discern the code of ethical conduct hidden within this landscape of colonial determinacy.
The philosophical and political importance of armed struggle—essentialized as ‘violence’—is another issue that is abstracted from its historical moorings in particular Third World conflicts and given the ethical treatment. Though she urges the contextualization of the Fanon preface within the totality of Sartre’s work, Arthur’s mind is not untroubled. After defending Sartre’s understanding of violence as contingent and relational she ends up agreeing with Aron on normative grounds, ‘since Sartre never really described what imperative or norm (if any at all) violence ought to be called upon to defend’. Perhaps she finds it difficult wholeheartedly to endorse this preface which coolly observes of the colonial révolté, ‘to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at the same time; what remains is a dead man and a free man.’ Shocking rhetorical flourish, but Sartre was only reiterating the same position which fifteen years earlier had caused the editorial team to criticize Camus’s ‘Neither Victims nor Executioners’. ‘We must face up to that unexpected spectacle: the striptease of our humanism’, Sartre wrote in the seventh year of the war in Algeria, ‘it was nothing but an illusory ideology, a justification for pillage. The non-violent are looking pleased with themselves: neither victims nor executioners! Come on!’ Far from returning to a practice of ethicization—dismissed by Beauvoir as an illusion common to bourgeois intellectuals, and for which Camus had particular difficulty in finding a cure—Sartre’s writings, beginning in the 1950s, are characterized by an analysis of one form of imperialism as it transformed into another: neo-colonialism.
Patrice Lumumba was the victim of a metamorphosis from which it was still necessary to draw conclusions in 1963. Lumumba realized, as Sartre had been arguing since at least 1956 with respect to Algeria, that political independence needed to come first, and that economic reforms were simply not possible within the framework of colonialism. Lumumba’s mistake had been twofold, Sartre explained in his preface in Présence Africaine. On the one hand, he had misjudged his enemy, no longer a moribund, direct colonialism composed of small settlers and administrators, but an invidious and deft neo-colonialism. Faced with the prospect of crises on the scale of Algeria, imperialist governments and large companies had decided to entrust nominal powers to natives—in this case the petty bourgeoisie of Belgian-trained employees and office holders—who would govern, more or less consciously, according to colonial interests. In the future, independence would no longer be sufficient, ‘without agrarian reform and without the nationalization of colonial businesses.’ The case of Lumumba held out another lesson. Independence in the Congo had not been won. It had been granted by the former colonial master, and this was not only an existential problem—‘liberty is not given, it is taken’—but a political one. In Vietnam and Algeria, Sartre explained, ‘whatever their present difficulties, unity and centralization preceded independence and were its guarantee.’ Their leaders, Ho Chi Minh and Ben Bella, had taken power despite the metropolitan countries, borne along by armed movements which not only ensured their personal legitimacy but national sovereignty as well. In the aftermath of Lumumba’s betrayal, and the division of the spoils by the us and Belgians under cover of a un mandate, Sartre looked to the eventual emergence of a ‘Congolese Castro’ who might redeem Lumumba in the same way Castro had Martí.
The texts written in connection with the Russell Tribunal, collected in Situations viii, burn with impatience at American policies but are far too acute to settle for moral indictments. When Sartre cancelled his trip to Cornell University in 1965 it was not because he felt every American was equally responsible for the war. Up until 1965 it was possible for a European to go to the United States because, with the Viet Cong in the process of winning in the South, ‘one had the impression that a period of imperial reflux had set in, and the Americans had begun to realize the absurdity of their policies.’ The decision to bombard the North had changed the war qualitatively. To give a seminar in Ithaca would only prove that calm discussion was still possible with an enemy engaged not only in a war of imperialist aggression in Vietnam, ‘but in South America, Korea, throughout the Third World’. The best chance to sensitize American opinion, he estimated, was from without—‘to manifest a brutal and total condemnation’ and ‘to provoke, where it is possible—that is to say in Europe—protests.’ As for the moral stakes of his cancelled visit, or the capacities of a still embryonic American left to change us foreign policy, Sartre was unambiguous: ‘The United States will surely evolve, slowly, very slowly, but more so if we resist them than if we preach moral sermons.’
The final decade of Sartre’s life is treated by Arthur as a period of intellectual reaction against Third Worldism, and by extension against Sartre himself. She takes the debate organized by Le Nouvel Observateur in 1978, ‘The Third World and the Left’, in which Jacques Julliard claimed ‘there will be no African socialism that is not totalitarian’, as emblematic. But since Sartre’s name is absent from this debate Arthur must resort to a sleight of hand. She instead moves four years ahead to Pascal Bruckner’s Le Sanglot de l’homme blanc: Tiers-Monde, culpabilité, haine de soi published in 1983—a piece of hysteria so unhinged as to be scarcely worth discussion. If Sartre is innocent of national masochism, Arthur hastens to add, neither does he have much in common with a form of identity politics, or a contemporary discourse on ‘the right to difference’, still fashionable in France. But aside from a few introductory references to one or two feminists who have suggested using Sartre for these purposes, it is not clear with whom Arthur is arguing. The turn towards human rights, the influence of Levinasian ethics, the rise of the nouveaux philosophes and their critique of totalitarianism—all are mentioned, but since these all more or less explicitly rejected Sartre’s Third Worldism, how might they also represent his contemporary misuse? In fact, the silence around Sartre’s anti-colonialism has been more significant, and more enduring, than its caricature. Arthur herself suggests as much, though her way of doing so ends in the bathos of a complaint that he is not to be found in the pantheon of postcolonial thinkers and the syllabi of departments devoted to this vital branch of scholarship.
This obscure historiographical denouement is augured by one of several baffling mission statements, in which Arthur proposes that ‘an interpretation that takes Sartre strictly as an “anti”-colonialist would view his thinking and his politics concerning colonialism and its legacy as oppositional, and thus in some sense unable to escape old, colonialist categories.’ Perhaps this accounts for her own scholarly pacifism—a citational diplomacy which aims so squarely at recovering what is acceptable about Sartre that it often leaves whole chunks of him scattered behind enemy lines. Arthur argues against sociologist Anna Boschetti’s portrayal of Sartre’s intervention in the Jeanson Trial in 1960 as a cynical ploy to prop up his flagging intellectual position. Yet Boschetti’s argument is simply recapitulated when Arthur wants to link Sartre’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s to the political and intellectual movements which followed. ‘Sartre’s position with respect to Third World liberation movements’, she writes, ‘helped him maintain an avant-gardism necessary to his continued relevance’, from the protests of May 68 to the post-68 interest in racism and immigration. Instead of recording just how unpopular his interventions on behalf of the fln were, she simply mentions in passing that Sartre’s anti-colonialism sat uneasily with the sensibilities of the general public, as well as many intellectuals on both left and right. Bernard-Henri Lévy is an even more frequent and problematic presence in the book. He is generally cited, along with biographer Cohen-Solal, as a sympathetic yet critical voice whose Siècle de Sartre (2000) sought to restore him to intellectual prominence—censured and scrubbed, of course, of his period of cooperation with the pcf between 1952–56 and his Marxism.
Arthur’s reliance on Lévy and Boschetti reveals a much more significant problem for this and any work which aims to situate Sartre within the post-war struggle over decolonization. To accept Lévy’s disjunction between Sartre’s ‘wrong choices’ in favour of communism and his ‘right’ ones in favour of decolonization is obviously false, since the Henri Martin Affair led Sartre to embrace both ever more tightly. Saying that Sartre’s Third Worldism was related to his engagement with communism without being reducible to it, ‘particularly since this support often set him at odds with the Communist Party’, is a meaningless variation of the same distinction. Sartre spent far more time being called a hyena by the Party than working harmoniously at its flank. From 1952 to 1956 he regularly aimed barbs at L’Humanité, and admonished the party, in ‘Le Réformisme et les Fétiches’, to abandon idle polemicizing for the work of creating, in France, a living, breathing Marxism. In 1956 he condemned the Soviet repression in Hungary while assessing its meaning for the left in France: the pcf’s response to Budapest, and the sfio’s decision to launch France into an invasion of Suez at the same moment, revealed their institutional senility. Democratization, destalinization, ‘the resumption of contact with the masses and their mobilization, first against the war in Algeria’—these, he concluded, in ‘Le Fantôme de Staline’, were the preconditions for a resurrected union of the left. That this entire phase—in fact all of the 50s and 60s—is consigned en bloc by the pathologically careless nouveau philosophe to the second, ‘totalitarian Sartre’, is hardly surprising. But that it should constitute an important frame of reference for Arthur is indeed remarkable. Lévy does not merely neglect Sartre’s anti-colonialism. He actively impugns it as an evil emanation of the second Sartre, those ‘familiar and terrible images of Sartre and Beauvoir in the ussr or Cuba’, their visits to China, their liaison with the French Maoists. Sartre’s stated admiration for Castro in 1960 was simply ‘crazy’. Worse: it was naïve since, notes Lévy, incorrectly, the Cubans ‘threw themselves into the arms of the Soviets and the so-called missile crisis blew up a few months later.’ Lévy describes the substance of Sartre’s anti-racism—‘Black Orpheus’, The Wretched of the Earth and the sections of the Critique devoted to colonization—as a betrayal. It was, finally, wrong to have called the Vietnam War, in which more bombs were dropped than in all of World War Two, a genocide. For the second worst crime, after complicity with tyranny, is anti-Americanism. Protests against French actions in Algeria were admissible, up to a point, but any wider anti-imperialism is ludricrously disqualified as an emanation of the extreme right. By the same token, Sartre’s exultation of the crowd in the Critique is a reversal that elevates the lynch mob of The Anti-Semite and the Jew, while his statement, in 1961, that an ‘anti-communist is a dog’ ultimately recalls for Lévy Darquier de Pellepoix’s 1978 declaration that at Auschwitz they only ‘gassed lice’! Lévy’s indictment of his support for popular struggles in and outside the Third World is so complete that, by an ultimate inversion, it is the Sartre of Nausea who becomes ‘absolutely rebellious’. For the most part Arthur does not repeat these perverse formulations. In reproducing the phony division between two Sartres, however, if only by ignoring one of them, she perpetuates what can only amount to her subject’s partial demolition.
Her emollience towards Boschetti is another missed opportunity to inject clarity into a historical field weighed down by its reliance on Bourdieusian categories. In light of Sartre’s early and enduring commitment to decolonization it seems unlikely that he was a figure to whom, as another student of Bourdieu, James Le Sueur, implies in Uncivil War (2001), ‘it soon became clear that intellectual legitimacy was going to become more allied with anticolonialism’, and who ‘consciously or unconsciously’ linked his career to the anti-colonialist movement. Many, including Sartre, risked a great deal in speaking out against France’s colonial wars. Even with some form of negotiated settlement in Algeria on the horizon in 1960, the statement made in Sartre’s name in support of the porteurs de valises was widely condemned as a form of national betrayal, endorsing acts of metropolitan treason and violence against soldiers in Algeria. Contributors to Les Temps Modernes did not write as though they knew the outcome in advance. In fact, they failed accurately to predict what happened in crucial ways. As late as 1961 Sartre still thought it impossible for De Gaulle to solve the crisis, and considered his ouster by generals a possibility should he propose negotiations or accept the resulting resolutions. The two bombs set for Sartre by the oas in 1961 and 1962 are only the most spectacular evidence of the consequences of his kind of engagement. The fact that expressions of support for decolonization have become banalized as morally or historically inevitable is in part a result of positions taken by publications like Les Temps Modernes; it was not a transparent truth from which it has always been possible to gain intellectual purchasing power. More importantly, if the whole period of decolonization becomes a factor in political choices made about the us and ussr, the pcf, Gaullism, the legacy of the resistance and the memory of Vichy, then the very pantheon of exemplary intellectuals, and thus the field of ideas itself, will need to be re-examined. It is surely significant that the heroic figures of Judt’s The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century (1998) had either ambiguous or tortured relationships to decolonization in Algeria, or in Blum’s case, ended up prosecuting a war in Indochina while in office.
‘The Sleepwalkers’, an essay about the behaviour of Parisians the very day the Algerian ceasefire was signed, is an expression of disgust which makes clear that, for Sartre, the successful resolution of the war had depended on mass mobilization and the reorganization and coming to power of the left. The fact that ‘a coup-d’état government is forced to give us what we timidly asked for seven years ago’, he wrote, was not a compromise without ‘victory or vanquished’, but a victory for the Algerians alone, which only their tenacity had secured. The Third World interested Sartre not solely, or even primarily, because in it he saw the local victory of the least favoured, but because its struggle for independence seemed to provide both the example and the spark for a much broader revolutionary solidarity. The ability of Cuba and Vietnam to resist the crushing blows of us military and economic might appeared to offer a similar opening to those in the West who would know how to seize the initiative. Instead of searching to exculpate him from the charges of eurocentrism, revolutionary naïveté or violence, we ought to accept that Sartre’s anti-colonialism retains all its topical force. Renewed imperial adventures in North Africa invite comparisons. Forced to explain why Sartre was released from custody in 1968 De Gaulle replied, ‘One does not arrest Voltaire.’ Today the task is simplified. France’s philosophes call for the jets which strafe Libya, and hold joint press conferences with the President of the Republic. Petitions carrying the signatures of dissipated belles âmes are drawn up by unpaid interns and digitally dispatched: Cohn-Bendit, Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy.
In the vicinity of these fine proclamations which purport to explain to us the true meaning of justice, it is worth recalling Sartre who, in 1961, had no advice left to give. He nevertheless saw young people struggling to emerge from beneath the rotting corpse of the Left in that ‘backwards province’, France. ‘Shall we say to them, “Be Cubans, be Russians, be Chinese, or, if you prefer, be Africans?” They will reply that it is a little late to change one’s birth.’ His old friend Nizan, he thought, killed in 1940, would have something to say to them—his naked revolt, his refusals, his class hatred, his furious confidence, his unmasking of intellectual imposture, all preserved by his sudden death. Today it is the voice of Sartre that provides an antidote to easy-listening manifestos in favour of neo-colonial wars, and its irreducible acuity is the best argument against the intellectual surgeons whose unsteady hands wish to cut him in two.