Commitment and collectivity
René Gimpel continues his examination of the conflict between Jean-Paul Sartre’s political and philosophical passions
In the first part of this article, I looked at the fraught relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and the French Communist Party (PCF) up to the Algerian conflict of 1954-62 (‘Individualism or class struggle?’, February 21). In this second part I will focus in particular on the events of May 1968.
After the turbulent years of the Algerian war, Jean-Paul Sartre returned to his literary work and essays. In 1962, he spent time at the Irish country estate of the American film director, John Huston, when he was commissioned by the latter to write the screenplay for a film on Sigmund Freud. Huston and Sartre failed to find anything in common and Sartre delivered a screenplay which would have resulted in an eight-hour film.
There were other problems, because Sartre’s existentialist frame of mind did not allow for an unconscious in the Freudian sense. In 1964 he published a slim autobiography - Les mots - and in that same year was awarded the Nobel prize for literature: an award he immediately spurned (a first in Nobel history1). Sartre explained that to accept the Nobel would have turned him into an institution at a time when he had not yet accomplished all his aims - in particular his commitment to political work.2 He added that in his view the Nobel had a western and transatlantic bias, which discriminated against authors and others from Soviet-bloc and non-aligned countries.
In 1966-67, Sartre hosted the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal.Instigated by British philosopher Bertrand Russell, the tribunal was set up to examine and evaluate American involvement in Vietnam. Members included Tariq Ali, Isaac Deutscher, Simone de Beauvoir, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin, AJ Ayer, Lawrence Daly, Ken Coates and Alice Walker. The tribunal found America guilty of war crimes and, although US governments repudiated its verdict, further Russell Tribunals appeared over the years, investigating repression in Latin America, Iraq and, most recently, Palestine.
Throughout the 1960s, Sartre’s philosophical influence waned and his stance as the committed engagé, backing every radical cause, seemed out of place. A new philosophy had appeared - structuralism - which began with anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, before spreading to other disciplines (Foucault and history, Lacan and psychoanalysis). Structuralism looked at relationships in and between human groups and societies, locating underlying similarities, such as patterns of language as a conceptual framework.
The Sartrean ‘choice of action’, if it was credited at all, was but one of an interlocking nexus of observable human activities, none of which could be considered to occupy any particular ethical merit - or demerit, come to that. As defender of the primacy of consciousness over the unconscious and of freedom of choice in the face of necessary social structures, Sartre found himself unable or unwilling to debate his new opponents. He retreated to a study of the 19th century and the author, Gustave Flaubert, who had long fascinated him. Overworked with constant political and literary commitments, Sartre’s health started deteriorating. A heavy drinker and smoker, he began taking prescription drugs to keep him awake for the long hours he needed.
Then came the événements (‘events’) of May 68. The unexpected student-led uprising electrified Sartre. He announced the death of structuralism and a return of the historical subject.3 The uprising and occupations which swept across France - with echoes in other European countries and in America - took several forms. Both radical and moderate left-leaning intellectuals entered the fray alongside the students and their representatives on the committees springing up everywhere. Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s anarchic libertarianism attracted some. Others, such as the historian, Henri Lefebvre, led a group who viewed the struggle as one of self-management; Guy Debord attracted followers of the situationists, including surrealists who published their own manifestos of cultural and political subversion in journals such as Opus international; Edgar Morin and Claude Lefort trumpeted an anti-bureaucratic ‘new disorder’, though a disappointed Morin later wrote that “A proletarian revolution had been replaced by a juvenile one”.4 A part of the editorial team from Les Temps Modernes - the journal of cultural and political critique set up by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir - subscribed to the neophyte young revolutionary intelligentsia’s appropriation of Bolshevik, Guevarist or Maoist interpretations.5
As the month wore on, strikes spread to every sector and by May 20 10 million had downed tools. The students seized the Odéon, the largest theatre in Paris, and held daily debates. Art students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts commandeered screen printing presses to produce more than 400 images. Sartre and de Beauvoir hoped to add their still considerable prestige to the revolt, but, in a telling detail, when about to address students at the Odéon, Sartre glanced down at a slip of paper passed to him. On it was scribbled “Sartre, be brief”. The most militant workers had seized the Renault assembly lines and received a student delegation, which marched in solidarity to one of the factories. However, Georges Séguy, secretary general of the CGT union confederation, was alarmed at the political turn and was only interested in extracting better wages and conditions from Renault’s bosses. So he refused to consider a united front with the students, even as political confrontation rose dramatically.
Capital began to take flight. The students set fire to the stock exchange. The government had expelled a leading student militant, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, back to his native Germany. The CGT joined students in a massive demonstration in his favour, chanting, “We are all German Jews”. Night fighting went on all over Paris and other large cities, with barricades being erected wherever needed. Hundreds of injuries and arrests occurred on a continuous basis. French secondary school pupils went on strike.6 Four days after marching with the students, Renault workers in the CGT prevented Sartre from addressing them and distanced themselves from the students, refusing to seek common cause. Their leaders wanted to extract more concessions from the state and the bosses, without the destabilising effect of radical agitation.
On May 29, France woke to find that president Charles de Gaulle had once again left the capital, just as he had at the height of the Algerian crisis and for the same reason - to ensure the armed forces’ loyalty. De Gaulle was in Germany, at French army headquarters, where he received the sought-for assurance from chief of staff. With this, de Gaulle returned to France the following day and immediately dissolved parliament. The president’s prime minister, Georges Pompidou, announced a general election for June.
Where was the PCF all this time? When the first student uprising took place in Nanterre at the beginning of May, general secretary Waldeck Rochet responded in confusion. And that confusion quickly turned to hostility. The party’s central committee decided that student leftist elements needed to be isolated. Rochet called on party members to react vigorously to any attempt by students to approach factories and distribute their leaflets. In L’Humanité, the PCF daily, Georges Marchais - later to succeed Rochet as general secretary - wrote of “false revolutionaries”, the “sons of the middle class” and the “German anarchist”, Cohn-Bendit.
By the middle of the month, however, the PCF re-assessed the situation, given the clamour for strikes and factory occupations. With a massive march planned for May 13, the party took the decision to ‘glue themselves’ to the student movement, in order to redirect its energies. It formulated a political position - that of replacing the Gaullist government in the national assembly with a popular one, acting in alliance with the Parti Socialiste. Following the debacle the PCF had undergone in the final phase of the 1958-62 Algerian war, this decision was an attempt to restore the party to glory. Georges Pompidou had warned of the threat of civil war - a warning the PCF took to heart, because it signalled its primary intention to take advantage of the situation to negotiate improved conditions for its CGT members. When student militants and workers linked to far-left groups rallied to demand the seizure of the Elysée on May 29, after realising that de Gaulle had disappeared, the PCF stepped in to block any such insurrectionary talk. That it carried the day demonstrated the primacy of its strength over that of the disparate groupuscules of more radical elements.
Despite the massive May 30 counter-demonstration organised by the bourgeoisie in favour of de Gaulle, which attracted a million marchers, factory strikes and occupations continued. On June 4, L’Humanité carried a message from the PCF: “The flag of working class struggle is not the faded black of anarchy, but the red flag of socialism, combined with the great French Revolution’s tricolour: the nation’s flag.” The PCF, which had 73 deputies in the outgoing national assembly, prepared an electoral campaign against the background of continued student and worker unrest. Its slogan emphasised that it was the party of progress, of order and of political wisdom.
The Gaullists denounced the PCF as communist agitators and plotters, to which the party responded by declaring: “During the recent events, French men and women were able to observe how the communists behaved responsibly, democratically and accountably.” Waldeck Rochet, who penned this claim, added: “This is why the PCF denounced and fought against the demagogy, excesses and provocations of the ultra-left - supported by the Socialist Party [sic]- claiming allegiance to Maoism, anarchism and Trotskyism.”
The election proved a disaster for the PCF. Its 73 seats were reduced to 34. In a bitter analysis, the leadership concluded that its electoral failure was “the fault of premeditated violence by Cohn-Bendit, Alain Geismar and other ‘leftists’, who allowed the government to instil fear in various layers of ‘our people”7 - though there was also a belated recognition that more should have been done to seek a political alliance with the students. The refrain coming from the PCF, time and again, was that the events of May 68 were in no way revolutionary or a precursor to revolution.
The aftershocks continued to reverberate in France for a long time. In 1971, Sartre undertook to act as editor of a Maoist newspaper, La Cause du Peuple, which de Gaulle had outlawed. The paper was a weekly published by Gauche Prolétarienne, in which a young Maoist philosopher, André Glucksmann, was a leading figure. Sartre did not agree with the paper’s editorial line, even though he helped to keep it going. Arrested very publicly for selling the weekly on the streets, Sartre was incarcerated briefly before de Gaulle ordered his release with an oracular “One does not imprison Voltaire”.
Another aftermath of the May events was a shift in the role played by intellectuals in France. Many now ceased even the pretence of following the PCF, especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the same year. No longer universal commentators, the fragmented voices of intellectuals’ echoed the fragmentation of dialogues occurring across disciplines. By the beginning of the 70s, there was a marked shrinking of positions which since 1945 had been notable for an engagement with Marxism, anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism. This coincided with a disenchantment of the radical optimism which had reached its apex in May 68.
A group known as Les Nouveaux Philosophes (New Philosophers) emerged with a narrative that started as anti-communist and accelerated into gathering support for conservatism, the new right and finally a trumpeting of neoconservatism. André Glucksmann recanted his ultra-leftist involvement with Gauche Prolétarienne and embraced capitalism, and its successive satraps at the Elysée Palace. Another philosopher who had been close to Sartre, Bernard-Henri Lévy, also moved rapidly to the right, calling May 68 one of the “most sombre events” in French history.
As for Sartre, his health was deteriorating. He suffered a stroke in 1971 and a second stroke in 1973 deprived him of his sight. Having completed three volumes of L’Idiot de la famille, his study of Gustave Flaubert, reluctantly Sartre gave up writing the partially completed fourth volume. He hired as secretary a young man, Benny Levy, one of the Maoist leaders of Gauche Prolétarienne.
Levy followed the course of so many ex-Maoists and moved ever further to the right, finally sinking into kabbalah mysticism. He tried to drag Sartre down with him, which led to angry exchanges with Simone de Beauvoir. Other intellectual renegades did their best to manoeuvre Sartre into backing their anti-left activities, such was his still considerable aura. He died in 1980 and a massive, unplanned cortege accompanied his coffin. De Beauvoir, always a fine writer, penned a moving account of their last decade together, La cérémonie des adieux (titled Adieux: farewell to Sartre in the English edition).
Sartre wrote copiously during his lifetime and left thousands of unpolished manuscript pages for posterity. Among them one in particular was anticipated: the much-awaited second volume of Critique de la raison dialectique, which Sartre had promised, but never delivered. Known in English as Critique II, the book reveals Sartre attempting to formulate a theory of history which would be a synthesis of Marxism and existentialism. He returns to the group-in-action, seeing struggle as a contradiction, involving individuals in conflict and through conflict realising an accumulation of material objects which do not reveal collaborative effort so much as the overcoming of scarcity.
Did this critique achieve the goals Sartre had set himself - to “validate historical materialism”, as the Sartrean scholar, Ronald Aronson, puts it?8 Sartre attempted to link orthodox Marxist understanding of a non-reified world with a concept of subjective praxis. The dialectic is not analytical reason, positivist reason, instrumental reason or sociology, he stated. Sartre was especially hostile to analytical reason, which he castigated for being “a permanent threat to the human”,9 because it is a mode of thought linked to dominance. The dialectic places human beings and human projects at the centre of human thought. And yet … viewed from a Marxist framework, Sartre’s valiant effort cannot accomplish the deed. The internal logic of a phenomenological account stands on its own, but, despite all Sartre’s efforts, it remains ahistorical. Sartre’s view of the dialectic is not one which admits of developments in the field, though western Marxism had bypassed the stasis in Europe after the failure of the Russian Revolution, and had shown the dialectic to be capable of theoretical development.10
From his earliest days as a committed author under the German occupation, Sartre had failed to engage fully with the PCF or any other workers’ group or movement. This disconnect prevented him from engaging in collective political work, with its own dynamics and weight. Integrating in his writing the stillborn version of Stalinism as the model not to follow, Sartre constructed an alternative without taking into account the many theoretical possibilities that opened up contra that model.11 Ronald Aronson suggests that Sartre’s turn to and involvement in anti-colonial revolts and revolutions might be ascribed to the philosopher’s “general abandonment of Europe”.12
In his Critique, Sartre returns again and again to the totalisation of the group in action, but his conception is of individuals added to individuals, so that the totalising structure is never given in advance. A militant added to a militant, added to a militant does not equal a militant group, if that group is not posited and grounded in the historical context of activity as a specific, political intervention within the Marxist project.
That is why Sartre’s life is a demonstration of how much can be achieved by conscious, radical commitment and how little can be achieved when the guiding philosophy behind such choices is disengaged from collective activity.
1. One other recipient of a Nobel - the Vietnamese, Le Duc Tho - turned down the peace prize in 1973, when it was awarded jointly to Henry Kissinger (who accepted it).
4. B Brillant, ‘Intellectuels: les ombres changeantes de Mai 68’ Vingtième Siècle: Revue d’Histoire No2, 2008.
6. Pupils at the Lycée Français in London, the largest school in the UK, went on strike in solidarity with their continental counterparts.
7. ‘Luttes et élections: premiers enseignements’ Cahiers du communisme June-July 1968.
8. R Aronson Sartre’s second critique Chicago 1987.
9. J-P Sartre Critique of dialectical reason London 2009, pp710, 790.
10. See, for instance, P Anderson Consideration on western Marxism London 1976.
11. He did not engage in the kind of extended debates featured most notably in the Weekly Worker.
12. R Aronson Jean-Paul Sartre: philosophy in the world London 1974.