Before and After 1968

It would not have been easy, however, to detect any hint of crisis. Contat and Rybalka list even more entries for the eight years after Les Mots than for the prolific eight-year period preceding it.1 Sartre was intensely busy writing essays on politics and on culture, theoretical works, and giving interviews. He also engaged in extended activity, writing on behalf of Arab-Israeli rapprochement, the Vietnamese, and the French near-revolution of May 1968. Above all, he continued his monumental labours on Flaubert.

    One peculiarity of this period is worth noting, however: from Les Mots to L'Idiot de la famille (1971), Sartre published no major work. One minor dramatic project, Les Troyennes, a brilliant essay on Patrice Lumumba published at the time of Les Mots, and three lengthy lectures on intellectuals given in Japan in 1966, were his most significant works of these years. In the previous eight years, he had written two long plays, Nekrassov and Les Sequestrés d'Altona; two book-length groups of political essays, on Hungary and Cuba; an extensive manuscript on Merleau-Ponty, most of which remains unpublished; and the massive Critique, including Question de méthode. Where., then, was Sartre's energy diverted after 1963? For the most part, obviously, it went into the study of Flaubert. But L' Idiot de la famille was a significant departure from the main line of Sartre's life's work. In it, he no longer took his pen for a sword. He sought not to move or to change his audience, but only to understand a single human being, Gustave Flaubert.

     1. See crw, 55/265-62/382 (118 entries), and 63/383-70/539 (157 entries), pp.305-569.



The Mid-1960s: Sartre on Lumumba

The writings of the mid-1960s revealed this major shift in the making. Sartre's 1963 essay on Patrice Lumumba – to focus on a single example – was unlike any other of his political writings. Its aim was to describe and to analyse, not to convince its readers or to make them feel or act in a particular way. Unlike the Cuban writings, Sartre's essay on Lumumba did not betray its author at every step. It was free from his faults: the customary Sartrean rhetoric, the extended metaphors, the moralizing and convoluted philosophical digressions, the verbiage and overdramatizations, the personalizing intrusions and frequent false starts. Unlike his prefaces to books by Albert Memmi and Franz Fanon, the essay did not even try to put the reader on the spot. Sartre had a single, carefully controlled purpose in writing it: to lay bare the complex and contradictory situation in which Patrice Lumumba failed, and had to fail, to unify the Congo against its own centrifugal forces as well as its former masters.

    Drawn from the countryside and into a religious education, Westernized and then brought into government service, Lumumba was an evolué, one of a small number of Congolese who had been allowed to rise to assist the Belgians to govern. An elite among blacks, these petit-bourgeois officials knew only too clearly that their rise was limited by the very whites who had made it possible: the highest-ranking native received one-half the salary of a white official. Having no base except among other evolués, Lumumba could become a national leader because he took the ideology of his class seriously, rather than using it as a cloak for his own personal interests. He thought and spoke in terms of the rights and needs of all Congolese. His class of government officials wanted a strong centralized government which it would direct; Lumumba, like Robespierre, became a partisan of centralism because he saw in it the Congo's only hope of controlling the tribal and economic forces that threatened to cripple it. Only the political unity of the Congo would guarantee Congolese control of the national economy. Otherwise, the country would continue to be owned by and governed in the interests of foreign capital.

    Sartre showed how, lucid and blind at the same time, Lumumba understood precisely what political structures were needed for Congolese control of the Congo but could not see that the social conditions for such structures were completely absent. A 'revolutionary without

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a revolution', he was handed power by the Belgians without having led a successful struggle against them. In a series of rich analyses, Sartre compared the Congo's situation With successful anti-colonial movements elsewhere. In Algeria or Vietnam the struggle had created a powerful national unity in advance of independence; the guerrilla forces developed leadership cadres who were able to step in immediately once the foreigners had been ousted. But the Belgians had neither educated a native elite for eventual rule, as the British did in their colonies, nor been displaced by an organized native movement. Lumumba had no cadres at his disposal; he was merely the leader of the largest party, having a parliamentary majority and enormous powers of persuasion. Most of his class saw its power as based on managing the politically independent Congo for the foreign trusts; tribal leaders wanted a federation of autonomous regions; the Belgians encouraged the secession of their key economic base, Katanga.

    Receiving political power from the Belgians on July 1, 1960, Lumumba was alone and lost, a hostage in his own capital. Eighty years of Belgian colonialism had so weakened the country, Sartre argued, that the Congo's well-being – understood by Lumumba alone – had no chance of prevailing over the neo-colonialist scheme. Taking over at 'degree zero' of Congolese history, Lumumba could have succeeded only if his forces had been sufficient to sustain a dictatorship. But in addition to the centrifugal forces already in play, class divisions appeared the moment independence was granted: Lumumba was unable even to keep order.

    Lumumba's 'Jacobinism', which consisted in asking each group to sacrifice its interests for the unity of the Congo, was doomed from the start. Why then did this leader without a mass following, too weak to realize his vision, have to be killed? In a poignant analysis Sartre concluded that Lumumba alive represented the vigorous rejection of the neo-colonialist solution. For all of Africa as well as for the Congo, he represented an uncompromising attachment to black independence. His assassination removed a possible rallying point in the struggle ahead, and sealed the alliance between imperialism and the black petit bourgeoisie. 'Dead, Lumumba ceases to be a person to become all of Africa, with its will to unity, its multiplicity of social and political regimes, its cleavages, its discords, its strength, and its impotence; unable to be the hero of pan-Africanism, he will be its martyr. His


story has brought to light, for everyone, the profound link between independence, unity, and the struggle against the trusts.'2

    'La Pensée politique de Patrice Lumumba' was one of Sartre's best political essays and at the same time, paradoxically, the most scholarly in tone. In it, Sartre seemed to have become comfortable in a new role: not instigating action, but describing reality. Sartre's earlier political writings seemed to strain to change reality in part because their underlying concepts themselves lacked a sure connection with reality. We have seen this thought-in-distance try to seize what it lacked by becoming hyper-activist. Only when, as in this essay, he gave up trying to use words to change reality, did he find an adequate way of relating to it. Here he sought only to unveil reality, and, in doing so, accomplished an impressive intellectual feat – he depicted the situation in all its complexity and contradictions, leaving his readers to contemplate the events and their significance and to act as they thought fit. Future readers looking for information about Hungary may not read Sartre; but when they want to learn about Lumumba, neo-colonialism; and the Congo, they will certainly read this essay: for this product of his disillusionment as a political writer was the best of his political writings.

    These were the years of the doldrums in France – the years of the Gaullist consolidation of power, the modernization of French industry,3 and the prostration of the Left. The Communist vote fell from nearly 26% in 1956 to less than 19% in 1958. Even the partial resurgence of 1962 gave the per only forty-one out of the 482 seats in the Assembly.

    Abroad, meanwhile, between the end of the Algerian War and 1968 the Left experienced an uninterrupted series of setbacks. Already in 1961, Lumumba had been murdered, foreshadowing a worldwide imperialist counter-offensive: the missile crisis of 1962 humiliated both revolutionary Cuba and its Soviet protectors; in 1964 the Algerian Thermidor ousted Ben Bella and turned the revolution

     2. 'La Pensée politique de Patrice Lumumba', Situations, V, p.252; trans. Helen R. Lane, 'Introduction'. Lumumba Speaks: The Speeches and Writings of Patrice Lumumba, 1958-1961, Boston 1972, p.51 (I have used my own translation).

     3. Sartre himself acknowledged that in these years the Malthusianism he describes in Les Communistes et la paix was replaced by neo-capitalism. See his 1964 note to this essay in Situations, VI, p.384 as well as Burnier, Choice of Action, n.6, pp.94-95. Sartre's political discouragement in these years is shown in his lack of interest in bringing his analysis up to date.

Before and After1968 307

to the right; Goulart was overthrown in Brazil; 1965 saw the prompt American suppression of the Dominican Revolution, the fall of Nkrumah in Ghana, the bombing of North Vietnam and enormous American escalation of the war in the South, and the counter-revolutionary holocaust in Indonesia. During these years too, the Sino-Soviet dispute exploded into public view, disorienting the Left still further; in 1967, Che Guevara died in an effort to bring a Castro-style movement to Bolivia, and the colonels took power in Greece.

    The essay on Lumumba reflected Sartre's continuing involvement in the face of these discouraging trends, as did his perceptive interviews on the French Left and the 1965 elections, his refusal to lecture in the United States in protest at the American escalation in Vietnam, and his expressions of support for the Constitutionalists in the Dominican Republic and condemnation of the violations of human rights in Algeria. The revealing interviews on France expressed his sense of the Left's sickness in 1965, his mistrust of a wholly electoral strategy, especially without a common programme, and his prescient hope for France.4 They also expressed his new sense of the limitations of intellectuals: 'it is not we who will give birth to a new Popular Front, or a "federation" of the Left, it is not we who will bring about a regroupment of workers' organizations which will restore their political effectiveness. Our work is to expose the real problems of the working class.'5 His tough-minded pessimism about the immediate future, his sense that the Left needed not to be reorganized but recreated, was tempered by his appreciation of the importance of the joint Socialist-Communist campaign for Mitterrand, and his urgency about 'the enormous work to be done' by the Left.6

    Sartre's justification of his refusal to go through with his planned lectures at Cornell University showed less percipience and greater pessimism. Echoing his overly negative conclusion that during the Algerian War the Left's 'opposition served no purpose',7 Sartre expressed the belief that the 'inconspicuous minority of intellectuals' in America who opposed the war were 'totally impotent? While he res-

     4. See 'Achever la gauche, ou la guérir?' and 'Le Choc en retour', Situations, VllII, pp.164-65, 171.

     5. Ibid., pp.166-67.

     6. Ibid., p.174.

     7. ' "Il n'y a plus de dialogue possible",' Situations, VIII., p.15.

     8. Ibid., p.16.


pected the courage of those who struggled in a country 'entirely conditioned by the myths of imperialism and anti-Communism', the American activist seemed to him, unfortunately, the 'wretched of the earth'.

The Russell Tribunal: In the Struggle or Above It?

Political and personal disillusionment, absorption in a writer's biography and a new sense of his own limitations as writer, and a grim, exaggerated pessimism about the prospects for change in France and America – these were the first fruits of Les Mots and the crisis it reflected, and at the same time Sartre's understandable response to the mid-1960s.

    Beneath the surface of events, however, a totally contrary historical direction was being prepared. In France, its first signs were the steps towards consolidation and resurgence of the Left electorally: Mitterrand's surprisingly close run against de Gaulle in 1965, and the Left's recovery in the parliamentary elections two years later. Overseas, and far more important if more distant, civil-rights agitation in the American South quickly became a broad national movement in the early 1960s, catalysing the student movement after 1964 and an unprecedented wave of protest against the Vietnam War the next year. The heroic resistance of the Vietnamese against the overwhelming financial and military might of the United States soon became a worldwide cause and inspiration.

    As the war escalated and the anti-war movement grew, Sartre did not long remain pessimistic or passive. In November 1966, he was elected executive president of the International Tribunal Against War Crimes in Vietnam, initiated by Bertrand Russell, which sought to pass judgment on the United States for its actions in Vietnam: Although aware that this undertaking could be criticized for its petit-bourgeois legalism', Sartre justified it precisely as an appeal to the 'ethico-judidical structure of all historical action' and the 'very large fringe of the middle class' whose eyes might be opened by such legalism.9 Sartre involved himself fully in the Tribunal's work in 1967, travelling to Sweden and Denmark for its sessions. As executive president he was charged with setting out the grounds for the Tribunal's verdict of genocide in December of that year. The

     9. 'The Crime', Situations, VIII, p.35.

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result was one of his most compelling essays, 'Le Génocide'. Brief, lucid, controlled and direct, the essay traced the roots of genocide in imperialism and the modern bourgeois industrial state, as well as in America's specific neo-colonial policy. Sartre pointed out the two alternatives built into American policy in Vietnam: genocide or withdrawal. 'Le Génocide' was a subdued and carefully reasoned essay. As in his study of Lumumba, Sartre kept himself in the background and rendered an objective analysis, only this time in the service of a direct political goal: to mobilize public opinion against the American presence in Vietnam.

    However this first major return to politico-intellectual action since the Algerian War was marked by the shifts that Sartre had been undergoing in the intervening years. His essay, which expressed the Tribunal's official judgment, displayed the same ambiguity as the Tribunal itself. It was, above all, an excellent Marxist analysis, partisan to the core, of indiscriminate mass killing in Vietnam. But this gave its appeals to the Geneva Convention of 1948 a rather lame ring: the radical nature of the argument tended to contradict its appeal to bourgeois legalism.10 It is striking how closely the posture of the Tribunal resembled the tensions which we have seen throughout Sartre's political career, and which were now becoming explosive. Wholly committed to the Vietnamese struggle against the Americans and their allies, the Tribunal also sought to pass judgment on the Americans from a legal position above the struggle. An activist project, it nevertheless based itself on notions of objectivity and universality more familiar in those who claim to be beyond partisanship. Certainly anti-war activists, no matter how much they might favour the nlf were right 'to apply its own laws to capitalist imperialism'.11 But the Tribunal's concluding opinion on genocide was hardly calculated to win over anyone who was not already committed. The first French version of 'Le Génocide' appeared, after all, in Les Temps Modernes, the English in New Left Review, and in the United States in Ramparts: journals of the Left all.

    The tension between the Tribunal's partisan origins and intentions and its universalist claims corresponded to a growing divergence be-

     10. 'Le Génocide', Situations, VIII; trans. 'On Genocide', Against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, ed. John Duffet, New York 1968.

     11. 'Le Crime', p.30.


tween Sartre the political activist and Sartre the intellectual. Les Troyennes, first performed in March 1965, was a vaguely anti-imperialist adaption of Euripides which prompted the audience to condemn all war – something Sartre himself clearly did not do. Given this and also the fact that the play had already been revived in another adaptation during the Algerian war, one is left to wonder at Sartre's purpose in offering a new version. Justifying it, in a discussion which was politically quite thin, he engrossed himself with the stylistic and linguistic problems of making a Greek play 'work' in contemporary France. It is obvious, then, that Les Troyennes was scarcely a political project at all, although Sartre felt compelled to justify it. Compared with the rest of his plays, it seemed like an interesting excursion into the 'perennial'.

    Sartre's Japanese lectures of fall, 1966 developed the theme of intellectual engagement from a more solidly Marxist perspective than that of his 1947 writings.12 But he retained his old formal demand based on the universal character of intellectual activity (which, he now argued, became diverted towards particular goals in this society) and attempted to demonstrate how the intellectual should be engaged. Sartre seemed to be broadly recapitulating and extending his earlier deduction – until he turned to speak specifically about writers. There, in a rather apolitical analysis of literature as the 'singular universal', he abandoned Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, discarding its conception of prose as a practical instrument. This conception, which had underlain that of engagement, was now replaced by a new emphasis on the singular universal, which was both profoundly individual and profoundly socio-historical.

    By the end of the last lecture, Sartre had traced a new and promising theoretical path, but lost the sense of why this universal being, the writer, might or should become engaged. In fact, he separated the six activist political demands that he had initially proposed to lay before intellectuals from his new fascination with writing as the singular universal. The first two lectures moved in a world totally different from the third. Politics and writing were becoming separate activities for Sartre. Participating in a conference in 1964 entitled 'Que peut la littérature?', he had expressed himself elusively about the writer's political role (returning to the vague idea of mirroring one's

     12. 'Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels', Situations, VIII; trans. John Matthews, 'A Plea for Intellectuals', Between Existentialism and Marxism, London 1974.

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times);13 in an interview on intellectuals and politics given early in 1968, he reiterated the first theme of the Japanese lectures and was quite precise and activist in his responses.14 Sartre was not changing in these years; he was merely presenting two increasingly separate sides of himself. The activist intellectual on the one hand and, on the other, the writer, creator of the singular universal.

May 1968: A New Left

The separation was not yet complete. By 1972, when his Japanese lectures were published in French, Sartre felt compelled to preface them with a note saying that the intellectual, qua intellectual, 'remains objectively an enemy of the people'. He concluded, equally remarkably: 'today I have finally understood that the intellectual cannot remain at the stage of unhappy consciousness (characterized by idealism and inefficacy): he must resolve his own problem – or, if you like, negate his intellectual moment in order to try to achieve a new popular status.'15 In other words, the intellectual must subvert his role as intellectual and instead serve the masses. What caused this drastic change of perspective and what did it mean?

    The change took place after 1968, one of the most convulsive years of the century and certainly the most turbulent since the world entered the age of electronic communication. In Vietnam, the new year began with the Tet offensive; faced with tremendous opposition, Lyndon Johnson stepped down from the presidency of the United States. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the United States seethed with black rebellion and anti-war demonstrations; and students took over Columbia University in one of the most dramatic actions of the American student movement. In China the Cultural Revolution continued with tidal force; the Prague Spring seemed ready to give birth to 'socialism with a human face'. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia; and while the whole world watched on television, demonstrators were clubbed down outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago as, inside, Eugene McCarthy was denied the presidential nomination.

     13. Yves Buin, Que peut la littérature?, Paris 1965, pp.107-127.

     14. Interview with J.C. Garot, Le Point (Brussels); trans. J.A. Underwood and John Calder, 'Revolution and the Intellectual', Politics and Literature, London 1973.

     15. Prefatory note to 'Plaidoyer pour les intellectuals', Situations, VIII, p.374; 'A Plea for Intellectuals', p.227.


    For Sartre, the most spectacular event of all was the near-revolution in France. A new Left exploded into existence at Nanterre and the Sorbonne and catalysed a movement which nearly overthrew de Gaulle: perhaps ten million workers, taking inspiration from the students, spontaneously took over their work-places and declared a general strike. Sartre involved himself wholeheartedly from the first days onwards, doing all he could to encourage the students and win support for them. Now in his sixties, Sartre spent a night at the barricades, spoke before a tumultuous packed house at the Sorbonne, declared his old colleague Raymond Aron unfit to teach because of his attack on the students, and humbly interviewed the student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Once again, selflessly, and with great courage and commitment, Sartre pitched himself into a major historical movement. The Left that he had been working, writing, and waiting for since the late forties had suddenly materialized. For the first time, he was in the midst of a movement embodying the very things that drew him to socialism. He had observed the Popular Front from a distance, experienced the Resistance as a partisan writer and a lone committed individual, been drawn to the side of the Communists by his outrage at the government's response to the Ridgeway riots, involved himself totally in the struggle to keep de Gaulle from power and to end the Algerian war, and enthusiastically sponsored the Cuban revolution. But now he was in the midst of a movement that demanded everything.

    This movement was profoundly revolutionary and democratic, sought to draw all its militants into debate and discussion, and was bound to no pre-established doctrine. It showed enormous energy, optimism and force of imagination. It was thoroughly anti-elitist and demanded power on every level. At the end of his interview with Cohn-Bendit, Sartre warmly welcomed the radical break signalled by the May upsurge: 'What is interesting about your action is that it is putting imagination in power. You have a limited imagination, just like everyone else, but you have a lot more ideas than your eiders, We were educated in such a way that we have a precise idea of what is possible and what is not. A professor will say, "Get rid of exams? Never. You can change them, but you can't get rid of them!" Why? Because he has been taking exams for half his life. The working class has often imagined new ways of struggling, but always in relation to the precise situation it found itself in. In 1935 it invented the occupa-

Before and After 1968 313

tion of the factories because that was the only weapon it had to consolidate and exploit its victory at the polls. You have a much more fertile imagination, as the slogans we are reading on the Sorbonne walls show. Something has come out of you which is confounding, shaking up, rejecting everything which made our society what it is today. It's what I would call an extension of the field of possibilities.'16

Sartre, Communism and the New Left

As the movement developed in the months and years that followed, Sartre consolidated his agreement with the main political lines of the new Left. This entailed a definitive break with the worlds of French and Soviet Communism, provoked by the Party's hostility to the students and its cautious behaviour in the face of a near-revolution and confirmed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that summer. Able for the first time to view events from the standpoint of a movement to the left of official Communism. Sartre now gave full vent to his disillusionment with the Soviet regime, 'which is not a socialist regime', and to the pcf, which is 'not a revolutionary party'.17

    Sartre's essay of 1970 denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was entirely different from his condemnation of the Hungarian intervention. He no longer addressed himself hopefully to the Soviet leaders as comrades caught in an obsolete logic issuing from the original tasks of building socialism: they were now cast as agents of the 'Thing'. 'The machine cannot be repaired; the peoples of Eastern Europe must seize hold of it and destroy it.'18 He saw Soviet intervention as inevitable, given the nature of the regime 'and the relations of production which generated it and have in turn been reinforced and petrified by it.'19 But he no longer laboured to derive this inevitability from the exigencies of Soviet history: his concern was to show how this system of imposed socialism had been internalized by

     16. 'L'Imagination au pouvoir: Entretien de Jean-Paul Sartre avec Daniel Cohn-Bcndit', Le Nouvel Observateur, special supplement, May 20, 1968; trans. B.R. Brewster, The French Student Revolt, New York 1968. Sartre's conclusion, omitted from the English

volume, is translated in caw, 68/489, pp.526-27.

     17. On a raison de se révolter, pp.347, 42.

     18. 'Le Socialisrne qui venait du froid', Situations, IX, pp.275-76; 'Czechoslovakia: The Socialism that Came in from the Cold', Between Existentialism and Marxism, p.117.

     19. Ibid., p.275; p.ll7.


the Czech and S1ovak peoples and how it began to be sloughed off during 1968. With great force and clarity, and making substantive use of the notion of seriality, he described how 'under the reign of fetishized production every real man appears to himself, in his simple daily experience, as an obstacle to the construction of socialism and can evade the crime of living only by suppressing himself altogether.'20 'Le Socialisme qui venait du froid' ranked with the study of Lumumba as one of Sartre's best political essays. The contortions of the 1950s essays were replaced by a powerful and passionate political lucidity. Sartre's clear oppositional stance released him from the constricting alternatives of comradely criticism and anti-Communism. He was now able to take an unequivocal position, against 'the old ossified structures of our society' and in favour of a revolution which 'does not give birth to that sort of socialism.21

    Sartre's alignment with gauchisme revitalized his earlier criticism of the French Communists: for their reformism, their authoritarianism, their fear of popular movements outside their control, and the doctrinaire character of their thought. He also rediscovered other old attitudes in his new activist postures: his hostility to elections as confirming the voters' serial passivity, his understanding of conventional authority as based on power alienated from its subjects, his rejection of bourgeois propriety, his acceptance of violence and illegality, and his unending willingness to contest and redirect himself. Violence, morality, spontaneity – these were the characteristics that attracted Sartre, after 1969, to the Maoists,' in whom he claimed to recognize 'the only revolutionary force capable of adapting to new forms of the class struggle in a period of organized capitalism'.22 Coexistent with these terms was the suggestion that political ideas and tactics should not be brought to the masses from the outside, as Lenin's What Is To Be Done? had implied, but that revolutionaries should learn from the masses.23 Sartre rallied to the gauchistes' emphasis on democracy, their belief in the creative power of ordinary people, their desire to avoid a hierarchical movement and a hierarchical socialism. 'I am for you', he declared to the Maoists in December,

     20. Ibid., p.248; p.98.

     21. Ibid., p.276; p.117.

     22. 'Les Maos en France', Situations, X, p.47; trans. Paul Auster and Lydia Davis, 'The Maoists in France', Life/Situations, p.171.

     23. See On a raison de se révolter, pp.147-60.

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1972, 'because at least apparently, you want to prepare a society which will not be founded on the auto-domestication of man, but on his sovereignty.'24

    Sartre did not wholly adapt to the ultra-left politics of the French Maoists – although he came dangerously close to doing so.25 One of the most charged moments in the collection of discussions, On a raison de se révolter, came when he forcefully defended Israel's right to exist against his young interlocutor's reflexive anti-Zionism.26 He remained capable of penetrating political insight and argument, as in his attacks on bourgeois law;27 and On a raison de se révolter exhibited such intellectual and political vitality that one writer has seen it as the turning point in Sartre's thought, marking a final break with individualism and a new, though belated, recognition of the centrality of collective processes.28 Yet Sartre seemed only to make his way back to a more grounded version of his earlier idealism. History was no less callous with human hopes in the 1970s than it had been in the 1950s. And in these years Sartre, encouraged first by May 1968 and then by the workers' takeover of the Lip watch factory in 1973, gave himself more wholeheartedly to hope – and illusion – than to reality.

    To counsel, as he did, a boycott of presidential and legislative elections was to opt out of the only arena understood as political by the vast majority of people. And how could it responsibly be argued that a Left electoral victory would bring greater dangers for the far Left than a victory of the Right?29 Sartre's judgments on such issues were gravely unbalanced. He ended his thirty-year relationship with the Communists by declaring a plague on all established houses. But the pcf was as much a reality of the French Left in the 1970s as in the 1950s.

    Sartre was not wrong to attack the pcf from the Left; but his conversations with Victor and Gavi failed to make any realistic assessment of the balance of forces, of the social basis for their new kind of

     24. Ibid., p.141.

     25. See caw, 68/488, pp.523/26.

     26. See On a raison de se révolter, pp.295-298. In 1969 Sartre called for a peace based on Israeli evacuation of the territories occupied in 1967, Arab recognition of Israeli sovereignty, and settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. See 'Interview', Situations, VIII.

     27. See 'Justice et l'Etat', Situations, X; 'Justice and the State', Life/Situations.

     28. See the review article by Douglas Kellner, Telos, 22 (Winter 1974-75).

     29. On a raison de se révolter, p.356.


politics, of the weight and effect of the Communists, of the actual chances for creating a new movement after the energy of May had been dissipated. This illuminating series of conversations dealt mostly with specific tactics and actions and with large principles, at the expense of long-range socialist strategy in relation to concrete historical trends. Sartre failed to understand the deep limitations that his choice entailed: his attempt to ascribe his own pessimism to a 'character trait' was symptomatic of political error.

Take to the Streets

Moreover, the reshaping of his politics was overshadowed by the self-willed inversion of his role as a political intellectual. When the long-hoped-for Left emerged, his first impression, 'forgotten afterwards, found again in '69, was that their movement was directed against me.'30 In 1969 he was invited to a meeting of students and professors to plan action against government repression. He was abruptly made aware that the movement's anti-elitism meant to dismantle the very 'star-system' of which he was a leading member: 'There was a room filled with students and profs and, at the table, next to me, the same mixture. It was a new meeting for me: there were things to decide, and not simply to say – as at the time of the war in Algeria: "Long live the Algerians!" "Down with French government policy!" On the table, in my place, there was a word on a sheet of paper: "Sartre, be brief".'31 His audience did not listen very attentively, and when he had finished speaking about the problem of youth in general, a few of them booed while some applauded politely. Sartre began to understand that he had nothing to say at this meeting because he was neither professor nor student. He had been brought in, rather clumsily, as a 'star'. Already in 1968, the striking image of Sartre interviewing Cohn-Bendit reflected a growing belief that the day of the classical intellectual was over, or as he later put it, that the time had come for intellectuals to 'contest themselves as intellectuals'.32 But as he absorbed the experience of May, he decided that the intellectual should first 'suppress himself as intellectual' in order then to put his skills 'directly at the service of the masses'.33 Did Sartre intend to undo the

     30. Ibid., p.82.

     31. Ibid., pp.65-66.

     32. 'L'Ami du peuple', Situations, VIII, p.461.

     33. Ibid., pp.467.

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politico-intellectual synthesis he has been struggling to achieve since the Second World War? This was certainly the implication of his 1972 note to his Japanese lectures of six years before. This new posture was most sharply and provocatively defined in his interview with John Gerassi in 1971.

    Sartre here gave the simplest answer yet to his constant question: what should the intellectual do? – he should act. To be a radical intellectual was above all to be committed to put oneself bodily in opposition to the system. In conversation with Gerassi he reviewed his own political history going back to the Occupation and describing his shifting relations with the Communist party thereafter. The Algerian and Vietnamese wars had convinced him of the need to develop a movement to the left of the pcf; and by his own activity, he had helped to bring that new movement into being. 'But I was still a typical intellectual. That is, I did my work at my desk, and occasionally joined a parade in the streets or spoke at some meeting. Then May 1968 happened, and I understood that what the young were putting into question was not just capitalism, imperialism, the system, etc., but those of us who pretended to be against all that, as well. We can say that from 1940 to 1968 I was a left-wing intellectual (un intellectuel de gauche) and from 1968 on I became a leftist intellectual (un intellectuel gauchiste). The difference is one of action. A leftist intellectual is one who realizes that being an intellectual exempts him from nothing. He forsakes his privileges, or tries to, in actions. It is similar, I think, to what in the us you would call white-skin privileges. A white leftist intellectual, in America, I presume, understands that because he is white he has certain privileges which he must smash through direct action. Not to do so is to be guilty of murder of the blacks – just as much as if he actually pulled the triggers that killed, for example, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, and all the other Black Panthers murdered by the police, by the system.'34

    In 1947 Sartre had declared that if words were sick, the writer must cure them. He was now saying that in order to be a radical intellectual, the writer must give up his customary intellectual projects. The role of theoretician to the movement, as he had asserted in an earlier

     34. 'Sartre Accuses the Intellectuals of Bad Faith', The New Times Magazine, October 17, 1971, p.118.


interview, 'is a completely abandoned position'35 'Today', he said to Gerassi, 'it is sheer bad faith, hence counter-revolutionary, for the intellectual to dwell on his own problems, instead of realizing that he is an intellectual because of the masses and through them: therefore, that he owes his knowledge to them and must be with them and in them: he must be dedicated to work for their problems, not his own.'36

    One example of such self-sacrificing but exemplary activity was working to create revolutionary newspapers: 'I've lent my name to any revolutionary paper that requested it. Why? Well, of course, at the beginning it's part of the star system, letting my name be used to help launch such papers. Simone de Beauvoir, as you know, has done the same, but the objective is to collectivize these papers, to eliminate names altogether, and eventually to create newspapers written by masses who fight, the role of the editorial collective being only to help, technically, to put these papers together and publish them. Each time there is a seizure of a plant by workers, for example, our job is to make sure that it is the workers themselves who explain why they did it, what they felt and learned from it. Our job is to help them, etc., but never interpreting them, never telling them what they should say. Self-determination is not a ballot-box principle; it's a political act which must lead to power of the people.'37 Directed at the masses, these newspapers must try to create 'a language that explains the necessary political realities in a way that everyone can understand?38 This meant a wholly new style of writing and distributing revolutionary newspapers: 'Say the paper talks about the seizure of a plant in Grenoble, in articles written by workers who participated in the seizure, well then, the militant distributor asks the worker in front of the Renault plant in Billancourt to read it, comment on the article, write about it or talk into a tape recorder, which then becomes an article for the next issue. The militant distributor, who is inevitably an intellectual at first, thus operates merely as a sort of mediator between the workers of Grenoble and Billancourt.'39

    Prominent American intellectuals should act in the same way. 'It is very easy to denounce the war in Vietnam by signing petitions or

     35. 'L'Ami du peuple', p.464.

     36. 'Sartre Accuses the Intellectuals of Bad Faith', p.38.

     37. Ibid., p.38.

     38. Ibid., p.l16.

     39. Ibid., pp.116-118.

Before and After 1968 319

marching in a parade with 20,000 comrades. But it doesn't accomplish one-millionth what could be accomplished if all your big-name intellectuals went into the ghettos, into the Oakland port, to the war factories, and risked being manhandled by the roughs of the maritime union. In my view, the intellectual who does all his fighting from an office is counter-revolutionary today, no matter what he writes.'40

    'Are you saying,' Gerassi inquired, 'that the responsibility of the intellectual is not intellectual?'

    'Yes,' Sartre replied, 'it is in action. It is to put his status at the service of the oppressed directly. Just as the German intellectual who told Hitler and talked about his anti-Nazism while he earned money writing scripts for Hollywood was as responsible for Hitler as the German who closed his eyes, just as the American intellectual who only denounces the Vietnam war and the fate of your political prisoners but continues to teach in a university that carries out war research and insists on law and order (which is a euphemism for letting the courts and police repress active dissenters) is as responsible for the murders and repression as is the Government and its institutions, so too, here in France, the intellectual who does not put his body as well as his mind on the line against the system is fundamentally supporting the system and should be judged accordingly.'41

Intellectual versus Political Activity

This, for all its extravagance, was not merely a provocative utterance of the moment. On a raison de se révolter, completed three years later, confirmed the main lines of Sartre's new approach. Part of a Gallimard series on gauchisme edited by Sartre, this volume was in the first place an activist project whose royalties were to go to Libération, the leftist daily then under Sartre's nominal directorship. The tone of its discussions echoed that of the Gerassi interview. Sartre's young friends treated him as an equal and no more. They after all were the activists, and although Sartre no longer seemed swept off his feet by them, their words predominated in the book. Sartre intervened often only at the instigation of Gavi or Victor, who frequently challenged and disagreed with him; his contributions were in many cases reflections on his political biography, his past work or his philosophical principles.

     40. Ibid., p.118.

     41. Ibid., p. l19.


    However, the book is far too casual. Interesting as the discussions often are, they are just as often superficial. Too many issues are abandoned, approached but never resolved: why the three are revolutionaries, how the struggle of women and homosexuals is part of the overall revolutionary struggle, how values are formed in the process of production, the character of the Arab-Israeli conflict. On a raison de se révolter gave little evidence of the penetration and tenacity with which Sartre normally addressed political issues. The purpose of the book was to present the new Left much as, twenty-five years earlier, a younger Sartre and his colleagues had presented the rdr. But unlike Entretiens sur la politique, which had been carefully framed to present a clear political line, On a raison de se révolter showed Sartre, Gavi, and Victor in conversation together, little concerned to appeal to their readers.

    These discussions revealed certain of Sartre's strengths: his radicalism, his lack of affectation and willingness to become involved. Whatever the weakness of his new posture, it was to Sartre's credit that he retained his openness to historical developments, and listened to the new Left. Moreover, there was a definite consistency in his new approach to the role of the intellectual. It represented yet another attempt to resolve the central issue of his thought and life: what can the writer-intellectual do? In their own ways, this book and the interview with Gerassi restated the question first posed in his discovery of Husserl and studies of the imagination: how should thought be related to, make contact with, reality? Now, Sartre eagerly embraced what his work had always lacked: external demands, the sense of belonging to a collectivity. Until now in perpetual movement towards the world, Sartre as intellectuel gauchiste found himself already in the world. He responded readily to the Maoists in part because they put him in question. He spoke now, in relation to the Maoists and Libération, as he had never done in relation to Les Temps Modernes, as part of a collective, and professed a belief that could not have been more at variance with his entire life's work: 'I have always thought that to think in a group is better than to think separately.'42

    After a quarter-century of politically committed writing, Sartre had made a drastic change of course: above all, he now held, intellectuals should act. In his interview with Gerassi he showed no concern for what their writing might or should do; he simply called upon them

    42. On a raison de se révolter, p.170.


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to leave their studies and go into the streets. Anything but concerned about the adequacy of thought in the real world, he appeared to deny that systematic thought was relevant to the real political demands of the time. If the author of the Critique had made a gargantuan effort to understand human history, to found and develop socialist theory, the intellectuel gauchiste now simply abandoned theory altogether, finding its missing terms outside thought, in the spontaneous flow of events. The gauchiste effort to reshape the role of the intellectual evoked a strong response in Sartre, but at his most vulnerable point and at a time of disillusionment. If his self-contestation reflected the great verve and originality of the extreme Left and the undiminished radicalism of Sartre himself, its polemical substance was nonetheless tantamount to a kind of nihilism, a sign that something had gone gravely wrong.

The Final Split

May 1968 reanimated Sartre's political hope and gave it a new outlet. But it also undid the politico-intellectual synthesis that he bad struggled to develop since the Liberation, and subverted the persona that he now attacked at the intellectuel de gauche. May initiated the final phase of Sartre's career, as an anti-intellectual, unquenchably optimistic gauchiste emerged as the alter ego of the student of Flaubert. Sartre's failure to transcend his limits, repressed in spontaneist politics, returned in the form of a total separation between the writer and the activist. How did Sartre occupy himself henceforward? As he said to Gavi and Victor: 'I give to your action the greatest part of my time, but not all of it.'43 As a militant among other militants, he tried to use his fame to gain support and publicity for the actions in which he was involved. He was indicted by the government again and again in the controversies surrounding the various leftist newspapers that he supported.

    The point, he would say to other intellectuals, is to act. Our ideas are irrelevant to political action; we must seek to create situations in which the masses can experience their own ideas. Intellectuals are useful for their skills – to organize, to communicate, and hopefully, to simplify – and for their status – intellectuals carry more weight with the press and the police than do workers. The anti-intellectual demands that Sartre now laid before intellectuals were most starkly

     43. Ibid., p.96.


posed in a conversation between himself and Herbert Marcuse, the text of which appeared in Libération in 1974:

sartre: The intellectual overtakes little by little another aspect of his existence (that is to say, the revolutionary intellectual) to the precise extent that the society progresses. The two go together: at the present time, for example, there is a certain relative progression, debatable, which consists of young workers, of young students towards that new Left of which we are speaking. The intellectuals are not the first ones who are there. They follow, they accompany.

marcuse: They follow whom?

sartre: They follow the young workers, the students who themselves envisage the new Left . . .

marcuse: The intellectual can always formulate or elaborate or concretize the goal of the progressive movement and the demands of the workers.

sartre: Yes! He can do it! But the workers can do it also. And they

can do it better for themselves than the intellectuals.

marcuse: By themselves?

sartre: And for themselves! They can better express what they feel, what they think for themselves than if that was done by an intellectual. The intellectual, not always, but most of the time, is not the best one to formulate. He is the best one to discuss.

marcuse But not to formulate?

sartre: Not always. The intellectual and the worker were very close for a hundred, a hundred and fifty years. That has changed by virtue of the evolution of the working class and now they are

drawing, nearer precisely because the intellectual can polish the worker's thought, but just polish it, not produce it.

marcuse: I am not yet convinced . . . The problems which pose themselves in a revolutionary society, the problem of love, the problem of passion, the problem of all the erotic conflicts, the problem of the demand for the eternity of joy, all that is formulated by the intellectuals of the old type. Do you want to suppress all that?

sartre: I want to change all that. Personally I feel myself still an intellectual of the old type.

marcuse: I also, I do not contest that.

sartre: But me, I contest myself!


Before and After 1968 323


marcuse: No, I do not have a bad conscience. Excuse me, but I am sincere.

sartre: And I do not have a bad conscience. For me, the classical intellectual is an intellectual who ought to disappear.44

    Yet, while seeming to disdain, or at least to ignore, properly intellectual work, Sartre did not ask intellectuals to abandon it entirely; and his almost casual admission that he himself was 'still an intellectual of the old type' suggested that his own practice had not simply been transformed in accordance with his new-found leftist nostrums. At one point in On a raison de se révolter, Victor pressed Sartre strongly to abandon his Flaubert and write a politically useful popular novel. The terms of his refusal – 'it is an intellectual of the classical type who writes the Flaubert'45 – were an evasion of the issue at stake. If he had not spent a dozen years on Flaubert, and were younger, presumably Sartre would have been able to complete the change into a new intellectual. His Flaubert, he told Gerassi, 'may indeed be a form of petit-bourgeois escapism vis-à-vis the exigencies of the times, though it is a very political work.'46 But where political action was concerned, it was simply and radically irrelevant. The imperative was not, as in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? and in the twenty years following it, to put our ideas into action, but after a morning of writing, to step out of the study and into the streets.

Sartre's new gauchiste argument culminated in an astonishing paradox: it was an avowedly total critique of political intellectuals which yet failed utterly to touch on their daily work, their writing; which, for all its militancy, did not pursue them into their studies and classrooms and demand that they justify and transform what went on there. Sartre now demanded the wholesale abandonment of 'all the bourgeois values we have been taught in schools, in the press, at home'.47 But what could have been more bourgeois than this total separation of writing and scholarship from political action?

    Some thirty years earlier, Qu'est-ce que la littérature? had visualized overcoming the division between thought and imagination on the one hand, and reality on the other, through an integrative practice of

     44. Kellner, pp. 195-96 (translation changed).

     45. On a raison de se révolter, p.105.

     46. 'Sartre Accuses the Intellectuals of Bad faith', p.38.

     47. Ibid., p.ll8.


political writing. Now, frustrated in his project, Sartre had elected to be a revolutionary and a writer. He plunged into an extravagantly anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical 'serve-the-people' activism, while continuing his sequestered labour on a voluminous and fundamentally apolitical study of an individual writer. The world of intellect and imagination became drained of politics while the world of politics purged itself of intellect. Sartre's abiding problem was finally 'solved' by the mutual alienation of its constituent terms. Biographical habit rather than any kind of synthesizing programme now formed the only connection between a politics scornful of theoretical guidance and an intellectual project heedless of political demands.