Albert Camus: Unfashionable Anti-Totalitarian

Albert Camus: Unfashionable Anti-Totalitarian

Craig DeLancey
Craig DeLancey
9 min read

Today, it is not unusual to see Albert Camus celebrated as the debonair existentialist—the handsome hero of the French Resistance, a great novelist, and a fine philosopher. But this reputation was only recently acquired. For much of his life, and in the years since his untimely death in 1960 aged just 46, Camus was deeply unfashionable among France’s leading intellectuals. In many quarters, he remains so.

Camus came to widespread attention in 1942 with his publication of his novella The Stranger and a philosophical essay entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Stranger portrays a solitary passionless man wandering through a world without pattern or purpose. “The Myth of Sisyphus” grapples with the question, “Why not commit suicide?” Camus argued that we should not, but he finds little evidence of a justified purpose for human beings. If we cannot prove that some choices are better than others, he concludes, we can at least dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of experience. The austerity and boldness of these two works struck Camus’s contemporaries as remarkable and, within a short time, he became known as “the philosopher of the absurd,” and befriended France’s leading intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Camus did not take up arms in the struggle against the Nazi occupation, but during the war he was the editor of the underground newspaper of the Resistance, Combat. This job involved great personal risk and he would almost certainly have been imprisoned and shot, either by the Nazis or their French collaborators, had his role been uncovered. When the war ended, Camus gazed at the devastation of Europe and reflected. Over the subsequent years, his writing would change significantly as humanism and anti-totalitarianism became increasingly central to his thinking. His 1947 allegorical novel The Plague depicts not a solitary, alienated man, but a group of people struggling together against a plague in a small Algerian city. Here, human beings are willing to confront the absurdity of the universe, but they remain compassionate nonetheless, and strive to be kind and to care for each other. Then, in 1951, Camus published The Man in Revolt (later published in translation as The Rebel). Horrified by the crimes of Stalin and by the apologetics for his regime published by some of the Western Left’s most influential intellectuals, Camus sought to understand the justification of mass murder. It is a rich book, and not easily summarized, but two of Camus’s arguments proved particularly antagonizing to his peers.

First, Camus argued that commitment to a single, distant purpose endangers us all. The struggle for a perfect society in the future leads to as ruthless consequentialism that allows us to sacrifice countless people in the present. This fear is what led him to describe Marx as “the prophet of justice without mercy who lies, by mistake, in the unbeliever’s plot at Highgate Cemetery.” The faith of the Marxist in the promise of utopia, he observed, is every bit as powerful and irrational as that of the religious fanatic.

Second, Camus defended the proposition, explicitly denied by Marxists and Existentialists, that there exists a universal “human nature”—traits shared by all people, from which we can infer what is better or worse for all people and common ground upon which to form social bonds. Sartre, on the other hand, argued that we are the product of our choices and nothing more. Simone de Beauvoir summarized the Marxist view as her peers understood it: “There is no authentic human essence to be realized, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organized wholeness to be achieved. What we are and what we can become are open-ended projects to be constructed in the course of time.”

From his universalist humanism and skepticism about utopian ideologies, Camus developed an ethics in Man in Revolt that rejected revolution. Instead, Camus argued that moral progress arises from a rejection of injustice by people united in their recognition of that injustice. This kind of “revolt” is more restrained than the revolutionary impulse and shows mesure—it recognizes and respects human nature, attempts to improve things now, and accepts no limits on free speech and expression. When revolt is combined with the misguided belief that history has some unifying purpose and that human beings can be reshaped in the manner of wet clay, it declines into revolution. Revolution is unrestrained, it is démesure, and it leads inevitably to violence and cruelty.

Sartre and Beauvoir edited the leading French intellectual journal of their day, Les Temps Moderne, and they invited the activist and philosopher Francis Jeanson to review The Man in Revolt. The result was scathing. Jeanson’s article was mostly a series of ad hominem attacks which made no attempt to interpret Camus’s text charitably. Camus’s sins were clear: he had attacked Marxism, he had attacked revolution, and he had attacked the idea that human beings were infinitely malleable. For this, he was denounced as a counter-revolutionary.

Sartre then published an open letter addressed to Camus, that began, “Our friendship was not easy, but I will miss it.” Most of Sartre’s letter ignores the arguments in The Man in Revolt, and concentrates instead on itemizing Camus’s alleged personal failings, including the accusation that he was bourgeois. Camus did not respond to this criticism, because he did not see it as important. After all, it was the Marxists, not him, who believed that class determines what one may say. But it was a petty and laughable accusation even so: Sartre grew up in privilege, and he let other people manage his domestic matters all his life. Camus grew up in Algeria in poverty, where as a child he lived in a two-room apartment with his brother, uncle, grandmother, and deaf widowed mother who worked as a cleaning woman to support all of them.

Beauvoir’s attack on Camus was perhaps the most vicious of all. Her 1954 Goncourt Prize-winning novel The Mandarins is a fictionalized account of her life in post-war Paris, populated by characters closely based upon the intellectuals in her political and literary circles. A long section describing her alter-ego’s travels with an American lover is simply lifted by Beauvoir from her diary of her travels with the novelist Nelson Algren. But the novel contains one very important deviation from real life: the character based on Camus has an affair with a young and insipid Nazi sympathizer. To prevent this lover from being prosecuted for her treasonous beliefs and activities, he lies under oath in a court of law in order to have her released from prison.

It is hard to imagine a more craven and defamatory insult, directed at a man who had been active in the Resistance and by someone who was politically inactive during the Nazi occupation. It is an example of what we now call “swiftboating”: a political attack on a person’s strengths and virtues, combined with an assertion that those strengths and virtues are illusory or fraudulent. That Beauvoir’s shameful treatment of her former friend elicited no outrage is evidence of how unfashionable Camus has become. I have been unable to find a single critical mention of his mistreatment in the academic literature about Beauvoir’s novel.

The criticisms of Camus grew more heated as the insurgent war in Algeria intensified. Camus’s position on the war seemed impossibly naïve to Sartre and his followers. Camus hoped that some kind of peaceful solution would be possible, and that both the descendants of colonists and the various indigenous people of Algeria could continue to live together. He put his life at risk by visiting Algeria and attempting to foster talks between the two sides. When he organized a public discussion, he had to flee because extremists among the colons nearly rioted. The situation in Algeria soon grew too violent and divisive for Camus’s hopes for a peace to remain realistic. However, history would prove Sartre’s revolutionary romanticism to be even more reckless. Sartre publicly endorsed the work of Frantz Fanon, a psychologist from Martinique who also identified as an Existentialist, and he wrote a lengthy preface to Fanon’s most famous book, The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon lived in Algeria and promoted the necessity of violent revolution, which he believed would unite the people in an anti-colonial struggle. “Violence,” he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.” To realize their own freedom and create a new identity, the colonized must first kill the colonists. Afterwards, he predicted, the people would work together in peace to forge their new nation, because “nation building is facilitated by the existence of this mortar kneaded with blood and rage.” This is what Camus called “crimes of logic,” or the use of philosophy and sophistical theory to justify widespread killing.

But such arguments from Sartre and Fanon, it turned out, were considerably more titillating to the intelligentsia than Camus’s earnest pleas for moderation, peace, and solidarity. As a thinker, he now seemed to be out of step with the age. Many years later, Susan Sontag would describe Camus as a “literary husband,” boring but dependable, unlike “literary lovers,” who are exciting even if selfish and brutal. But, exciting as Sartre and Fanon may have been, history proved them wrong: killing Frenchmen and colons did not transform the Algerian people, nor did it unite them into a peaceful nation. Once the French withdrew, the violence just continued, only now it was turned inward.

The vitriolic attacks on Camus reached their crescendo after an angry Algerian student denounced him at a public talk, and Camus was misquoted—perhaps intentionally—by Le Monde as saying, “I will choose my mother over justice.” Sartre and Beauvoir and the intellectuals of their circle gloated that this confirmed Camus as a sentimental reactionary.  But what Camus actually said was something like, “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Camus recognized that indifference to individual human suffering is essential to all forms of political extremism, and his statement was nothing more scandalous than a rejection of the idea that terrorism is justice.

Some of the animosity Camus inspired—and the eagerness to misinterpret, misrepresent, and denounce him—was personal. But French intellectuals who sided with Sartre and Beauvoir often did so for theoretical reasons, and many continue to do so. France’s contemporary leftist group, the Invisible Committee, singled Camus out for denunciation as “that idiot” (ce con) in their widely read 2014 call for revolution, To Our Friends. Camus’s rejection of Marxism, and his doubts about the likely outcome of post-colonial revolutionary movements, were unpopular, principled, and lonely positions. The Left demanded allegiance to their belief that human nature could be reshaped through revolution, and that even the Stalinist enemies of their enemy remain their friends.

After Camus’s death in a car accident in 1960, French intellectual thought continued to follow the path laid by Sartre, Beauvoir, and the Marxists. Michel Foucault proved to be the most influential post-war French philosopher, and his dubious claim that knowledge is identical to power has calcified into dogma among many academics worldwide. Even some of the academics and activists who have not read Foucault have nevertheless internalized this belief through a kind of intellectual osmosis. Foucault was, of course, utterly dismissive of Camus, whom he derided as a “humanist.” Humanism, he believed, was contemptible because he held it somehow responsible for Stalinism. This may be a powerfully counterintuitive view, but postmodernists today continue to argue that science, humanism, and other claims to knowledge are the real causes of totalitarian crimes. Critical theorists like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno would go on to argue that there is a direct path leading from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz. For Foucault and the postmodernists, all great abuses of power are identical to great abuses of “knowledge.” And so it must be our greatest claims to knowledge that are to blame for our greatest historical catastrophes.

This belief that knowledge is merely power is more general and profound than social constructionism. It means that all talk, all theory, all human interaction is a battle. And if speech is just an assertion of power, if all social interaction is a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed, then who should we allow to speak? Extreme skepticism about the existence of objective knowledge creates a void, which the postmodernists and the partisans of a politics of identity have since filled with a non-negotiable solidarity owed to those they identify as oppressed. Let us give voice to the weak, and affirm their “knowledge,” and silence the powerful, and deny that their “knowledge” is objective, and prioritize, at any cost, the maximization of diversity of participants and diversity of “knowledges.”

We still have much to learn from Camus. This may seem a surprising claim because the movements Camus opposed offered a universal and unifying project in Marxism, while much of our contemporary politics is committed to endless division. Postmodernism and the political philosophies derived from social constructionism, tell us that our increasingly narrowly defined groups determine our interests and our knowledge. But Camus’s appeal to our shared humanity—something that remains as unfashionable on the Left today as it was in his lifetime—is antithetical to these ideologies also. If Camus is correct, then a politics based on these ideologies must fail, since moral progress depends upon revolt, and just revolt begins with the recognition, and the assertion, of our shared human nature. As Camus put it, a just act of revolt “grounds its first value on the whole human race.” And so the rebel cries out, “I revolt—therefore we exist.”  This is a cry not only against inequality, but also against division.