Jean-Paul Sartre: Intellectual in Revolt

Book Review

By Tom Philpott
February 1990; page 13; Volume 1, No. 4

Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His century. By John Gerassi. 187 pp. $19.95

The elite of any society always hates a radical - especially one whose brilliance can't be ignored, whose obvious greatness demands recognition. Until, that is, the brilliant radical dies. Then the process of homogenization begins.

Thus, for example, we revere George Bernard Shaw as a playwright and cherish his witty aphorisms - while downplaying his role as wild-eyed Marxist pamphleteer. And Jesus Christ himself, who was reviled and executed as a revolutionary in his day, has in the 2000 years since become an icon for capital accumulationists and religious bigots.

Now it's time for the inevitable rehabilitation of Jean-Paul Sartre, radical laureate of responsibility and freedom, tireless champion of unpopular causes, intellectual leader of the French Resistance, and, above all, Marxist philosopher until the end. It is the chief purpose of John Gerassi's Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century, to intervene in the process, to thward today's liberal academics from making Sartre's life fit for bourgeouis consumption.

Existentialism and Marxism

Sartre often explained that he felt no need to reconcile existentialism with Marxism, since existentialism was Marxism, in the same sense that calculus is mathematics.

For Sartre, as for Marx, capitalism's profanity lay in the limits it put on individual freedom: the rigidity of class constructs, the enforced gulf between what people want to do with their lives and what they must do to feed and house themselves, the prevalence of dollar democracy (i.e. one dollar, one vote) in even the most liberal of capitalist societies.

Sartre's existentialism merely states that we are absolutely free, within the confines of two essential limits: the traits and conditions we inherit (our "facticity"), and the way others perceive us (our "being-for-others"). Everything else we can and must "transcend": We are both "free" to create ourselves and "responsible" for what we create.

Since the capitalist order places extra, non-essential limits on our freedom, it's perfectly consistent with Sartre's existentialism to oppose capitalism. And since we transcend all but the essential limits, it's perfectly logical for Sartre, with Marx, to agitate for a classless society that's not organized around forced work.

Yet even while Sartre lived, mainstream scholars tried to separate the undeniable brilliance of Sartre's philosophy from its Marxist implications - despite his almost constant involvement with revolutionary and anarchist groups. As early as 1975, the eminent student of philosophy Walter Kaufmann declared Sartre's essay Search for a Method, which describes the relationship between existentialism and Marxism, both the "end" and the "epithet" of existentialism.

And the 1987 publication of Annie Cohen-Solal's monumental Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life marks the European intelligentsia's first major attempt to rescue the memory of Sartre from his revolutionary inclinations, to soften the effect of Sartre's relentless societal critique on what's become universally acknowledged as the century's most provocative, comprehensive Western philosophy.

'Objectivity' and its Restraints

The book rankled Gerassi, but it saved him, too. A life-long friend who Sartre had chosen as his biographer, Gerassi had spent 15 years working on a traditional biography, digging meticulously for details, trying to be, as he scornfully puts it, "objective."

But now Cohen-Solal had written the objective Sartre biography. It didn't matter that the book's "objectivity" rendered it all but worthless, making its subject so fit for safe Western discourse that The New York Times could proclaim, with approval, that "Cohen-Solal has taken Jean-Paul Sartre away from the intellectual left, whose property he has remained since his death."

Gerassi was now free to write a different type of biography: one that didn't try to explain Sartre by stringing together "the facts" of his life, but rather tried to "trace the trajectory of [his] conscience."

In doing so, Gerassi would rescue Sartre from becoming the "property" (as The Times so tellingly put it) of the liberal-apologist intelligentsia. At the same time, he would address perhaps the chief paradox of Sartre's life, which can be summed up in Gerassi's answer to Sartre's question, "What would be your guiding principle [in writing my biography]?": "I would try," Gerassi replied, "to explain how someone who has never rebelled against his class - because, Sartre, no matter how much you hate the bourgeoisie, you are still a bourgeois through and through - could become a revolutionary."

Genealogy of a Conscience

Gerassi lays out the roots of his relationship with Sartre and the origin of the book, and then turns to the man himself. Each subchapter, with such titles as "The Faker," "The Loser," "The Writer," 'The Resistant," can be read as separate points on the moral evolution of Sartre: from upper-middle-class, pompous college boy (he once wrote to an uncooperative girlfriend, "Who made you what you are, who tries to stop you ... from being an esthete or a whore? Who develops your intelligence? Me alone!"), to the self-absorbed academic of the mid-1930s Nausea days, to the man who would declare in 1964, commenting on his favorite of his own books, "Weighed against a dying child, Nausea doesn't count."

By the mid-60's, Sartre had become the most famous and influential intellectual in France. He was also the most hated. The Communists hated him for his scorn of collectivism, for his advocacy of a kind of anarchy-with-a-human-face so different from Soviet-style Marxism. The literary-intellectual set hated him for refusing the Nobel Prize in 1964. French political elites hated him for repeatedly expressing such sentiments as, "With calm, careful reason, the violence of the 'haves' always ends up being 'in defense of peace,' while the establishment, and especially the established media, will always condemn the emotion self-defense counter-violence of the 'have-nots' as terroristic."

The political establishment also hated him for steadfast support of Algerian independence, even when the bloodiest of colonial independence wars manifested himself in Paris. The anti-independence French colonial forces launched a terror campaign in Paris when deGaulle gave in to the Algerians. They bombed Sartre's Paris flat, which in a sense voided Albert Camus' charge that Sartre was an "armchair revolutionary."

Gerassi claims early in the book that "Sartre was the only genuine intellectual of our times who was never co-opted by the bourgeois government." That's a stunning claim, one he never rigorously defends. But perhaps we shouldn't rebuke him for it, since he never pretends to have written an "objective" book.

In fact, the book's value lies in its subjectivity, the insights that this lifelong friend brings into the telling of the facts of Sartre's life. For all his reverence for his subject, he never tries to deify Sartre, never failing to point up Sartre's petty contradictions, his love for the trappings of bourgeois life, his sometimes excessive tendency to support unpopular causes.

"No matter what are their ideas," Sartre once warned Gerassi about intellectuals, "you must distrust their motives and judge them, like anyone else, by what they do." If Gerassi shows nothing else with his book, it's that Sartre, from 1945 on, always managed - in his writing and his actions - to "denounce injustice and to support the wretched of the earth."

Thanks to Congress Avenue Booksellers for loan of this book.