Camus, Sartre and the Algerian War

By Cohen-Solal, Annie | Journal of European Studies, March-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Camus, Sartre and the Algerian War

Cohen-Solal, Annie, Journal of European Studies

Between Camus and Sartre, the Algerian war is a fertile ground for all kinds of paradoxes. If, as Roland Dumas put it, the war was really 'Sartre's war',(1) nothing had, a priori, prepared the philosopher for his role as the conflict's leading intellectual: neither his ignorance of the specific problems of French colonialism in Algeria nor his late and incidental involvement in the conflict. His visit to the M'Zab as a tourist with Simone de Beauvoir in 1950 had a political purpose: 'We were against the colonialist system', wrote De Beauvoir upon their return, 'but we had no a priori prejudice against the local administrators or those in charge of building the roads.'(2) Then, later, when the first voices of opposition rose against the French colonial regime in 1956, Sartre joined his voice to those of others like Jeanson, Barrat, Mandouze, Cesaire, Mascolo and Amrouche. He did so, as we shall see, in his own way, without initiating his meetings: joining in the protest was then the full extent of his activism. It was after his disagreements with Francis Jeanson - from November of 1956 to the spring of 1959 - that he returned to the front lines and progressively switched to a stronger activism. 1960 was, in this respect, his most important year, the year of a full-time political agenda, perhaps the most intense year of his life. That year, he became a French counter-ambassador, visiting Cuba, Brazil, Yugoslavia and the USSR as the official guest of several heads of state - such as Castro, Tito and Khrushchev. It was that year, too, when, after lending his support to the organizers of the Algerian FLN, he became the herald of a large fraction of the left wing's intelligentsia: the scapegoat of the reactionary right. 'Sartre to the firing squad!' shouted the right-wing extremists in October of that year. 'One does not send Voltaire to jail', was General de Gaulle's symbolic response a couple of months later.

Paradoxically, while Sartre's stature gained a wider prominence in what was to be the first of his many 'third world' political causes, that of Camus retreated. For if Camus was the great missing figure of the Algerian war, this was yet a greater paradox. We can hardly forget that the child of Belcourt had first-hand experience of the tensions and pains of the working-class neighbourhoods of this Algiers suburb, that, as early as 1935, he had joined the Algerian Communist Party, that he was the author of an acclaimed series of articles as a field correspondent in 1939 and that these articles, entitled 'Kabylia's Misery' remain the most insightful and thoroughly documented testimony of the situation in Algeria at the time. Camus was familiar with every aspect of the political, cultural and social environment upon which the tensions facing the Algerian people had built up; he was always keen to discuss these topics as a journalist, as a novelist, and as a moralist.

How, therefore, can we explain his strange withdrawal from the political stage as soon as the war broke out in Algeria? His first withdrawal was political: 'My Algeria hurts', he said, simply, on 1 February 1955, never to comment on the situation again except on rare occasions in 1956 and 1957, and always with obvious uneasiness. His final withdrawal was soon to follow with the fatal accident that took his life on 4 January 1960, only a few months before the much publicized trials, manifestos and public demonstrations mobilized the left.

The Algerian war was thus a missed opportunity for Sartre and Camus. In November 1954, what were then euphemistically referred to as the 'Algerian events' had erupted: this was two years after the two writers had made their political disagreements public. They would never speak to each other again, at least explicitly, until Camus's death, and 1952 was to remain the year of their last exchange, of their last public confrontation. Yet their position on the Algerian war, or at least, the opposite sides which they were quickly presumed to have joined, their public antagonism - particularly, as we shall see, in 1957 - had more to do with misunderstandings than a genuine opposition: what a sad fate their friendship had met, with this permanent stalemate, this silence and these irreconcilable disagreements! …

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