Jean-Paul Sartre: Apologist for Tyranny

Good Sartre jokes aside, his reputation deserves to take a serious hit:

. . . starting in the mid-1940s, and increasingly over the next 10 years, Sartre begins to worship at another altar: the altar of Communism. This is an ideology that has notoriously little use for individual freedom; instead of human beings freely making themselves, it sees them acting out the roles imposed on them by the class struggle. In the mission statement for Les Temps Modernes, the magazine he launched in 1945, Sartre seems to reject any notion of artistic independence. The writer, he now believes, is always already committed to history, and has no choice but to take part in the political battles of his day. “The writer is situated in his time; every word he utters has reverberations. As does his silence,” Sartre warns.

In the pages that follow, we witness the strange and, eventually, repellent spectacle of this tribune of freedom becoming an apologist for the worst kinds of oppression, so long as it comes waving the banner of liberation. A key text here is “Portrait of the Adventurer,” published in 1950 as the introduction to a book about writers who were also men of action, like T.E. Lawrence and Andre Malraux. Subversively, Sartre turns his piece into a rejection of precisely that type of human being, in favor of what he calls “the militant”—that is, the militant Communist, the party member. When he writes, “Rather than taking your ego from you, the Party gives it to you,” he means this as high praise: the militant extinguishes his individual personality and becomes a pure function of the class struggle. “He is never alone because he discovers himself through the others. He possesses neither depth nor secrets.” At the end of this hymn to soullessness, even Sartre himself seems to recoil: “Yet a socialist society in which future Lawrences would be radically impossible would strike me as sterile,” he confesses.

Eventually, Sartre wised up . . . kinda:

By 1968, the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia left Sartre with no choice but to abandon his illusions about the U.S.S.R. “The Socialism That Came In From the Cold,” his essay on Czech culture under communism, is as clear-eyed an analysis as any dissident could offer. Yet even then, he condemns this socialism in the name of a potentially better one. By then, he has transferred his illusions about liberation to the Third World. In his famous introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he writes with unconcealed glee about the prospect of Algerians killing their former masters, which happen to be the French. At the bottom of much of Sartre’s politics, in fact, there lies a frank enjoyment of hatred, which also expresses itself in some of his polemics against enemies and former friends. That is why We Have Only this Life to Live ends up seeming less like an inspiration than an existential warning: a great intellect alone, it shows, does not make a great man.