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Sartre: Conversations with a “Bourgeois Revolutionary”

John Gerassi, Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, edited and translated by John Gerassi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 336 pages, $20.00, paperback.

Joseph L. Walsh (jwalsh@stockton.edu) is emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Among his publications are “Sartre and the Marxist Ethics of Revolution,” Sartre Studies International (Spring, 2000) and “Marx and Sartre on Violence in the French Revolution” in Yeager Hudson and Creighton Peden, eds., Revolution, Violence and Equality (1990).

“I want to know, Sartre, how a bourgeois like you—and you, Sartre, no matter how much you hate the bourgeoisie are still a bourgeois through and through—became a revolutionary.” In this way, John Gerassi once informed an audience of Jean-Paul Sartre scholars and aficionados about what to expect from the 2,000-plus pages of edited transcripts of his conversations with Sartre, taped from 1970 to 1974 and recently deposited in the Yale University library. Although this remark is not included, Talking with Sartre distills those interviews into similar challenges from Gerassi, followed by Sartre’s direct, spontaneous responses. No major political and literary figure was interviewed as often as was Sartre. And nothing else, including Simone de Beauvoir’s 1974 interviews with Sartre, comes close to matching the vitality and intensity here.

It is difficult to imagine anyone other than Gerassi recording encounters like these with Sartre. They range over the whole of Sartre’s life and work—literary, philosophical, political, and personal. Beneath their candor and intensity lie decades of familial loyalties (Gerassi’s father, Fernando, was a renowned painter in France and a Spanish Civil War Republican general much admired by Sartre), and there were political associations as well. In the mid-1960s, Gerassi persuaded Sartre to join the International War Crimes Tribunal, hosted by Bertrand Russell’s Peace Foundation to investigate U.S.-sponsored atrocities in the Vietnam War. And in 1968, Gerassi, inspired by the earlier takeover of the University of Paris—a harbinger of revolution for both Sartre and Gerassi—led the student takeover of San Francisco State University.

Gerassi is now a professor of political science at the City University of New York (in Queens) and is the author of twelve books, including Sartre’s biography, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century. His knowledge of French radicalism at the time he conducted these interviews with Sartre was probably unequalled by any American, and his in-person study of radical movements worldwide (The Coming of the New International: An Anthology, 1971) added to his unquestioned credibility with Sartre. Gerassi is personally intrigued by Sartre’s persistence in identifying himself as a writer even after 1968, when he also began to identify as a revolutionary, for whom everything is political.

To chart Sartre’s political development, Gerassi takes him through his relative political indifference to the Nazis in 1933, while Sartre was studying in Berlin, and comparable disinterest in the 1936 Popular Front movement in France, arguably the most important progressive movement in twentieth century France before 1968. Sartre only entered the political battlefield for the first time after the Second World War. These war years nonetheless contributed to his political evolution in ways not often noted. For instance, Sartre describes the transformation of his “bourgeois individualism” at seeing himself and his fellow war prisoners “working together for each other’s well-being…under the heel of their German captors.”

Sartre’s years under the Nazi occupation have been the subject of much controversy, yet they are dealt with credibly here, as Gerassi focuses on Sartre’s plays The Flies and No Exit, which, although they were produced with Nazi permission, Sartre hoped “would communicate to their audiences that honor and integrity demand resistance to the Germans, no matter what the circumstances.”

“Do you think that came across?” Gerassi asks somewhat skeptically. Sartre replies that the German critics in Paris got it: “A good play but obviously entirely against us.” The French critics, he adds, did not get it, nor did the postwar Germans, who were still much concerned with their own lack of resistance. As for Sartre’s actual participation in the Resistance, Sartre and Beauvoir joined with friends and allies in Paris to form a group that clandestinely produced and distributed anti-German broadsides, and Sartre also contributed to Resistance publications Lettres Françaises and Combat.

With the end of the German occupation in 1945, France began to reinvent itself, politically and morally. Sartre, famous author and philosopher, now turned resister, emerged ready to participate in what he calls “the big political battles after the war.” Gerassi here asks Sartre whether that was when he launched the third-force, anti-United States and anti-Communist RDR [Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire].

“Exactly,” Sartre replies. “But it didn’t work. It attracted too many reactionaries. From the end of the war until ’51 or ’52 we tried to stay non-partisan and of course that got us attacked by both right and left.” “Who’s ‘we’?” queries Gerassi.

“The editors of the Les Temps Modernes [Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, François Jeanson, and others],” Sartre answers. “Soon we understood, we had to choose. The basic question: who was ready, willing even, to launch an attack on the other, to lead us into a new war that would devastate the planet? Obviously it was the United States. So we had to abandon the Third Force and ally ourselves, reluctantly…with Russia.” And with that choice came another: Sartre’s relationship to the Communist Party of France.

Gerassi hones in: “So then what happens to your ethics? Are you back to efficiency, to realism?”

“We’re on a difficult course here,” Sartre responds. “The problem has always been, for me and for any non-communist leftists, how to relate to the party.” Submission to a Stalinist apparatus that tried “to control the minds of its adherents” made cooperation with the Communist Party ethically impossible for Sartre.

But didn’t all that change with “the anti-Ridgway campaign?” inquires Gerassi, referring to the huge demonstrations in Paris during the Korean War organized by the Communists and vigorously supported by Sartre and his allies against the American NATO commander General Matthew Ridgway. In response to these aggressive U.S. moves in Europe, Sartre became, in his own words, “a fellow traveler…I didn’t like it, but to be active politically means to live schizophrenically.” As the Cold War unfolded, this meant, in practice, identifying with the Soviet Union, participating in Soviet-sponsored Peace Congresses in Vienna, Moscow, Poland, and Finland, and writing favorable, pro-Soviet articles in Les Temps Modernes, eventually anthologized as The Communists and Peace. “If there were to be a Third World War it was because America would start it. I didn’t like the Soviet system one bit, but I knew Russia would never start World War III. It couldn’t militarily or nuclearly or economically.” Furthermore, Sartre adds, a land war in Europe would mean that “France would no longer exist.”

Gerassi clearly thinks Sartre made serious mistakes during this period. He chides Sartre for continuing “to go to peace congresses” that were essentially propaganda venues. But we condemned “Russia for its invasion of Berlin [1953]…and of course Budapest in ’56,” Sartre replies, referring to the Soviet’s brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Three critical articles then followed, also later published together as The Ghost of Stalin, and signaling a rupture in his relationship with the Communists.

Sartre’s activities in his “fellow-traveler” period are generally well known. But Gerassi’s questions to Sartre about his well-publicized trips to Russia and China elicit new and surprisingly candid admissions. What about “when you go rather extensively throughout Russia. How could you not realize what a disgusting regime it had?” Gerassi asks.

“You know, I was blinded…I didn’t see the internal realities of Russia,” Sartre replies. “Because the bourgeois media tilt all news to the defense of bourgeois life…I was predisposed to believe that anti-bourgeois counterpropaganda was more truthful, or less fictitious…I wanted so much to believe that the revolution takes two steps forward, one step backward, as Mao had said, that I hoped the Soviet system would pull out of its terrifyingly repressive stage.”

As such hopes for Russia faded, Sartre’s political interests turned to the Algerian revolt and its repercussions in mainland France, although they are treated only briefly here. Sartre claims that from “our support of the FLN [National Liberation Front]…the new left was born in France…particularly as we became more militant in our support of the Vietnamese against American imperialism.” Now, the events of May 1968 and their immediate aftermath became central in Sartre’s politics. “I didn’t become political until last year [1971] when I understood the political significance of ’68 and when I joined the GP (La Gauche Prolétarienne—a Maoist-inspired group committed to continuing the 1968 worker/student alliance),” Sartre says. Gerassi demurs here, referring to Sartre’s earlier political activity: “I was not political then. I was an intellectual, trying to show what is really happening in our world and why.”

The events of 1968, however, led Sartre to a new level of understanding. “When middle-class kids in ’68 marched down in front of the Ministry of the Interior, where all the repressive files are stored and the cops guarding the joint yelled, ‘There’s no one inside, come and seize it!’ and made the fist salute, [Daniel] Cohn–Bendit…yelled back, ‘We don’t want power.’”

At that point, Sartre says, he began to understand revolutionary politics in a new way. “The communists decided to try for a compromise with de Gaulle. But the kids would not bring down the government no matter how many millions of them marched against it. And when that sank in, Castor [Beauvoir] and I realized that we are all political animals.” Previously, the exercise of governmental control over human action—“normal politics”—had been, for Sartre, something only to be observed or understood. Now, the human relations beneath that exercise became what “the political” really signified.

Sartre took two weeks off from his conversations with Gerassi in December 1970 to go to the city of Lens and preside as judge in an extra-legal, nongovernmental “people’s” trial in which the GP had begun to play a major role. Six miners had died in a mine accident and, rather than investigating the mine owners, the government had arrested and charged four of their coworkers with manslaughter, provoking large demonstrations. In the people’s trial, the owners themselves were tried for dangerous and unhealthy safety conditions and engineers, doctors, other experts were brought in to testify.

“The court—and me in my summation—demanded that the miners who had been careless and were accused of manslaughter be freed and that the owners be arrested,” Sartre recounts. “The miners were indeed freed…a decision on new safety regulations was made and the owners put them into effect…they had to pay sums to the victims…none of which was ordered by a state court—just a vote by the people of that community.”

For Sartre, what happened in Lens was not an isolated incident. It was a way for the ’68ers in the GP to say, “to hell with their courts, with their laws which always defend the rich and crucify the weak and the helpless…a farce, a way of subjugating the poor, the needy, the weak, the just.” Sartre saw here an intimation of a revolutionary future “of people participating in the decisions that affect their lives…[where] people make policy and administrators administer that policy,” where laws would not be laws “but agreements discussed and agreed upon by popular assemblies, not…from some entity sitting above the people.”

What’s more, Sartre still believed in May 1973 that France had been on the verge of a true revolution in May 1968. “On May 27-28, the two great marches, the millions of students and the millions of workers, bumped into each other at Denfert [Montparnasse]…and united. Only then did May ’68 become clearly political, not cultural,” he tells Gerassi. To turn this mass movement into a revolution, however, a political force was needed to ensure that “the government stick to revolutionary principles, to make sure it does not become opportunistic…[but] our CP could never be ‘revolutionary,’” Sartre concludes.

Despite the drama of May, there is nothing theatrical about the revolution Sartre is talking about here. At one point, it is Sartre himself who asks Gerassi whether he believes that, in a revolutionary country, the laws should proceed from below, from popular assemblies, and not from “some entity sitting above the people.” Gerassi responds, “Yes, theoretically. But we have to live in the situation as it is. No socialism can succeed without some repressive measures as long as the United States dominates the world.”

Although the immediate context here is repression in Cuba, specifically concerning the case of the poet Heberto Padilla, the issue of repression and violence occurs elsewhere and often in these exchanges. Gerassi asks Sartre, “Is revolution without terror possible, and do you support such a revolution?”

“Wow,” Sartre replies, “you really want to put me on the spot today…OK yes, I believe that a revolution is impossible without terror, precisely because the right will resort to terror to stop it.” He continues, “that brings up another aspect of revolution, which is this: to succeed a revolution must go all the way. No stopping midstream. The right will always use terror to foil it, so the revolution must use terror to stop it.”

Many difficult questions arise from this notion of “no stopping midstream.” Does it mean until the economy is entirely socially owned? Or until certain levels of income parity are achieved? These are complex questions that go beyond the scope of this book. But an exchange concerning the early days of the Cuban Revolution indicates perhaps what the principled direction of terror and violence might entail for both Sartre and Gerassi. The latter describes Fidel’s prosecution of the Batista regime’s torturers as almost “a people’s trial…anyone could testify, and hundreds of folks who were tortured or who saw their loved ones tortured to death did testify…even Time magazine [agreed] that the trials were a catharsis, saving the country from a wild bloodbath of vengeance.” Gerassi, who sees himself as totally opposed to capital punishment, asks Sartre, “Should the torturers have been executed, when we all knew, and Castro knew that the real culprits were the top echelons of Batista’s government…and the owners of…the American corporations for whom Batista and his henchmen exploited the people of Cuba?”

“Under an ideal situation,” Sartre replies, “the torturers could have been rehabilitated. But I also agree with Fidel, at that moment a bloodbath had to be avoided, and so if executing them for their proven crimes…will avoid that bloodbath, then ethically their execution was justified.” But, he continues, “had the trials taken place a year later and with no bloodbath to avoid, then no, their execution would not have been justified.” Using the likelihood of a bloodbath with its inevitable excesses and attacks on innocent people as his criterion, Sartre justifies the use of violence here to prevent greater violence.

Pressing the point, Gerassi asks of Sartre, “How do you situate the Red Army Faction in this, the Baader-Meinhof group?” Sartre replies, “From a moral and revolutionary point of view, the group’s rampage and murders of German industrialists are absolutely justified.” Sartre ends, however, without clarifying this “moral and revolutionary point of view,” except to say that “all ethics depend on circumstances.” A year and a half later (June 1972), Sartre suggests what he might earlier have had in mind: “Baader-Meinhof behaved perfectly correctly. They never killed an innocent. They went after the vicious pigs [German industrialists] of their society.” However, he adds, “popular sentiment was against them…The Baader-Meinhof group were bourgeois kids.”

Is Sartre here qualifying his previous judgment? Were Baader-Meinhof perhaps moral but not revolutionary because they were out of touch with the people they sought to lead? Is Sartre arriving at a different ethical judgment from the one he made a year and a half before? It is impossible to answer such questions on the basis of these brief exchanges. But these comments on violence, terror, and morality are a very important part of this book. On this and similar issues (e.g., maintaining loyalty to a revolution while criticizing it from within), they express a fundamental leitmotif of this political testament created by Sartre with his friend Gerassi: “My approach was always ethical. Whenever I condemned the communists or anyone else for that matter, it was always from a moral point of view.”

More important topics are discussed than can be dealt with here. Gerassi frequently attempts to get Sartre to recognize that his fundamental understanding of himself as a writer is at odds with his identity as a revolutionary for whom everything is political, citing the hours each morning Sartre still devoted to his biography of Gustave Flaubert, a bourgeois author for a bourgeois audience. “But I am both a bourgeois writer like Flaubert, and a revolutionary activist like Babeuf,” Sartre replied. “I assume responsibility for both.”

There are also crackling exchanges, in a few places almost testy on Sartre’s part, regarding de Gaulle’s role in French life, as Gerassi extols de Gaulle’s resistance to the United States and Sartre dismisses the French president as a ridiculous monarchist. Interesting nuances emerge regarding Sartre’s much discussed relationships with the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus. A brief but important discussion occurs regarding Palestinian-Israeli relations as does a full and informative exchange about both the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, including the Cultural Revolution. At one point, Gerassi riffs marvelously on Sartre’s well-known example of “seriality” among those waiting for a bus at the Place St. Germaine in Paris, relocating the event to Third Avenue in Manhattan, where someone in line takes over a long-delayed bus, thus turning isolated individuals into a Sartrean fused group. This elicits Sartre’s approval for having spelled out so powerfully his own thought.

Sartre’s personal life comes in for a full discussion, including his brief psychoanalysis with Lacan and the now famous hallucinated lobsters. Death and immortality are frequently discussed and, given that both Sartre and Gerassi are committed atheists, there are surprisingly frequent references to God and his absence. Sartre’s “amorous life” and its many, interwoven relationships of kept women and weekly luncheons, evenings, and nightly phone calls come in for detailed discussion with Gerassi exclaiming, “Wow! I think I would go crazy with such obligations.”

Through it all, however, Sartre’s relationship with Beauvoir occupies a special place even though, by Sartre’s admission, it had ceased to be sexual as early as 1946 or 1947. For those who continue to be intrigued or fascinated by Sartre, this book will yield new details and insights into his thought and work. For those for whom Sartre is now only a name, there is probably no better introduction to the man and his era.

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