Saturday, March 30, 2019

Albert Camus: Unfashionable Anti-Totalitarian

A great piece, at Quillette:

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...
Still more.