Rebecca Pitt celebrates the life, politics and ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre
What do you imagine when you think of a philosopher? Someone who spends his or her time pondering the meaning of existence, but never reaching any conclusion? Or someone far removed from the real world?
Or are you reminded of Karl Marx’s famous words, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways — the point is to change it”?
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was born 100 years ago this month, tried not only to write about and understand the events of his life, but also use his fame to further a range of left wing causes.
Sartre was born in Paris and, following his father’s death, spent his early childhood in the French provinces.
He spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s library and was encouraged to write by his mother.
The young Sartre saw reading and writing as the main way of receiving and expressing knowledge about the world.
From this fervent belief Sartre would develop what he later described as a “neurosis of literature”, which he explored in his autobiography, Words.
Although Sartre would later claim he was cured of his “neurosis”, he continued to have an immense capacity for reading and writing until he went totally blind in the 1970s.
Sartre studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. His interest in this subject had been sparked by the idea that, like literature, it offered “truths”, or knowledge of the world.
While studying at university Sartre met fellow philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir, who became his lifelong companion.
After the Second World War they launched a left wing, intellectual magazine, Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), whose aim, according to de Beauvoir, was to offer “an ideology for the post-war age”.
The journal also involved the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the writer Albert Camus.
Sartre also expressed ideas through his novels and plays. He produced several major philosophical works and wrote biographies of the writers Genet, Flaubert and Baudelaire.
By the time he died in 1980, he had established himself as a major figure in French life, through his ideas, his writing and his association with a number of left wing causes.
Thousands thronged the streets of Paris at his funeral to pay their last respects. Montparnasse cemetery became so packed that someone even fell into his open grave.
What was Sartre saying that captured the imagination of so many people, and why should Sartre’s ideas be of interest to us 25 years after his death?
In the 1972 film, Sartre by Himself, Sartre reveals that in his youth he developed a lifelong interest in “freedom and responsibility”. This idea of freedom motivated Sartre’s political decisions and guided his written work.
At the age of 16, Sartre already viewed colonialism “as an anti-human brutality” because it tried to suppress others’ freedom.
He strongly opposed fascism and racism for the same reason.
Today, Sartre is best known as a “philosopher of freedom” and for this reason his ideas have continuing appeal.
His major work, Being and Nothingness, written in 1943, set out this philosophy, known as existentialism.
Existentialism argues that there is no reason or meaning for existence — we are born without specific purpose and we do not exist because of god or some abstract cause.
We are not fated to behave in certain ways, or to accomplish certain things. Instead, we are born free of meaning. This idea is summed up by Sartre in the phrase — “Existence precedes essence.”
For Sartre, because we are free in every situation, we are also responsible for our own “essence”, or the choices that we make. However, the weight of our own freedom, or the “nothingness of being”, can also lead to “bad faith”.
“Bad faith” is a form of self-denial in which one tries to avoid the awesome responsibility of one’s own total freedom.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre gives examples taken from everyday life, showing how we interact with the world and other people.
These examples reveal the ease with which we slip into complacency and “bad faith”, and how we cannot escape our own freedom.
Sartre claimed that certain circumstances revealed one’s total freedom as more obvious and demanding than it might have previously seemed.
In 1944 he declared, “Never were we more free than under the Germans… The cruelty of the enemy drove us to the extreme limits of this situation by forcing us to ask those questions which in times of peace can be avoided.”
Nazi repression of France posed a difficult question for its inhabitants — would they accept the occupation or resist it? Sartre delivered a message of resistance to his fellow citizens, in the guise of Greek tragedy, with his 1943 play The Flies.
He also organised a loose resistance collective called Socialisme et Liberté (Socialism and Freedom).
Existentialism’s emphasis on freedom was to prove a popular theory in post-war France and it propelled Sartre to fame. It was also a philosophy that he made accessible through novels such as Nausea.
Existentialism gained its own popularised media image — the stereotype of the black-clad, chain-smoking intellectual writing in a Parisian café.
It also became connected with jazz and dancing.
Indeed, Sartre did all of these things — though not necessarily all at once. The current French National Library exhibition of Sartre’s manuscripts and correspondence decided to remove a cigarette from their poster of Sartre following concerns that it would put off commercial sponsors.
Later, Sartre developed existentialism alongside a growing interest in Marxism.
In 1960 his Critique of Dialectical Reason, an amphetamine-fuelled attempt to synthesise existentialism and Marxism, Sartre argued that Marxism was “the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond”.
Marxism would become irrelevant only after a revolution that resulted in the genuine freedom of all human beings. It would then be replaced by a “philosophy of freedom”.
Sartre himself cites two reasons for his shift towards Marxism.
First, his serious study of dialectics — the philosophy that underpins Marx’s ideas. Second, the changing political climate post-1945 and the influence repressive Cold War politics had on the left.
Sartre never committed himself to one political party, looking instead for the best way to represent his desire for “socialism and freedom”.
In practice this meant aligning himself with different groups during different periods. In the 1940s Sartre had been involved with the anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist RDR.
In the 1970s he would align himself with the Maoists.
In the early 1950s he was, by his own admission, a “fellow traveller” of the French Communist Party (PCF), supporting some of their campaigns and writing favourably on the USSR following a visit in 1954.
Sartre’s relationship with the PCF would end when the USSR invaded Hungary in 1956.
In the introduction to his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre made his views on the PCF clear — Stalinism’s determinism, which downplayed the importance of the individual in consciously shaping history, was indefensible.
The same philosophical work also showed Sartre moving on from the formulations of Being and Nothingness.
He now argued that freedom had to be placed in a historical context, which places limits on individual freedom.
As he later acknowledged, “Historical conditioning exists every minute of our lives.”
Sartre did not simply express his radical views through his philosophical writings. He spoke out on the key political events of his time. From the 1940s onwards was a vocal opponent of French colonialism.
Both he and de Beauvoir signed the “Manifesto of the 121” demanding liberation for the French colony of Algeria. His anti-colonialism nearly cost him his life when nationalist groups attempted to blow up his apartment.
His writings on colonialism, including an introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, marked Sartre out as an exception in the philosophical world — a philosopher prepared to engage with issues of Third World oppression.
Because of the “war on terror”, current interest in Sartre’s work focuses on his support for the right of the oppressed to use violence to liberate themselves.
He also supported striking workers, anti-Vietnam protesters and students in revolt. He was led to question his own role as an intellectual during the French revolt of 1968.
He would speak at rallies, attend demonstrations and sell revolutionary papers. He refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 because “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution”.
Sartre was many things — an intellectual, philosopher, biographer, writer, activist and even a pianist, singer and boxer.
He wrote on all facets of human experience and dedicated his work to the fight for genuine liberation.
He urged his philosophy students in the 1930s “to approach the world with a critical mind, to question constantly every acquired notion”.
His philosophy of freedom stresses that the world we live in can be changed and that we are free and responsible for fighting for that change. It is for these reasons that Sartre’s work needs to be read.
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