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News and Analysis from the frontlines of the progressive movement Sartre, Existentialism and Marxism on the Question of Terror: Talking with Sartre

Posted on Monday, November 30th, 2009 at 9:05 pm by Michael Ratner

Michael Smith and I have been reading John Gerassi’s new book, Talking with Sartre, Conversations and Debates.[1] The book is a shortened form of three years of on and off conversations Gerassi had with Sartre in the early 1970’s.  The book is utterly remarkable. It is as if you are  seated at the table with Sartre and asking him and debating with him questions on Marxism, existentialism, his life with Simone de Beauvoir, his depression, his plays, novels, political activism, and views about anti-colonial and revolutionary violence both before and after a revolution. In this short piece we write only about this latter subject—taken from the book– in which he takes positions which are almost never found in writings on the political left in the United States today. Even if one disagrees with Sartre, which Michael Smith and I do on some issues, it is a timely discussion in today’s world.

What Makes a Revolutionary?

Gerassi and Sartre discuss what makes a revolutionary. Sartre had great respect for Che and seems to have agreed with Che that “a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” However, Sartre also said that a revolutionary was possessed of both “hatred and love.”  Hating injustice and hating the enemy. Sartre believed it was necessary to hate the enemy in order for a revolution to succeed. As Sartre said,

“That’s very important hatred. Without it one stops too soon.  It happened in the French Revolution; I think it happens in every revolution, when those who do not hate the enemy suddenly say, Enough already, and stop short of accomplishing the complete restructuring of society, and the result is that the revolution is betrayed.” (56)

Executions in Cuba After the Revolution

Sartre then applies some of his thinking to the Cuban Revolution. Gerassi asks Sartre about Fidel putting on trial the Batista torturers where the evidence of their guilt was overwhelming. Gerassi says that even Time magazine claimed the trials were a catharsis and saved the country from a bloodbath of vengeance. Presumably, this was because the people would have taken justice in their own hands and enacted vengeance without trials. But then 365 torturers were executed and that showed that Fidel was “not just a bourgeois reformer but a genuine revolutionary” and Time and the United States condemned him.  Gerassi then asks what Sartre thinks of the executions when all knew including Fidel that the real culprits were the owners of United Fruit, IT&T and other corporations for who Batista exploited the people of Cuba.

Sartre answers “that under an ideal situation, the torturers could have been rehabilitated.” But he agreed with Fidel that at

“that moment a bloodbath had to be avoided, and these torturers were scum, after all, so if executing them for their proven crimes, even if the president of IT&T is ultimately responsible, will avoid that bloodbath, then ethically their execution was justified….”

However, Sartre points out that had the trials taken place a year later and there was no risk of a bloodbath, “then no, their executions would not have been justified.” (98-99)

Counter Terror Against Terror

Sartre was consistent on the question of the morality of counter terror against terror. (This is not to say he recommended it as a tactic.)  He supported the FLN in fighting the French for the liberation of Algeria even if that meant killings on the streets of Paris. In the context he even believed the Baader-Meinhof group was “totally justified.”  As Sartre says,

“Remember that context. The shah [of Iran] comes to Berlin and the students protest peacefully. They are severely beaten by the shah’s security goods and the German police who shoot and kill one student. Benno Ohnesorg.  The pro-US press then yells that the real responsible one was Rudi Dutschke [leader of the student protesters] and he is shot in the head. From a moral and a revolutionary point of view, the groups rampage of murders of German industrialists are absolutely justified. But…you see my problem–all ethics depend on circumstances.” (99)

And here is Sartre addressing the question of resistance by the Palestinians. Gerassi asks Sartre about the French GP (La Gauche Prolétarienne) which supports armed struggle by the Palestinians and considers the suicide bombers “freedom fighters.” Sartre answers “I have always supported counterterror against established terror. And I have always defined established terror as occupation, land seizure, arbitrary arrest, and so on, as does the Israeli left….” (191)

Conclusion: Michael Smith’s Analysis

Sartre was a revolutionary.  He was an existentialist, not a Marxist.  He derived his morality from his own unique philosophy involving action and commitment.  He brings his existential sensibility to the question of terror,   For Sartre it was a question of the terrorism of the oppressor versus the terrorism of the oppressed, on whose side he was resolutely on.

This question was taken up both in theory and in practice by the revolutionary Russian Narodniks of the l880s and by the Bolsheviks in that great laboratory of social struggle which was to culminate in the victorious Russian revolution of l9l7.  It is both historical and extremely contemporary.

The Narodniks, were skillful and accomplished self-sacrificing terrorists. They managed to kill over three thousand Tsarist officials.  It was Trotsky, who, like Sartre, stood in absolute moral solidarity with them, articulated a different, Marxist, strategy and critiqued the practice of individual terror.  He opposed it for three reasons.

First, it didn’t work. The Tsarists government simply replaced one dead functionary with another live one.  Second the terrorism took the onus of violence off the government, where it belonged, and placed it on the oppressed, and further stepped up its repression.  But the third reason for the Marxists like Trotsky was central.  All the bombs, assassinations, the violence’s a whole served to sideline the masses, it made them spectators.

Even if they looked on approvingly at the death of a hated official, which often they did, they did not have any part in their own struggle.  The current of revolutionary socialism condemned terrorism as a tactic because they believed the emancipation of the workers and peasants and their allies from class rule had to be achieved by the oppressed themselves if it were to be conclusive and lasting.  In the words of the International, the song that came out of the first great workers rebellion, the Paris Commune of l87l, “We want no condescending saviors.”   For Marxists, the self-activity of the masses was the absolute key.  To those who advocated terrorism they simply said, “Comrades, chose another path.”

Sartre’s talk with Gerassi on this subject is a passionate reprise of a crucially important and timely discussion given the U.S. engagement with the Muslim world.

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