camus[Harvard University Press; 2013; tr. Arthur Goldhammer]

Albert Camus will be remembered by many readers as one of the towering figures of 20th century humanism. There is plenty in his work and his biography to justify this assessment, but in the final analysis it has just as much to do with his association with Jean-Paul Sartre – once amicable, subsequently fractious, and retroactively framed by the far more prolific Sartre after Camus’ untimely death at the age of 46. In 1946 Sartre published a short book entitled Existentialism is a Humanism, defending his philosophical position from charges levied primarily from Marxist and Catholic camps – charges that existentialism encouraged a fatalistic passivity, was too individualistic, lacked an ethics or a sophisticated politics at its core, or obscured the positive aspects of humanity by dwelling on the darker parts of the human condition. At this point Camus had already published The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, and for many readers was folded into the “we” that Sartre invoked to defend the humanist foundations of existentialism. Moreover, as was often the case, Sartre had the last word in their public quarrel, eulogizing Camus in the following way:

“He represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters. His obstinate humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged an uncertain war against the massive and formless events of the time. But on the other hand through his dogged rejections he reaffirmed, at the heart of our epoch, against the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue.”

Despite an initial flourish of popularity in the immediate aftermath of WWII, Sartre’s form of humanism was to lose the day in the philosophical world, and the “humanist” label drew suspicion for holding the individual outside of their historical, social, or political context.  For Sartre and some of his interlocutors (Heidegger, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty) debates were allowed to remain on a fairly abstract level and be pushed forward by intellectual posturing.  As we read in Algerian Chronicles, a collection of writings on his native Algeria from 1939-1958, Albert Camus was afforded no such luxury. As perhaps the most famous and influential Algerian born figure on the French intellectual scene, Camus was asked to speak on the question of independence, and each subsequent intervention seemed to leave all parties more and more dissatisfied. As Camus writes in the introduction to these collected papers, which were originally published in 1958, the year de Gaulle formed the 5th republic and pushed the conflict into an all or nothing affair:

Finding it impossible to join either of the extreme camps, recognizing the gradual disappearance of the third camp in which it was still possible to keep a cool head, doubtful of my own certitudes and knowledge and convinced that the true cause of our follies is to be found in the way in which our intellectual and political society habitually operates, I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.

Thus in Algerian Chronicles we get both the settled position of Camus on Algerian independence and a study of what led to this exasperated tone – namely the insufficiencies of humanist principles to get a fair hearing during a particular kind of political sequence, that of anticolonial struggles or broader movements to counteract the injustices of imperialism and racism. The latter of these two make the book immediately relevant to present political realities and raises fascinating questions about the responsibility of intellectuals to try and frame public debates. I’ll return to this in a bit, but first it’s important to lay out Camus’ position and understand why it would become so divisive.

Camus was born in Dréan, Algeria, to a working class family of pied-noirs (descendants of French settlers) in 1913.  As we learn in his unfinished autobiographical novel, posthumously published as The First Man, he emerged from childhood with two indelible affinities – first, for the struggles of the poor (having grown up in great poverty himself), and second, for the Mediterranean and its distinct cultures. Algerian Chronicles begins with a long account of a famine in Kabylia, a mountainous and primarily Berber region of northern Algeria. Camus was sent there in 1939 by Alger républicain, a paper with radical leanings that would eventually lead to his expulsion from Algeria. Here we see a young journalist speaking in a primarily Marxist and populist vein, doing his best to rouse metropolitan society (i.e. the French, both in Algeria and in France) with a personal account of the comprehensive injustices of the colonial system. We also see the kinds of statements that were certainly brave at the time, as evidenced by the fact that the Alger républicain was subsequently shut down by French authorities in Algeria, but would come to bring so much scorn upon its author: “If there is any conceivable excuse for the colonial conquest, it has to lie in helping the conquered people to retain their distinctive personality. And if we French have any duty here, it is to allow one of the proudest and most humane peoples in this world to keep faith with itself and its destiny.” Pluralism is a noble aspiration, but the problem here was an inability to imagine Algeria without the French.

Federation is what Camus is describing, and after the “soft humanitarianism” of his account of Kabylia (to borrow a term from Alice Kaplan’s excellent introduction), we move directly into the “Crisis in Algeria.” In a series of articles for the journal Combat Camus implores the French to address the grave issue of hunger in Algeria, which he warns is moving beyond a humanitarian crisis to sow the seeds of a dangerous “political malaise.” “The Arabs seem to have lost their faith in democracy, of which they were offered only a caricature. They hope to achieve by other means a goal that has never changed: an improvement in their condition.” Here is where things begin to unravel for Camus and his ability to get a fair hearing about the political structure that would allow for these improvements to take place. Initially he puts his faith in Ferhat Abbas, moderate leader of the “Friends of the Manifesto” Party, who advocated for a federation of French and Algerian representatives on terms that, while highly critical of current French practices, were conciliatory to the colonial Metropole (e.g. eschewing proportional representation, which would lead to an Arab dominated parliament, for a 50-50 split). Hardline French settlers rejected any such suggestions and their counterparts in the security forces “responded with prison sentences and repression – stupidity pure and simple.” This is one of the countless tragic “missed opportunities” that Camus is forced to acknowledge. Yet even with these early indications of France’s inability to shake the colonizer’s mentality he never abandoned the goal of federation as being that “third camp in which it was still possible to keep a cool head.” This meant that each call for the cessation of French discrimination and violent mistreatment of the Arab population was paired with an equal consideration for the fate of the 1 million French-Algerians (a portion of which were not oppressive colonizers, but working class like Camus’ family).

The Algerian War for Independence broke out in earnest in 1954, at which point Ferhat Abbas had long since taken a harder nationalist position, leaving Camus with few sympathetic allies in negotiations. Independence now seized the direction of Algerian politics on the question of any potential federation, and this was increasingly the position of the Left in France as well. The cycle of violence and reprisals had also become the defining characteristic of the conflict, which throughout the assembled pieces in Algerian Chronicles remains Camus’ overriding concern. In 1956 he traveled to Algiers to deliver a call for “a civilian truce in Algeria” and broker a peace between any parties considering or currently pursuing violent means in support of their cause. He invoked his “only qualification to speak about this issue…I have experienced Algeria’s misfortune as a personal tragedy.” He moderated his goals, calling “first, to come together, and second, to save human lives and thus bring about a climate more favorable to reasonable discussion.” He shared with anyone who would listen his “conviction that this spell [of violence] can be broken, that this impotence is an illusion, and that sometimes, a strong heart, intelligence, and courage are enough to overcome fate. All it takes is will: will that is not blind but firm and deliberate.”  The attempts failed miserably and by 1958, when Camus finally publishes these collected pieces to clear any false representations of his position and to reaffirm his commitment to the ideal of peaceful cohabitation, he has lost nearly all influence in public debates.

It is here that the question of Camus’ humanism reemerges. Sadly he died two years before Algeria gained its independence, and thus was unable to assess the country’s future. From Algerian Chronicles we would imagine that he would deeply lament the expulsion of the French, hope that at a minimum the cycle of violence had ended, and look upon his native country with a great deal of anxiety (e.g. that the expulsion of the French would include what Camus saw as the enriching aspects of its literary, artistic, and philosophical culture). But the question would still remain as to whether this humanistic concern for the well being of all was an adequate posture for the significant and often tragic task of dismantling the colonial apparatus. Do decades of brutal repression merit a different set of concerns? Sartre, to whom few would ascribe the constancy that he did to Camus, famously wrote the following in his preface to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: “Violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.” Contrast this with a statement from Camus’ preface: “Although it is historically true that values such as the nation and humanity cannot survive unless one fights for them, fighting alone cannot justify them (nor can force). The fight must itself be justified, and explained in terms of values.” Even at the time of Algerian Chronicles’ publication there was already a strong suspicion that Camus’ appeal to “the moral issue” was punting on questions of crushing importance. It was an open question then and remains one to this day whether humanistic principles, even as beautifully articulated as they are by Camus in these pieces, have the motive forth to disrupt the many-sided nature of structural injustice.

The Yale French scholar Alison Klein provides an informative introduction tracking the evolution of Camus’ position, both in relation to his own artistic and political practice and in relation to events of the time. Moreover, the Harvard edition contains interesting supplementary material that was not included in the original French publication, including an account of a confrontation between Camus and an Algerian student aligned with the Front de Libération Nationale. When asked why he supported dissident groups in Eastern Europe but would not support the FLN, Camus responded, “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, I prefer my mother.” However, Le Monde reported Camus as saying, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice,” which was eventually shortened in the popular memory to “between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.” Despite these systematic distortions, which Camus came to expect as the 1950s wore on, the writing in Algerian Chronicles has the same lucid quality that earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whatever you make of the politics this is an impressive feat and you feel the constraints within which Camus attempted to square his private sentiments and his public responsibilities. One need not look far to find echoes of this same problem in the present, and Camus’ famous hesitation on the Algerian question is one that our strident, willfully divisive public figures would do well to reexamine.  

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