Say It Ain't Joe

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Review of 'Sartre Against Stalinism', Ian Birchall, Berghahn Books £16.99

During his lifetime Jean-Paul Sartre achieved a fame denied to most 20th century novelists, playwrights and philosophers. It wasn't just that his ideas - about struggling for freedom in an absurd world - struck a chord with a generation revolted by the collapse of the Third Republic, by the Nazi Occupation and by the collaborationist Vichy regime. It was that he was prepared to intervene, as a committed intellectual, in the great political movements of his time.

The focus of Ian's book is not Sartre's philosophy but his complex and fraught relationship with the French Communist Party (PCF). As Ian points out, it is wrong to assume that Sartre's move from existentialist ideas about freedom (which tended to concentrate on the individual's relationship to the world) towards Marxism took place purely 'within the confines of his own skull'. It can only be understood in the context of the prolonged crisis of French Stalinism between 1956 (when the Hungarian Revolution shook Eastern Europe) and 1968 (when students' and workers' revolt in France fatally undermined the PCF's grip on the working class movement).

Sartre has been dismissed politically as a Stalinist fellow-traveller. The reality is much more complex. For anyone on the left at the time, particularly in France, the PCF could not be ignored. It defined left wing politics. It shaped the working class movement and commanded the loyalty of the best militants. To reject the PCF was to reject (so it seemed) belonging to the working class movement and progressive causes. And the fate of many intellectuals who attacked the PCF only to fall into a Stalinophobia that was blind to the sins of western imperialism served as a dreadful warning.

Sartre was determined to avoid such a fate. But it meant he was trapped into seeing little alternative to the PCF's hegemony in the working class movement, even though he distrusted its politics - often profoundly so.

This contradiction defined Sartre's political trajectory from the end of the Second World War. There was a four-year period - at the height of the Cold War between 1952 and 1956 - when the charge of pro-Stalinism is justified. Yet, both before and after these years, what is impressive about Sartre is just how much distance he managed to put between himself and the PCF, while never surrendering to right wing Stalinophobia, as many other anti-Stalinists did.

After the war, he was central to the creation of the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly, which aimed to create a genuinely democratic left wing movement to rival both Stalinism and social democracy. For a while it attracted a considerable following, only to collapse in 1949, a victim of lack of political clarity and the difficulty of building something that looked to neither Washington nor Moscow.

He took the lead in supporting the struggle for Algerian independence - at a time when to do so was extremely dangerous and when the PCF opportunistically failed to take up a clear, anti-imperialist position. He championed the gay writer Jean Genet when homosexuality was dismissed as a petty bourgeois deviation by the party. In 1968, at the time of the student revolt and mass general strike which brought De Gaulle's government to its knees, he publicly championed those condemned as 'ultra-left' by the PCF.

In the context of the 1950s and 1960s Sartre's dilemma was understandable: the pressures of the Cold War left little space for the anti-Stalinist left, which was prone to sectarianism and lacked an adequate understanding of both the Stalinist states and western capitalism.

Despite this Sartre was responsive to the arguments of the anti-Stalinist left, including the Trotskyist left. He took them extremely seriously - as the debates in Les Temps Modernes, the journal with which Sartre was most associated, show. Ian's formidable knowledge of the numerically small but intellectually significant anti-Stalinist left recovers a Marxist alternative to Stalinism in France often airbrushed out of history - and not just by Stalinists.

Sartre was prepared to argue openly and undogmatically with this anti-Stalinist current, much to the annoyance of the PCF, which preferred more thuggish intellectual methods - methods it was to use against Sartre himself on many occasions. But he was not prepared to join any of the small revolutionary groups to the left - not even the Maoists whose paper he sold on the streets after 1968.

Sartre, for all his faults, showed what could be done under unfavourable conditions. Today, conditions are much more favourable: Stalinism is dead, social democracy is in deep crisis and global capitalism lacks legitimacy in the eyes of millions. The question of what kind of politics and what kind of organisation the movement needs is practical and urgent. Ian's account of Sartre as a fighter for freedom - however flawed a fighter - is timely and invaluable.