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Jean-Paul Sartre at 100

By Any Means Necessary?

Ian Birchall on a moral problem for Sartre.

When Jean-Paul Sartre published Being and Nothingness in 1943, his conclusion promised a sequel. This was perhaps not the most enticing prospect for a reader who had just finished ploughing through 700 impenetrable pages. But in fact the book ended on a cliff-hanger. In a godless universe in which we are ‘condemned to be free’, it is all the same whether one becomes a leader of nations or gets drunk on one’s own. So did existentialism open the door to moral anarchy? Was Dostoevsky (as quoted by Sartre) right when he claimed: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”?

Sartre insisted this was not the case: an existentialist morality was not only possible, it would hit the bookstands shortly. But it didn’t. Compared with JK Rowling, Sartre was not very adept at delivering sequels. His novel cycle The Roads to Freedom and his biography of Flaubert were both left incomplete. This probably has something to do with the fact that Sartre was much better at asking questions than at answering them.

But if Being and Nothingness – 2 never saw the light of day, it was not for the want of trying. In 1947 and 1948 Sartre wrote some 600 pages on the question of an existentialist morality. But he never resolved the issues to his satisfaction, and never published the manuscript. It appeared after his death under the title Cahiers pour une morale (1983), and was later translated into English as Notebooks for an Ethics (Chicago, 1992).

The problem, as so often for Sartre, was politics. For various reasons, he was becoming more and more politically involved. In 1948 he took part in an attempt to launch a new political movement independent of both Washington and Moscow.

On the one hand, Sartre recognised that any political stance had to have a moral basis. This brought him into conflict with many Marxists. Sartre made fun of the French Communist Party’s contradictory attitude to morality. On the one hand its textbooks of Marxism taught that capitalists were obliged by inexorable economic laws to maximise profits. On the other hand the Party’s popular daily paper denounced ‘wicked’ bosses.

But if a moral impulse lay behind any attempt to change society, at the same time it was impossible to establish universal moral principles in a society based on gross inequality. Kant had argued that we should act according to principles which we wished to become universal laws. I don’t punch you on the nose because a world in which everybody punched each other on the nose would be intolerable. But, Sartre might have rejoined, suppose I have a boss who underpays and overworks me, harasses me and bullies me and generally makes my life a misery. Can we really say that for him to punch me or for me to punch him are equivalent actions?

In fact, Sartre argued, we live in a world where the distribution of wealth and property are based on past violence, however much the present order may condemn violence. Sartre’s position is beautifully illustrated by the story of the Yorkshire miner walking across open moor land. The local landlord rode up and told him he was trespassing on private property. The miner enquired how the land came to be his. “My great-great-great-grandfather won it in a battle,” replied the landlord. “Take your coat off,” said the miner, “and I’ll fight you for it now.”

Sartre’s conclusion was that “morality today must be revolutionary socialist”. That is, our first priority must be to fight for a society based on equality and common ownership of wealth. Only when that was achieved could we have universal moral principles. The Notebooks are a rich and complex, if fragmentary, work, and it is impossible to cover everything here. But one theme which has a particular importance for Sartre’s work, and is still highly relevant today, is the question of ends and means.

In the period that stretched from the German Occupation to the early years of the Cold War this was a vital question. Resistance fighters had often seen their struggles and sacrifices as justified by the fact that they were preparing ‘singing tomorrows’. Diehard supporters of Stalin’s Russia defended those aspects of the regime’s brutality which they couldn’t simply deny by saying that these were harsh necessities on the road to the establishment of a classless society from which oppression and exploitation would be banished. On the other hand, anti-Stalinists like Sartre’s one-time friend Arthur Koestler argued that Communism was such a great evil that it was necessary to link up with the United States or right-wing politicians such as de Gaulle in order to combat it. In the early fifties, when Sartre had his notorious quarrel with Camus, one of Camus’ main arguments against Marxism in his book The Rebel was that it meant sacrificing the present to the future, doing evil now in the hope that good would come later.

So Sartre’s argument about ends and means was based on his view of history. Unlike many of the dogmatic and mechanical Marxists whom he encountered in the French Communist Party, he did not believe in a history which developed through predetermined stages to a necessary conclusion. That was, he quite rightly believed, a travesty of Marxism. History was no more than the accumulation of human choices. As he said in a lecture in 1945: “Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be.”

On this basis Sartre made an important distinction. If we believe – as he did not – that we can have a clear idea of what a future society based on liberty and equality would look like, if that future society will be based on a fixed and pregiven idea, then any route that will get us there, the sooner the better, is legitimate, and any sacrifices – or crimes – can be justified by simple profit and loss accounting; the total sum of human suffering will be smaller. But if there is no pregiven end, then any end we arrive at will be the product of the means used to get there. In Sartre’s words:

“If the end is still to be made, if it is a choice and a risk for man, then it can be corrupted by the means, for it is what we make it and it is transformed at the same time as man transforms himself by the use he makes of the means. But if the end is to be reached, if in a sense it has a sufficiency of being, then it is independent of the means. In that case one can choose any means to achieve it.”

It is the difference between travelling by train to a well-known terminus, with a room already booked at a nearby hotel, and wandering across country without maps, striking camp where it appears suitable.

In his discussion of ends and means Sartre refers in particular to Leon Trotsky’s pamphlet Their Morals and Ours. (Trotsky’s works were hardly easy to come by in France in the 1940s, with Nazi Occupation having given way to a period where the whole left was dominated by the Communist Party. Sartre probably got the book from Merleau-Ponty, who was knowledgeable about Trotskyism.) Trotsky wrote with first-hand experience of the early years of the Russian Revolution, and the harsh choices necessary when foreign armies attempted to strangle the Revolution at birth. Trotsky rejected the facile formulation that the end justifies the means. A simple balance sheet of profit and loss could not do justice to the problem; he argued that there was a dialectical interaction whereby the means used conditioned the end arrived at. Since socialism involved the self-emancipation of the working class, then the only means permissible were those which raised proletarian consciousness – the working class could not be liberated behind its own back.

While Sartre noted some reservations about Trotsky’s position, he basically accepted its logic. The problem was examined from a different angle in his discussion of oppression. For Sartre, oppression involved a human agent and a human victim. We cannot be oppressed by a rock, only by a free human will. (A rock becomes an obstacle only in terms of a human project, so a rock can destroy a human body but not human freedom.) Only a free human will can be oppressed, precisely by the project of another to deny the victim’s freedom and turn her/him into an object. The project of oppression is always contradictory.

Thus Sartre considers the question of lying. Clearly he has no truck with the idea of absolute truthfulness – one could scarcely criticise Resistance prisoners for lying to the Gestapo to protect their comrades. But as he points out, lying often fails to achieve its purpose. Thus if I lie about my achievements in order to be praised, the praise I win will be false and unsatisfying. Only freely-accorded admiration can satisfy its recipient.

Sartre’s musings on ends and means undoubtedly helped to guide his political choices over the following years. In 1949-50, when information about Russian labour camps was circulating widely, Sartre signed an editorial in his journal Les Temps modernes which stated clearly that “there is no socialism when one citizen out of twenty is in a camp”. By its use of repressive means the USSR had undermined the very end it purported to be pursuing.

Yet when his former colleague David Rousset launched a campaign against the Russian camps in the right-wing newspaper Figaro, Sartre refused to give him any support. Believing that Russian Communism was still, on balance, a progressive force, he refused to ally with the French right-wing press against it.

In 1956, when French Communists justified the Russian invasion of Hungary by claiming it was necessary to defend socialism, Sartre responded in terms that might have come directly from the Notebooks: “We agree with those who say: the end justifies the means; but we add the indispensable corrective: it is the means which define the end.”

Sartre attempted to dramatise the issue in his 1951 play Lucifer and the Lord. Goetz, a brutal sixteenth-century German warlord, becomes converted to the pursuit of Good. But the means he adopts, setting up a Utopian community for peasants, is inappropriate to the context, and provokes a peasant war. In the final scene Goetz is persuaded to become leader of the peasant army, deploying his old military skills. Sartre carefully avoided writing a neat moral parable; as the play ends, we do not know if Goetz’s brutal methods will succeed. His final words are: “There is this war to fight and I shall fight it”. The audience is left to make up its mind about how the war should be fought.

In the 1960s, during the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, Sartre returned to the arguments about means and ends. In discussing Vietnam, he insisted that there could be no equation between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressors: “During the Algerian war I always refused to make a parallel between the terrorist use of bombs, the only weapon available to the Algerians, and the actions and extortions of a rich army of half a million, which occupied the entire country. It’s the same in Vietnam.”

In 1961 Sartre wrote a preface to the book The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, one of the leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front then waging war against the French state. (Sartre was fortunate to live under de Gaulle, and not Tony Blair, who would doubtless have prosecuted him for “fomenting, justifying or glorifying terrorism”.) Sartre made it clear that he regarded the violence of national liberation movements as a legitimate and necessary response to the violence of colonialism. But he also argued that the use of violence helped to raise the consciousness of the oppressed. “Others make men of themselves by murdering Europeans, and these are shot down; brigands or martyrs, their agony exalts the terrified masses... this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.”

This is often dismissed as a bloodthirsty flourish; in fact Sartre was coming back to Trotsky’s argument as discussed in the Notebooks. The ultimate justification of any means must be whether it enabled the oppressed to gather the power and the confidence to overthrow their oppression.

It would be foolish to look for direct relevance to contemporary issues in what Sartre wrote half a century ago. Sartre insisted that his aim was to ‘write for his own time’. At least he helps us to cut through some of the nonsense talked about ends and means.

In a Guardian article a few years ago George Steiner resurrected Dostoevsky’s question: “Would you torture to death one child to save the whole world?” In Sartrean terms the question of means and ends is a concrete, practical one. There are no conceivable circumstances in which such an action could have such a consequence, so why speculate?

It is interesting to note that in recent years the debate has shifted. In the Cold War period it was the left who were repeatedly denounced, sometimes with justice, sometimes not, for believing that the end justifies the means. In the new century it is the pro-war right who deploy the argument. Such collateral damage as the deaths of hundreds of children is justified because Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. The more serious question is not raised. As Sartre observed, the end of socialism cannot be achieved by such means as tanks and labour camps. Likewise, warriors against terrorism might enquire whether democracy, in any meaningful sense, can be achieved by the bayonets of an invading army.

What Sartre would have thought of today’s world is difficult to imagine. His positions on the Middle East were complex and sometimes self-contradictory, ranging from sympathy for Zionist terrorism before the establishment of the state of Israel to qualified approval of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Terrorism has many meanings in many different contexts. Trotsky made clear his rejection of individual terrorism, arguing that it actually “belittles the rôle of the masses in their own consciousness”. Camus, on the other hand, believed that terrorism can only be justified if the terrorist is willing to sacrifice his/her own life – a position which could have left him approving suicide bombers. Sartre’s exact position cannot be determined, but even if he had stopped smoking and lived to be a hundred, it is hard to imagine him lining up with the pro-war left.

© Ian Birchall 2005

Ian Birchall is the author of Sartre Against Stalinism (Berghahn 2004), a member of the UK Society for Sartrean Studies and a longstanding member of the Socialist Workers Party.

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