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Jean-Paul Sartre Took a Stand Against Empire

Jean-Paul Sartre came to prominence just as France was trying to cling onto its empire in a series of bloody wars. He used his platform as a public intellectual to speak out bravely against colonial repression, risking his own life in the process.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, France, 1966. (Photo by Dominique Berretty / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

French public life today is bitterly hostile to anti-colonial politics. Figures like Pascal Bruckner and Bernard-Henri Lévy have long denounced opposition to US wars in the Middle East and support for the Palestinians as a manifestation of “Islamo-leftism” and treachery to Western civilization. With an eye to next year’s presidential election, Emmanuel Macron’s government has taken up the cry, alleging that “Islamo-leftism” has taken hold in French universities and promising to clamp down.

Macron himself has linked terrorist attacks on French soil to “postcolonial or anti-colonial discourse” that supposedly encourages Muslims to separate themselves from mainstream society. According to Macron, that discourse is a US import. But figures like Bruckner and Lévy — collectively referred to as the “new philosophers,” although they have been on the scene since the 1970s — would also blame an earlier generation of French radical thinkers.

Jean-Paul Sartre ranks highly in their catalogue of villains. In his own time, Sartre was one of the world’s most celebrated and influential public intellectuals. Since his death, however, Sartre’s critics have presented him as an apologist for totalitarianism and contrasted him unfavorably with contemporaries such as Albert Camus and Raymond Aron. They dismiss his writings on colonialism as naïve at best, malign at worst, and certainly lacking in relevance for today’s conditions.

In fact, Sartre’s analysis of colonialism and the fight against it is one of his most valuable legacies. His writing on this subject coincided with a period of intense struggle against colonial domination, from Vietnam to Algeria, and Sartre himself lent his authority and public profile to those struggles, at considerable risk to his own safety.

Empire in Crisis

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a weakened France, whose status as a sovereign nation was in question, unleashed a series of desperate, bloody, and temporarily successful attempts to reassert control over its colonies. The contradiction of France itself having recently been occupied by Germany was not lost on the peoples living under French colonial rule.

In January 1944, Charles de Gaulle rallied Africans to his side by virtually promising independence during a famous speech in Brazzaville, the capital of French-ruled Congo. Emboldened by this rhetoric of liberation, and by France’s military defeats in Europe, many colonized people took to the streets demanding sovereignty and their own liberation.

On VE day in May 1945, in the Algerian towns of Sétif and Guelma, hundreds of people — including many French army veterans — demonstrated under the Algerian flag. Riots ensued, the French authorities lost control, and some police officers and settlers were killed. The repression that followed was ruthless: a series of massacres by the French police and settler militias, killing thousands of Arab civilians, that remain severely underreported to this day. Even by conservative estimates, there were ten thousand Algerian victims.

This bloodbath was a permanent trauma for the Algerians: in effect, the country’s war of independence came out of it. Although the repression set back the Algerian revolution about ten years, it also anchored the conviction among nationalists that a complete break with France was the only way forward.

In March 1947, the French army perpetrated another massacre in Madagascar, killing tens of thousands of Malgaches when they tried to assert their independence. This went largely unnoticed in a France that was still reeling from the Nazi occupation.

There were other attempts to challenge the colonial order in Senegal, Cameroon, and Syria, each of which was met with ruthless repression by the French armed forces or by settlers. In French-ruled Indochina, a French naval ship bombarded the city of Haiphong in November 1946, killing six thousand people, inaugurating a full-scale war against the independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh.

At this time, virtually no public intellectuals denounced the actions of the French state, with the notable exception of the Surrealists, who condemned the Indochina war. Figures like the poet André Breton had a long-standing and genuinely anti-colonialist position: in the 1920s, for example, Breton had supported the Moroccan rebel leader Abd el-Krim during the Rif War.

Sartre and Colonialism

Jean-Paul Sartre’s first public reaction to France’s colonial war in Indochina came in December 1946, in a Les Temps modernes editorial titled “Both Executioners and Victims.” It was a rebuttal of Albert Camus’s article series “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” which had condemned revolutionary violence from a pacifist standpoint. The editorial broke with all the French parliamentary parties, including the Communist Party, which was part of the ruling coalition at the time. It denounced the Indochina war and called for the withdrawal of French troops.

Sartre’s editorial justified revolutionary violence and compared the French presence in Indochina to the German occupation of France, which provoked the outrage of many commentators. The writer François Mauriac wrote a scathing article in response, attacking Sartre directly. Mauriac’s intervention was important because he was not only a prestigious novelist, but also penned an influential weekly column at the time, representing the voice of liberal, humanist Gaullism.

The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire later expanded upon and theorized Sartre’s comparison of French colonial crimes with those of Nazi Germany in his work Discours sur le Colonialisme. Césaire criticized the implicit hierarchy that had been established in Europe between massacres and conquests, depending on the location and nationality of the victims. Sartre’s critique of French colonialism would soon go beyond his radical humanist perspective and come to resemble Césaire’s.

In the immediate postwar period, Sartre listened to voices from outside the metropole and lent them his considerable prestige whenever possible. His first text dealing directly with the French empire as a system was a short presentation titled “Présence Noire” for the magazine Présence Africaine in the fall of 1947. Présence Africaine was a publication founded by the Senegalese writer Alioune Diop that quickly became the main voice for the négritude movement.

In this text, Sartre attacked the hypocrisy of the metropolitan French who considered themselves to be tolerant and understanding because they socialized with black men in the metropole. But what about those in the colonies, he asked? And what about the exploitation and misery to be found there?

Sartre was already focusing on the concrete oppression that existed outside the metropole, speaking of the miserly salaries, with a month’s pay equivalent to the price of two kilos of beef. This showed that he was attentive to living conditions — to class as well as race. At this early stage for Sartre, racism was not the only aspect of colonialism: there was class, too. The important theoretical problem Sartre attempted to tackle was which came first.

Sartre also discussed how the oppressed could appropriate white culture, the French language, and its poetry. Sartre saw the writings of authors on whom the French language had been imposed as having transformed that language. By reinserting the political into poetry, by the invention of new words, they made poetry alive and relevant again.

Instead of categorizing these authors as Francophone — which would have inserted them de facto into a colonial hierarchy — Sartre showed that they took the French language as a means to an end and gave it a global dimension. Sartre prophetically announced the advent of a world literature in French, a movement that has since emerged in the early twenty-first century in direct opposition to colonial categories such as Francophone literature. He developed these ideas further in his 1948 essay “Black Orpheus.”

Black Orpheus

Sartre originally wrote “Black Orpheus,” in 1948, as the preface to the Senegalese writer Léopold Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. There was a specific context for the writing of this essay. The wars of national liberation in the French colonies had not taken on the importance, both in terms of numbers and strength, that they later would. Sartre was a relative newcomer to politics, attempting at the time to create a revolutionary third-way movement in France between the Communist Party and the Gaullists. This was a literary Sartre writing in a landscape where the independence of colonies in Africa was still a hope, not yet an ongoing armed struggle.

Sartre began the essay by challenging the paternalistic expectation of exoticism on the part of white readers. He further confronted those readers, himself very much included — he alternated between using the French “vous” and “nous” — with their discomfort at realizing that they were now the object of the black gaze:

Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you — like me — will feel the shock of being seen. For three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen.

“Black Orpheus” compared the status of Europeans in the world to that of French aristocrats under the ancien régime, referring to them as “Europeans of divine right” (européens de droit divin). Sartre prophetically announced that the cultural movement of négritude would soon expand and morph into a political force that would topple the old colonial world order, just as the institution of monarchy had been toppled throughout Europe.

On the world stage, the emergence of négritude as a cultural force was soon followed by a political upheaval that would overturn the colonial system. Many of the poets in Senghor’s anthology, including Césaire, Diop, and Senghor himself, were part of this moment, with all its strengths and limitations. By starting with a biting description of the paternalism of liberal white readers, “Black Orpheus” gave a glimpse of what négritude was fighting against. Yet the essay went beyond an immediate description and denunciation of racism by inscribing race in colonialism and colonialism in history.

After warning his white liberal readership — especially those who had picked up the anthology because of his preface — Sartre proceeded to cite forty-four passages from the poems it contained to state his case and articulate his dialectical reasoning. They included excerpts from poems that subverted the pejorative meanings frequently associated with the color black, linking blackness instead with beauty, desire, and strength, and whiteness with exhaustion, hypocrisy, and rigidity.

However, these poems also claimed the burden of poverty associated with blackness: “black like misery.” For Césaire, the negative and the positive in négritude were meant to dissolve themselves: “our beautiful faces, like the true operative power of negation.” Here négritude negated whiteness and became freedom — freedom from chromatism.

Césaire had masterfully set out this dialectic, which incorporated liberating black violence into a process of universal emancipation for humanity, fifteen years earlier in his play And the Dogs Were Silent, about a descendant of slaves who rebelled against the colonial authorities. Césaire’s specific brand of universalism was omnipresent in “Black Orpheus.” In fact, Césaire played the role of intermediary between Sartre and another important interlocutor, Frantz Fanon.

Sartre and Fanon

The connection between Sartre and Fanon may at first seem paradoxical, because of Fanon’s frequently cited criticism of “Black Orpheus” in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon criticized Sartre’s inclusion of négritude in a universal dialectic. By doing so, he argued, the French writer had relegated the experiences and suffering of many in the French colonies to the status of a stage destined quickly to give way to another:

We had appealed to a friend of the colored peoples, and this friend found nothing better to do than demonstrate the relativity of their action. For once this friend, this born Hegelian, had forgotten that consciousness needs to get lost in the night of the absolute, the only condition for attaining self-consciousness.

Fanon claimed that Sartre’s Hegelian scheme ignored and obliterated experience and individuality in favor of the universal: “And there you have it; I did not create a meaning for myself; the meaning was already there, waiting.”

However, Fanon, even in his critique of “Black Orpheus,” did not close the door completely to a universal future, and he ultimately shared Sartre’s objective. The book’s closing paragraph contains the following passages:

The crippled soldier from the Pacific war tells my brother: “Get used to your color the way I got used to my stump. We are both casualties.” Yet, with all my being, I refuse to accept this amputation. I feel my soul as vast as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers; my chest has the power to expand to infinity.

Indeed, Fanon and Sartre shared more than the final goal of universalism. They were both preoccupied with how to transform empirical grievances into a worldwide struggle, and their dialogue concerned about how best to go about it.

Force and Violence

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote that there was no question of the colonized competing with the colonist: “They want to take his place.” He described colonialism as “naked violence” which “only gives in when confronted with greater violence.”

According to Fanon, such violence also had a therapeutic value, because it allowed the colonized to overcome neuroses and thus produced mental rehabilitation. Let us not forget that Fanon was a practicing psychiatrist who had a theory of colonial neurosis — namely, that colonialism produced specific neuroses. Freedom from colonialism was not merely political but a liberation of the mind.

For Fanon, then, violence was redemptive in the sense that the recognition of the former slave as human grew out of the master’s fear. This was not a call to mindless slaughter, but rather a more complicated Hegelian drama of recognition, with the former slave purchasing such recognition by armed resistance. Fanon’s dialectic was both a deepening and a complication of Sartre’s second stage in “Black Orpheus.”

Sartre himself synthesized this with a provocative formulation in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth:

To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at the same time: what remains is a dead man and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels a national soil under his feet.

Sartre’s critics violently attacked him for this claim at the time and continue to do so today. The controversy hinges on the distinction between “force” and “violence.” In this understanding, force is something that the state has a right to use, while violence, which is by definition illegal, is left to the underclass, the colonized.

In the 1960s, the colonial wars of liberation began to reveal the violence at the heart of the state and question its legitimacy. The ongoing attacks on Sartre’s preface are really an attempt by the state, by means of its organic intellectuals, to reclaim its monopoly on legitimate violence.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argued that formal independence alone was not sufficient, since independence granted by the colonial power would not be a genuine liberation. He quoted a remark by Gabon’s president — “Gabon is now independent, but between Gabon and France, nothing has changed, everything goes on as before” — and described the emergence of an indigenous bourgeois class eager to do the work of the colonizers for them.

The French leader Charles de Gaulle saw this subcontracting of colonial tasks as the best compromise and offered commonwealth status to all French-ruled African countries during the Algerian war of independence. Algeria’s armed struggle, with the threat that it might spread to other countries, was directly responsible for this compromise by the French state. Sartre’s later retreat from a focus on universalism, and Fanon’s preoccupation with the tensions within négritude and anti-colonial movements, were both attempts at a theoretical response to this development.

“Fusillez Sartre!”

The first stage of France’s fight for its colonies, between 1945 and 1954, had ended with the loss of Indochina. A second phase began in November 1954 with the war in Algeria. Algeria was a red line in the sand that France had drawn. It was the one part of their empire the country’s rulers did not even want to call a colony. Yet it was their most important possession, and they would not give it up willingly.

Sartre had already intervened during the Indochinese conflict, supporting Henri Martin, a sailor who refused to serve. When it came to Algeria, he was a central figure of opposition to the war. Sartre was willing to go to jail and knew that he faced the danger of reprisals from the terrorist group established by European settlers, the Secret Army Organization or OAS.

The Sartre who wrote on colonialism and race in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and who soon afterward wrote the preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, was much more politicized than the man who had written “Black Orpheus.” Instead of prefacing poems, he now prefaced a rallying cry, a theorization of universal revolt and the (violent) means necessary to achieve it.

There was a tense political context, with France seemingly on the brink of civil war after a failed military coup in April 1961 by officers who opposed de Gaulle’s plan to withdraw from Algeria. This strongly influenced Sartre’s position in the Critique. He essentially wrote it from a position in hiding, sending on what he wrote week by week, with little if any time to review and revise it.

Sartre wrote in a mood of urgency at a time when his life was in danger. The OAS bombed his Paris apartment twice — one attempt nearly killed his mother — and pro-colonial demonstrations raised the cry “fusillez Sartre” (not merely “shoot Sartre” but “send Sartre to the firing squad”). In the midst of all this tension and violence, he put forth a theorization of racism that provided the underpinning for his preface to Fanon’s work and his future commitments.

Seriality and Racism

In a notoriously long, three-page footnote in the Critique, Sartre wrote that racism was not explicable as such. He saw it as a manifestation of seriality — a central concept developed in the Critique. Sartre described seriality as a collective form of alienation that occurs when people live their lives as objects, performing the same tasks, while imagining themselves to be unique individuals. To put it simply, they are separate, together.

Seriality can be seen, for example, in the statistical anonymity that pressures liberal-minded voters automatically to vote for whomever is leading the polls, and to count on each other to do the same, regardless of how they feel about the front-runner. Sartre understood seriality as the internalized expression of a social order’s power — a power that imposes itself on the members of the series and produces predictable behaviors, based on an imagined collective normativity.

He adopted this notion of seriality to explain how racism operates. In the colonial context, racism was the expression of the settler’s position in the social hierarchy: the settler expressed his superiority with racist statements and reinforced it with every utterance. Here, Sartre inserted racism in a totalizing, Marxist view of human history which oscillated between varying levels of mass consciousness, between the series and the group in fusion, between periods of social regression or standstill and moments of revolt and revolution.

In this connection, he saw racism as a function of the economic structure, which provided the legitimizing discourse for an oppressive social order. In his work Le colonialisme est un système, which was originally an intervention at a public meeting for peace in Algeria, Sartre wrote that racism allowed “a way out” for bourgeois humanism. Under its twisted logic, “since all humans have the same rights, we will make Algerians sub-human.”

However successful his attempted theoretical connection between Marxism and colonialism might have been, Sartre’s attack on racism was clearly central to his project. For him, racism was a politically and economically grounded attempt to control a new population in a way that still allowed the core values of the French republic — liberté, égalité, fraternité — to seemingly remain intact.

Sartre referred to Lenin’s theory of imperialism to explain French involvement in Algeria. In Le colonialisme est un système, he described at length the economic imperatives that motivated the transformation of Algeria from military outpost to colony in the nineteenth century. He quoted the nineteenth-century French politician Jules Ferry, ironically describing him as a forerunner of Lenin:

It is in the interest of France, which has always been awash with capital and has exported it to foreign countries in considerable quantities, to consider the colonial question from this angle. For countries like ours which, by the very nature of their industry, are destined to be great exporters, this question is precisely one of outlets . . . where there is political predominance, there is also predominance in products, economic predominance.

Sartre and Neocolonialism

In a series of lectures that he delivered in October 1965, Sartre spoke about the role of the intellectual in the public sphere. He began by differentiating false intellectuals from genuine ones. The former were specialists working for the interest of the ruling class.

For Sartre, the specialists qualified as intellectuals if they were able to make pronouncements outside their area of specialization. But they were false intellectuals if they could not see beyond their own class interests. To borrow a phrase from the novelist Paul Nizan, these false intellectuals were the “guard dogs of the system” (chiens de gardes du système).

Sartre gave as an example of false intellectuals those who refused to take a clear anti-colonial stance on the wars in Algeria and Vietnam. Hiding behind vague and lofty universal values, these false intellectuals said, in Sartre’s critical paraphrase: “Our colonial methods are not what they should be, there are too many inequalities in our overseas territories. But I am against all violence, wherever it comes from; I want to be neither victim, nor executioner, and that is why I oppose the revolt of indigenous people against colonizers.”

He was quick to note that this “pseudo-universalist stance” really amounted to approval of the violence inflicted on the colonized by their rulers: “overexploitation, unemployment, malnutrition, all held in place by terror.” By contrast, Sartre believed that the genuine intellectual was “neither a moralist nor an idealist”:

He knows that the only real peace in Vietnam will cost blood and tears, he knows that it starts with the withdrawal of US troops and the end of bombings, therefore by the defeat of the USA. In other words, the nature of his contradictions obliges him to commit and implicate himself with all the conflicts of our times because they are all — conflicts based on class, nationalism, or race — particular consequences of the oppression of the underprivileged by the dominant class.

For Sartre, this commitment would have to mean standing “on the side of the oppressed.”

His own commitments contrast with those of today’s mainstream French intellectuals, who put Sartre aside, not because of his irrelevance, but rather because the situations that he denounced can still be found today. In many African countries that obtained formal independence from France in the 1960s, the leadership is working with and for French companies that have continued to exploit their people and resources. Their fundamental economic interests are subservient to those of great industrial groups from the metropole.

Many also lack genuine territorial sovereignty. France has permanent military bases in Gabon, Senegal, and Djibouti. Its army has also been deployed in Mali, Chad, Central African Republic, Somalia, and Ivory Coast.

The vast majority of former French colonies in Africa use the ECO, a currency that is under the authority of the French central bank and indexed to the Euro, in a classic case of extractive colonialism disguised as an exchange between sovereign states. This neocolonial state of affairs is commonly known as “Françafrique,” although the French government and its intellectuals deny it, of course.

Guard Dogs of the System

In the mainstream political and cultural fields of France today, there is a refusal to squarely condemn colonialism and an almost complete denial of neocolonialism. In the context of this ideological environment, Sartre cannot be widely celebrated for his political or philosophical writings in twenty-first century France, but he cannot be completely ignored either. Whenever the French mainstream media discusses Sartre, the approach ranges from conditional praise to virulent condemnation.

Sartre’s unfailing attempts to connect race and colonialism to capitalism make it impossible to claim him while simultaneously reneging on a commitment to radical social change, which is what virtually the whole of the French intellectual class and the politicians of the French Socialist Party have done in the years since 1968. These “guard dogs of the system” committed to a neoliberal world order must reject his work.

Sartre’s writings on imperialism are an enterprise of demystification. Instead of thinking in terms of oppression — an essentially ethical or humanitarian perspective, which can easily be coopted by the system — Sartre focuses on the economic imperatives that drive global conflicts and exploitation, with the ultimate objective of transforming the modes of production on a world scale.