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An Interview with Sartre

Perhaps the paradox of the cultural revolution is that it is ultimately impossible in China, where it was invented, but is somewhat more possible in the advanced countries of the West?

I think that is correct. With one qualification: is a cultural revolution possible without making the revolution? French youth during May wanted a cultural revolution—what was missing for them to achieve one? The ability to make a real revolution. In other words, a revolution which is in no way initially cultural, but is the seizure of power by violent class struggle. Which is not to say that the idea of cultural revolution in France was merely a mirage: on the contrary, it expressed a radical contestation of every established value of the university and society, a way of looking at them as if they had already perished. It is very important that this contestation be maintained.

What were the main lessons of the May Revolt for you?

I have always been convinced that the origins of May lie in the Vietnamese Revolution. For the French students who unleashed the process of May, the Vietnamese war was not merely a question of taking the side of the National Liberation Front or the people of Vietnam against US imperialism. The fundamental impact of war on European or US militants was its enlargement of the field of the possible. It had previously seemed impossible that the Vietnamese could resist successfully such an enormous military machine and win. Yet that is what they did and by doing so they completely changed the horizon of French students, among others: they now knew that there were possibilities that remained unknown. Not that everything is possible, but that one can only know something is impossible once one has tried it and failed. This was a profound discovery, rich in its eventual consequences and revolutionary in the West.

Today, more than a year later, it is clear that to a certain extent we have discovered the impossible. In particular, so long as the French Communist Party is the largest conservative party in France, and so long as it has the confidence of the workers, it will be impossible to make the free revolution that was missed in May. Which only means that it is necessary to pursue the struggle, however protracted it may be, with the same persistence as the Vietnamese, who after all are continuing to fight and continuing to win.

May was not a revolution: it did not destroy the bourgeois state. To make the revolution next time, organization will be necessary to coordinate and lead the struggle. What sort of political organization do you judge to be the appropriate instrument today?

It is obvious that anarchism leads nowhere, today as yesterday. The central question is whether in the end the only possible type of political organization is that which we know in the shape of the present CP’s: hierarchical division between leadership and rankand-file, communications and instructions proceeding from above downward only, isolation of each cell from every other, vertical powers of dissolution and discipline, separation of workers and intellectuals? This pattern developed from a form of organization which was born clandestinely in the time of the Tsars.

What are the objective justifications of its existence in the West today? Its purpose here appears merely to ensure an authoritarian centralism which excludes any democratic practice. Of course, in a civil war situation, a militarized discipline is necessary. But does a proletarian party have to resemble the present-day Communist Parties? Is it not possible to conceive of a type of political organization where men are not barred and stifled? Such an organization would contain different currents, and would be capable of closing itself in moments of danger, to reopen thereafter.

It is always true, of course, that to fight something one must change oneself into it; in other words one must become its true opposite and not merely other than it. A revolutionary party must necessarily reproduce—up to a certain limit—the centralization and coercion of the bourgeois state which it is its mission to overthrow. However, the whole problem—the history of our century is there to prove it—is that once a party dialectically undergoes this ordeal, it may become arrested there. The result then is that it has enormous difficulty in ever escaping from the bureaucratic rut which it initially accepted to make the revolution against a bureaucratic-military machine.

From that moment on, only a cultural revolution against the new order can prevent a degradation of it. It is not a benevolent reform that is occurring in China today, it is the violent destruction of a whole system of privilege. Yet we know nothing of what the future will be in China.

The danger of a bureaucratic deterioration will be powerfully present in any Western country, if we succeed in making the revolution: that is absolutely inevitable, since both external imperialist encirclement and the internal class struggle will continue to exist. The idea of an instant and total liberation is a utopia. We can already foresee some of the limits and constraints of a future revolution. But he who takes these as an excuse not to make the revolution and who fails to struggle for it now, is simply a counter-revolutionary.

Abroad, you are often seen as a classical product of French university culture. The university system in which you were educated and made your early career, was the exact target of the first explosion which set off the upheaval of May. What is your judgment of it now?

It is certainly true that I am a product of this system, and I am very aware of it: although I hope that I am not only that. When I was a student, only a very small elite got to the university, and if one had the additional “luck” to get into the Ecole Normale, one had every material advantage. In a sense the French university system formed me more than its professors, because in my time the latter, with only one or two exceptions, were very mediocre.

But the system, above all the Ecole Normale, I accepted as absolutely natural: son and grandson of petty bourgeois intellectuals, it never occurred to me to question it. The lectures of the cours magistral seemed idiotic to us, but only because the teachers who gave them had nothing to tell us. Later, others saw that the lecture course itself was irredeemable. We merely abstained from ever going to the Sorbonne: only once, when law students threatened to invade it, did we go to the lectures there—otherwise never.

Most of the Ecole Normale students of my time were very proud if they became agrégés, for instance (although there were a few who thought the hierarchy of agrégés and licenciés was monstrous). Nizan was an exception, of course. He detested the Ecole Normale for a very good reason—its class function in creating a privileged elite. Although he was academically “successful,” he never, never fitted into the system. By the third year he was in such a state of malaise that he escaped to Aden. Of course, this was related to neurotic problems in his personal history, but the fundamental fact was that he could not breathe within these institutions designed to perpetuate a monopoly of knowledge.

What is your view of a correct Marxist practice within the institutions of bourgeois culture—the educational system—after May?

Is a positive revolutionary culture conceivable today? For me, this is the most difficult problem posed by your question. My frank opinion is that everything within bourgeois culture that will be surpassed by a revolutionary culture will nevertheless also be preserved by it. I do not believe that a revolutionary culture will forget Rimbaud, Baudelaire, or Flaubert, merely because they were very bourgeois and not exactly friends of the people. They will have their place in any future socialist culture, but it will be a new place determined by new needs and relations. They will not be great principal values, but they will be part of a tradition reassessed by a different praxis and a different culture.

But how can they be reassessed today, when a revolutionary culture does not exist? They have only one place within existing society—the site assigned to them by bourgeois culture. What is the “correct use” of Rimbaud for a young socialist militant in Vincennes or Nanterre? The question is unanswerable.

It is true that a certain number of university intellectuals of an older generation became revolutionaries within a society that dispensed this culture to them. But the situation has changed radically since then. To take only the material conditions of a university education: in my time an orthodox lecture course was trundled out to perhaps fifteen or twenty people. It was less shocking, because it could formally be contested: a student could interrupt and say he disagreed, and the lecturer would tolerate this because it hid the completely authoritarian character of the whole course. Today, there are one hundred or two hundred students where there were once fifteen. There is no longer any chance of this. Where it was once possible to turn bourgeois culture against itself, showing that Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity had become their opposites, today the only possibility is to be against bourgeois culture.

For the traditional system is collapsing. The Baccalaureat in France is something incredible in its antiquation. In Rouen-Le Havre recently, the subject of the philosophy paper was: “Epictetus said to a disciple: ‘Live Hidden.’ Comment.” Can you imagine—giving a question like that to schoolchildren of sixteen in this day and age! Not only the reference is outrageous, of course. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the candidates thought that Vis Caché (Live Hidden) was Vices Cachés (Hidden Vices), imagining perhaps that this was ancient orthography, and interpreted the quotation to mean: “Hide your Vices.” They then developed at length the idea of Epictetus along the lines “If you have vices, satisfy them, but secretly.”

The funniest and saddest thing of all is that they approved the formula of Epictetus! “For it is like that in society, one can have a vice, but one should practice it in solitude.” Innocent answers, showing what bourgeois morality is in fact like; pitiful answers because these pupils obviously thought, “Epictetus must be famous, if I criticize him I might get four out of twenty and fail, the only thing to do is to agree with him.”

There is no relationship, no contact whatever between these young people and their teachers. Bourgeois culture in France is destroying itself. Thus for the moment, regardless of the eventual future, I believe that a radical negation of the existing culture is the only possible option for young militants—a negation which will often take the form of violent contestation.

Are you going to write a sequel to Les Mots? What are your future plans?

No, I do not think that a sequel to Les Mots would be of much interest. The reason why I produced Les Mots is the reason why I have studied Genet or Flaubert: how does a man become someone who writes, who wants to speak of the imaginary? This is what I sought to answer in my own case, as I sought it in that of others.

What could there be to say of my existence since 1939? How I became the writer who produced the particular works I have signed. But the reason why I wrote La Nausée rather than some other book is of little importance. It is the birth of the decision to write that is of interest. Thereafter, what is equally interesting are the reasons why I was to write exactly the contrary of what I wanted to write. But this is another subject altogether—the relationship of a man to the history of his time.

Thus what I will write one day is a political testament. The title is perhaps a bad one, since a testament implies the idea of giving advice; here it will simply be the end of a life. What I would like to show is how a man comes to politics, how he is caught by it, and how he is remade other by it; because you must remember that I was not made for politics, and yet I was remade by politics so that I eventually had to enter it. It is this which is

The full text of this interview, which includes a long discussion of the Critique de la raison dialectique, omitted here, was published in No. 58 of New Left Review, 7 Carlisle Street, London W 1. Members of the NLR editorial board conducted the interview with Sartre.


In order to conquer the Biafrans, the nations of the world have allowed the prosecution of a slow war, of hunger and disease. They have tolerated a pseudo-Labor Great Britain and pseudo-Socialist Russia competing with each other to send the most efficient people and the most murderous weapons to allow killers to operate under the most favorable conditions.

Mutilation, bombardment of hospitals and markets, murder pure and simple, not to mention the imposition of an almost complete blockade—nothing has been omitted from this war. And it has carried with it the approval of almost all African states, Arab states, the states of the third world, social-democratic states, fascist states, and others—not to mention the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, who has given his murderous blessing to the great cause of united petroleum in Nigeria.

There can be no justification for such ignominy. It has no name, but by virtue of it, the Jews were turned into soap, and the Sudanese negroes into game. The South American Indians were slowly exterminated because of it, the Kurds in Iraq were disposed of, and so were the communists in Indonesia. By virtue of it, millions of citizens have been deported by the Soviet Union, and tanks have been sent into Czechoslovakia.

The Biafran issue sums up all of this. But it also marks the beginning of a decidedly new era in human affairs.

An era in which any country will, in the face of any other, or all of them put together, be able to profess it is doing almost anything for the sake of virtually any principle it cares to name.

Let the killers and the stock-phrase ideologists of the world rejoice. Their reign embraces the earth. curious. I will recount what I did politically, what mistakes I committed, and what resulted from it. In doing so, I will try to define what constitutes politics today, in our own phase of history.

—from Peace News, London, January 30, 1970

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