Paul Nizan
Paul Nizan; drawing by David Levine

As far as I can ascertain, the novel under review is only the second of Nizan’s works to appear in English translation in the past fifteen years, and its publication was perhaps timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the writer’s death in May 1940. The book itself dates from 1938, and although it is an interesting text, well worth reading in this excellent version, I doubt whether such an apparently minor work would have attracted the attention of an American publisher at this late stage had Nizan’s posthumous career not been surrounded by very unusual circumstances. The main fact that has kept his name alive was his early association with Jean-Paul Sartre; the two became schoolfellows in their late teens and were—with some periods of estrangement—close friends until their early twenties, after which their paths diverged. Nizan has certainly benefited to a degree from Sartre’s fame and posthumous championship, but at the same time his identity has so long been entangled with Sartre’s, and with Sartre’s opinions about him, that it is rather difficult to see him separately in his own right. However, the effort has to be made if we are to understand the significance of La Conspiration.

Nizan belonged to that remarkable prewar generation of philosophically trained normaliens or agrégatifs which included, in addition to Sartre, such now well-known names as Simone de Beauvoir, Raymond Aron, Simone Weil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. But whereas the others were to remain more or less unheard of by the general public until after the war, Nizan was already a prominent figure throughout the Thirties, not only as a writer but also as a foremost intellectual of the Communist party and a regular contributor to the Communist papers L’Humanité and Ce Soir. He appears to have been, from the start, a more impatient, rebellious, and precocious character than his fellow normaliens. As a student, he took the initiative of touring England during the Depression of 1927, and then he spent some months in Aden in the employ of the Swiss entrepreneur Besse, an experience that was the ostensible subject of his first book, Aden, Arabie, half travel memoir and half polemical pamphlet, which ends with the statement that he is returning to France to fight capitalism at home.

I shall refer to his other writings in a moment. At this point the circumstance to be emphasized is that, in all outward respects, Nizan remained a militant Communist until 1939, and so was quite far removed from Sartre who, although always anticonformist by temperament, was at that stage uninterested in political action and totally absorbed in literature and philosophy. During the Thirties Nizan spent a year in the Soviet Union, but contact with the realities of Russia did not lead him to express publicly any doubts about the Soviet system, although it may be significant that he wrote a remarkably mild and reasoned review of André Gide’s Retour de l’URSS, a famous expression of disillusionment with the Soviet Union by a temporary convert to Communism. Nizan’s disenchantment did not occur until September 1939, with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This piece of Realpolitik made nonsense of the Western Communist opposition to Hitler, and put the French Communist party in an impossible position with regard to the anti-Nazi war effort.

Nizan neither went into hiding, like some of the rank and file, nor disappeared to Russia, like the Communist leader Maurice Thorez. He resigned from the Party, causing something of a stir, and carried on with his military service. Fate did not allow him time to work out a new political stance: he was killed at the beginning of the German offensive of 1940, while serving as interpreter with an English regiment. He had almost completed a novel (his fourth), which would have given us a clue to his final state of mind, but the manuscript, together with his diary, was buried for safety during the retreat to Dunkirk, and unfortunately proved untraceable after the war.

The chances are that his reputation and the memory of his quarrel with the Communist party would have been swept away in the tide of history, but for a curious twist in events after the war. For reasons best known to themselves, the Communists mounted a retrospective campaign against him, accusing him of having been a government spy within their ranks. The charge seems to have been entirely fictitious since, when challenged, they produced no proofs, but it caused a dramatic revival of interest in Nizan and his work. His former friends, the chief among them being Sartre and Raymond Aron, rushed to defend his name. From 1960 onward, some of his writings were reissued, in particular his two violent anti-Establishment pamphlets, Aden, Arabie (with a long preface by Sartre) and Les Chiens de garde. After these followed at least two collections of his articles and reviews, and a reprinting of La Conspiration.


This resuscitation, largely sponsored by Sartre, who was now at the height of his fame, had the effect of turning Nizan into a somewhat mythic figure—the privileged young normalien who had rebelled against the French Establishment of which he could have been a comfortable life-member, and the gifted and favored Communist intellectual who had been unable to tolerate the hypocrisy of the Stalinist hierarchy. Because of this double rebellion, he became a point of reference for the younger generation during the events of May 1968, although it is impossible to say whether, had he lived, he would have taken a positive view of that strange collective outburst, as Sartre did, or a negative view, with Raymond Aron.

Actually, a question mark hangs over his attitude towards the Communist party at the time of the break. Some sentences in his last letters to his wife suggest that his difference of opinion with the leadership might have been on grounds of tactics rather than of principle. He implies that the French Communists, instead of finding themselves disastrously out of step with the Western war effort, should have made a show of rejecting the Moscow line in the name of the French national interest, while realizing that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, from the Soviet point of view, only a temporizing measure, intended to allow the USSR a breathing space. But other sentences, which I shall quote later, point to a different conclusion, and there is also convincing evidence from other sources that, in the first instance, Nizan was genuinely shocked and disgusted by the pact; in evolving the above-mentioned argument, he may only have been trying to convince himself that the Soviet Union’s behavior was justifiable as a Machiavellian move.

We cannot be absolutely sure, in retrospect, whether his defection from the Communist party would have been temporary or permanent. Sartre, in the preface he wrote for the reissue of Aden, Arabie in 1960, confidently asserts that Nizan, had he survived, would have been reconciled with the Communists in the Resistance movement, and would have gone back into the fold. But this may be only Sartre, as usual, dogmatically attributing to other people the views he himself happens to hold at the time of writing.

I have the strongest doubts about the prospect of Nizan’s continuing fidelity to communism, because La Conspiration strikes me as a very odd book to have been written by a card-carrying Communist. Just as surprising is the fact that it doesn’t follow on smoothly from the previous works of his that I have read.

Generally speaking, as a pamphleteer, a journalist, and a novelist, he fits into a well-known cultural category. He is an example of that universal Western phenomenon of protest, which one can trace back historically as far as one likes, but which has been particularly marked in France since the eighteenth century, and reached a new intensity in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Albert Camus, writing some ten years after Nizan’s death, christened it by the useful, but ambiguous, name of la révolte. Nizan is a Camusian révolté avant la lettre, with all that the expression implies as regards the intermingling, and perhaps confusion, of metaphysical and political considerations.

Viewed in this light, he has his place in the pattern formed by the other representatives of the prewar generation. Sartre and De Beauvoir were both révoltés, although less extreme politically than Nizan, at least in their early phase. Aron and Lévi-Strauss were hardly révoltés at all. Simone Weil was a much more extreme révoltée even than Nizan or Sartre and, in the end, virtually committed suicide in the name of metaphysical revolt transmogrified into religious fervor. Nizan himself, I think, is to be understood in terms of his oscillations around the theme of revolt and, seen in this perspective, La Conspiration takes on a curious significance.

It was preceded by the two pamphlets already referred to, and by two novels, Antoine Bloyé and Le Cheval de Troie.

Aden, Arabie (first published in 1932 but not translated until 1968)* is very much a young man’s book, an outburst of fury at the dismal complexity of the world as it may appear to someone on the threshold of adulthood. It begins with a splendidly exaggerated, self-dramatizing statement:

I was twenty. I will let no one say it is the best time of life.

Everything threatens a young man with ruin: love, ideas, the loss of his family, his entrance into the world of adults. It is hard to learn one’s part in the world.

This, it should be noted, is not the complaint of an underprivileged person. At twenty, Nizan was a normalien and therefore well on the way to a successful career. There follows a violent diatribe against L’Ecole Normale Supérieure as an institution for the conditioning of the bourgeois elite; that is, Nizan is biting the hand that feeds him in the name of some broader principle, but what the principle is he doesn’t at this point make clear, unless it is the blanket proposition that life should somehow be other than it is. Nor, since the book is written impressionistically, is it possible to follow the sequence of events: Why and how did he go to Aden? It occurs to me that he may have been imitating Rimbaud’s famous flight to Abyssinia. There is certainly something Rimbaudlike about the descriptions of the sea and the desert landscapes that fill most of the book. An echo, too, perhaps of Baudelaire’s escapist cry: “Anywhere out of the world!” Significantly, there is little or no political analysis of what Nizan encounters, but frequent and eloquent expressions of metaphysical disgust. Having left France, which he detests, he finds himself in a cultural void which is even more painful to bear, and so he returns, disillusioned with the exotic, to work off his accumulated energy on the society at home.


In its less accomplished way, Aden, Arabie corresponds to the two classical texts of metaphysical revolt, Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger, in which the individual, alone with his consciousness or his conscience, is oppressed by the mystery of a world that eludes his grasp. Sartre’s hero, Roquentin, decides to write a book to enshrine the mystery in words; Camus’s Meursault is executed through having accidentally fallen foul of the mystery; Nizan decides to put the mystery behind him and to plunge into action, almost, one might say, as a dérivatif, action for the sake of action, or as a means of escaping from the self into collective endeavor. The fundamental drive is metaphysical exasperation, which is about to take on a political coloring.

Les Chiens de garde is a better focused pamphlet, because Nizan has found a precise target. He attacks three well-known contemporary philosophers, Bergson, Brunschvicg, and Lalande, his former teachers, whom he stigmatizes as “the watchdogs” of bourgeois society, since they profess, he says, a supposedly universal humanism, which serves to bolster up the status quo instead of subjecting it to radical criticism. He includes in his indictment two other famous figures, the writer/philosopher Alain, who was to some extent an anti-academic dissident, and Julien Benda, the author of La Trahison des clercs, who upheld universal values in opposition to nationalism and particular fanaticisms.

Nizan scores points against all these thinkers with great brio, but of course he makes no attempt to be fair, and he doesn’t really try to distinguish between that part of philosophy which impinges on political matters and that part which is independent of them. The gist of his argument is that philosophers should be Marxists, and work on the principle that thought should change the world. In other words, in his revulsion against what he considers as the blandness of his teachers, who are not sufficiently scandalized by the spectacle of the world, he plumps for an ideological stance, Marxism, which he takes to be a total philosophy, when in fact, whatever its virtues, it is only one doctrine among others. His eloquent plea makes sad reading today, now that we can look back on the harm done by too fervent a belief in Marxism, not only in the world at large but even at the Sorbonne itself. Ironically, it is old-fashioned, general humanism that has had to be brought back into play to counteract the extremes of Marxism.

Metaphysical discontent spilling over into political resentment is also a feature of the first novel, Antoine Bloyé. It is said to be based on the career of Nizan’s father, a peasant’s son who, thanks to his intellectual ability, climbed the social scale by qualifying as an engineer and becoming a middlegrade railway official. The book has considerable merits as a social document and an almost Zolaesque quality in its account of the dynamic growth of the railway system in the late nineteenth century. The weakness is that a heavy pall of gratuitous sadness hangs over Antoine’s career. At school he is encouraged by the authorities; at college he qualifies without difficulty; in his railway work he is steadily promoted year by year until, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, he is held responsible for a mishap and pushed to one side.

Nizan shows little but the negative aspect of all this. Antoine’s success estranges him from his peasant parents; instead of marrying a spirited working-class widow to whom he is attached, he feels obliged to opt for a railway official’s daughter with a dull, conventional mind; as a manager, he is in an awkward position between the low-grade workers, his real “brothers,” and the established bourgeois who rule the system from on high. His apparently successful life is an inner failure and he dies a disappointed man.

If Nizan is describing a particular temperament, technically efficient but unable to cope with the psychological difficulties of life, his story makes sense. But his tone constantly implies that Antoine is a victim of the social system, which should be other than it is. Yet Antoine is in no sense a victim, unless it be of himself. He illustrates the principle of la carrière ouverte aux talents, one of the basic conquests of the French Revolution. Admittedly, in France as elsewhere, the principle leads to the creation of elites which try, as far as possible, to be self-perpetuating, but this does not cancel out the fact that it is difficult to imagine any initially more democratic device than equality of opportunity. Antoine feels almost guilty because he has got on (just as Nizan, no doubt, felt guilty about being at the Ecole Normale, on a higher level than his father’s college of engineering); he looks upon himself as a traitor to his original class. I have reason to understand this feeling, but I also think it naively mistaken.

The object of social improvement can only be, in the first place, to extend to the lower strata of society the benefits already enjoyed by the middle class, and so it is pointless to be romantically opposed to the process of embourgeoisement on the grounds that it is destroying the purity of the working class. As the basic representative of social authenticity, the Noble Worker, with his hammer and sickle, is just as mythic as the Noble Savage was for the eighteenth century, a point Nizan would no doubt have grasped if, like Camus, he had been of immediate working-class origin, and not first-generation middle class. The virtuous working class has excellent features, but it cannot be preserved as it is for the sake of those features, any more than one would suggest reintroducing slavery into America in order to encourage a new flowering of Negro spirituals. The political problem for progressives is how to create a universal middle class, balancing equality of opportunity, which releases individual talent, with equality of status, which ensures individual dignity. It is because Nizan doesn’t see this, or at least hadn’t done so at the time of writing in 1931–1932. that the central emotion of resentment in Antoine Bloyé is misdirected and spoils the book.

Le Cheval de Troie (1934–1935) deals ostensibly not with a single hero but with collective movements. It reflects the tensions of the mid-Thirties, when Nazism was gaining ground in Germany and the opposition was sharpening in France between the right, with its fascist wing, Les Croix de Feu, and Le Front Populaire, a temporary alliance of the left. The action is set in the partly industrial town of Villefranche, and relates to a confrontation between the two sides which ends in bloodshed and death. The Croix de Feu announce a meeting; the Communists organize a counter demonstration by the left, and when a disturbance occurs, the garde civile restores order by a brutal attack on the workers. Nevertheless, the surviving Communists feel they have scored a point; the working class has demonstrated its numerical superiority and will eventually prevail. It is the Trojan Horse within the citadel of bourgeois complacency.

Telescoped in this way, the novel sounds like a typical roman à thèse, expressing the left-wing emotions I remember so well from the time. Actually, although the optimistic leitmotif occurs at intervals and is reasserted at the end, the tone is quite somber. The real center of the book is the contrast between the attitudes of two intellectuals who are teachers at the local lyceé: Bloyé, a Communist militant directly involved in the struggle, and Lange, a disillusioned contemplative who thinks that nothing makes sense in the absurd universe. Since they are given almost equal prominence, they probably represent two aspects of Nizan’s temperament. But another possibility is that Lange is to some extent a caricature of Sartre who, about this time, was working on La Nausée and Le Mur. Nizan, having opted for Communist militancy, must have been at odds with Sartre’s total philosophical skepticism about the possibility of effective action, which eventually found expression in La Nausée. The physical description of the character would fit Sartre. Also, when Lange is caught up in the demonstration, he commits the hysterical surrealist action of firing a pistol at random into the crowd, a detail which may be an ironical reference to the behavior of the hero in Sartre’s short story, “Erostrate,” in the volume Le Mur.

At any rate, one of the discussions in the book sounds like an exchange that Sartre and Nizan might have had:

When I think about it, Bloyé, your activity strikes me as being extraordinarily absurd. What is it you are trying to do?

—To change the world, said Bloyé.

—It is difficult to imagine a universe more scandalous than the one in which we have the misfortune to be living. But scandalousness is the definition of the universe. The scandal is that worlds exist…. My indignation is more radical than yours. It is more radical to deny the world than to deny the bourgeois world.

Sartre, like Lange, was to go on denying the world, even—as I shall argue—during his later period of political action, Nizan, insofar as he is Bloyé, believes in political action, although he qualifies his Communist optimism with occasional doubts:

He did not believe that happiness would be an easy conquest;…he sometimes thought that all one could do would be to give a meaning to the suffering and anguish of mankind.

His Communist militancy is precisely a way of giving a collective meaning to his life against the background of death:

…he was an element which had its place in a machine that he could accept: it was a machine of revolt, but it was also a machine of activity…. One can only live within a movement that indicts the world. Acceptance is equivalent to death.

But the combat remains secular:

When men are no longer fighting men, then will be the time to fight against what is called destiny.

Clearly, the author of Le Cheval de Troie is no ordinary Communist, but there is nothing unorthodox, from the Party point of view, in his rather black-and-white picture of society, which, in spite of some exellent writing, still has traces of the populist sentimentalism of Antoine Bloyé.

However, with La Conspiration we move into a totally different atmosphere, as if Nizan, although still operating within the Communist party, had undergone some sort of soul change during the intervening years and had become a more subtle writer with a surer control of his emotions. The book has no overall political slant; it is a modest Bildungsroman about five or more students in and around the Ecole Normale Supérieure who, in addition to pursuing their studies and struggling, like all young men, with the imperious demands of sex, feel the need to do something to relieve their youthful exasperation with life as it is. It doesn’t occur to them to join a political party; with the confidence of youth, reinforced by their status as normaliens, they will operate on their own.

Their first impulse is to found a subversive review, La Guerre civile, with the help of a backer. They start with enthusiasm, achieve a succès d’estime among the student population, and then gradually begin to lose interest because the written word is not going to transform the world in the immediate future. It is then that one of them thinks up the “conspiracy.” Although non-Party, they all feel sympathy for the Soviet Union as the world representative of the socialist principle. Their ringleader suggests that they use their privileged contacts to collect information about French industrial secrets and military preparations, and pass it on to the Russians. Treason in a noble cause. The others are rather startled by the idea but, in spite of some misgivings, they join in so as not to lose face with one another.

There is an interesting parallel between this fictitious account of a conspiracy among the elite of the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the real-life behavior of the contemporary English upper-class traitors—Burgess, McLean, Blunt, Philby, etc.—who were actually recruited by the Soviet secret service. It raises an intriguing question of comparative national psychology: Why did the conspiracy remain a fiction on the French side, and become a reality in England?

It is also an interesting point that the French ringleader, Bernard Rosenthal, is the recalcitrant younger son of a wealthy, long-assimilated Jewish family, of the kind that is almost more French than the French through the enthusiastic acceptance by non-Orthodox Jews of the French assumption of intellectual universalism, whch is an enduring consequence of the Enlightenment and the Revolution. Nizan himself was of Breton origin, but he had married into just such a family, the Alphens, at the age of twenty-two, and so he knew the milieu.

To return to the narrative—it follows in turn the toings and froings of the different students with their varied social backgrounds and their separate erotic involvements, but the conspiracy itself never properly develops. It leads only to one quite comic episode of military espionage of no consequence, since Bernard hasn’t established contact with the Russians and doesn’t pass on the information. The reason is that, in his case, sex has meanwhile taken over. He has fallen in love with his sister-in-law, Catherine, whom he seduces and proposes to convert to “authentic” living, in complete opposition to his elder brother’s bourgeois principles. But the affair is discovered before he can carry out his plan, the family closes ranks, and Catherine proves to be a bourgeoise at heart. Bernard, in a childish tantrum of revolt, takes an overdose of sleeping-pills and dies. With his disappearance, the group disintegrates. Each of the students will have to find his own separate way of coping, successfully or otherwise, with his feeling of malaise.

The novel may seem rather slight in this summary, although it won the Prix Interallié in the year of its publication. Certainly, the construction leaves something to be desired; the balance of interest among the students is not convincingly managed, and Bernard tends to hog the scene. But the surprising quality of the book, as compared with the pamphlets Antoine Bloyé and Le Cheval de Troie, is the spirit in which it is written. It is a delicate, sometimes lyrical, evocation of the atmosphere and attitudes of the late Twenties. It catches the tone of youthful conversation and shows the interplay between intelligence and absurdity, feeling and frivolity, without any of the propagandist simplifications one might have expected from a Communist writer dealing with the privileged denizens of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Nizan treats the bright but immature young students with critical impartiality. He takes them as human beings in the round, whose individual temperaments are in the last resort more important than their class origins or their provisional political attitudes. In short, La Conspiration is a genuine piece of literature, untainted by any “Socialist-Realist” considerations or any overriding ideological presuppositions. One could read it without suspecting that the author was officially a Communist.

In saying this, I am disagreeing with Sartre who, in his 1938 article on the book, here reproduced as an “Afterword,” declares:

I do not think Nizan wanted to write a novel. His young people are not novelish: they do not do much, they are not very sharply distinguished from one another,…they are the tenuous thread connecting a number of events…. For Nizan, they do not deserve more; later he will make them into men. Can a communist write a novel?…. These young people are not all bad men. But Nizan shows very clearly how only through revolution can one leave this age [i.e., youth].

This reading, it seems to me, is an ideological distortion of the text. Working on the assumption that Nizan is whole-heartedly Communist, Sartre concludes that he will show in due course how the students can become “men” through a virile acceptance of the truth of Marxism and Communism. He completely misses the point that whereas the earlier texts, Aden, Arabie, Les Chiens de garde, Antoine Bloyé, and Le Cheval de Troie were “committed,” this last one, La Conspiration, although written after Nizan spent many years in the Communist party, is not. The change can only mean that inside the thirty-three-year-old Nizan, who was still outwardly a Communist militant, there had developed a writer who was no longer taking Communist doctrine as an absolute, if indeed he ever had done. It could be that his early confused exasperation with life, of which there are echoes in La Conspiration, had found largely emotional relief through being channeled into Communist militancy and that, by now, he was beginning to stand back and see his violent indignation in perspective as a natural but limited reaction. Hence his sympathetic but unsentimental treatment of the students.

In this connection, I have noted two statements that could hardly have been made by someone with a closed partisan mind. The first is in La Conspiration itself, where he is speaking of his heroes’ naive assumptions about political action:

As they were not driven by the depressing need to earn their daily bread immediately, they told each other it was necessary to change the world. They did not yet know how heavy and flaccid the world is, how little it resembles a wall that can be knocked to the ground in order to put up a much finer one, how it resembles instead a headless and tailless gelatinous heap, a kind of great jelly-fish with well-concealed organs.

This definition of the world is not typical of a prewar Communist confidently looking forward to les lendemains qui chantent. A still sharper skepticism is expressed in one of his last letters to his wife after he had left the Party:

If there is one thing I am absolutely certain of, it is the complexity [of the world]. Everything proceeds in terms of calculations with triple or quadruple developments…. They [the French Communists] are still at the arithmetical stage, they can’t see that we are involved in analysis, in equations with several unknowns and the functions of different variables…. For the time being, I recognize only one virtue,…the will to understand.

This is tantamount to saying that Marxism, as understood by the Communist party or by Nizan himself, no longer seemed to him an adequate guide through the maze of reality, and that he had reached a truly philosophical, non-ideological stage, where all the options were open again.

Given his previous history, it is a safe bet that, had he not been killed, he would have become part of the Resistance movement in some left-wing group, or perhaps even as a Gaullist. But the really interesting question is: What would have been his political stance after the war? And more particularly, in the great pro-Communist–anti-Communist debate, with whom would he have sided: with Sartre, the intermittent fellow-traveler with whom his name is now indissolubly linked, or with Camus, whom he never knew, but who was to argue, against the prevailing Sartrian trend, that absurdism is incompatible with ideological absolutes? I suspect that he might well have supported Camus, in which case French postwar intellectual history would have been rather different.

I base my guess not only on the evidence of La Conspiration and the correspondence, but also on the different metaphysical development of the three men. All three, as I have said, start from an attitude of metaphysical exasperation. In the initial phase, their philosophico-poetic awareness of the absurdity of the world is confused, because they haven’t yet decided who is to blame for the way things are: God, Who may, or may not, exist, or certain categories of mankind, the oppressors, the bourgeois, the capitalists, etc. Nizan seems to have been the first to slough off the problem of God, because he opted for action along ready-made lines, that is, for the struggle with some men against other men, and remained immersed in it for several years before arriving at his final skeptical attitude toward the adequacy of political doctrines. He was obviously moving toward a form of rationalist absurdism, i.e., toward the pragmatic approach which sees all doctrines as inevitably partial attempts to express the infinite compexity of the world. Camus and Sartre, on the other hand, never freed themselves from the God problem; they remained atheists, that is, they rejected God, but kept reviving Him in a ghostlike form as a metaphysical Aunt Sally.

When Camus tried to sort out the problem of revolt theoretically in L’Homme révolté, he distinguished between la révolte métaphysique, the Promethean defiance of the gods or God, and la révolte historique, which is men opposing other men in the name of liberty and justice. He seems never to have clearly realized that la révolte métaphysique is a romantic concept and a logical impossibility. If God exists and is all-powerful, there is no point in man shaking an impotent fist at Him. This is the Luciferian illusion, which ruins Camus’s play L’Etat de siège, and runs riot in Sartre’s grotesque melodrama, Le Diable et le Bon Dieu. And if God doesn’t exist, He is not there to be defied.

But at least when Camus goes on to discuss la révolte historique, he argues quite firmly that the great danger in the modern world is the replacement of the old religious dogmas, insofar as they were harmful, by new political dogmas which may be no less harmful. The point seems overwhelmingly obvious today, but in 1951 Sartre was in a strongly pro-Communist phase, with the result that L’Homme révolté was sneeringly dismissed in his review Les Temps modernes as a reactionary text, and he and Camus never spoke to each other again. More importantly, because of the preponderance of Sartre’s aggressive charisma, Camus’s reputation, at least in Paris, did not recover from the blow in his lifetime, and he is only now, for obvious reasons, making something of a comeback.

As for Sartre, it is not perhaps going too far to say that even his political activity sprang from his metaphysical exasperation with the nonexistent God. His dramatic conversion to “commitment” at about the age of forty, and his tempestuous, parapolitical career, which caused such a commotion in the postwar years, cannot simply be explained, I think, by what he called the discovery of his “historicity,” or even less by a late awakening of his social consciousness. The shock of the war seems to have exacerbated his latent atheism, which had no necessary connection with his general existentialist philosophy, but derived rather from the more dubious elements in Nietzsche. At any rate, it resulted in the megalomaniacal formula: since God is dead, man must become God, which Sartre, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his enormous intellectual ability, does not seem to have taken as a joke.

Sartre was not a political activist in any ordinary sense; nor was Marxism, in which he declared his belief, anything more than an incidental item in his controversial armory. He was a Luciferian spirit, who, after his espousal of commitment, turned the bourgeois—or any adversary of the moment—into an essence acting as a front for the Absent God, and therefore to be denounced with intolerant fury. This is what Raymond Aron was referring to, I suppose, when he spoke of le délire sartrien, on which he could get no purchase. Is it fanciful to suppose that Nizan, had he been present on the postwar scene, might have been the man to puncture this delirium? He had never been in awe of Sartre, he had already lived through the pseudo-certainty of Marxism and seen its limitations, long before Sartre became involved in it, and above all he seems to have had a modestly secular mind.

This Issue

October 25, 1990