Sartre and the Communists

Jean-Paul Sartre

On the anniversary of Sartre's death, his memory of his sometimes fraught relationship with the French Communist Party.

Alberto Korda / 1960

Interview by
P. Victor

Thirty-seven years ago today, Jean-Paul Sartre passed away in Paris. When asked how he wanted to be remembered after death, Sartre once said, “I would like people to remember the milieu or historical situation in which I lived, how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself.” In November 1972, P. Victor recorded an interview with Sartre in which he reflected on his political awakening and his relationship to the political context of his day, particularly the Communist Party. The following is an excerpt from their discussion.

P. Victor
Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre: I think we have to start with ’36. At that time I wasn’t involved in politics. This means that I was a liberal intellectual of the “Republic of Professors,” as the French Republic was sometimes called. I was entirely in favor of the Popular Front, but it never would have occurred to me to vote to give a decisive meaning to my opinion. This is hardly admissible, if we consider the question rationally.

But when ideology crumbles, beliefs are left over that give thought a magical aspect. What was still left to me were the principles of individualism. I felt myself attracted by the crowds that made the popular front, but I didn’t really understand that I was part of this and that my place was among them: I saw myself as a solitary.

The positive element in this was a dim repugnance for universal suffrage, and the vague idea that a vote could never represent the concrete thought of a man. I only understood much later what it was that always bothered me about universal suffrage: it’s that it could only serve indirect democracy, which is a dupery.

So I remained inactive until ’39, limiting myself to writing, but in perfect sympathy with the men of the left. The war opened my eyes: I had lived the period 1918–1939 as if it were the dawn of a lasting peace, and I saw that it was in fact the preparation for a new war. As for the lovely clean little atom that I thought myself to be, powerful forces took hold of him and sent him to the front without asking his opinion.

The whole length of the war, and especially my captivity in Germany (from which I escaped by passing myself off as a civilian), were the occasion for me of a lasting plunge into the crowd, which I thought I’d left and which, in fact, I had never quitted. The Nazi victory had completely upset me and upset all the ideas of mine that were still inspired by liberalism.

Aside from that, political obligation had come to seek all of us in the prison camp. Already several individuals, prisoners like us, wanted to organize against French fascism. From that moment, we were placed before a political reality from which we’d always wanted to escape. We had to fight our German and French enemies in the name of democracy. But that which we defended was no longer exactly liberal democracy.

Upon my return to Paris after nine months of captivity, I sought — still convinced of the sovereign powers of the individual — to constitute a resistance group whose name Socialisme et Liberté indicated clearly enough the principal concern, but which, like many small groups at that time, was only made up of petit-bourgeois intellectuals. We didn’t do much hard work; above all, we wrote leaflets.

When the USSR entered the war we set out to establish an alliance with the Communists. One of us got in contact with them at the university — yet again, intellectuals. They contacted the highest levels of the French Communist Party (PCF) and brought back the response: “There’s no question of working with them; Sartre was freed by the Nazis to slip into resistance circles and to spy on them for the Germans.”

This Communist distrust sickened us, and made us aware of our powerlessness. We dissolved a little bit later, but only after one of us was arrested by the Germans: she died in deportation. Disgusted, I did nothing for eighteen months: I was a professor at the Lycée Condorcet.

At the end of this period I was contacted by some old Communist friends, who proposed my entering the CNE (Comité National des Écrivains — National Writers Committee), which edited a clandestine journal, Les Lettres Francaises, and I did the kind of work you would expect of writers carefully cut off by the PC from the armed and the mass resistance.

It was at the beginning of ’43 that my first common undertaking with the PCF began. To start with, I asked them if they weren’t afraid to have a spy freed by the Nazis to give the names of resistance fighters enter the CNE. They laughed, saying it was a misunderstanding, and that everything was going to work out. And in fact, there was never again to be a Communist in Paris spreading slanderous remarks about me.

In the free zone, nevertheless, the Communists circulated a blacklist of collaborationist writers, on which my name figured. I became angry, and I was assured that there was a mistake, and that the list would never come out again with my name on it, which was the case, I think.

From this first undertaking with the Communists, I remember meetings on fixed dates at Edith Thomas’s house. There’s not much to say about this, aside from the editing of Lettres Françaises, where I wrote a few articles that [Jean] Paulhan edited. We did nothing practical. More than anything I had the feeling that they were isolating us.

This was especially noticeable during the combats of the Liberation. Many of us having asked to take an active part in this, we were assigned to the guarding of the Comédie-Francaise which, of course, was never attacked. Nevertheless, there was fighting for a day around the Place de la Théatre-Français, though not for us, who were assigned the function of nurses.

After the Liberation, the PC completely changed its attitude towards me: Les Lettres Françaises attacked me, as well as Action (less violently, but more insidiously). I attribute this break to the fact that I was beginning to become known, particularly as the author of Being and Nothingness, which could only displease them.

One of the leaders said to me at the time that I was putting a brake on the movement that was leading young intellectuals to the Party. This was a moment of real confusion: it was the era when I could draw conclusions from what I was taught by the Resistance which, as we all know, had turned increasingly to the Left and which, at that very moment, was beginning to be dismantled by De Gaulle.

As for me, I’d become a convinced socialist, but anti-hierarchical and libertarian, that is, for direct democracy. I knew full well that my objectives weren’t those of the PC, but I thought we could travel along the same road for a while. This abrupt break profoundly disconcerted me.

And then there was my review, Les Temps Modernes. It was not yet militant, but I sought to perfect different forms of inquiry there, permitting a demonstration that all social realities equally reflect, though at different levels, the structures of the societies that produce them and that, in this regard, a fait divers is as meaningful as an event that is, properly speaking, political in the sense it then had.

Something I’d translate now with these words: everything is political, i.e., everything puts in question society in its entirety, and opens onto contestation. This was the starting point of Temps Modernes. Obviously, this presupposed the taking of a political position (but not in the sense of political parties; rather, in the sense of how we should orient our inquiries), and I’d given Merleau-Ponty complete freedom in the area of political formulation.

He had taken the same position as that of many Frenchmen, which consisted of relying on the Socialist Party (PS), and even sometimes the MRP, which at that time was tripartiste, in order to effect a rapprochement with the Communists. For example, he thought that the Rights of Man in our bourgeois republic were abstract and empty, and he counted on the attraction that the PC exercised on the two other parties to force them to give this some kind of social content.

Personally, I didn’t do much on the political level, but I approved him. This was the attitude of the review around ’45–’50. The result was that the Communists, though distrustful of Merleau-Ponty, treated him better than they treated me. But this type of rapprochement was tainted from the start, because it presupposed a tripartiste government.

The first breach was made during the strike wave that brought about the resignation of the PC from the government. From this point on, back in opposition, the PCF hardened its positions, while the PS, through an opposite movement, became more or less the left of the right.

And people like us, who thought we could contribute to reestablishing a bridge between the PC and the parties in the government, found ourselves with our backsides between two chairs. Our position was untenable. Merleau-Ponty couldn’t conceive of extending his hand to the PC unless it had support to its right.

After the break there were three possibilities: move closer to the PC, move closer to the PS-MRP, which was the government, or abandon politics. To make matters worse, at this time there was the first serious scuffle — I mean the war in Korea. Merleau-Ponty was very shaken up by this, and he said to me: “The cannons are talking. There’s nothing for us to do but shut up.”

He accepted as true the news from American agencies, had taken his distance from the Party, and had chosen the second solution. He grew increasingly distant from us. I, nevertheless, had chosen the first solution: I doubted the news that he took seriously. Above all, at that time I considered the PC the organic representative of the working class.

In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything else on the Left. I didn’t realize that democratic centralism and the hierarchical structure of the apparatus of the PC were one and the same thing; even if it sought the votes and the membership of workers, its policies were never decided at the base, but from on high.

It was also necessary that a rapprochement with the PCF even be possible. And in fact, they didn’t want to hear anything about it. In the preceding years, I had joined the Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire (RDR), an organization founded by [David] Rousset. Merleau didn’t go there immediately, and only joined it later so as not to abandon me.

This was my first political step, and I have to admit it wasn’t a happy one. The Rassemblement didn’t want its members to be only those not in any party; it wanted Communists and Socialists to come to us, without their ceasing to be militants in the PC or the PS. This was total idiocy.

As long as we — Merleau-Ponty and I — were only at Les Temps Modernes, a review read by 10,000 people, our criticisms didn’t bother the Communists: they had the interest of not being inspired by any party. They sometimes even accepted to respond.

But from the moment when, in the RDR, we wanted to recruit their militants (accepting, of course, that they remain Communists, though this was a simple stylistic clause), the PC fired on us with all barrels blazing. There weren’t many of us, maybe from 10,000 to 20,000. But this didn’t matter; this was the embryo of a party and we were attacked as such.

In fact, the RDR never left this first phase. Our ideas were extremely vague; grossly speaking, it seems, it was a new version of that third force that so many men wanted to create in France. We wanted to try to push our government to join with other European governments in attempting to mediate between the USSR and the US.

P. Victor

Were there workers in this group?

Jean-Paul Sartre

A few. Not many. I got to know them later at the Congress that buried the RDR. In truth, everything went bad after a year when we saw that we had no more money. Rousset said that we have to ask for it from American unions.

And he went to America, from which he returned with a few pennies and the demand to gather together people from different nations in Paris in a kind of international congress, one that would be like the congress of the Communist-inspired Peace Movement, which had just been held in Paris. This discussion took place and, above all, there was talk of the approaching war. Not in order to avoid it, but in order to enumerate the ways of winning it.

The Americans sent well-known anti-communists, for example, Sidney Hook. People praised the atom bomb. Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright, and myself, understanding that we’d been had, refused to go to this meeting and called for an emergency congress, which was held in Paris a month later. This congress was very violent.

The people, former Communists and Trotskyists, reproached Rousset for the commitments he’d made in the US, and the meeting in support of peace (and which was, in fact, warlike) that had taken place. There was a large majority that wanted to work with the Communists, and a small pro-American minority. It was never heard of again after this congress.

During this time, I thought about what I’d do in case of a conflict between America and the Soviets. I said that the PC seemed to me to represent the proletariat. It seemed impossible to me not to be on the side of the proletariat. In any event, the recent history of the RDR had taught me a lesson. A micro-organism that aspired to play a mediating role rapidly decomposed into two groups: one pro-American, the other pro-Soviet.

Before the threats of war which, around ’50–’52, seemed to be growing from day to day, it seemed to me that only one choice was possible: either the USA or the USSR. I chose the USSR. It was a choice dominated by international problems, but above all motivated by the existence of the PC, which seemed to me, as it did to so many others, to express the aspirations and demands of the proletariat.

This was the era of Ridgeway’s visit to Paris, of the violent demonstration — a Communist demonstration — that that visit provoked, and the arrest of Duclos. The anti-communism of our government manifested itself on that occasion in the affair of the carrier pigeons.

I was so indignant that I wrote three articles that appeared in Les temps Modernes entitled “The Communists and Peace,” where I declared myself a fellow-traveler of the PC. When I think about it today, I think I was pushed to write them more by the hatred of the conduct of the bourgeoisie than by the attraction the Party exercised over me. In any event, the step was taken.

A little while later, the Party delegated Claude Roy, who at the time was still a member, as well as another intellectual whose name I’ve forgotten (they always come in pairs, like cops) to ask me to join a group of intellectuals (communist and non-communist) who were demanding the liberation of Henri Martin, a young sailor who had passed out propaganda in Toulon against the war in Indochina. I accepted.

There were many of us who contributed to a book that gave an account of the activities of Henri Martin and the repressive activities of the government. I gave myself the assignment of writing this polemical section. In a certain manner, it was a bourgeois critique of a bourgeois government: I attacked it for having violated bourgeois legality. If you like, it can be said that it was the rupture of a bourgeois with his class.

I saw Farge at the home of doctor Dalsace, and he invited me to the next congress of the peace movement. I became a fellow-traveler of the Communists, which brought with it new breaks, in particular with the liberal left (disputes with L’Observateur, Le Monde, etc). Merleau-Ponty left the review, leaving me with a new task, the political one, in which I was assisted by a new team (Pèju, Lanzmann, etc.), which was much younger, and which wanted a critical fellow-traveler relationship with the PC.

At that time, from ’52 until ’56, I carried out a new, more complete experiment in work with the Communists. The first thing that I noticed was their rigidity in observing agreements. You’re not in the Party, but you’re in agreement with it for this or that action.

And everything happens as if you’d signed a contract: you commit to doing something in the common interest and they commit to assisting you in doing it — and they do this insofar as its possible. At the same time, on all those points on which you are not in agreement with them it’s understood that they won’t attack you, and they don’t.

P. Victor

So then they’re honest?

Jean-Paul Sartre

Yes, but it’s a heavy machine. From time to time there are slip-ups. For example, for the Henri Martin affair we had asked that a delegation, of which I was a member, be received by Vincent Auriol, who was then president of the republic. He answered me that he wouldn’t receive a delegation, but that he was ready to receive me.

Since our whole group was committed based on my acceptance or refusal, I couldn’t decide alone. I telephoned Dr. Dalsace and asked him to consult the upper reaches of the PC. He did this and called me soon afterwards; I should go. It was better that someone go to the president than no one. So I went, without any results, as you can imagine.

And the next day I read in L’Humanité that Vincent Auriol hadn’t received honest writers and intellectuals, and that he’d preferred receiving a suspect personage (me). I received a bunch of excuses. The transmission belts hadn’t functioned, etc. I took it. In fact, these slip-ups were without any importance.

In any event, they show you that the militants, as long as their contract lasts, keep the opinion of you that they had previously had. On the whole they hid it, but that’s all. For them, I was a piece of garbage; they used me for a little while and, during this time, it wasn’t talked about. In the first place, they didn’t accept critical fellow-traveling; why would I criticize them since they didn’t criticize me?

For the same reason, we had no relations with Communist workers. I mean, if you enter into a relationship with the biggest workers’ party in France, as was said at the time, it’s because you want to enter in contact with workers. You saw Communist intellectuals — or what I’d call bourgeois Communists — or party leaders, but rarely workers, or else those carefully chosen, like at the Congress of Vienna.

These workers were told to mistrust us. They began by saying; “I, who am not an intellectual; I, who am a manual laborer,” etc., and then continued with a terribly intellectual discourse! It’s then that I began to understand that the distinction between manual workers and intellectuals didn’t make much sense, aside from the strictly professional point of view, and that it was necessary to find ways of making it disappear professionally as well.

The consequence of that mistrust was that we were treated like mannequins. We were seated on chairs, behind a table, on a stage. We gave a little speech, we sat down again, and that was all. Or else we signed a manifesto.

P. Victor

Was the contract always respected?

Jean-Paul Sartre

Yes, aside from the slip-ups, of course. But you understand, this wasn’t the problem. Of course, we didn’t talk about what divided us, but what united us. The only thing is, it was the opposite of reciprocity, if you see what I mean. And I understand full well that there are always difficulties between someone who represents a party and another who only represents himself. But with them it was systematic.

There was distrust, like I said. But not only that; I was dealing with men who only considered people of their party as comrades, men who were covered with orders and prohibitions, who judged me as a provisional fellow-traveler, and who placed themselves in advance in the future moment when I’d disappear from the melee, taken back by the forces of the Right. For them, I wasn’t a whole man; I was a dead man on reprieve.

No kind of reciprocity is possible with men like that; nor any mutual criticism, which would have been something to hope for. Nothing was ever asked of me but that which I committed to do, but it was never a question of an agreement that could have been taken further. Yes, I spoke at meetings. And the people who listened to me said: “That’s Sartre, a friend of the PC.” But it got back to me from all sides that the militants in the cells thought they were using me and not accepting me.

P. Victor

You were a malodorous ally.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Malodorous, that’s it.

P. Victor

Did you continue writing what you wanted?

Jean-Paul Sartre

I tried to. I wanted to continue in my role of critical fellow-traveler, despite everything. I wrote against Kanapa in Les Temps Modernes. And also when they beat up Lecoeur, who had left the Party. Or again a propos of Hervé’s book, about which there was much noise.

P. Victor

But he was a real bastard, Lecoeur.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Perhaps, but I don’t think that sending a commando to beat up people at a worker’s meeting is something a worker’s party should do.

P. Victor

It was a worker’s meeting that Lecoeur was holding?

Jean-Paul Sartre

Yes, it was in the Nord; he was talking to workers of the Rassemblement Socialiste. Note that this internal conflict was particular to the PCF. I met people from other CPs, in Italy, for example. Deep down the Italian Party is really hard-line, but it’s much more open. Its members guard the possibility of having friendships, off-and-on ones, with non-Communists.

When I was on the outs with the PCF they said hello to me in passing when they met me. But when I got closer to the PCF, I found again my Italian friends, who certainly had broader ideas. On the eve of the intervention of the Russian troops in Budapest, I spent the evening in Rome with an Italian Communist. He was desperate, and we were able to speak freely, sharing ideas.

The PCF is very particular. It seems to me to be badly touched by “thought sickness.” It’s often a thought by analogy or, if you will, by amalgamation. The other day on TV, Duclos attacked Lecanuet. Sure, the program of the reformers is bad, so it’s the program that should be attacked.

Instead of that, he proceeded by insinuations. For example, he said to him: “Of course, you want to be minister.” I, the listener, have no idea whether or not Lecanuet wants to be a minister, and anyway, I don’t give a damn. It’s his program that’s important to me. Duclos didn’t say a word about this.

On the other hand, he attacks J.J. S.S. [Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber], who’s not there to answer, and he leads you to believe that Lecanuet, his ally of today, is responsible for J.J. S.S.’s errors. None of this is thought; if you’d like, it’s rhetoric. You see how, starting with vague similarities, through this nonsensical thought you naturally arrive at slander. From ’45–’52, calumny was the procedure most often used by the PC.

The best example is Nizan. We know he left the party in ’39–’40, and right away we learned that he was a traitor. The proof of this: [the character] Pluvinage in one of his novels. In any event, he was employed by the Ministry of the Interior, his signature was seen there — of another writer who had in fact left the Party: “He had to do what the police told him to do. He married a whore who was on the police lists.”

Marty, he spied on revolutionaries from the time of the Black Sea [mutiny]. We lived in a poisoned atmosphere of thoughts that didn’t resist examination, but that they avoided examining. It was putrid, and we were never sure that they weren’t in the process of slandering us somewhere.