Albert Camus and the Fantasies of Empire
The novelist Albert Camus is omnipresent in French cultural life, from TV shows to comic books, magazine covers and one-man shows. Camus-mania isn’t just a literary phenomenon: it draws on a deep well of political revisionism and colonial nostalgia.
- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Albert Camus occupies a position of singular importance in French cultural and intellectual life. What explains the continued popularity of the novelist? And what function does his popularity serve? Jacobin‘s Daniel Finn discussed this question with associate professor of French and Francophone studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. He is the author of Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction.
This is a transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
How would you describe the position of Albert Camus in French cultural life today?
It’s hard to overstate. Camus is omnipresent in French cultural life, from a local bookstore, where there will probably be a table full of books on Camus, or correspondence by Camus. Camus is also there in the theaters — I think there was an opera recently — and at the movies as well. A friend told me that in Paris right now, someone is reading Camus’s diaries in a one-man show.
Camus also, of course, is probably the most quoted French novelist/philosopher by politicians: he’s quoted by everyone from the Anarchist Federation to the far right, including very much the current President, Emmanuel Macron. There was even a movement in 2009 to put Camus in the Pantheon, where the “great men” of France reside.
There are also comic books. There are conspiracy theories. I think Camus is literally everywhere — on magazine covers, there are a lot of pictures of him, and the magazines are on the left and on the right. He’s really a presence that’s very hard to avoid in the French cultural landscape today.
What set Camus apart, in terms of background and his approach to writing, from the other French writers of his generation?
The first thing is that Camus was born in French Algeria, about one hundred miles east of Algiers, and so that sets him apart. This is what everyone knows, but what perhaps is more interesting — and makes him a different writer and a very interesting one — is his social background.
Most writers in France at that time and before were from bourgeois backgrounds, but Camus was from a very modest background. His mother cleaned homes. His father, who died a year after Camus was born, was going to manage a winery. Camus grew up in the public school system (in the French sense, the schools that you do not pay for), and he had to work all the time. He was working every summer as a high school student in a store. He worked when he was at university.
His first published novel talks about this — the main character is an office worker. He’s writing from the perspective of someone from an underprivileged background, and that’s a big difference from figures like Sartre and Malraux, Queneau and Gide, who were all around him at the time that Camus jumped in the scene.
Do we have any evidence of what Camus’s political outlook was as a young man in Algeria before the second World War?
Camus was involved early on in the movement for reform in French Algeria. On the one hand, Camus grows up in this French system of free education, and he grows up with these history books that glorify and glamorize French history and its emancipatory project, the project of the French Republic. At the same time, there’s this state of apartheid that Camus is seeing live every day in Algeria, and he’s trying to reconcile this.
There’s a former governor of French Algeria, Violette, who proposes a compromise bill, to give citizenship to about five thousand Algerians. By Algerians, I mean Arabs and Kabyles — people who lived in Algeria before France invaded in 1830.
This bill is a very modest attempt at a compromise — or if you want to be perhaps more lucid about it, it’s a way to create an elite that’s going to be beholden to the French Republic, the French colonial Republic. Camus supports this bill. He wants it to pass into law, and he writes, or co-writes, a manifesto supporting the Blum/Violette law. So at this stage as a young man before the war, his initial outlook is to reform the colonial system.
Camus joined the French Communist Party in 1935, then left two years later. Do we have much of an idea of why he left — why he decided to join and then leave — and did he express any public views on topics that were controversial at the time, like the Moscow trials, or the Spanish Civil War?
There are a lot of different interpretations, depending on which biography you read and who you listen to with respect to Camus’s involvement in the Communist Party. It’s unclear why he left, or whether he was excluded. What is certain is that in 1935, his mentor, who was his professor at university and the last year of high school, Jean Grenier, encourages him to join.
They exchange letters, and when they’re exchanging letters, it is clear that Camus is no communist. I think he says at one point he would never want to put Marx’s Capital between a human being and that person’s enjoyment of life. Also he talks about how class struggle is really illusory, according to young Camus.
This still makes it more of a question. Why does he join the Communist Party? At that particular moment in the Algerian Communist Party, and the Communist Party in France, there’s a complete change of political line. The party’s moving away from Leninism, from the Leninist line that is advocating anti-colonialism as a crucial line of attack. And here the Communist Party changes — it basically says: “Let’s try to overturn social relations, but within the empire.”
Camus joins at that time. People say he joins specifically to influence Arab sections of the Communist Party, but no one really says what he’s supposed to do there. Essentially what happens in 1937 is that the Blum/Violette bill does not pass into law. It’s unanimously rejected, and that’s when in fact Camus leaves. That’s also when a lot of Arab militants leave the Communist Party and start their own parties.
There’s certainly an argument to be made for Camus’s time working in the Communist Party and joining it, that he was trying to prevent Arab and Kabyle militant groups from seceding and creating their own parties. And once that looked like it was a dead end, he had no reason to be there anymore.
In a totally different perspective, certainly the Communist Party, back in the mid 1930s, was the place to be for an aspiring intellectual. In fact, within the Communist Party, there was a burgeoning cultural life, and there was a theater called the Théâtre du Travail, the Theater of Labor, with which Camus was very much involved, and continued to be involved with after he left the party. It also offered him a way to interact with other intellectuals. He co-wrote a play at that time, and he acted as well, so there was another enticement. But Camus was never a communist, the way we would understand it today.
What attitude did Camus adopt in 1940, when the German occupation of France began, and how did he come to be involved in the Resistance? And in what capacity was he involved in the Resistance?
We have to backtrack a little bit, before 1940, to the build-up of the war. At this stage, Camus has been rejected by the French state. He got his diplomas, but the French state said because he had tuberculosis, they didn’t want him to work for the French national education system. He was left without a job, without any prospects. That was a real shock. I mean, imagine, you get your PhD, and for some reason you’re not employable at all — although that’s probably the case with many people now.
Camus gets a break then and works with Pascal Pia at a newspaper called Alger Republicain. He’s a reporter, but he also becomes quickly an editorialist. In his editorials, he has a very pro-peace, anti-war stance, and it gets to the point where the French government censors the paper. Camus is considered a pacifist, no question about it. He doesn’t want to be involved in the war at all, and he’s against the war.
His newspaper is closed down, and he has to make a living, so he moves from Algeria to Paris and works for a newspaper called Paris-Soir. He resents it. It’s a tabloid. He doesn’t get involved in the Resistance until much later. He moves back to Oran when his newspaper folds, then moves back to France.
Because of his TB, his doctor orders him to go to the mountains, in the South of France, near Lyon and Saint-Etienne. His friends are in the Resistance: Francis Ponge, again Pascal Pia. It’s unclear when he joins. I mean, if you read books and biographies dating back twenty, thirty years ago, they’ll say he joined in 1942, but he may actually have joined in December ’43 or January ’44. It’s unclear, exactly.
How does he join, what does he do? He’s not carrying documents or fighting with a machine gun. He writes letters called “Letters to a German Friend.” These are letters where he basically explained France’s reasons for joining the Resistance, and resisting against the Nazis, and it’s really an explanation of why he took so long to join the Resistance. He talks about how he wanted to avoid history but decided to join it, and he’s very resentful at the Germans for forcing him to join history.
What else did he do? When he published The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, there was a part on Kafka, and of course that was not going to pass censorship. All literary publications in Occupied France were under control. There was a list called the “list Otto” — Otto Abetz was a German official who oversaw all cultural life in France, and all Jewish authors were banned.
So Camus replaced his chapter on Kafka with a chapter on Dostoevsky, and he published that chapter in the spring of 1944. Then he published maybe two or three letters to a German friend. He might have penned a couple of editorials in the Resistance paper called Combat in the summer of 1944. His play Le Malentendu was one of the last plays that was presented in occupied Paris, days before the liberation in August.
To sum up, he really was an editorialist. He wrote these plays. He worked for the newspaper. He assisted with the publication of the newspaper Combat, which was the big clandestine paper. But it was on the later side, and not at all what one would believe from reading the representations made of his Resistance involvement — or the way it is evoked but never clearly described — today in France.
How did Camus first come into contact with Jean-Paul Sartre?
First they came into contact indirectly. Camus reviews Nausea, Sartre’s big novel. He reviews it in a confidential publication in the 1930s, and he doesn’t really like Nausea too much. I mean, he likes it, but he doesn’t like novels which are an explanation of philosophical principles, and he says he hopes that Sartre’s new novel will be less philosophical, and more of a pure novel.
In 1942, Sartre reviews The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. What’s interesting is that he decides it’s going to be an explanation, and he explains and sometimes chastises Camus for not knowing about the philosophers that he quotes. It’s positive, but it’s also a very professorial tone, and Camus writes to Jean Grenier about that response and that review to say: “The tone is pretty acid, but there are things he understands about my work that I didn’t understand.”
So there is ambivalence right from the start. Admiration, but also a fair amount of resentment, probably on both sides — who knows? They actually meet during the German occupation in Paris in June 1943, during the opening of Sartre’s play, The Flies. That’s when they first meet and they really hit it off, and they socialize a lot.
What was the general attitude of the French left-wing intelligentsia, including figures like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, toward the Communist Party in France, and towards the Soviet Union after the war? How did Camus stand apart from them?
The Soviet Union after World War II in France had immense prestige, and they were the ones that defeated the Nazis on the ground — these are things that today in France people forget. Stalingrad was the bellwether. A lot of people entered the Resistance after the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad. The Soviet Union was the liberator of Europe. That was the consensus.
Of course, that also meant that the Communist Party was part of that victory. They were the first party of the Resistance. They called themselves le parti des fusilles, which meant the political party that had the most militants who were killed by the Nazis. The Communist Party was the first party in France in terms of pure numbers: I think they had a quarter of members of parliament, 26 percent of voters, and their prestige was immense.
They had their own publications. Not just L’Humanite, but Les Lettres Francaises. Who was a member of the Communist Party back then? Just about everyone you could think of, from Pablo Picasso to Henri Lefebvre. They were extremely powerful and prestigious. The general attitude was one of respect and awe.
Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, although they were not party members by any stretch of the imagination — Sartre starts to try and create a third way — they certainly understood the importance and the influence that the Communist Party had with the working class.
Camus, at the very beginning of the post-war period, still won’t criticize the Communist Party directly, because it’s part of that big family of resistance. But then he starts to stand apart very quickly, in part with the wars against colonialism, when the peoples of Indochina fight against the French colonial system. There’s Henri Martin, a French member of the CGT trade union, led by the Communist Party, who was imprisoned by the French state. Sartre gets very involved with that cause, and Camus does not, and so Camus starts to break.
There’s also the notion that the Soviet Union represents History with a capital H, and they represent the progressive emancipation of people, or the radical, immediate one. They represent the resistance to Nazism, and so you’re either for them or against them: that’s an edict amongst intellectuals who have to choose, and Camus refuses to choose. He doesn’t want to be forced to choose camps, and that creates rifts right off the bat, for sure. So he was never a communist, and he was not close to them in the post-war period.
Of course, there are different periods for Sartre and for Simone de Beauvoir, in terms of the French Communist Party. They eventually get close to the Communist Party, around 1952. What’s important to note in all this is that Camus from the get go was not a friend of the Communist Party, not a friend of the Soviet Union.
He would often warn against pro-independence movements, because they were supported by the Soviet Union. So immediately he conceives of the Soviet Union as a menace. Whereas Sartre would condemn the Soviet Union, but on very specific occasions, like the invasion of Hungary in 1956, or in Prague in September 1968. Camus was always against the Soviet Union, while Sartre did condemn them, but at very specific historical moments.
We’ve been talking so far about the political activism, and the explicit political stands that were adopted by Camus. But of course, his most celebrated work today is his fiction. What kind of political outlook do you think is discernible in his novels, in what he says and what he doesn’t say?
This has to do with Camus’s identity as a settler, as a colon. They’re called pieds-noirs, “black feet” in French. He is torn between the generous ideals of the French Republic that were very concrete for him, because he had this free education. He had these teachers who lifted him up, who went to his home, tutored him, lifted him up out of his social class and helped him become the winner of the Nobel Prize in 1957.
When his father died in World War I, he became a ward of the state and got some support and scholarships. He was torn between that attachment to France and his attachment to Algeria, and the first-hand knowledge that France was a colonial, oppressive state.
At first, he tries to fix it with his militancy, with the Blum/Violette bill, and that fails. Then he also does some reporting about the difficult living conditions of people in Kabylia, a mountainous region of Algeria, and that also fails. So when he writes The Stranger — his first novel and up until now his most famous one — he’s giving up here. The characters in this story, the ones that don’t speak, the ones that don’t have first names or last names, are all Arabs or Kabyles. All the other characters, the white Europeans, have speaking roles, they exist as human beings.
That’s extremely shocking to us today, as readers in the twenty-first century. But at the time, it was a quiet validation of the colonial order. He reproduces that reality, but without pointing it out.
You can see that, in a sense, as a denial of the colonial reality — a denial of Arabs and Kabyles as human beings. You have nineteenth-century authors like Guy de Maupassant in French literature who talk about these issues. Here Camus is erasing them. It took a while for people to look at that novel from that perspective, to say: “Wait a second. This novel is about this.” In a way the novel challenges the mores of Catholicism, social climbing. But it also leaves completely unchallenged colonialism and its inequities.
In 1970, Conor Cruise O’Brien writes a small book on Albert Camus, pointing this out. There was Edward Said in the 1970s. Before that there were Pierre Nora and Henri Krea, who wrote early on about Camus and The Stranger. But overall, we had to wait until Said for this critique to emerge, and still to this day it has no traction in France.
With The Plague in 1947 — a novel that’s very fashionable now, of course, because of COVID-19 — it’s widely interpreted as an allegory of the German occupation. In Oran, a port city in Algeria, there’s the plague, and it’s an elite of enlightened men who fight the plague — doctors, poets — and they all do their best against this unknown adversity. Today, there are editorials that pop up every other month on The Plague, and how it’s about human solidarity against oppression, against adversity.
There’s a slow coming to terms of Camus’s identity as a settler throughout his fiction, through his body of works, and The Plague is the midpoint. You could read it as the part where, if The Stranger is the denial, The Plague is the repressed coming to the surface. You can think of the plague as in fact the fear of the emergence of the revolts of Arabs and Kabyles, and that fear of the movement of history.
From 1830 to 1947 there have been revolts and resistance. France suffered huge military defeats at the hands of Abd al-Kader. There were Kabyle revolts in 1870. There were sporadic revolts all over the territory, so there was that ongoing fear of the people — the vast majority of the people, 90 percent of human beings living in that land were Algerians, not French settlers. For someone like Camus, who was educated in the French Republic’s educational system, that education is all about the mass of French peasants and bourgeois rising against aristocracy. One way of reading French history from the Middle Ages onwards is this slow march towards the French Revolution.
At one level, there is a notion that there is a slow march towards Algerian independence, and the plague is that. It is also the fear of this movement, and almost the fact that the French colony is sentenced to death, as it were. It’s the finitude, the sense that eventually the resistance to French oppression will win out.
If you read the end of The Plague, at the very end, it’s a celebration because the plague is over. But the doctor, the hero of the novel, says: well, it can lie dormant for years, and potentially one day it will rise up, and the settler population will die. So there’s this idea that eventually he’s forecasting what is happening. Now this is not an interpretation that Camus would approve of, but you can certainly read the novel that way, and that is the secret fear of these settlers.
The third step — another way to read Camus’s last unpublished novel, which is called The First Man, is as a coming to terms and a cry. A coming to terms of Camus’s identity as a settler. This is an autobiographical novel thinly disguised.
There is a settler born in Algeria, and he calls himself the “first man.” Right there, we have the denial of anyone who came before him. Occasionally Camus — because we have the draft form of the manuscript — called the hero Adam. The book is a defense of the settlers. He calls the settlers “indigenous people” of Algeria.
It’s very hard not to read The First Man, his last novel, as the final acceptance of his identity of a settler. In the end, it’s a confession. You can see a progression in his works, and what’s interesting is that The First Man wasn’t published after he died. They had to wait, and it was a specific decision.
What was Camus’s attitude towards the colonial wars waged by France after 1945? What views did he express in public and in private?
They were always extremely ambiguous publicly. On VE Day, May 8, 1945, in the towns of Setif and Guelma, the Algerian population decided to demonstrate in favor of, amongst other things, Algerian independence. These demonstrators were largely composed of Algerian veterans of World War II.
They’d just come back from the front. They participated in the victories of the French army on the Italian front, and they were promised by de Gaulle in early 1944 that they would get independence if they fought alongside the French army. That’s one of the major inequities of the colonial system: Algerians had to fight for the French army, yet they couldn’t vote.
These demonstrations start in May 1945. The French police try to tear down their flags, their banners, and a riot ensues. Some police officers die, and the response of the French state is two weeks of bombing from airplanes and battleships. The death toll is in the thousands — tens of thousands of Algerians are killed. The French press doesn’t talk about it.
Camus, as luck would have it, is writing a series of articles on Algeria at the time. He describes the police and the military as reasonable and uses the word “force” when referring to their actions. On the other hand, when he describes the actions of the demonstrators — there were perhaps one hundred casualties on the side of the settlers and the police — he calls those massacres. So already at that stage, you realize that he is a supporter of colonial justice. He tries to say: “We want peace, and we don’t support either side.” But the way he described one form of violence as force and the counter-violence of the colonized as violence or massacres, you already know where he stands.
He writes a series of articles called “Neither Victims Nor Executioners.” Two years later, the French state kills tens of thousands of Malagaches, the people of Madagascar, who are rising up against French colonialism. Again, Camus has a biased perspective, and he equates the wholesale massacres of Malgaches, in the tens of thousands, with the killing of maybe half a dozen settlers. That’s already very problematic publicly — his public writing.
Privately, I would say it’s even more problematic. For example, in 1954, when the Indochinese finally win their independence, and there’s a famous battle at Dien Bien Phu — it’s like Custer’s Last Stand, and the French army is completely defeated. Camus describes that in his diary, which obviously was private at the time. He feels towards the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu the way he felt towards the French defeat at the hands of the Nazis. There’s an implicit comparison of the Nazis and the Indochinese, which is the complete opposite of what others like Sartre would say. He’s very, very much on the colonialist side.
What was the nature of his falling out with Sartre? What were the main points of contention between them?
There were rifts before — even after 1945, there were disputes between them. This was when a member of the editorial group at Les Temps Modernes, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was a philosopher, wrote a book very much supportive of the Soviet Union, and Camus had a big dispute with him. Merleau-Ponty said to him: “Well, you either have to choose to be on the side of history with the Soviet Union or not.” That was a big break between Camus and Merleau-Ponty, but also with Sartre.
But the break really happens when Camus writes The Rebel. He writes The Rebel in 1951 — in fact he writes it before that, but it comes out in 1951 — and people in Sartre’s publication Les Temps Modernes are embarrassed, because they don’t know what to do. They have to review it.
Just to backtrack a little bit, Camus’s main theory in the early 1940s is his theory of the absurd, where the world is absurd and there’s no meaning at all. That’s the first absurd. There are two absurds for Camus. The second one is the realization of this absurdity, and then you have to live as an absurd man — I say “man,” because there are no absurd women in Camus’s universe. Women are not really present as intellectual beings for the most part.
This is a very nihilistic perspective, and Camus, with the advent of World War II and Nazism, changes that perspective — he modifies it. He also modifies a play that he was writing at the time. He was writing Caligula, and the play changes. He injects this notion of revolt, which tries to inject a dose of morality into the absurd. But The Rebel really speaks to what revolt shouldn’t be, according to Camus: it shouldn’t be revolution. Revolt should be spontaneous, it shouldn’t be elaborated, it shouldn’t be a system, it shouldn’t be programmatic.
You know where I’m going here: revolt cannot be communism. It’s essentially a tract against communism.
It is also a tract against anti-colonial movements, because one of the first principles, as it were, of revolt according to Camus, is that it can’t take place in non-European countries. It’s not just a text in which he equates Nazism with the Soviet Union, which was extremely shocking at the time. He also circumscribes the right to rebel and revolt to European countries.
Francis Jeanson, who was also a philosopher and wrote for Les Temps Modernes — also a man who later became an ally of the nationalists and worked for them during the Algerian war of liberation — writes the review. The review is scathing. It points out that Camus focuses on the crimes and excesses of the Soviet Union, the camps, the invasions, but doesn’t say anything about what France is doing in Algeria and Madagascar and Senegal and all of its colonies.
Camus responds directly to Sartre in Les Temps Modernes. He attacks Sartre and completely ignores Jeanson. He gives an ultimatum to Jeanson and to Sartre and says: “I’m not going to respond and I’m not going to consider anything you say unless you hereby relinquish and completely forever condemn the Soviet Union. If you do that, then maybe I’ll look at other issues.”
It’s a non-starter. Sartre responds in a scathing public letter, so this is a complete public break. He laments the fact that he has been dragged into this, and that now everyone’s going to consider them a laughing-stock for airing this in public.
He takes Camus to task, and the old critiques, the old comments about Camus’s lack of intellectual rigor resurface, about things that he had written in 1942. He proceeds to demonstrate that Camus doesn’t really read primary sources. It becomes almost humiliating. Then he talks about Camus’s shortcomings with respect to the crimes of colonialism and France’s involvement. There is no return from that. He also points out that of course, he has condemned the Soviet Union many times.
The aftermath of this is that everyone, whether they agree with Camus’s or Sartre’s position, agrees on one thing, which is that Camus is thoroughly humiliated, and that Sartre and Jeanson have the upper hand. Ultimately, what was this about? I think it was about anti-Marxism, and it was about colonialism. He tried to make it about humanism, but this was the unmasking of Camus. This, at the time, was perceived as an ultimate loss of credibility. Very, very few people came to the defense of Camus. I think he moved away from Paris for a while. He wrote a short story about it, and then later wrote a whole novel in part about that break.
At that time, they had that break, and they didn’t speak afterwards — then of course Camus died. They never attacked one another more so than after that break. In every Camus collection of short stories, in every one of his novels after this, there are attacks on Sartre. Sartre will take Camus to task, even after his death.
The paradox is that they have this break, but afterwards they become inseparable. That break continues to live on today, in modified forms, in today’s political and cultural environment in France.
How did Camus respond to the outbreak of war in Algeria?
For us, we have this vision that it starts in November 1954, and we define it that way because it’s the call up. French soldiers are coming in greater numbers to Algeria. But at the time there was one incident in a sea of incidents. Even though there was a statement by the National Liberation Front, the FLN, no one realized that this was the beginning of a war.
So Camus doesn’t really say much or do anything. He’s silent. I think in November, he’s on vacation in Rome. Eventually, it becomes obvious that something is going on, and he’s urged by a number of people to take a stand, but he’s largely silent on the issue, I think until early 1955. His position will evolve over time, but he tries to say basically that France needs to be more just, more fair, but there cannot be Algerian independence.
That position will become gradually clearer as the war progresses. He decides to call for a civil truce. He wants all parties — meaning the FLN, the MNA and the French army — to call for a truce on civilian victims. Once again, that’s problematic, because you have a war that’s been going on against Algeria since 1830. There’s a questionable equation here between the victims of the FLN and the victims of the French state, the French army, throughout that long history.
Camus writes that appeal and goes to give a talk for this compromise in Algiers around January 1955. The settlers don’t want to hear it. They want complete support for French Algeria. They don’t want any compromise. In fact, one could say that at this stage, in certain segments of the settler population, they want to break away even from France. They’re enamored with the model of the United States of America. This is a hope for settler colonialism, and eventually there will be a military coup, an attempted coup in France.
Camus goes there, and he’s booed and heckled by the settlers, by his people, who say: “Death to Camus.” The organizers of the meeting, unbeknownst to Camus, are all members of the FLN. So Camus is played here, to make the settlers look like the intransigent people that they were, and he goes back to Paris completely devastated, refusing to speak publicly about this.
He does reissue some articles he wrote about Algeria and the living conditions of the Arabs and the Kabyles. He had written a series of articles asking for humanitarian gestures from the French state. He wrote these articles in the 1930s, and he has them republished to show his bona fides on the issue. He selects the articles. There are some that are so paternalistic that he doesn’t reproduce them.
He also tries to influence ministers — the keeper of the seals, the Garde des Sceaux, who was Francois Mitterrand at the time — to commute the death penalty for some militants from the FLN. He tries to really work a compromise. But ultimately some of his last public statements on Algeria are to say that he’s against the independence of Algeria, that there has to be a compromise. He’ll say things like, “The time of colonialism is over,” but he wants Algeria to remain French.
One of his projects was a proposal for Algeria to have its own flag and be independent, except when it came to military and economic matters — everything else they could do. This of course is eerily similar to what’s going on in most of Western Africa today, where there are all these nominally independent states, but at the same time the currency — the eco now, before it was the Franc CFA — is controlled by the French National Bank, and French military bases are all over the place, which is something that Fanon warned against.
Even the compromises of Camus still don’t change the fact that France will control the riches of these countries. Needless to say, these compromises didn’t fly with anyone in Algeria.
Where did Camus’s reputation stand at the time of his death, and over the decade that followed? And what does the re-evaluation of Camus since then tell us about the way that French politics and French intellectual life have shifted?
Camus dies in January 1960, and the war of Algerian independence went on from 1954 to 1962, so it’s not over at that point — that’s important to note. People in metropolitan France at that stage were extremely tired of the whole war, and Camus was identified with a pro-colonialist stance. He also still suffered from the backlash of the break with Sartre, who was at the height of his power and influence at that time. There were manifestos against the war in Algeria, against torture practiced by the French state. Those manifestos were headed by Sartre, while Camus remained silent.
Of course, there was a huge outcry and emotional outpouring — he had a sort of celebrity status. In or around the car where he had that accident, they found this manuscript. I think it was Andre Malraux who said: “Bring it to Gallimard.” The manuscript was The First Man.
His wife and some close friends read the manuscript and decide together that this is not the time to publish a defense of the colons, the French settlers in Algeria. It’s at the end of the Algerian war, and once the war was over and Algeria was independent, no one wanted to hear about it in France. It was off the news completely. Certainly, there was no nostalgia for colonialism at this stage, and they didn’t think it was a good bet to publish The First Man.
Of course, this is also the era of 1968. There’s a tremendous effervescence for revolution in France. Just about every other intellectual is in the Communist Party, something Camus, for very specific reasons, wasn’t a part of, after his time as a member from 1935 to 1937. So this is not a Camusian time.
The re-evaluation of Camus I think starts later. 1968 was a failed revolution, but it had a real counterrevolution, and with the realization that the Communist Party was going to stand against the revolution in 1968, a lot of intellectuals left the party. Some joined Maoist parties, but a lot just completely turned around and became right-wing — people who were published by Les Temps Modernes, who had been working with Sartre. There was a huge shift in French intellectual life, away from radical social change, and towards an embrace of neoliberalism. And the matrix behind this was anticommunism.
We have a series of anticommunist intellectuals that come to the fore, that are supported by French TV, that have more and more clout — people like André Glucksmann and Bernard Henri-Levy. It’s odd to call them intellectuals, but they certainly are on the airwaves, where they are represented as such. This starts to create an ecosystem where Camus can come back.
The moment where really people come out and say “Camus was right” is starting in 1989, with what people call the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then when the Soviet Union collapses in 1991. People go back and say, “Look at all this anticommunist stuff that Camus wrote about in The Rebel — he was right.” And he becomes the favorite prophet of French neo-liberal intellectuals — what Sartre would call inauthentic intellectuals. Paul Nizan called them previously “guard dogs of the system.”
There’s a big revival in right-wing circles of Camus. At this stage, it hasn’t gained the popularity that it will later. In 1994, I believe, the publishers now decide to cautiously publish The First Man, the manuscript that was found at the accident scene. But they publish a limited run: 5,000 copies, paperback, not the standard edition, just part of the Cahiers Albert Camus. That comes out, and it’s a huge hit, and they have to republish it. Everyone loves it, and suddenly the Camus mania starts at that moment, because Camus gives this idealized version of the colonial history.
He talks about these settlers who are victims. The winemakers who decide to pull their vines because they don’t want Arabs to use them — which is a cruel irony of course, because those vines were planted after France uprooted olive trees, so that they could plant vines in a Muslim land. There is this complete retelling of history by Camus in The First Man, this fiction that Europeans are the first men in Africa, in Algeria specifically, and it’s a huge hit. The French intelligentsia and the French public loves this idea of seeing colonialism as a happy story with a hero, with Camus. From then on, there are books by Camus or on Camus that come one after another.
It becomes a huge amount of the revenue stream of French publishing houses, including their number one, most prestigious one, Gallimard. There are comic books, and many, many biographies, sometimes published by the same publishing house. They’ll have two or three biographies of Camus, explanations of his texts, photo albums — he was always having his picture taken — and so on and so forth. Documentaries on TV, interviews with his daughter, and on and on it goes. I think that it really happened after the fall of the Soviet Union, and then with this reconsideration of French colonialism through his first novel.
With intellectual life in France today, it’s this glamorization of a universalism that is state-sponsored, that wants to erase the realities of colonialism, and Camus is the perfect stand-in for this. You can read all of his fiction and think, “Well, French colonialism wasn’t so bad. There were good people there.” He is really the author of today’s neo-colonial world that wants to be able to look at its colonial past with a sense of nostalgia.
It’s a re-creation — it’s a caricature of colonialism, right? It’s a pastiche, because there are none of the crimes there. Camus is a godsend for all sorts of politicians — not just publishers — and academics who don’t want to insert history in literature.