Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Imperialism Is Still Too Radical for France Today

Oliver Gloag

Jean-Paul Sartre’s uncompromising opposition to the crimes of empire makes him a taboo figure in French culture. The French political mainstream is still in denial about the bloody history of colonialism.

French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre demonstrates against racism in 1971. (Michel Ginfray / Sygma via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. His death, in 1980, left many people in France and the wider world feeling bereft of political guidance.

One of the main ethical and political questions that he addressed in his work was the colonial relationship between Western countries and the Global South. From his own country’s brutal war in Algeria to the US invasion of Vietnam, Sartre spoke out fiercely against the crimes of empire.

Oliver Gloag teaches French and francophone studies at the University of North Carolina, and is the author of Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

When did Sartre first begin to take an interest in the question of the French colonies, and what were his first public interventions on that subject?

Oliver Gloag

The first public reaction to France’s colonial war in Indochina came in December 1946, after the war had begun. It was an editorial in Le Temps modernes. Sartre was the director of this publication, but the editorial was unsigned. It made a comparison between the French Army’s role in Indochina and the German Army’s role in France. It was an absolute condemnation of France’s intervention and an attack on its hypocrisy.

Even though Sartre may not have written the editorial, he was singled out by François Mauriac, a very important figure in French literature and intellectual circles, who was a sort of anti-colonial, right-wing author. Mauriac was extremely shocked by the comparison between France and the German occupying army.

Sartre responded with Maurice Merleau-Ponty in another editorial, titled “SOS Indochina.” They took a stand, anticipating the argument Aimé Césaire would later make in his Discourse on Colonialism by refusing to create a hierarchy of massacres and occupations. They insisted that it was legitimate to compare what colonial powers have done to colonized people and countries with what Germany had done in Europe, when it had de facto colonized France.

The first public intervention in Sartre’s own name came in the early 1950s, with the Henri Martin affair. Martin was a sailor in the French Navy who had believed the claims of the government that the war in Indochina was one against Japanese imperialism, then discovered that it wasn’t. When he returned to France, he became an antiwar militant, and was arrested and jailed for five years.

Sartre signed a petition against Henri Martin’s imprisonment along with intellectuals and members of the French Communist Party. Eventually, Martin was freed under popular pressure, in 1953. There was a book published that year with a summation by Sartre, where he attacked the colonial enterprise and the French judicial system. I would say this was his first public commitment with respect to anti-colonialism

Daniel Finn

How did Sartre relate to the movement of négritude and figures such as Aimé Césaire and Senegal’s Léopold Senghor?

Oliver Gloag

It started in 1947, with a publication called African Presence, which became the main voice for négritude. In his presentation, Sartre took to task the hypocrisy of the metropolitan French who considered themselves tolerant and understanding because they socialized with black men in the metropole. But what about those in the colonies? Sartre asked rhetorically. What about the exploitation and misery there?

He focused on the concrete oppression. He spoke about salaries, about the price of beef, about the wealth that was generated by those colonies for the metropole. He was attentive to living conditions.

Sartre said that it wouldn’t do merely to accept a few blacks in metropolitan France as part of an attempt to repress or negate the ongoing economic oppression and exploitation of African men and women in the colonies. He also stressed the fact that racism was not the only aspect of colonialism: there was also class. This became an important theoretical problem for Sartre: Which came first?

Sartre emphasized that authors like himself shouldn’t be condescending in looking at this emerging poetry. It wasn’t about living up to French culture but rather about turning the French language in different directions, injecting revolutionary and political blood into this language and giving it new meaning. In African Presence, the novelist Richard Wright was also on the masthead, so it was making a connection between African Americans and Francophone African authors. Sartre was instrumental in the launch of this project and lent his prestige to it.

The other big intervention was his preface to Léopold Senghor’s anthology of black and Malagasy poetry. That was a huge moment for Sartre. At the time, the wars of national liberation had not yet taken on the importance that they later would. Sartre was a relative newcomer to politics, writing in a landscape where the independence of colonies in Africa was still a hope and not yet an ongoing armed struggle.

He began the essay by challenging the white reader’s patronizing expectation of exoticism when they opened the book. He preemptively called out their surprise at the poems and their discomfort at the realization that the gaze of white people was being subverted. They were now the object of black gazes. With this reversal, Sartre mocked the white reader’s sudden realization that they possess a race, and they too can be the object of a gaze.

I’ll quote what he said here: “Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you, like me, will feel the shock of being seen. For three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen.” That was the opening passage, which was crucial, and which grounded Sartre’s perspective. He was not looking at this from a paternalistic perspective.

The preface compared the status of Europeans in the world to that of French aristocrats under the old regime. He referred to them as “Europeans of divine right” and announced prophetically that the cultural movement of négritude was going to expand into a political force that would topple the old colonial order, just as the institution of monarchy had been toppled through Europe.

This was a crucial moment. He cited forty-four passages from poems by figures like Senghor, Césaire, and David Diop, and provided a glimpse of what négritude was fighting against. The essay went beyond an immediate description and denunciation of racism. It inscribed race and colonialism in history.

The most controversial part of Sartre’s preface was that it also described the idea of a dialectic where, on the one hand, we would have white racism and white colonialism and, on the other, we would have an “anti-racist racism.” In a third stage, the two would eventually cancel each other out, and we would get to a general class consciousness and the ultimate phase of universal liberation.

We can compare this to Aimé Césaire. He set out this dialectic, incorporating liberating black violence in a process of universal emancipation, in his 1958 play And the Dogs Were Silent, about a descendant of slaves who rebelled against colonial authority. Césaire’s brand of universalism was also present in his earlier work. In fact, I think Césaire played the role of intermediary between Sartre and another important interlocutor, Frantz Fanon, who was very much influenced by négritude.

Daniel Finn

How did Sartre and his associates respond to the struggle for independence in Algeria that began in 1954?

Oliver Gloag

It started through Le Temps modernes. The war of independence of the Algerian people officially started in the fall of 1954 and ended in the summer of 1962. In the spring of 1955, there was a special issue of Le Temps modernes on Algeria. The editorial was titled “Algeria Is Not France.” This was a stinging rebuke and retort to the official words of French government ministers such as François Mitterrand, the future president, who had said, “Algeria is France.”

Throughout the war, Le Temps modernes became a space for voices in support of Algerian independence. It was a fantastic echo chamber for anti-colonial struggle. Of course, it was censored. I think the journal was seized six times in total.

It opened its columns to Aimé Césaire, who predicted the death of the colonies in a very important article. It protested against executions. Sartre himself wrote a lot of editorials and articles, and a preface for the journalist Henri Alleg’s book The Question, about the systematic use of torture in Algeria.

His first article in 1956 was titled “Colonialism Is a System.” This was at an important moment, when the French government was really pushing, with support from the French Communist Party, for war against Algeria. In this very famous article, Sartre spoke about the specific realities of French colonialism.

He gave numbers in terms of wealth and in terms of land seized by the French government from the Algerians. He talked about how Algerian agriculture was destroyed, with all the wheat cultivation removed to make way for the production of wine. Of course, Muslims don’t drink, and this was all for export.

This was also the moment of Sartre’s break with the Communist Party. He signed the “Manifesto of the 121,” in which 121 intellectuals and public figures supported the refusal of French soldiers to serve in Algeria. He explicitly wished for the defeat of the French Army. Some journalists who signed that petition went to jail for two or three weeks, and a lot of academics and state employees who signed it were demoted.

Sartre wrote a number of articles that connected the economic imperatives behind the colonial project. His rhetoric kept ramping up as the intensity of combat ramped up. He took to task French hypocrisy in some very famous passages. In one he said, “We, as French people, must face up to that unexpected spectacle, the striptease of our humanism. Here it is completely naked and not beautiful. It was nothing but an illusory ideology. The exquisite justification for pillage, its tenderness and affection, sanctioned our acts of aggression.”

He spoke to people who didn’t want to choose sides and said, “You know very well we’re the exploiters, you know very well that we took the gold, the metals, and the oil of countries, not without excellent results — palaces, cathedrals, industrial capitals. And then whenever crisis threatened, the colonial markets were the cushion.”

This commitment culminated when he defined himself as a “suitcase carrier.” There was an underground network of French citizens, known as suitcase carriers, who worked with the National Liberation Front, helping them transport weapons, funds, and communications. Sartre dared the French government to arrest him. He was also a witness at many trials, defending those suitcase carriers.

Sartre took part in many demonstrations, such as those after the Paris massacre of October 1961. He was publicly present in a very aggressive way. This was at great risk to his life. He was the target of two assassination attempts, but he continued. This period very much influenced his writings: his Critique of Dialectical Reason was written during the Algerian war of independence.

Daniel Finn

In that wider context, what was the relationship between Sartre and Frantz Fanon, whose own work was inseparable from the struggle for Algerian independence?

Oliver Gloag

The connection between Sartre and Fanon can seem a little tricky, because Fanon criticized Sartre’s essay on négritude, Black Orpheus, in his first book, Black Skins, White Masks. He criticized Sartre’s inclusion of négritude in a universal dialectic as a negative stage that was going to be transcended. By doing so, Fanon argued, Sartre had relegated the experience of being black in many French colonies to a status destined to quickly give way to another. He said that Sartre’s Hegelian scheme ignored or obliterated experience and individuality in favor of the universal.

However, even in his critique of Black Orpheus, Fanon did not close the door completely to a universal future. He ultimately shared Sartre’s objective. There is a famous quote at the end of Black Skin, White Masks: “The crippled soldier from the Pacific tells my brother: ‘Get used to your color the way I get used to my stump — we are both casualties.’” Fanon said, “With all my being, I refuse to accept this amputation. I feel my soul as vast as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers. My chest has the power to expand to infinity.”

I think Sartre and Fanon in the end shared more than the final goal of universalism. They were both preoccupied with how to transform empirical grievances into a worldwide struggle, and their dialogue was concerned with how best to go about it. If we look at The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon’s great treatise on the consequences of colonialism and how to fight it, he wrote that there was no question of the colonized competing with the colonist: they wanted to take his place.

He described colonialism as naked violence and said that the response to it was greater violence — violence had a sort of therapeutic value. To Fanon, in fact, the counterviolence of the colonized person was redemptive. Ultimately, the violence created recognition of the former slave as a human, and that grew out of the master’s fear.

This was not a mindless call to slaughter, but rather a reworking of the master-slave dialectic, with the former slave seeking recognition by armed resistance. It was a deepening and a complication of Sartre’s second stage in Black Orpheus.

Sartre was influenced by this and synthesized it with a provocative formulation in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth, where he said that shooting down a European killed two birds with one stone: doing away with an oppressor and an oppressed at the same time. What remained was a dead man and a free man. The survivor, for the first time, felt a national soil under his feet.

Of course, people have criticized Sartre violently for this. I think the controversy hinges on a distinction between force and violence: in this understanding, force is something that the state has the right to use, while violence is by definition illegal and left to the underclass or the colonized.

In the end, Sartre was deeply influenced by Fanon and stopped talking about universalism and criticized it instead. He retreated from the focus on universalism and was focused on the struggle of identity linked to this colonial system. This was a great interchange of influence between the two, while still fighting for a universalism that was subversive, rather than the universalism of colonialism and the French state.

Daniel Finn

What did Sartre and Les Temps modernes have to say about the US war in Vietnam as it gradually escalated over the course of the 1960s?

Oliver Gloag

Le Temps modernes became, as it was for Algeria, a space for intellectuals to write against the Vietnam War and to float ideas like the Russell Tribunal, a place where former US soldiers could bear witness to the horrors of the war. Leaders and militants who followed Ho Chi Minh also published articles there. Le Temps modernes carried on with that courageous mission of being the place to challenge the war in Vietnam intellectually like no other space in the French press.

For Sartre, there was a hardening of his position. Around the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the US Congress, Sartre was supposed to go to a conference at Cornell and talk about his book on Gustave Flaubert. But Sartre then famously said that there was no longer any possibility of dialogue and refused to go to the United States. He canceled the planned lecture just as the US intensified its bombings of Vietnam. That was a crucial moment, and it generated a huge controversy.

Then, in 1965, in a series called “A Plea for Intellectuals,” Sartre defined the role of an intellectual as someone who was not only a specialist in their own field but willing to risk their position as a specialist and go into other fields, taking a stand on political issues that did not fit into the status quo. He was challenging what he called organic intellectuals — intellectuals who were there to defend the interest of their social class. He called these specialists “false intellectuals.” The novelist Paul Nizan used to call them “guard dogs of the system.”

The example that Sartre gave was the pacifist intellectual incarnated by Albert Camus. He paraphrased him as saying, “Our colonial methods are not what they should be, there are too many inequalities in our overseas territories, but I’m against all violence.” This, for Sartre, was an approval of the ultimate violence, the violence inflicted on the colonized by their rulers — exploitation, unemployment, malnutrition.

For Sartre, a genuine intellectual was someone who was neither a moralist nor an idealist, and who was going to take a stance over the US attack on Vietnam. That, to him, was the litmus test. This was Sartre’s definition of an intellectual:

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

At that moment, for Sartre, all of a sudden, the Vietnam War was everything. It was the ultimate struggle. The Russell Tribunal was organized to address the question of whether the United States was engaged in genocidal activity in Vietnam — a question posed by Lord Bertrand Russell. It was due to be held in Paris, but Charles de Gaulle, paradoxically legitimizing it, said that you couldn’t have this tribunal in France. It wasn’t valid, he insisted, because justice is inseparable from the state. They had it in Sweden and Denmark instead.

There were all sorts of witnesses — Vietnamese people, US soldiers and officials. It took about a year. The charge of genocide was based on the 1948 United Nations definition, which basically necessitates proof of intent only. It was a broad charge, with a lower standard than actually proving a genocide had taken place. Of course, a lot of the allegations of massacres were later shown to be true, with cases such as My Lai, where whole villages were massacred by US soldiers, as well as the bombings authorized by US politicians like Henry Kissinger.

Sartre’s verdict came out in the form of a book called On Genocide. That was also a huge scandal. His closing summation was crucial. He said: “We must show solidarity with the Vietnamese people because their fight is ours, because it is the fight against American hegemony — Vietnam fights for us — the group which the United States wants to intimidate and terrorize by way of the Vietnamese nation is the human race in its entirety.”

Daniel Finn

Les Temps modernes published a famous and celebrated special issue after the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states in 1967. What was the significance of that for the debate about Israel in France and outside it as well?

Oliver Gloag

To answer that question, we have to look back a little at the influence of the German occupation of France and the Holocaust on Sartre’s intellectual development. His first major text on a form of racism was Anti-Semite and Jew, which came out in 1946. Sartre always saw Israel as a place of refuge for the Jewish people, who had been oppressed, attacked, and killed on such a huge scale, even after the Israeli support for the invasion of Egypt by Britain and France in 1956, which he condemned. At the same time, he was committed to the struggle against colonialism in the Arab world, not just in Algeria but also in Morocco and Tunisia.

At one point in the mid-1960s, Sartre said in an interview for an Egyptian newspaper that he was torn between opposing friendships. This sense of being completely torn was in part the impetus to create this issue of Le Temps modernes — about a thousand pages long. It was broadly divided into two parts, with Israeli intellectuals and Arab intellectuals who discussed the issue of Palestine and Israel. The idea was to try and foster dialogue between Arabs and Israelis.

To prepare for the issue, Sartre toured the region. In Egypt, he met Gamal Abdel Nasser. He went to Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. He went to Palestinian refugee camps. It was a very difficult time for him in Israel: he refused to meet members of the military or the right-wing political parties, but he met the press and the Israeli left.

Ultimately, Sartre’s position was to support the existence of the state of Israel, but he also wanted a legitimate state and sovereignty for Palestine. That enraged both sides, and it put him in a very difficult position, even within his own group of friends. Claude Lanzmann, who was very close to Simone de Beauvoir and who published his work in Le Temps modernes at that time, left in the middle of the trip, so enraged was he at Sartre’s criticism of Israel.

The irony was that this issue came out right after the Six-Day War in 1967, although everything in it had been written before. In his editorial, titled “For Truth,” Sartre didn’t really take a stand one way or the other. A petition came out in France, just before the war, in which French left-wing intellectuals said that they didn’t want to equate Israel with US imperialism and that they still thought Israel should have a right to exist. Sartre signed that petition, and then, shortly afterward, the war started.

None of what Sartre did was an endorsement of the war in any shape or form, but it created a huge shock. Sartre’s prestige in the Arab world was on a huge downward trajectory, perhaps with the exception of the countries in the Maghreb — certainly Algeria. There was also a fracture in the French left. To this day, Sartre is still attacked by certain segments of the Left for not having been supportive enough of Palestine.

However, I think that if we look at what Sartre wrote and said, he was for the existence of Israel, but he never backed down on his belief in rights for Palestinians. This question is important because it helps us clear the record. Sartre was torn — he wanted to be in favor of both sides; he wanted a two-state solution.

Daniel Finn

What is the state of public discourse in France about its colonial history? Where do you think Sartre and his legacy fit into that debate?

Oliver Gloag

I think the way to start this discussion is to look at what Sartre said right after the war of independence in Algeria, which ended in bittersweet victory:

It must be said that joy is out of place. For seven years, France has been a mad dog dragging a saucepan tied to its tail every day, becoming a little more terrified at its own din. Today, no one is unaware that we, France, have ruined, starved, and massacred a nation of poor people to bring them to their knees. They remain standing, but at what price? While the delegations were putting an end to the business of war, 2,400,000 Algerians remained in the slow death camps. We have killed more than a million of them. After seven years, Algeria must start from scratch; first of all, it must win the peace, and then hang on with the greatest of difficulty to the poverty we have created. That will be our parting gift.

This quote can be interpreted as a call for a reckoning and a remembrance of the state of things. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of what happened in France after the war. The political landscape today with respect to France’s colonial history is a blend of denial and manipulation. The war of Algerian independence was not officially considered a war until 1999. In 2005, the French Parliament passed a law to say that colonialism was by and large beneficial to the colonized people. The right-wing president at the time, Jacques Chirac, brought in a decree to repeal that law.

In October 1961, there was a demonstration against a curfew by Algerians in the streets of Paris. They were massacred by the police: hundreds of bodies were thrown into the Seine. This was completely absent from French history. Books about it only appeared in the 1980s and ’90s. There were two great novels, Didier Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour mémoire (Murder in Memoriam), in 1983, and Leïla Sebbar’s La Seine était rouge (The Seine Was Red), in 1999. In 2012, there was a commemoration by François Hollande where he didn’t point to the police as the culprits, and, more recently, one by Emmanuel Macron last October, on the fiftieth anniversary, which didn’t apologize specifically for the crimes of the French state.

We’re in a very strange place. Macron recently had a public row with the Algerian government because he invited descendants of settler colonialists and their indigenous allies to the Élysée Palace. During this meeting, he basically said that there was no Algerian nation before France invaded Algeria in 1830. This was a far-right, colonialist talking point, and an attempt to steal the base of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

Today France is still objectively an imperial power. Its control of former colonies in Africa is more subtle than before decolonization, but not by much. Those former colonies have their ports and infrastructure mostly owned by French companies, although China is also looming in the background. Crucially, the currency of most former French colonies is controlled by the Bank of France: it’s called the CFA franc, indexed to the Euro.

This is an ongoing situation, denounced by Sartre himself, yet virtually all of the French intellectual class today turns a blind eye to it. In order to maintain this state of denial that enables the continued exploitation of France’s former colonies, it is necessary to vilify the greatest intellectual opponent of French colonialism and neocolonialism, which is what Sartre was.

In the mainstream political and cultural fields of France today, there is a strong reluctance to come to terms with the colonial past and an obstinate refusal to condemn neocolonialism. In this ideological context, Sartre cannot be widely celebrated for his political or philosophical writings in twenty-first-century France. He can’t be completely ignored — you can have books on his life, his biography — but Sartre’s unfailing attempts to connect race and colonialism make it impossible to claim him while simultaneously reneging on a commitment to radical social change.

Virtually the whole of the French intellectual class and the politicians of the French Socialist Party have reneged in that fashion since 1968. Today we still have these guard dogs of the system, who are committed to the neoliberal order and therefore must reject Jean-Paul Sartre.