Commitment, Choice, and Revolutionary Democracy: The Philosophy and Politics of Jean–Paul Sartre with Ian Birchall

The importance of World War II to Jean-Paul Sartre’s life and thought is often overlooked.

One risks dramatic understatement in designating Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) as among the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Between roughly 1935 and 1970, when he was at his most productive, Sartre exerted enormous influence on such currents as existentialism (with which he is most associated), phenomenology, and philosophical anthropology. His works, including The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939), The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (1940), Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943), and “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1945), are still studied today. Sartre also became a crucial figure in Marxist thought with “Materialism and Revolution” (1946), The Question of Method (1957), and the first volume of Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). He was extremely active in leftist politics in France and internationally for more than 30 years. Always zealously guarding his independence as an author, Sartre wrote about topics as diverse as American literature (e.g. Faulkner and Dos Passos), jazz, opposition to colonialism, antisemitism, and psychoanalysis. A sharp and incisive essayist and biographer, he also penned some of the greatest texts of twentieth-century literature like the novels Nausea (1938) and The Roads to Freedom series (1947-51), the short-story collection The Wall and Other Stories (1939), and plays such as The Flies (1943), No Exit (1944), The Devil and the Good Lord (1951), and The Condemned of Altona (1959). What is often overlooked about Sartre is the importance of World War II to his life and thought.

To address the centrality of the Second World War in Sartre’s biography, The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy has drawn on the expertise of Ian Birchall. Birchall is the author of a major study of the philosopher, Sartre against Stalinism  (2004), and has written numerous articles and reviews on Sartre’s philosophical and political thought. These works have contributed greatly to the contextualization of his place within the broader history of the French and European Left. Beyond his work on Sartre, Birchall is the co-author (with Tony Cliff) of France: The Struggle Goes On (1968), as well as Workers against the Monolith: The Communist Parties since 1943 (1974), Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe, 1944-85 (1986), The Spectre of Babeuf (1997), A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (2005), and Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (2011). Birchall has also translated the writings of Victor Serge and Alfred Rosmer. Read part one of this interview here.

Ian Birchall


Several Marxist thinkers, including Henri Lefebvre, Georg Lukács, and Herbert Marcuse, all published critiques of Sartre and Existentialism in the late 1940s. What do you make of these criticisms? What was Sartre’s relationship to Marxism at this point?

The various critiques of Sartre, from an allegedly Marxist standpoint, have to be put into context. There was an element of “turf war” about it. The Communist Party was somewhat alarmed at Sartre’s influence. Not really as far as their mass working-class base was concerned (though in 1952 the French Communist Party Central Committee expressed the view that where factory committees under Communist control were responsible for running libraries, they should exclude the works of Sartre!) But among students and intellectuals Sartre offered a real alternative.

The Communist Party did not have the confidence to engage in serious debate. Instead they preferred to indulge in insults and attempts to discredit Sartre. Such vilification came in works by Jean Kanapa and Roger Garaudy. Sartre generally dealt with them through humor. When Garaudy wrote a book called The Gravediggers of Literature Sartre responded “Gravediggers are decent people, certainly trade unionists, perhaps Communists. I would rather be a gravedigger than a lackey.” And he added “There is something in common, and it certainly isn’t talent, between Garaudy and Joseph de Maistre.” (De Maistre was a Catholic monarchist philosopher of the early nineteenth century).

The books by Lefebvre and Lukács were more serious, but were still clearly written on instructions to fit the political agenda of the Communist Party. Henri Lefebvre was one of the most able intellectuals in the Communist Party—he left after the 1956 crisis. Later in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre commended his intellectual work. But his book on existentialism was far from his best work, relying on invocations of orthodoxy. And it repeated the quite unjustified claim that Sartre’s friend Paul Nizan, who had left the Communist Party after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, was a police agent.

Lukács had been one of the most important Marxist philosophers after 1917. But he had been obliged to make many compromises in order to survive the various Stalinist purges and his critique of Sartre was largely a defence of orthodoxy, claiming that his philosophy was merely one of petty-bourgeois revolt; Sartre, with some justice, accused Lukács of reductionism. Marcuse had no organizational loyalty to defend and his critique was more serious and balanced. But it still tended to judge Sartre in terms of how he fell short of a Marxist orthodoxy rather than seeing any positive value in his ideas.

So in general, I don’t find anything of great value in the various Marxist critiques of Sartre from this period. I think that more recently there have been some more serious assessments of Sartre from a Marxist standpoint—István Mészáros, The Work of Sartre (1979) and Emmanuel Barot (ed.), Sartre et le marxisme (2011).

More generally, in trying to assess Sartre’s relationship with Marxism it is important to distinguish between the works of Marx himself and the Marxism propagated by the French Communist Party. When Sartre expressed criticism of Marxism he was often thinking of the latter.

It was only later, in the context of the general crisis of Stalinist Marxism produced by Khrushchev’s “secret speech” (which the French Communist Party refused to acknowledge until 1973) that Sartre was able to develop his thinking from inside a Marxist framework rather than outside it.

However in general I don’t find discussions about whether Sartre was a Marxist very interesting. They tend to measure him against a pre-given orthodoxy. It seems to me more fruitful to look at the points where Sartre questioned Marxism—materialism, determinism, the role of the individual in history—and to see how these opened up useful areas of inquiry.

Sartre’s 1945 essay introducing readers to Les Temps modernes, easily one of the most important periodicals in twentieth-century letters, and the 1947 What is Literature? showcased a bold conception of “commitment.” What did Sartre mean by “commitment” and how did these texts preview his postwar career as an intellectual?

Commitment (engagement) had various meanings for Sartre. In one sense, commitment was inevitable—in Sartre’s well-known phrase “we are condemned to be free.” We cannot avoid choice and choice has implications. If I choose not to support Algerian independence then I have chosen to oppose independence. I cannot simply abstain from choice.

But for Sartre, commitment could also mean the conscious and willing acceptance of choice and responsibility. In his post-war essays he was defining his role as a committed intellectual. This did not mean politics in a narrow sense of the term. Sartre always had a low view of what is conventionally regarded as “politics”—he only voted occasionally and reluctantly. He was much more concerned with the choice of values. Every choice involved values and therefore had a universal meaning: “If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind.”

Les Temps modernes, which Sartre launched with Merleau-Ponty, embodied the idea of a committed journal. As Sartre explained in his obituary of Merleau-Ponty it was both a political and a literary journal, which enabled it to survive when more explicitly political journals collapsed.

The success of the journal was apparent above all in the period of the Algerian war. Les Temps modernes showed an understanding of what was at stake far more extensive than that of those who were actually running the French government. An article by Daniel Guérin published over a year before the war began set out the prospects starkly. Later articles by Francis Jeanson on colonialism, by Georges Mattéi—a conscript reservist who had observed torture in Algeria—and by Frantz Fanon—a member of the leadership of the Algerian National Liberation Front—provided clear evidence that the war was both immoral and unwinnable. If France’s political leaders had read it they might have made wiser decisions and avoided many thousands of deaths. As it was, Les Temps modernes influenced and inspired hundreds of those who became “suitcase carriers,” providing practical assistance to the struggle for Algerian independence. It provided a model of what a “committed” publication could achieve.

The short story, “Childhood of the Leader” (1939), and Anti-Semite and Jew (1946) are Sartre’s treatments of fascism and antisemitism. In retrospect, how insightful were these texts? Are there important elements of these reactionary ideologies that Sartre missed?

Sartre’s main concern was with the understanding of antisemitism. He doesn’t really claim to be offering an account of fascism. The title of “Childhood of a Leader” does suggest that Lucien may grow up to be a fascist leader, but that is left to the reader’s imagination. The interesting thing here is the attempt to examine, from the inside as it were, the way in which a young man becomes an anti-Semite.

Anti-Semite and Jew is, I think, important because the focus is on French antisemitism. The Holocaust is barely mentioned. Sartre is concerned to show that antisemitism was deeply rooted in French society; the horrors of the Occupation could not be blamed on the Germanic invader. In the nationalist atmosphere of the Liberation such arguments were easily overlooked, and it took a long time for the French share of responsibility in the Holocaust to be recognized. Maurice Papon, who was head of the Paris police at the time of the massacre of 200 Algerians in 1961, was convicted of involvement in the deportation of some 1600 Jews—but only in 1998.

Sartre’s concern in Anti-Semite and Jew was to use some of the themes developed in Being and Nothingness—notably “bad faith”—to explain racism. Doubtless some “important elements” were neglected; Sartre was not claiming to offer a total account of racism. But his analysis contained many suggestive themes; it was an influence on Fanon when he wrote his first analysis of racism in Black Skin, White Masks.

Sartre himself moved on to develop a more general opposition to racism, with his support for the “Négritude” movement of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, in particular his magnificent preface to Senghor’s anthology of African and Caribbean poetry, which began—“When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises?” He was sharply criticized for this by Communist Party writers who used a very mechanical notion of class.

More generally, Sartre was concerned to develop an understanding of oppression. The question of oppression was a central theme in his posthumously published Notebooks for an Ethics. The French left had long had problems with relating oppression to class—at the time of the Dreyfus case in the 1890s many Marxists and syndicalists had argued that the defense of Dreyfus was a matter of no concern to the working-class movement, since Dreyfus was a wealthy army officer. Traces of this approach still survived. Sartre certainly did not develop a full account of the relationship between class and oppression, but at least he asked the question and recognised that there was a problem, unlike many Marxists.

This concern with oppression was undoubtedly discussed and indeed jointly elaborated with Simone de Beauvoir, who a few years later produced her pioneering account of women’s oppression, The Second Sex. And in Saint Genet Sartre made a critique of gay oppression which produced a degree of shock and consternation at the time.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, 1939. Courtesy of Archives Gallimard.


In 1945, Sartre travelled to the United States as a correspondent for Combat, the newspaper of the French Resistance edited by his then friend, Albert Camus. Known later for his sharp criticisms of the United States, how did Sartre view American life as World War II concluded?

Sartre’s visit came during the immediate post-war “honeymoon” between the USA and the USSR. They had effectively divided the world between them and for the moment neither side wanted to upset the balance. Things would change dramatically in 1947, with the “Truman Doctrine,” the exclusion of Communist ministers from the French government and American support—political and financial—for France’s war in Indochina.

Sartre had quite a positive view of US society. He made a number of contacts on the American left, especially those around the journals Partisan Review and Politics. American writers—like the black ex-Communist Richard Wright—contributed to Les Temps modernes. Sartre did not fail to notice some of the fundamental divisions in US society—above all those of class and race. But it was class organization above all that offered hope for the future; he argued that “when the American proletariat—black and white—has recognized the identity of its interests in face of the employing class, the Negroes will struggle with white workers and on an equal footing with them for the recognition of their rights. It is from the workers’ organizations, and from them alone, that blacks can hope for effective assistance.”

Shortly after his visit, he wrote The Respectful Prostitute (the normal translation “The Respectable Prostitute” misses the whole point about ideology and bad faith that was central to Sartre’s conception). This was based on the 1931 Scottsboro trial of young black men in Alabama who faced the death penalty on trumped-up charges of rape. But Sartre was widely criticized for being anti-American because he had drawn attention to racism in American society. In the light of later developments, especially the civil rights movement, it is clear Sartre was right to give importance to the place of racist oppression in American society.

It is interesting to compare Sartre’s view with those of a frequent contributor to Les Temps modernes, Daniel Guérin. Sartre’s visit was brief—Guérin spent two full years in the USA, travelling and meeting people. Much of Guérin’s writings on his experiences were subsequently published in Les Temps modernes. It was probably one of the few places where they could have been published, since Guérin combined a basic empathy with the American people with a sharp awareness of class and racial divisions in society—a position unacceptable to both Cold War pro-Americans and to anti-American Communists. Guérin summed up his position as: “I maintain an unshakeable confidence in the future of the American people. They must not be confused with the few monopolies who dishonour them in the eyes of the world.” In publishing this material Sartre doubtless remembered his own rather similar reactions.

Jean-Paul Sartre with a group of French journalists visiting General George C. Marshall at the Pentagon, March 1945. Photograph by Lakey J. Sherrel, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress).

During the late 1940s, Sartre became involved with the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly - RDR) Could you describe how the RDR came together and its political aims? Why was it so short-lived?

The RDR was launched in 1948 by Sartre, together with ex-Trotskyist David Rousset and Georges Altman, editor of Franc-Tireur. The aim was to create an organization of the radical left, committed to social change, but independent of both the Communist Party and the increasingly pro-American Socialist Party (SFIO).

Its founding statement insisted that it would pursue a policy independent of both sides in the Cold War: “Between the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of freedom and human dignity by binding them to the struggle for social revolution." It also made clear that it was a “rassemblement” (assembly) and not a new political party. Members of all parties were invited to join the RDR without renouncing their existing affiliation. Initially there was a good response, showing that there was a real audience for the politics proposed by the RDR. Some very large meetings were held and there was a surge of recruitment. There was some degree of working-class support, but the main backing came from students and intellectuals.

A number of successful meetings were held. The RDR took a firm anti-colonialist position; Sartre addressed a largely Muslim audience on the question of Morocco. He stressed the links between the class struggle in France and colonial oppression, summed up in the sentence: “Those who are oppressing you are oppressing us for the same reasons.”

But the RDR could not last long. Firstly, it faced the opposition of all the organised forces of the left. The Communist Party was implacably hostile. The Socialist Party rapidly followed and banned its members from joining. The Trotskyists took a sectarian position, causing a deep split in their own organisation.

At the same time the intensifying Cold War, though it had inspired the need for an independent organization, created a hostile environment. David Rousset went to the United States to seek financial support from the American trade unions. In fact he was put directly in touch with the State Department. Sartre was increasingly unhappy at Rousset’s growing support for the USA. Sartre and Trotskyist Jean-René Chauvin attempted to chart an alternative course, but it got nowhere. By the end of 1949 the RDR was effectively dead.

In Sartre against Stalinism and in many articles you have offered a nuanced defense of Sartre against accusations that he was a Stalinist or totalitarian thinker. You also claim that Sartre is “resistant to conversion” into one of the “harmless icons,” to use Lenin’s phrase. How might his ideas, seemingly so tied to the mid-twentieth century, speak to the early twenty-first century?

Sartre’s declared aim was to “write for his own time.” What was that time? Firstly, it was the age of the rise and fall of Communism. Sartre was an adolescent during the early years of the Russian Revolution. He died in 1980, the year of the rise of Solidarność in Poland, the beginning of the end for Eastern-bloc Communism. It was also an age of violence—the period 1939-1962, during which much of Sartre’s work was produced, was the time of German Occupation, followed by wars in Indochina and Algeria. And the same years saw the end of empire. In 1945, France’s colonial empire, the second largest in the world, covered nearly one tenth of the world’s land area, and five percent of the world’s population. By 1962, it was almost gone.

That Sartre wrote for his own time is his strength. He did not seek timeless truths, but sought to engage with the problems and conflicts of the world around him. In a sense that is a model for any intellectual of our own age, who should engage with the very different questions of the new century.

In the years following Sartre’s death it was often suggested that he was outdated and would be replaced by new intellectual figures. But those figures failed to exercise an influence of the same order as Sartre’s. Althusser was too embedded in the defence of Stalinist Marxism, Derrida too obscure and ambiguous.

Sartre remains a model of a “public intellectual.” Though his strictly philosophical work could be difficult to grapple with, his literary works and his political polemics displayed devastating clarity. Sartre remains a model of the kind of committed intellectual we need today.

Central to Sartre’s work was his implacable hostility to all forms of racism and colonialism. The old empires are gone but the heritage of colonialism and its associated racism is very much with us. President Macron of France is still grappling with the heritage of the Algerian war; he has acknowledged that French colonialism was a “crime against humanity,” but still says France has “no repentance nor apologies” for its role in Algeria. The lucidity of Sartre, Les Temps modernes and those they inspired during the Algerian war stand in sharp contrast to Macron’s confusion. And Sartre was a continuing source of inspiration to Frantz Fanon, who is still widely read today as an opponent of racism and colonialism.

Sartre’s long-running dialogue with Marxism also remains of great significance. It is not that he achieved a synthesis of Marxism and existentialism, but rather that he posed questions, above all about the role of the individual, which any serious attempt to use Marxism as a tool of analysis in the twenty-first century will have to take into account.

Above all, Sartre insisted on the open nature of human history. He liked to quote Engels’ comment that “Men make their history themselves, only they do so in a given environment which conditions it.” He insisted on rejecting any notion of a predetermined pattern of history, arguing that the end is to be made and not reached: “If the end is still to be made, if it is a choice and a risk for man, then it can be corrupted by the means, for it is what we make it and it is transformed at the same time as man transforms himself by the use he makes of the means.” In our own age, when the future seems obscure and it is hard to see how history will unfold, Sartre’s insistence that we make the future—or fail to do so—remains very relevant. He reminds us that the future may very well be a court of crabs—but also offers the image of the “fused group” that stormed the Bastille.

Crabs or the Bastille? Doubtless the former seems more probable. But while storming our Bastille remains an option, Sartre will still be our companion in struggle.


Jason Dawsey, PhD

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is ASU WWII Studies Consultant in the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. 

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