Hazem Saghieh

In Praise of Albert Camus

The seventies saw the emergence of a militant Arabic militant song with these lyrics: “I am steadfast, I am steadfast/ On the land of my country I am steadfast/ Even if they steal my property, I am steadfast/ Even if they kill my children, I am steadfast/ Even if they destroy my home, in the shadow of its debris, I am steadfast.”

Even in the original version in Arabic dialect, this is certainly not the most mesmerizing prose you will ever come across, but this poetry might be among the most disingenuous, and one would hope it is. Indeed, if its author were genuine, he would be a terrifying poet no less frightening than those he is standing up to. It suffices to imagine a man whose steadfastness would not wane even if his children were killed, his property was stolen, and his house was destroyed!

The French writer and philosopher Albert Camus was not of this breed.

Purging politics of everything human and elevating it to the realm of the divine that has no links to flesh and blood, nor sentiment, dilemmas, suffering or hesitation, is the opposite of his thought and mood. His friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre, which began during the Second World War, broke down a few years later. Sartre believed in using violence as a means to a supreme end, revolution, and Camus did not see things that way.

He signed a petition demanding clemency for a Nazi collaborator that Sartre did not sign. Camus’ views on executing the collaborators of the Second World War had changed, as he came to see it as punishing their crime with another- a vengeful act hidden under a thin veneer of legality and civility. However, during the war, Sartre did not take part in the resistance to the Nazis, while Camus became the editor-in-chief of the resistance’s underground newspaper, Combat.

The dispute between the two men came to a head in 1951, as the author of ‘Being and Nothingness’ had been defending Stalin and justifying or denying his crimes, and Camus was publishing his book ‘The Rebel: An Essay on a Man in Revolt,’ in which he draws a distinction between the rebel and the revolutionary. His view, which was influenced by anarchism among many other sources, was that revolutions establish new regimes, and more significantly, they bring about dictatorships that strengthen the power of the state. Robespierre’s terror following the French Revolution and the Gulag that emerged after the Russian Revolution were no contingencies. Rather, they were inherent to ideological revolutions. Unlike Sartre, he believed that such revolutions did not help humanity but aggravated its pain. Saint-Just was Lenin’s predecessor, and even the anarchist Bakunin insisted that individuals must be part of a central action committee. From Rousseau to Stalin, the course of revolution and ideology, without fail, led to tyranny.

The rise of totalitarian ideological policies is nothing but the rise of crimes that are justified through philosophy, progress, and development. However, in contrast to what they preach, they express a hatred for life and a “desire for a godless universe, so they can play the role of both god and the devil.”

Camus’ “rebel” and this “revolutionary” are not the same. The former does not cling to doctrine or establish a party through which he seizes power. He struggles against persecution and spontaneously protests the injustices he comes across in his daily life.

More than this, despite his belief in “absurdism” and his philosophy's association with it, Camus saw in rebellion resistance to the absurdity of life, which cannot be done without if we are to go on living and give life meaning. This rebellion is what allows existence to transcend the individual and opens the door to universal human ideals.

Camus focused on the humanity of the individual. A genuine rebel does not impose any utopia on individuals through destructive means of force but rather recognizes the need for shared values that are not combined with violence. Thus, “I am against a new war, as rebelling today means rebelling against war.”

For his part, Sartre was concerned with the causes he saw as righteous, and he believed that the unjustifiable could be justified if it served them. With Sartre accusing Camus of being a “moralist,” their dispute resurfaced after the Algerian revolution. The former gave the National Liberation Front his unequivocal support because it was fighting for liberation and independence, while the latter was spooked and repulsed by the FLN’s 1957 massacre of its rivals, the Algerian National Movement led by Messali Hadj, in what was known as the Melouza Massacre (375 were shot or stabbed to death). Camus believed it could not be justified. When an angry Algerian youth confronted him for his “ambivalent” and “lax” stance, Camus replied that the jihadists “are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I choose my mother.” This quote, which drew a lot of anger in the Arab world and beyond, was used to claim that he had been suggesting that he supported the actions of the French colonists and settlers in Algeria.

The fact is that what Camus, who could only judge political matters from a humanitarian perspective, meant is that targeting civilians is unacceptable and morally repugnant. These attacks kill innocents, not foreign occupiers, and those who lose their lives are real people with friends and relatives.

At a time of sharp polarization between those who called for whipping out the Algerian resistance and those who pledged their allegiance to them whatever they did, Camus’ rhetoric did not appeal to French elite circles, who were drawn to Sartre and his tumultuousness. Camus was concerned, amid this state of affairs, with writing petitions in defense of the resistance fighters who had been sentenced to death, intervening in no less than 150 of these cases without his name being mentioned or his picture being published in the newspaper.

His determination to avert violence that led to civilian loss of life pushed him to leave France and return to Algeria, where he tried to form a peaceful movement and push the warring sides to hold talks that would lead to a civilian settlement, but his attempt failed.

True, Camus was not in favor of Algerian independence. However, this opinion of his, which is difficult to tolerate, did not stem from a desire for plunder or tyranny, nor did it come from a position that allowed for this. He was driven to this position by a feeling that he had an equal right to this land that he loved. The man was born on that land, studied in it, and grew up among its poorest workers, in a family in which the father had been a soldier killed in the First World War and the mother had been an illiterate domestic worker. As a youth in Algeria, Camus worked as a journalist, writing compelling and damning reports about the misery of the Algerians and arguing it was a direct result of colonial exploitation.

Later in his life, he bitterly summarized his condition like this: “for years, I’ve wanted to live according to the morality of the majority. I’ve forced myself to live like everyone else. I said what was necessary to bond, even when I felt separate. And after all of this, catastrophe came. Now I wander amid the debris, torn to pieces, and accepting to be so, resigned to my singularity and to my shortcomings.”
But whatever the case may be, politics never spoke with a human voice as it did with Camus.