From March of 1944 until November of 1945, Albert Camus,
already established as a novelist and theorist of the absurd thanks to L’Etranger and Le Mythe de Sisyphe, worked as an editorialist for one of the principal
organs of the Resistance, Combat.
This stint as journalist and public intellectual extended his reputation well
beyond the relatively elite readership of his previously published works,
eventually bringing his name to the attention of some 180,000 readers of Combat and, through his debates with
François Mauriac of Le Figaro, to
hundreds of thousands more. The Camus who wrote editorials for the daily press
was also a more accessible writer than the philosophical novelist and essayist
who, for all his admiration of the action heroes of André Malraux, still
labored under the spell of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky and wove his elegantly
crafted texts around situations of metaphysical extremity—a gratuitous murder,
the question of suicide—remote from the quotidian concerns of newspaper readers.
Hence it is fair to say that even before the publication of La Peste, Camus had become an important
public figure in
The daily newspaper,
Yet the conditions of total war and occupation gave a rather special meaning to “everyday life,” creating situations in which what human beings actually said and did seemed, and often enough was, more consequential than what they said and did in times less fraught with the absoluteness of life and death. Thus we find in Camus’s Combat editorials an exacting vocabulary of virtue whose function is to honor the elect and curse the damned. The key term is “purity,” which shuns all compromise with the real: “If we were to reveal our thinking in all its purity, namely, that political realism is a degrading thing, M. Bergery would be surprised, because intelligence alone is not enough to grasp this obvious truth.” (155)<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Intelligence of the analytic or calculating kind is deprecated. It sees too much, understands too much, and the casuistic philosophy of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner is precisely the sin of the intellect against which Camus warns, because under occupation, with the conditions of reality defined by the occupier, to be a realist is to be a collaborator. Intelligence is not enough to avoid dishonor: “Character is also necessary, and M. Bergery has never shown any.”
Thus the community that Camus performatively defines with his
wartime prayer is the community of the pure, of those who, in the wake of
France’s defeat by the Nazis, were of such character that it was impossible for
them to accept the idea, Hegelian if you will but widely embraced as
commonsensical by multitudes who have never heard of Hegel, that what is real
is rational. He described himself, with a hyperbole that is only partially
self-deceptive, as living in an “era that raised politics to a moral plane”
(210). Purity is linked to the register of martyrdom and sacrifice: “So many
pure faces were sacrificed.” (241) It is also placed on the side of justice and
truth and sharply differentiated from “politics”: the attempt to “introduce
[purity] into what is most impure in the world, namely politics, amounts to a
hopeless struggle against some very venerable lies.” (320 n1) For
Even within the community of the elect, of those whose luminosity of character enabled them to see truths invisible by the light of intellect alone, there were gradations. The “best” (les meilleurs is another key term in Camus’s wartime writing, a secular equivalent for “the just” or “the elect”) were those who had suffered, who had been tortured or executed. Their purity was all the greater for having sacrificed itself to redeem the unworthy: “The difficult and prodigious task we face is to establish justice in the most unjust of worlds and to save the freedom of souls destined from inception for servitude.” The goal was to “replace politics with morality” (170). Again we see the contrast between the calculation and conciliation of interests which is politics and the purity of intention that goes by the name morality. At times Camus evinces a species of survivor’s guilt. To be able to write about the suffering of “the best” is to prove that one was not among them: “We say this because we deeply believe that if we are still alive, it is because we did not do enough.” (293) Yet to insist on the extremity of their suffering and the absoluteness of their sacrifice is to bring their glory a little closer.
Another characteristic of the community of the elect is its
newness. The National Liberation Movement that held its first public meeting
just weeks after the Liberation comprised “men who spoke in the name of no
party and addressed no group that had existed before the war.” (197) This
immaculate conception of a new group of political actors untainted by any past
actions or commitments was, for
Implicit in newness was youth. Camus was 31 years old at the
Liberation. His partner at Combat,
the paper’s editor-in-chief Pascal Pia, was ten years older. Camus and Pia had worked
on another newspaper (Alger Républicain)
in Algiers before the war and had formed a common judgment of the late Third
Republic as a corrupt regime, senescent and compromised at its core, the very
embodiment of the absurdity of formalistic authority with its disturbingly
disembodied notions of truth and justice—“metaphysical” abstractions that Camus
had so mercilessly mocked in L’Etranger.
Both men had lost their fathers in the First World War, and, having grown up
poor as well as fatherless, their affective moorings to the old order were
tenuous. Pia joined the Resistance in 1940 check, well before Camus, and it was he who called
Camus to action, but not until 1943. Previously Camus had attached himself to
father figures such as Louis Germain and Jean Grenier, but Pia was more like a
brother with whom he felt, on observing the way his friend lit a cigarette, a
“male complicity.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Fraternal
solidarity against the decadent paternal order infused the Resistance with an
esprit de corps akin to that which had earlier animated the fascisant young right.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The rhetoric of election by which Camus defined the community of resistance and liberation explicitly excluded those “political realists” who could envision a place for themselves in the new European order the Nazis were seeking to impose, or who were willing to accept a temporary place in that order so as to preserve as much as possible of their position and property in whatever new order might emerge from a German defeat.
One could fail to be among the elect, however, without necessarily being among the damned. Some, perhaps most, Frenchmen had merely bowed to a fate visited upon them, about which they believed that they personally and individually could do nothing. To them Camus held out hope at the Liberation: they might yet be saved because their sacrifice had been potential rather than actual. Even if they had declined to join the elect by becoming active resisters, they had nevertheless been at risk, because the occupier might have chosen them for reprisal. In several early editorials Camus recounted almost as parables instances in which non-resisters had been punished by the Germans for the acts of resisters. Hence even the passive were potentially martyrs by proxy for the elect. Those who had sat on the fence during the war were not necessarily to be excluded from the regenerated Republic. A postwar commitment to truth and justice might compensate for their wartime prudence.
Others, however, had permanently excommunicated themselves by their actions during the conflict. Among them were people to whom Camus refers as “big industrialists,” men like Louis Renault, who lent his automobile works to the Germans. (211 ff.) Such men, he reasoned, owed a special duty to the community by virtue of the privileges they had enjoyed before the war. Even if their actions were not, in a formal sense, illegal, Camus likened them to offenses against honor or other codes implicit in a society’s mores but not formally embodied in its laws; as such, he argued, they deserved sanction in the form of an ex post facto stripping of civic rights, l’indignité nationale.
If I insist on Camus’s use of the vocabulary of religious communion, of which it would be easy to give many more examples than I have cited here, it is because I think it is essential for understanding how he viewed the Resistance. To anyone who might object that my use of the word “communion” in this context is an unwarranted intrusion of a sacred vocabulary in a profane context, I quote yet another of Camus’s denunciations of “political realism”:
We do not believe in political realism. Lies, even well-intentioned lies, separate men from one another and relegate them to the most futile solitude. We believe that, on the contrary, men are not alone and that when faced with hostile conditions, their solidarity is total. Anything that serves this solidarity and reinforces this communion, hence anything that involves sincerity, is just and free. (224)
We are of course dealing here with a very special moment in
time: the spring and summer of 1944, when it seemed probable though not yet
certain that the Germans would lose the war and that a new but as yet undefined
What was fundamentally at issue was who was to govern the
country after its liberation, and how. By
September 29, 1944, just one month after the liberation of
In addition to “money”
and “the press,” the “resigned” included most of the political class of the
There is a difference, however, between Camus’s denunciation of the moneyed interest and his denunciation of tartufferie. Money is almost by definition guilty of “realism.” This, for Camus, is its original sin and the basis of his socialism. Money cannot stop itself from calculating, from tallying up costs and benefits. Religion, by contrast, should understand the value of sacrifice, of virtuous example, and denounce those who sought to save the interests of the faith at the expense of its soul: “It is up to Christianity itself to reject unrelentingly those who have demonstrated that they were Christians by profession only.” (194) In other words, money, as the very medium of calculating self-interest, as the universal quid pro quo and therefore the antithesis of altruism, is condemned by its very essence to the sin of political realism, but religion is guilty of realism only if it is false to its essence, which involves charity and sacrifice, or so Camus believed. Although he insists on his own atheism, he does not make this a condition of “purity,” although he does occasionally assert that the cost of sacrifice is greater for those who embrace it without the consolation of faith in an afterlife:
It was more difficult for the Resistance to have martyrs than for the Church. Many of our comrades who are no longer with us went to their death without hope or consolation. Their conviction was that they were dying, utterly, and that their sacrifice would end everything. They were nevertheless willing to make that sacrifice. How, then, can we not feel bitterness in judging the tepidness of men for whom death is but a way station and martyrdom a superior liberation? (193)
Much later, in 1949, when François Mauriac complained of being “alone” in his Catholic Church, Camus, who was by then increasingly isolated on the left, replied: “Judge the feelings of those who don’t have faith to console them for [the shortcomings of] their Churches!”
Those to be excluded from the new political order thus included the calculating, the hypocritical, and the corrupt. Who was to be included? Those who had been unable to resign themselves to a German victory, who had risked the course of sacrifice. In Camus’s mind these—excluding the London Gaullists, who were sui generis—fell into three main groups, among whom mutual suspicions and hostilities flourished. These were the Communists, the secular anti-communist left to which he himself belonged, and the “Christians,” as he called them, or at any rate the good Christians, those who, more than merely professing the faith, actually lived it. At the outset he evidently assumed that the mutual hostilities among these groups could be overcome, and he devoted much of his effort as editorialist to pinpointing the issues in contention in the hope that they might be talked through. At times he seems almost surprised that others whom he has admitted to his community of the elect can refuse to accept principles that he considers basic to the definition of that community.
In retrospect, it is clear that there was little if any
prospect of uniting these three groups in a postwar party of progress. Already
the division of
Implicit in Camus’s reasoning, moreover, is the idea that for
some Frenchmen, those whom he believes to have been chosen by history to guide
the country’s regeneration, the fall of France instantly created an intolerable
situation to which the only conceivable response was one of outright rejection
on moral grounds, regardless of any contrary counsel of prudence or calculation
or simple inability to conceive a useful course of action. It seems likely that
Camus was drawn to this view of the Resistance because he personally believed
in the solidarity of virtue. For him it had been enough to overcome any doubts
he may have harbored about other resistance groups. His suspicion of the
Communists was longstanding, stemming from his expulsion from the
For many of Camus’s resistance comrades, however, political
realism was not the enemy but the essence of resistance strategy, whose goal
was not only to win the war but, even more importantly, to define the peace.
The ethical solidarity of the Resistance was a fine thing, but for many
resistance leaders influencing the shape of postwar
Take the issue of who had “resisted” fascism and therefore
held, in Camus’s eyes, a claim on the right to speak. In September of 1944
Camus received a letter from a prisoner of war. The writer evidently feared that
Camus’s editorials to date, with their emphasis on the suffering of those who
had resisted the Occupation after the
defeat, somehow slighted the sacrifice of French soldiers who had fought in
1940 and spent the duration of the war in German prison camps, unable to resist
on native soil. Camus summarizes the writer’s position in the following terms:
“Of men defeated in battle and now in danger of being forgotten you write that
the thought of victory was never far from their minds.” In other words,
resistance was not, as Camus’s previous editorials had implied, a matter of
overt acts of heroism and martyrdom under occupation but a state of mind, to
which anyone who did not welcome the Nazi conquest as a “divine surprise” could
lay claim. In response
In place of an analysis of the path that had led to global
conflict and in lieu of any self-criticism on Camus’s part of the ways in which
the left’s disparagement of “formal democracy” might have contributed to the
catastrophe, the discussion is taken up with parochial concerns of French honor
and the decadence of the old regime. His greatest fear remained the prospect that,
after so much sacrifice, the detested
A further challenge to the moral identity of the postwar
elect came from the Catholic Resistance in the person of François Mauriac. The
ostensible issue was whether the death penalty should be meted out for crimes
of collaboration, but what was really at stake was the very meaning of wartime
guilt. Mauriac the Catholic in essence drew an analogy between the fall of
Nevertheless, it is true that the problem of justice essentially comes down to silencing what M. Mauriac calls “mercifulness” when public truth is at stake. This is difficult, to be sure, but one doesn’t have to be a Christian to believe that sacrifices for justice are necessary. (287)
At bottom what divides Camus from Mauriac is the question of transparency.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> For Mauriac—Saint François des Assises as he was called by his detractors—guilt was obscure, inscrutable, and universal. For Camus, it was self-evident, compact, and limited to a malignant mass with well-defined contours:
Having thus conveniently transubstantiated guilt into a
biological excrescence upon the body politic, Camus professes to believe that
it can be surgically excised and the health of the body politic thereby
restored. In retrospect, to anyone familiar with the durable debilities of the
A Christian may believe that human justice is always supplemented by divine justice, hence that indulgence is always preferable. But we invite M. Mauriac to consider the dilemma of those to whom the notion of divine judgment is foreign yet who retain a taste for man and hope for his grandeur. They must either hold their peace forever or become converts to human justice. This cannot take place without distress. But after four years of collective suffering in the wake of twenty-five years of mediocrity, doubt is no longer possible. And we have chosen to embrace human justice, with its terrible imperfections, while seeking anxiously to correct it by clinging desperately to honesty. (289)
With the passing allusion to the “terrible imperfections” of human justice, Camus discreetly alluded to events that formed a bloody backdrop to his debate with Mauriac. Reprisals against alleged collaborators by vigilantes purporting to act in the name of the Resistance had begun to arouse a substantial backlash. The purity Camus had claimed on behalf of resisters collectively had been sullied by the “imperfections” of actual human justice. Camus’s response is interesting, because it seems to involve him in a form of the very “political realism” he elsewhere condemns:
We have never called for blind or precipitous justice. We detest
arbitrary judgment and criminal stupidity, and we would prefer that
One possible interpretation of this text is that Camus hoped that severe sanctions imposed on a few exemplary high-profile criminals would satiate the comprehensible if deplorable thirst for vengeance and thus preserve, only slightly besmirched, the precious purity on which he imagined a regenerated republic might be founded. This would have constituted a realist’s compromise with human frailty. Occasionally, however, we find him warily contemplating the possibility that, owing to man’s “mediocrity,” purity may require muscular enforcement if it is to survive the encounter with reality. Within a month of the previous statement he is alluding to a speech that Saint-Just made during the Terror:
Nothing great or fruitful will be accomplished in
“What we must” do is conquer those flaws, vices, and
weaknesses that compromise our purity. Thus, Camus argues, the peasant who has
hoarded riches unjustly taken from others in the wartime black market must be
returned to virtuous poverty by having his ill-gotten wealth confiscated
through the issuance of new currency. The industrialist who has sought to
preserve his wealth through collaboration with the Germans must forfeit his
factories to the state. And the resistance writer who has no taste for
exemplary executions must nevertheless conquer that weakness in himself by
acquiescing in the execution of a collaborationist journalist (
We have no taste for murder. The human person embodies all that we respect in the world. Our instinctive response to this sentence is therefore one of repugnance. It would be easy for us to say that our business is not to destroy men but simply to do something for the good of the country. In fact, however, we have learned since 1939 that we would betray the good of the country if we acted on this impulse. (289)
If the issue of “justice” divided
Indeed, the [government’s] order states that in case of fraud, the paper allocation for the subsequent two-week period will be reduced by an amount corresponding to the number of undeclared or concealed copies. We believe that this brief paragraph, which deals with a seemingly minor matter, poses a problem of political morality of the highest importance. What does it literally signify? That fraud is to be tolerated, and that its only sanction will be a reduction in the quantity of paper allotted equal to the amount wasted in the previous allotment. This is not a punishment but an adjustment, a bargain struck between the thief and his victim. (315)
In formulating the issue as “a problem of political morality,” Camus, true to his animus against political realism, says nothing about the problem of political power that determined the government’s course. The provisional government was simply too weak at this point to confront the Communists on a matter they regarded as vital and the government as peripheral. Here the comparison with Raymond Aron is instructive. Aron, whose political evolution in some respects paralleled Camus’s, held that the actions of governments should be judged by the standard not of what ought to be done in an ideal world but of what could be done with an instrument as blunt as political power in the real world.
A lack of concern with the realities of power is evident as
well in Camus’s cries of alarm at Allied command moves to disarm resistance
For the Belgian people to have chosen discipline and enforced silence, they would all have had to be stoic saints and heroes. Governing consists in putting people in a position where discipline does not seem beyond their capability. (357)
It would be possible to multiply at will examples of the difficulty in which Camus lands himself by conceiving of the era as one in which “politics has been raised to the plane of morality,” but I hope that by now a pattern will be sufficiently clear. In each case where difficulty was encountered, Camus sought to transcend conflicting interests by appealing to shared values stemming from an originating act: resistance. As laudable as that act was, however, it proved inadequate as the basis of a political vision of the world. Christian Delacampagne has put it well in his book The Philosopher and the Tyrant, in a chapter entitled “A Politics for Philosophy”: “I have no ready-made ‘morality,’” he writes. “Not because I have no ‘values,’ but because the history of our century has abundantly demonstrated the failure of every attempt to plaster onto the reality of action a system of abstract principles, which inevitably prove empty or false.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
In his Combat
editorials Camus wrote as if he did have a ready-made morality, a set of
abstract principles that preceded the concrete political situations which
prompted some of the more problematic editorials on which I have focused here. As
it became clearer and clearer that his political family of origin, the left,
did not share that ready-made morality, Camus found it increasingly difficult
to find his place in the political debate of his day. Yet he could never
renounce the political as the arena in which each individual defined, in a
moment of primordial commitment, his moral identity. To resolve the
contradiction stemming from his apolitical conception of the political,
however, he was forced into increasingly abstract conceptions. What had been
“resistance” was transmuted into the metaphysical rebellion of The Rebel, of l’homme révolté. It was this book that led to
It is interesting to note, moreover, that this aspect of Jeanson’s critique was shared by Raymond Aron, who can hardly be suspected of crypto-communist sympathies. Aron judged the book to be “bad.” The “main lines of the argument are lost in a series of ill-connected studies, [and] the style of writing and moralistic tone scarcely allow for philosophical rigor … Neither Sartre nor Camus is a Communist or an ‘Atlanticist’ … Both recognize the existence of iniquities in both camps.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The task that Camus set himself in his Combat editorials was, as we have seen, an impossible one. In a
sense he succumbed in this phase of his writing career to an old temptation of
the French political intellectual: to establish the unity of a progressive
political movement in purely negative terms by contrasting it with a detested
but non-existent old regime alleged, but only in the most general of terms, to
be guilty of every conceivable sin. The positive prescriptions derived from
this attitude take the form, “Thou shalt not do again as those miscreants and
reprobates did in the past.” Thus if the
The moralistic politics that Camus preached in 1944-45 led in at least three directions. Combat’s masthead read “from resistance to revolution.” Camus himself had used the word “revolution” frequently, but he had meant by it something closer to a moral regeneration, a bloodless transvaluation of values. When that transvaluation failed to occur, the growing gap between the ideal and the reality of the new regime proved dispiriting to some who had been among its most ardent sponsors. Pascal Pia became a Gaullist. Combat was taken over by a more left-wing editor, Claude Bourdet, and the word “revolution” in its masthead acquired a harder edge. But others for whom politics could command attention only if conducted on a moral plane found themselves at a loss. Camus himself, after attending a session of the Consultative Assembly and finding most of the delegates wandering the corridors in lieu of attending to the tiresomely technical discussion of a matter that he considered important, had warned against this danger before succumbing to it:
Yet I doubt that we can ever accomplish our goals if we have to stifle yawns the first time a dry subject comes up. I doubt that we can ever shake off the dreadful senility that afflicts our bureaucracies and customs unless each of us makes up his mind never to be tired. (386)
When things went wrong,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: Une vie (Paris : Gallimard, 1996), p. 577.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Parenthetical page numbers refer to Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, Camus à Combat (Paris: Gallimard, 2002). Not all Combat editorials were signed, but Lévi-Valensi believes that all the texts reproduced in this volume were written by Camus. I have made no attempt here to distinguish between those statements “certainly” made by Camus and those “probably” attributable to him according to the volume’s editor.
“Journalism has always seemed to me the most agreeable form of engagement.” Quoted in
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Todd, Albert Camus, p. 237.
As vividly described in
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Todd, Albert Camus, p. 600.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, the editor of his collected Combat editorials, points to Camus’s own doubts about the war in Carnets I, pp. 165-182.
This 1944 statement indicates little evolution beyond his position of
1940 : cf.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Todd, Albert Camus, p. 350.
On this point I disagree with Tony Judt. Judt argues that
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Henry Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy (Paris: Gallimard, 19..).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Christian Delacampagne, Le Philosophe et le Tyran (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), p. 200.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Todd, Albert Camus, p. 773.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Quoted in ibid, p. 787.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ibid., p. 602.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> La Chute (Folio edition), p. 85.