Camus at Combat

Arthur Goldhammer




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 France more because of his journalism than because of his fictional and quasi-philosophical texts.

The daily newspaper, Hegel said, is the realist’s morning prayer. And it is true, as we shall see, that Camus’s editorials partook of the function and even the diction of prayer. Yet Camus was no realist, and even less so in his politics than in his fiction. For him, “political realism” was a pejorative term, an aspect of disenchanted modernity to be combated, not acquiesced in or justified on grounds of prudence or pragmatism. At first, as France began to emerge from the “black years” of the Occupation, this anti-realist supplication constituted the strength of Camus’s public persona and the core of his appeal. Julien Green, upon hearing him lecture, described him in terms that one might apply to a secular saint: “There is in this man a probity so obvious that it inspires almost immediate respect in me. To put it plainly, he is not like the others.”[1] Later, however, as an illusory unity born of the mythification of resistance began to crumble, Camus’s otherworldliness became a stumbling block to the unity he had either hoped to create or mistakenly believed already existed. Smoldering resentment of the lenifying tone of his preaching erupted in a famous quarrel that ended his friendship with Sartre and divided the intellectual left spawned by the war. Part of what had been “left” now swung durably “right,” not without bitterness in both camps. Camus’s transformation from secular saint into martyred outcast is thus emblematic of a fundamental ambivalence in the engagement of intellect with politics. Though deeply embedded in a particular time and place, Camus’s story points to a persistent and perhaps inextricable tension between the solace afforded by a misleadingly unitary representation of the political realm and the anxiety provoked by actual political action and its attendant conflict: the word as Camus understood it could not be made flesh.

A Rhetorical Unity

Was Hegel right that the newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer? One has to ask first what a prayer is. A prayer is a species of utterance intended to do two things: to affirm the existence and unity of a community by articulating the shared values of its members and, in so doing, to bring the world—reality—into closer conformity with the realm of the ideal in which those values subsist. It is thus a kind of performative speech act, to use the jargon of a once fashionable school of philosophy whose heyday coincided with the heyday of the also once fashionable existentialist school with which Camus was (to his occasional dismay) frequently associated. Although Oxford’s ordinary language philosophers shared little in the way of philosophical tradition, range of reference, or number of adepts with Parisian existentialists, both distrusted the ontology of essences and preferred to work not with eternal forms adrift in the empyrean but with human language and behavior firmly anchored in the situations of everyday life—with what human beings actually said and did.

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)[2] 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 Camus, the journalist was not simply a reporter who recorded the real, he was a “man of ideas” and “historian of the moment” (163) whose mission was to purify the political, to make it worthy of serious intellectual attention, to give it cathartic rather than pragmatic purpose.[3] Thus he could denounce as a betrayal of the French hope of emerging from the war blessed by “justice and rebirth” an American maneuver intended to thwart de Gaulle’s putatively “pure” ambitions by making him subordinate to the unambiguously impure General Giraud. (169) De Gaulle himself viewed this Yankee ploy as a banal and rather short-sighted exercise in power politics, but for Camus it had been a missed opportunity to “raise politics to a moral plane” because it presented, from his point of view, a clear choice between virtue (de Gaulle) and vice (Giraud). Roosevelt saw things differently, however: “I am a realist, unlike Wilson,” he said, to explain the move that Camus the anti-realist found so baffling.

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 Camus, a presumptive guarantee of purity. That this movement lacked “a precise idea” of its purpose was one of its redeeming strengths, for all ideas are finite and relative, whereas the liberation movement was propelled by “an inner force that transcends” its members, that “sustained them for four years,” and that might soon “take on its true form.” (197)

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.”[4] 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.[5] In a Europe that had lost a substantial portion of a generation of fathers in World War I, youth movements exhibited more than the usual degree of impetuosity and intransigence.

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 France would emerge from the darkness of Occupation. For Camus, at that moment, resistance was conflated with regeneration. To be sure, he writes of heroic combat, of sabotage, of clandestine organization and espionage, but his information regarding the practical business of underground warfare is, by his own account, fragmentary and unreliable. And while he recognizes that there can be no regeneration until the invader has been expelled, implicitly he takes this expulsion as a fait accompli, even if he must occasionally remind his readers and perhaps himself after the liberation of Paris that war is still being waged at some distance from the city, which had at last risen against the invader in a jubilant paroxysm of violence that happened to coincide with a late-summer thunderstorm. The cloudburst was brief, however, and when it was over the city returned to the eerie and anxious calm that for most of its citizens had defined the war as well. Yet that calm was now roiled by a resumption of the familiar political contentiousness that would slowly erode Camus’s confidence that a new unity in purity had been forged in the purgatory of occupation.

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 Paris, Camus wrote that “we are emerging from euphoria.” He reminds his readers of the need to continue the “internal war” against two evils, “money” and “resignation.” His critique of the “moneyed interest,” of what he calls simply and starkly l’argent, is constant. In addition to “big industrialists,” he singles out for special blame the owners of newspapers, whom he accuses of having corrupted the people by serving up biased political reporting and foolish filler suitable only for the distraction of “shopgirls.” The Resistance, by contrast, prided itself on its “virility,” and this was a quality that Camus would exhort the Resistance press to foster by refusing to indulge, as the prewar press did, in sentimentality and sensationalism. (161-2) “Big industrialists” and “press barons” are surrogates for the bourgeoisie, which by its very nature lacked the backbone necessary for resistance: “A certain delicacy was also required” of resisters, “a pride that did not count among the bourgeois virtues, an ability to say no.” (296) “What is great about the present age, which in other respects is so wretched is that the choice has become pure.” (296)

 In addition to “money” and “the press,” the “resigned” included most of the political class of the Third Republic. They were to be mercilessly excluded from the new order. For Camus, spokesman for a new generation, this point goes almost without argument. Corrupt before the war, the old politicians had voted “full powers” to Pétain after the debacle. Collectively they had given France “four years of suffering after twenty-five years of mediocrity.” (289) Hence they were beyond redemption. Even worse were hypocritical clergymen: “If we show no mercy to the treachery of creatures whose business was to traffic in moral values under cover of politics, what awful accusation should we level against those whose business was to defend the spirit, to ennoble men’s hearts, and to denounce evil?” (193)

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 Europe into a Soviet and a Western zone loomed as a distinct probability. The secular left was suspicious of American motives, while the Christian left distrusted the Soviets. Nationalists wanted to resurrect French power, while Camus worried about regenerating her soul: the “fellows from Combat,” de Gaulle reportedly said, were “sympathiques mais timbrés,” nice guys but a little daft.[6] Yet Camus, without benefit of the hindsight that makes his position seem to us so clearly fraught with insuperable contradictions, chose to seek unity by subsuming political difference in an imagined moral harmony. This required a certain amount of not-altogether-benign historical neglect. As he wrote in Combat on September 29, 1944, “not all the French recognized in 1939 that the war made sense.” (216-7) Indeed, he may have had himself in mind in formulating this litotes.[7] He was by no means the only man of the left who underestimated German ambitions in 1939. The “justice” that he advocated meant above all social and economic justice, and in 1939 he, along with much of the left, regarded the war as essentially a contest for hegemony among capitalist powers. His critique of political realism was directed almost exclusively at Western politicians. Stalin’s “political realism,” without which there would have been no Nazi-Soviet pact and perhaps no war, remained exempt from the kind of criticism that Camus reserved for Western realists who had failed to come to the aid of the Spanish Republicans. By contrast, the Third Republican order was denounced in toto and in words reminiscent of the anti-parliamentary rhetoric of both political extremes: “It pains us to have to say it, but the old order that some would seek to revive today was not democracy but a caricature of democracy.” (168)

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 Algiers section of the party in the 1930s. And he had been highly critical of the reluctance of the Catholic Church to oppose Franco. Check  Yet Communists, accustomed to clandestine discipline and targeted by the Nazis as especially dangerous enemies, had been staunch in the underground. Camus, moreover, had to bracket his own history to imagine that resistance had been a clear moral choice from the moment France fell. He himself had been drawn in slowly, not only by Pia but by the example, first, of Jewish friends in Algeria, whose religion had predisposed them to grasp the unique evil of Nazism early on and, later, of Protestants with whom he stayed in the Unoccupied Zone after his return to France, Protestants whose faith had conditioned them to recognize the encroachments of authority on liberty and who had committed themselves to the rescue of Jews, who, nevertheless, make no appearance in Camus’s Combat editorials. When he mentions the Vél’ d’Hiv’, it is only to say that the National Liberation Movement has held a postwar meeting there; that it had been the site where Jews rounded up in Paris had been held pending transport, a fact that is today indelibly associated with the location, was not discussed, perhaps was not even known. Religion figures in Camus’s editorials not as a target of persecution but as a paradigm of anti-realism, a primordial form of the refusal to accede to the world’s demands. However metaphysically absurd religion may have appeared to Camus in the wake of God’s death, he could not as a student of human nature deny that faith seemed to leave a residue of ethical concern and seriousness even after its ontological armature had been eaten away by modernity and rejected by philosophy. This incessant recourse to religious language prompted Mauriac to remark that “my young colleague is more spiritualist than I imagined—more than I am, in any case. … The young masters of Combat have yet to flush certain scraps of Christianity entirely out of their system.” He also wondered “what this theological language conceals.” (273 n. 1) The answer, I think, was simply that for Camus, faith—whether in God, Marx, une certaine idée de la France, or existential purity—was the antidote to political realism and therefore the sine qua non of resistance.

Dissension in the Ranks

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 France was paramount, and ethical solidarity could be sacrificed if need be to strategic and tactical imperatives. In the wake of the Liberation, a series of points of contention quickly emerged, prolonging the clashes that had riven the Resistance during the war. These included the question of who had earned the right to speak, the proper punishment of collaborators, the regulation of the press, the disarming of resistance groups, and relations with the victorious powers. On each of these matters Camus was obliged, with a mixture of surprise and regret, to concede that dissension existed within the community of the elect and, more seriously, that a shared history of resistance provided no firm principles on the basis of which to settle these disputes. To a degree these points of contention also revealed a serious underlying disparity between fact and value, which Camus’s high-minded rhetoric struggled to conceal. Ultimately the strain became intolerable.

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 Camus proposed a compromise principle of ethical solidarity measured by degree of suffering: “Neither your suffering nor ours was in vain. In truth it was the same suffering, and what we shared in distress, today we must recover together in grandeur.” (185) Thus the action of the French army and by extension of the Allied armies was placed on the same plane as the action of the Resistance through the equation of individual suffering. Even the passive, who had suffered only the privations of wartime, could presumably be welcomed into this broad category of sufferers. Camus’s ecumenical gesture, while rhetorically effective as a way of including the letter-writer in the community of the elect that Camus is seeking to legitimate, hints at his limited understanding of the unprecedented scale and stakes of the Second World War. For him the conflict remained in some inscrutable sense “absurd”: “We went into this war with the idea that it was absurd but that there was no other choice.” (185)[8]

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 Third Republic might eventually be revived: “Those who led us against our wishes into this disastrous war will further strengthen their position out of this unqualifiable defeat.”[9]

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 France and the fall of man. Defeat had created a condition of original sin from which no Frenchman entirely escaped. Survival had entailed compromise—moral compromise. While some were more guilty than others, it was by no means clear how relative guilt ought to be gauged, and therefore, Mauriac argued, mercy was in order. For Camus, however, “mercifulness” was a problematic virtue because it compromised truth:

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.[10] 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:

France bears within herself, like a foreign body, a small minority of men who were the cause of her recent woes and who continue to be the cause of her woes at the present time. They are guilty of treason and injustice. It is therefore their very existence that raises the problem of justice, since they form a living part of this country, and the question is one of destroying them. (289)

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 “Vichy syndrome,”[11] faith in the possibility of such metaphorical healing might seem almost magical, yet Camus, arguing for once on pragmatic, realistic grounds, opposed it to what he saw as Mauriac’s mysticism:

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 France keep her hands clean. But to that end we want justice to be prompt, and we want all prosecution for crimes of collaboration to end at some fixed date. We want the most obvious crimes to be punished immediately, and then, since nothing can be done without mediocrity, we want the errors that so many Frenchmen have indeed committed consigned to carefully considered oblivion. (289)

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 France or in the world if we do not do what we must to contradict the bitter words spoken 150 years ago by one of the purest lovers of liberty: “Everybody wants the Republic, but nobody wants poverty or virtue.” (321)

“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 (Georges Suarèz) for the good of all:

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 Camus from the Catholic resistance, it was the issue of “truth,” his other paramount virtue, that divided him from the Communists. The specific incident in connection with which this difference erupted might seem, in the light of Camus’s subsequent stature as one of the chief intellectual opponents of Communism during the Cold War, a rather trivial one. It had to do with the allocation of paper, which was in short supply in late 1944. Each authorized newspaper received an allotment based on its reported sales, and the Communist paper, having exaggerated its sales, received a larger allotment than it was due. For Camus this raised an important issue of principle:

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 elements in Greece and Belgium. It was hardly realistic to expect the advancing Allies to leave contentious partisans armed to their rear, but Camus somehow hoped that this favor might be granted the resistance as a reward for its virtue. When some Belgians tried to protest the decision to disarm them, they were dispersed by troops, much to Camus’s horror. Although he finds the behavior of the resisters on this occasion to have fallen short of his preferred ideal, the fault nevertheless lies with the government for failing to establish the conditions in which their virtue could flourish:

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)

Political Identity Is Not Moral Identity

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.”[12]

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 Francis Jeanson’s attack on him, which I mentioned earlier, and ultimately to the break with Sartre. Retrospectively this break has been read as a manifestation of the great Cold War divide, in which Camus “chose the West” while Sartre and his epigones disastrously cast their lot with Communism. This characterization of the Jeanson-Sartre critique is at least in part anachronistic, however. For Jeanson, Camus had achieved a “revolutionary” understanding in The Stranger but had already renounced this commitment by the time he wrote The Plague. The rhetoric of revolution that he had employed in some of his Combat editorials had been an “illusion” sustained by the euphoria of the Resistance. But, “come the Liberation,” wrote Jeanson, “Camus believed himself to be at his ease in history, to the point where he undertook to preach to it.”[13]

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.”[14]

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 Third Republic erred by granting “money” too much influence over legislation, the new regime would banish money from its midst. If the Third Republic’s newspapers erred by pandering to the lowest common denominator, the new regime’s papers would demand high-mindedness of their contributors. Negation is of course one of the essential functions of the political intellectual. Without it, people might be tempted to believe that things must be as they are, that what’s real is indeed rational. But insisting that things ought to be otherwise doesn’t make them so, and not all desires are compatible with one another.

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, Camus tended to respond in this manner, essentially berating his comrades for backsliding into the discredited habits of the old regime. Yet when the very enterprise for which he once held out the greatest hope of reform, his own profession of journalism, is forced to compromise with the exigencies of the market, he can only whimper in defeat: “We were defenseless because we were honest. The new press, which we wanted to be worthy and proud, is today the shame of this wretched country.”[15] This is a sad note on which to end, but it reflects accurately, I think, the collapse of belief in the possibility of a harmonious postwar regeneration, a belief that Camus had done more than anyone else to propagate. And he suffered as much as anyone from its collapse. As he put it in La Chute: “I lived for a long time under the illusion of a general harmony, heedless and smiling as judgments, barbs, and ridicule were aimed at me from all sides. Suddenly alerted, lucidity came to me all at once. I suffered many wounds simultaneously and lost all my strength in an instant. All around me the universe began to laugh.”[16]


[1] Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: Une vie (Paris : Gallimard, 1996), p. 577.

[2] 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.

[3] “Journalism has always seemed to me the most agreeable form of engagement.” Quoted in Todd, Albert Camus, p. 836.

[4] Todd, Albert Camus, p. 237.

[5] As vividly described in Robert Brasillach, Notre Jeunesse.

[6] Todd, Albert Camus, p. 600.

[7] 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.

[8] This 1944 statement indicates little evolution beyond his position of 1940 : cf. Todd, Albert Camus, p. 344.

[9] Todd, Albert Camus, p. 350.

[10] On this point I disagree with Tony Judt. Judt argues that Camus’s moral absolutism was a consequence of his acceptance of multiple and to some extent inaccessible truths, which Judt associates, rather rapidly to my mind, with Isaiah Berlin’s notion of incommensurate truths. I see Camus’s attitude toward truth as a consequence of his Nietzschean perspectivism and his moral absolutism as a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to restore a certitude that perspectivism makes incoherent. But the point cannot be argued here. For Judt’s view, see The Burden of Responsibility (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 124-125. In general Judt’s reading of Camus in the immediate postwar period is colored by his admiration for the later Camus of the Cold War era. He thus tries to make of Camus a proto-Berlin, whereas I read him as an Augustino-Nietzschean: “I am your Augustine from before the conversion. I am struggling with the problem of evil and cannot find my way out of it.” As reported by Julien Green, quoted in Todd, Albert Camus, p. 576.

[11] Henry Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy (Paris: Gallimard, 19..).

[12] Christian Delacampagne, Le Philosophe et le Tyran (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), p. 200.

[13] Todd, Albert Camus, p. 773.

[14] Quoted in ibid, p. 787.

[15] Ibid., p. 602.

[16] La Chute (Folio edition), p. 85.