Sartre and Stalin
In the comments thread for my previous post on Heidegger and the Nazis, Tex raises the parallel issue of Sartre’s adherence to the Stalinist French Communist Party and Gummo Trotsky the archetypal example of Plato’s admiration for Sparta. I had something to say about these points in my review of Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics published a while ago in the AFR Review section.A couple of quotes relevant to the debate
Plato travelled repeatedly to the Greek colony of Syracuse, in the hope of convincing its young ruler Dionysius to adopt, and perhaps to implement, his philosophical and political ideas. As might have been anticipated, and Plato claims to have foreseen, Dionysius wanted little more than the gloss that would come from having such an eminent court philosopher and had no intention of modifying his tyrannical rule.The story of Plato’s travels to Syracuse is the central metaphor for Mark Lilla’s study of the political follies and crimes of European intellectuals. The most direct link is to the life and career of Martin Heidegger …
A fascinating contrast might have been offered at this point by a study of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser who by very different routes became, and remained, orthodox Stalinists. Lilla briefly mentions, but does not illuminate, the paradox that Sartre, the self-conscious heir of the Dreyfusard tradition of resistance to oppression ended up as a servant of one of the most oppressive regimes of all time.
The difficulty for Lilla’s theme of ‘the reckless mind’, when applied to the left, is that two very different types of people have ended up as Communists. First, there are those for whom the central appeal was the cartharsis of a revolutionary smashing of the existing order. This was essentially the same appeal offered by the Nazis, and many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other.
On the other hand, there were large numbers of liberals and social democrats who were dissatisfied with the obvious failings of their own countries and accepted, at face value, the claims of the Soviet Union to be a peace-loving, democratic and socially just alternative society. Beatrice and Sydney Webb are prime examples of this sort of ‘fellow-traveler’.
The fellow-travelers may fairly be accused of gullibility and wishful thinking in their assessment of the Soviet Union, but this does not imply that their own ideas contained the seeds of totalitarianism. In fact, unlike the Nazi sympathisers discussed by Lilla, the vast majority of fellow-travelers, including those who took the formal step of joining the Communist Party, ultimately realised they had been deceived. Some repudiated their previous views entirely and became, in the American parlance, neoconservatives. Others simply accepted they had made a mistaken judgement, and adopted a more skeptical view of life, while retaining their old ideals.
Sartre is, I think, an intermediate case. I don’t think his existentialist philosophy was really consistent with any form of political Marxism, but on various occasions he distorted his philosophical arguments to generate politically correct conclusions.
In another take on the debate, Don Arthur says “Meanwhile John Quiggin is trying to pick a fight with somebody willing to defend Martin Heidegger. Don’t look at me.”
Actually, I picked Heidegger because, as a person, he’s generally agreed to be indefensible, but as a thinker, he’s widely regarded as having important and valuable things to say. He therefore raises in a sharp fashion the general question of the validity of arguments ad hominem and, conversely, arguments from authority. As I argue, I don’t think the idea that the arguments of a political theorist or philosopher can be treated in isolation from their life and work as a whole is, in general, sustainable.