Politics & Policy

The Perils of Radicalism

Albert Camus, 1957. (Robert Edwards via Wikimedia)
In times of political and economic upheaval, we must resist the siren calls of prefabricated Theories of Everything.

“People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” — Albert Camus, 1957

The great French intellectual said those words at a student debate in Stockholm, days after accepting his Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, the French-speaking world was being torn apart by the Algerian War, a calamitous conflict between two kinds of nationalism: The chauvinistic persistence of the French, who wanted to preserve their colonial grip over North Africa, and the rising resentment of the Algerians, who were fighting for national emancipation. Both sides had committed atrocities in the name of justice, both sides had hidden their turpitude under the convenient veil of virtue, and both sides demanded absolute loyalty.

Yet Camus, born and raised in Algeria, refused to pick a side. “Justice” was nowhere to be found among ideologues and extremists; if these choices were the only two on the table, then Camus would leave the room and go back to his beloved mother. His remark, partly because it was reported to the world in a simplified, paraphrased form — “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.” — earned the ire of the Parisian intelligentsia. From Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, the members of the French intellectual establishment buried Camus under a mountain of admonishments, denouncing what they perceived as his unforgivable cowardice. Who would dare to sublimate grand questions of ethics and geopolitics to something as quotidian as filial piety, and what did Camus’s mother have to do with the war in Algeria, anyway? For the burgeoning existentialist movement, as for so many subsequent radicals, to refuse to choose a side was to be complicit.

But Camus was far from indifferent. He vehemently opposed violence from both the pro-Algerian FLN (Front of National Liberation), which routinely endorsed murderous mutilations and torture, and from the French Gaullist forces, who did not mind targeting innocents to destabilize their opponents’ morale. Far from the front pages of affluent newspapers, Camus acted behind the scenes, in secret: Throughout the war, he sent more than a hundred underground letters urging French public officials to save members of the FLN from the then-commonplace death penalty, despite his disdain for the movement. The likes of Sartre and de Beauvoir, meanwhile, made a big public show of the virtue of their politics. Faced with the contempt of an attention-seeking milieu, Camus chose to preserve the purity of his actions by staying unnoticed.

By elevating his mother above abstract conceptions of “justice,” Camus by no means renounced the pursuit of the good. Instead, he shifted his attention away from grand causes and conceptual battles and onto the quotidian, the concrete, the tangible. For Camus, to reject the centrality of local attachments was to abstract away the suffering of those in one’s own community. Hiding their non-action behind grandiloquent speeches, books, and articles about conflicts far away, Parisian intellectuals dressed themselves in the garb of heroes whose virtue they had never actually possessed. They cared very little about making a difference for the masses, and very much about the deference of the masses. Their “socialist” convictions were artificial, their engagement manufactured, their contributions non-existent.

In contrast to this media-savvy procession of illustrious virtue-signalers, Camus evinced a simple desire to change lives one at a time, an almost provincial aspiration to remain true to the basic principles of his rural upbringing. To paraphrase the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, Camus preferred the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

Unlike Oakeshott, Camus was no conservative. In fact, he frequently satirized traditions, faith, and established hierarchies. But what set him apart from Sartre and the other influential French intellectuals of his time was not so much the content of his beliefs as the purpose of his philosophical engagement. Where most stood ready to adopt pre-packaged ideologies that fit the preferences and incentives of the era, Camus embodied a refreshing attempt to transcend unidimensional worldviews.

To understand this fundamental difference, it is useful to compare the lives of Camus and Sartre during World War II, which was, for both men, what President Reagan would have called “a time for choosing.”

Despite living in Germany in the 1930s, Sartre, like many foreign observers, failed to notice the rise of Nazism. Though he would later refuse to go to the U.S. because of “human-rights violations,” the same qualms did not seem to bother him when he embarked on a short trip to fascist Italy and Berlin in 1933, or when he paid a visit to the terrorist Andreas Baader in 1974, or when he dined with Fidel Castro in 1960. In his later writings, Sartre would argue that passive complacency vis-à-vis totalitarian forces is by definition inauthentic and cowardly. But his complacency was not merely passive. After the German invasion of France and the establishment of the murderous Vichy regime in 1940, he did not join the Resistance; instead, he published articles in Comoedia, a Vichy-approved journal, from 1941 to 1944. His mistress, de Beauvoir, worked at Radio Vichy, the official radio-station of the Vichy regime. Unsurprisingly, she would also defend her ethical commitment to self-liberation in the face of all kinds of oppression in her 1947 work The Ethics of Ambiguity — we can only suppose that the Vichy regime was an exception to the rule, albeit an unforgettable one. But these contradictions did not ultimately matter. Sartre and de Beauvoir wanted to be thought-leaders, as indeed they were throughout their lives. Who cared about the consistency of their thoughts and actions? The rules and rulers could change, but the armor provided by their virtue-signaling would never fail to hold up.

Meanwhile, Camus did everything he could to enroll in the Free French army as soon as 1939. Officers would not let him serve because he suffered from tuberculosis, a disease which he was prepared to overcome in order to assist his country in the fight against Hitler. He tried to enroll three times and sent countless letters to officers across the country, in vain. Frustrated, he left to Oran, where he gave clandestine lessons to Jewish children whom the Vichy regime had ostracized. Later, he joined the Resistance, edited an underground anti-Nazi journal, and wrote multiple pamphlets attacking the Vichy regime. In short, while Camus and Sartre might have shared extensive common ground at the abstract philosophical level, their attitudes when faced with a concrete, monumental ethical dilemma were about as diametrically opposed as one could imagine. Camus practiced genuine engagement; Sartre, performative radicalism.

Nietzsche captured this very distinction in Zarathustra by comparing a certain brand of resentful intellectuals to vengeful tarantulas:

You preachers of equality. To me you are tarantulas, and secretly vengeful. But I shall bring your secrets to light. . . . Therefore I tear at your webs, that your rage may lure you out of your lie-holes and your revenge may leap out from behind your word “justice.” For that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. The tarantulas, of course, would have it otherwise. “What justice means to us is precisely that the world be filled with the storms of our revenge” — thus they speak to each other. “We shall wreak vengeance and abuse on all whose equals we are not” — thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. “And ‘will to equality’ shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!” You preachers of equality . . . your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue. Aggrieved conceit, repressed envy . . . erupt from you as a flame and as the frenzy of revenge.

Unlike Camus, Nietzsche did not grasp the value of equality and justice, but we need not agree with his refutation of conventional morality to see his point. He grasped, perhaps prophetically, the ways in which good causes can be usurped by ideologues in search of influence. Where Camus stood ready to pay the price for his heterodox ideas, others took the path of least resistance, accepting the comfortable embrace of prefabricated Theories of Everything. For decades, a large proportion of France’s intelligentsia vehemently supported the USSR. It took the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to almost single-handedly shift the French intellectual mainstream from enthusiastic Marxism to pro-American neo-liberalism. Overnight, large numbers of the Parisian elite abandoned their entire belief system. But it did not matter: Servile thinkers were in search of recognition, be it as leftists or as anti-Soviet liberals.  They wanted to think boldly, and they wanted to think against: against unchaperoned capitalism at first and then against Communism. Financially privileged, they did not concern themselves with the impact of their ideas on everyday people. In the end, like Nietzsche’s tarantulas, they did not care about the content of their indignation as much as they cared about appearing indignant.

There is nothing so bourgeois as such radicalism. Those who can sacrifice incremental improvements on the altar of utopian bliss do not wake up with an empty stomach. Sartre’s intellectual descendants, confined to affluent Parisian salons, can re-imagine societies and wait for a great revolution to save us all. Camus’s know that every inch of justice is worth capturing now, no matter how insignificant it may seem. In the U.S., the best example of their mind-set lies in the African-American community, which has remained remarkably moderate and policy-focused over the years despite the leftward shifts of the party to which its political fortunes are wedded. After the fall of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign, convinced progressives wondered why black people had unambiguously supported Joe Biden. Why would those who have been economically ostracized, socially terrorized, and culturally stigmatized for centuries choose reform over revolution? Perhaps because grand promises have never accomplished much for the most vulnerable, who prefer actual change to thunderous, unpredictable upheaval.

Today marks the 231st anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, the culmination of what has become the radical project par excellence: the 1789 French Revolution. Naturally, there is much to praise in the legacy of this event that remains celebrated by some and abhorred by others. Symbolically, 1789 represented — and continues to represent — the triumph of Enlightenment values, the affirmation of the fundamental equality of men, and the birth of republicanism. But let us leave the realm of abstractions to focus on what actually happened. As Marx himself aptly observed, the French Revolution was not a fundamentally popular enterprise; it was first and foremost the putsch of an envious bourgeoisie eager to capture the privileges of the nobility. In less than two years, the supposedly noble intentions of the Jacobins gave way to the Reign of Terror, during which 17,000 people — counter-revolutionaries as well as dissident thinkers within the revolution — were executed by the guillotine, and another 40,000 were killed by other means, according to the estimates of historian Timothy Tackett. In the long run, all the revolution did was kill Louis XVI, a king who was more progressive than all his predecessors, and replace him with Napoleon, a much more totalitarian and imperialist autocrat. In fact, the Jacobins did not even manage to end the monarchy as an institution; in 1814, the Bourbon Restoration turned France into an English-style constitutional monarchy.

Though it is easy to romanticize the radicalism of 1789, we should hope that most people do not see the revolution as a blueprint for progress and sound policy-making. But it is undeniable that radicalism permeates all sides of American politics at the moment — and that our current national predicament could both grow the ranks of its adherents and make its effects worse. Traversing a deadly pandemic, a devastating economic downturn, and a divisive battle over history and culture, America’s disbanded national body is in search of political renewal. In the streets, monuments and statues find themselves defaced. On the right, President Trump is a perpetual risk to cross previously uncrossable lines at any point. On the left, after defending neo-liberalism for forty years, Joe Biden just announced that a curious mixture of social progressivism and economic nationalism might actually be the way to go in 2020.

In the face of these turbulent political winds, the performative radicalism that is enjoying yet another moment will either triumph or disappear. Like Oakeshott, we may want “to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down.” Ultimately, for civil order to persist, we will have to put less vigor into our denunciations, and more rigor into our demonstrations.


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