Thursday, March 22, 2007

Paz on Sartre

This is from an essay on Jean-Paul Sartre by the Mexican poet, essayist, and diplomat Octavio Paz from his book On Poets and Others:

Our last conversation was almost entirely about politics. Commenting on discussions at the United Nations about Russian concentration camps, he told me: "The British and the French have no right to criticize the Russians on account of their camps, since they've got their colonies. In fact, colonies are the concentration camps of the bourgeoisie." His sweeping moral judgment overlooked specific differences--historic, social, political--between the two systems. In equating Western colonialism with the repressive Soviet system, Sartre fudged the issue, the only one that could and should interest an intellectual of the left such as he was: what was the true social and historic nature of the Soviet regime? By evading the basic theme, he helped indirectly those who wanted to perpetuate the lies with which, up to that time, Soviet reality had been masked. This was a serious equivocation, if one can so describe an intellectual and moral fault.

True, in those days imperialism exploited the colonial populations as the Soviet system exploited the prisoners in the camps. The difference was that the colonies were not a part of the repressive system of bourgeois states (there were no French workers condemned to forced labor in Algeria, nor were there British dissidents deported to India), while the population of the camps consisted of the Soviet people themselves: farmers, workers, intellectuals, and whole social categories (ethnic, religious, and professional). The camps, that is to say, repression, were (are) an integral part of the Soviet system. In those years, moreover, the colonies achieved independence, while the system of concentration camps has spread, like an infection, into all the countries in which Communist regimes rule. And there is something more: is it even thinkable that in the Russian, Cuban, and Vietnamese camps movements of emancipation should arise and develop, movements like those in Asia and Africa? Sartre was not insensible to these arguments, but it was hard to convince him: he thought that we bourgeois intellectuals had no right to criticize the vices of the Soviet system while in our own countries oppression and exploitation survived. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out, he attributed the uprising in part to Khrushchev's imprudent declarations revealing the crimes of Stalin: one ought not to upset the workers.

Sartre's case is exemplary but not unique. A sort of moralizing masochism, inspired by the best principles, has paralyzed a large number of European and Latin American intellectuals for more than thirty years. We have been educated in the double heritage of Christianity and the Enlightenment; both currents, religious and secular, in their highest development were critical. Our models have been those men who, like a Las Casas or a Rousseau, had the courage to tell and condemn the horrors and injustices of their own societies. I would not wish to betray that tradition; without it, our societies would cease to be that dialogue with themselves without which there is no real civilization and they would become a monologue of power, at once barbarous and monotonous. Criticism served Kant and Hume, Voltaire and Diderot, to establish the modern world. Their criticism and that of their heirs in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was creative. We have perverted criticism: we have put it at the service of the hatred of ourselves and of the world. We have not built anything with it, except prisons of concepts. Worst of all: with criticism we have justified tyrannies. In Sartre this intellectual sickness turned into an historical myopia: for him the sun of reality never shone. That sun is cruel but also, in some moments, it is a sun of plenitude and fortune. Plenitude, fortune: two words that do not appear in his vocabulary. . . . Our conversation ended abruptly: Simone de Beauvoir arrived and, rather impatiently, made him swallow down his coffee and depart.

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