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From the archives: Norman Podhoretz on Albert Camus

by Emily Esfahani Smith

Posted: Feb 27, 2013 01:01 PM


Albert Camus in 1957

I happened to be perusing The New Criterion archives last night—what better way to spend a Tuesday evening?—when I came across a wonderful essay by Norman Podhoretz about the French intellectual Albert Camus that drew me in. Podhoretz, writing in 1982 just as The New Criterion was getting off the ground, considers Camus in the three roles that he played throughout his life: There was Camus the Resistance hero, Camus the philosopher, and Camus the political thinker. Here is Podhoretz on Camus’ interesting and unorthodox politics: 

Finally, there was Camus the political thinker. Unlike his other roles as Resistance hero and as philosopher, his participation in the political debates of the postwar period brought Camus a great deal of animosity. On the two major issues that most concerned him—Algeria (where he was born into a working-class French family) and Communism (he had been a member of the Communist party for a few years in the Thirties)—he took positions that were extremely unpopular in his own intellectual circle. On Algeria he was a reformist rather than a radical, specifically refusing to side with the terrorists of the FLN who were fighting for independence from France. “I have always denounced terrorism,” he once said. “I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which some day could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice.”

This attitude certainly won Camus no friends in the cafés of St. Germain des Pres and other gathering places of the Parisian intelligentsia. But possibly because he had so clear a personal stake in the matter, his apostasy from the regnant orthodoxy on Algeria, if not exactly overlooked, did not lead to his excommunication from Parisian literary society.

His anti-Communism, by contrast, was unforgivable, as he discovered when The Rebel was published in 1951. In that book Camus developed a densely reasoned and historically grounded case against the actual political manifestations of the metaphysical nihilism he had dealt with in The Myth of Sisyphus. In arguing that the quest for a political solution to the absurdity or meaninglessness of the human condition invariably led to slavery and mass murder, Camus in The Rebel was of course attacking Communism as an ideology and its bloody practical consequences in the Soviet Union. For doing that, neither his previously unimpeachable credentials as a man of the Left nor his close personal friendship with Sartre could save him from assault in the pages of Sartre’s own magazine, Les Temps modernes, first by a young critic named Francis Jeanson and then, in answer to a protesting letter from Camus, by Sartre himself. The controversy became world famous, and though most of Paris sided with Sartre, Camus had his supporters in other countries, especially the United States. Both Partisan Review and Commentary, for example, published accounts of the controversy which were sympathetic to Camus and harshly critical of Sartre’s avowedly pro-Soviet position. Thus, while Camus’s political stance severely damaged his reputation at home, it undoubtedly added to his already growing stature in other countries as a man of conscience and a moral hero.

If your curiosity has been piqued, you can continue reading the essay here.

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