Sunday, November 17, 2013

Albert Camus at 100: reclaiming his radical,democratic legacy

November 7 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus, the author  of The Rebel, The Stranger, The Plague, the Myth of Sysiphus, and other works and the winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature. The odds are high that if you  are of a certain age, you were assigned to read one or more of these in high school or college. I know I was. I remember liking the Camus I read, but haven't thought about him for years. I doubt that Camus is still taught.  Existentialism and the absurd are out of  date.


But I am thinking that Camus is not passe and am pleased to see that others agree. 

Sean Carroll, in the Huffington Post explains   "Why Camus Has Endured"
World War II produced a pantheon of great statesmen who rallied their countries in their hour of need. But even the immensely popular Churchill and de Gaulle promptly fell out of favor after victory. One prominent voice of the war, however, managed not only to grow in influence in peacetime, but continues to enjoy widespread admiration and popularity today: the writer Albert Camus.

On the centennial of his birth into a poor family in Algiers, and more than 50 years after his tragic death in an auto accident, Camus and his works still attract intense interest around the world. The struggles in which Camus fought -- World War II, the Cold War, Algeria -- have long passed, why has he endured so well?

University of Houston history professor Robert Zaretsky, author of  Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010) and A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013) had two very interesting interesting articles on Camus published about Camus on Huffington Post and In These Times

On Huffington Post he concludes 7 Things You Didn't Know About Albert Camus

Camus was not George Orwell's twin who, separated at birth, was raised in French Algeria. Orwell was taller and wore tweed. The rumor is, however, understandable. Both men smoked relentlessly, both men were tubercular, both men died too young and both men acted on their political convictions: Orwell during the Spanish Civil War, Camus during World War II. (Camus had also wanted to join the republicans in France, but his tuberculosis prevented him from doing so.) Both men remained on the Left, despite the very best efforts of the French and British Lefts, mesmerized by communism, to disown them. Both men, with their moral lucidity and personal courage, were essential witnesses not just to their age, but remain so for our own age as well.
Zaretsky's In These Times article "Reading Camus in Tunisia: The Rebel and the Arab Spring."
 Arab voices have begun to echo the man who was once seen as an apologist for French colonialism. The Moroccan magazine Zamane recently identified Camus as the “moralist missing in this new century of fear,” while the Tunisian intellectual Akram Belkaid, discussing the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi—the foundational act of Arab Spring—exclaimed: “Yesterday it was Camus, today it is Bouazizi: He is no longer part of our world, but he is not silent. His cry is primal: he demands the right to dignity.” And though Algeria remains quiet, its writers increasingly turn to Camus. Assia Djebar, for one, has placed Camus in the pantheon of Algeria’s—not French Algeria’s—political martyrs. The Algerian writer Hamid Grine published a novel titled Camus dans le narguilé (Camus in the Hookah), in which the narrator discovers that his biological father was none other than the author of The Stranger. This leads to his odyssey for both his real father and the literary legacy lost to Algeria.

The November 7  NPR report on Camus narrowly focused on Camus' Algerian connection and included the strange comment that  "Though he hailed from the left, today he's embraced by conservatives."  This  is a clumsy formulation that implies Camus started on the left, but ended up somewhere else.

Camus, in fact, was a man of the left. He  resigned from UNESCO in protest when Franco's Spain was admitted. This was not an isolated protest. Even after he became a best-selling and affluent author, Camus wrote for and served on the editorial boards of small journals of the non-totalitarian left.

Lou Marin, a European anarchist activist and writer, has  written a very useful and informative essay The Unknown Camus: Albert Camus and the Impact of his Contributions as a Journalist to the Pacifist, Anarchist and Syndicalist Press ( (I suspect that Marin's essay may neglect Camus' relationships with other segments of the left.)

Here are a few  quotes
In 1948 Camus set up an organisation to help political prisoners in Franco’s Spain, the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes, the Groupes de liaison international (GLI) (International Liaison Groups)....the proletarian activists and the intellectuals collaborating within the GLI were positioned somewhere in between Trotskyite and anarchist milieus, but were working together in this campaign.
It sees that Camus adopted a "third camp" position on the Cold War.  Camus was on the editorial board  of
La Révolution prolétarienne
which warned of a new world war in the Cold War era of the 1950s and worked for a concept of peace based on anti-Stalinist premises.
Marin also provides important information about Camus and Algeria which is usually ignored.
an additional appeal by Camus, dated October 1957, in which he condemns the assassinations of the armed Algerian Liberation Front, Front de Libération nationale (FLN), and the murderous campaign it was waging against the syndicalists of the Algerian independence movement under Messali Hadj (1898-1974). In this appeal, Camus poses crucial questions. For example: do these assassination tactics against fellow nationalist-syndicalists suggest a totalitarian character on the part of the FLN? Every syndicalist killed, Camus argues, reduces the legitimacy of the FLN a little further. He considers it a duty for anarchists to speak out publicly against the good conscience’ of an anti-colonialist left that justifies everything, and against political murder within their own ranks in the first place.
And the conclusion
While we are happy about the Camus renaissance in France – after two decades of decided neglect by the pro-Sartre European left of the 1970s and 1980s – and while we welcome a rehabilitation of Camus’ critique of violent tactics and nationalism in the face of a civil war in Algeria, we nevertheless reject this kind of opportunistic appropriation of Camus by French New Philosophers such as André Glucksmann and others, who are nowadays nothing more than cheap apologists for the ruling capitalist system and the French right. To present Camus as a right-wing critic of totalitarianism is to put him back in the bipolar context of the Cold War, where Sartre and Jeanson wanted to place him during the debates of the 1950s, and from which Camus always wanted to flee with the help of his anarchist friends and the relationship he maintained with anarchist, pacifist and syndicalist periodicals.

(Another account of Camus and anarchism can be found here.)

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