‘Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates’ reviewed by Carlos Brocatto

Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2010. 336pp. $20/£15 pb
ISBN 9780300159011

Reviewed by Carlos Brocatto

About the reviewer

Carlos Brocatto (Carlos.Brocatto@gmail.com) studies social political philosophy and aesthetics. He …


John Gerassi’s Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates consists of recorded interviews that originally served as the material for his biography on Sartre which it compliments nicely. Moreover these interviews are invaluable when looking at biographies of Sartre that attempt to depoliticize or downplay his radical convictions in order to make him more palatable for conventional audiences. Gerassi’s interviews cover topics that preoccupied Sartre throughout his career and address questions central to his work: What is the role of the intellectual in society? How can a Marxist believe all men are free? Can art be revolutionary? What role, if any, does violent armed struggle have to play in today’s revolutionary movements wherever they exist? In what way is terrorism ever justified? Their conversations frequently begin by invoking a context whether it was Weimar Berlin, occupied France and the resistance, a café, walking the streets of Harlem with Richard Wright, visits with political leaders, a demonstration, or workers’ strike.

Having already written numerous books on topics ranging from racism and poverty in the US to systematic oppression in Latin America, Gerassi proved to be an important interlocutor for Sartre who considered him a link to a younger generation. In fact, the only time Sartre gave a single word answer during their sessions was when Gerassi asked who he considered to be his political friends. “You,” responded Sartre. Early in the book Sartre cites Gerassi’s Revolution by Lifestyle as illustrating what he means by “equality” which he took to be the conviction of the “genuine socialist” who believes that everyone’s joy, pain, and need to be relevant is equal. He then contrasts this to the party communist who scoffs at such ideals given their penchant for “central committees running everyone’s lives” (12). Ever critical of party politics, Sartre was nevertheless a self-identified “fellow traveler, critical, but allied” because, he surmised, that to be active politically meant “to live schizophrenically” (108). So he sided with the communist party when its views converged with his own like when he thought it the only party in France “that systematically opposed American Imperialism and represented the proletariat” (188).

The conversations reveal Sartre’s views on the value, and shortcomings, of political movements. His views are relevant today in that they immediately elicit, and bring something to bear on, the recent Occupy Movement insofar as Sartre was convinced that a government’s “rule of law” never applies to the situations ordinary people find themselves in. Only instances of popular justice “where all the people of the neighborhood or factory or mine, and their families, can participate” through the implementation of “general assemblies” could possibly address the needs of the people (95). Decisions made by such general assemblies would carry the people’s will in the form of what Sartre terms, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, a “group-in-fusion”—a group formed and guided by both a purpose and an ideal—which can be the driving force of a movement “precisely because movements have to be for something, not just against” (127).

Imagine, for example, a group of people waiting in the rain at a bus stop during rush hour. Every bus that passes them by is so full that their internal lights are blotted out by the crowds of people they carry. The group slowly grows larger, crowding under their umbrellas as none of the busses stop for them. Finally, an empty “out of service” bus is temporarily stuck in traffic in front of the group. All of a sudden a hand reaches out from the crowd forcing its way between the doors and opens them. The group quickly floods into the bus as the driver protests that his shift is over. “You can drop us on your way to the garage!” someone yells! Feeling that doing anything to fight the situation would only prolong the end of his day, and, realizing there would be no real harm in it, the driver reluctantly agrees. The crowd cheers the driver, who makes all the stops on the way to the garage, and a good time is had by all. Though the bus was illegally commandeered by the group, the new conception of propriety engendered by the situation that resulted from their collective act morally obliges everyone, including the driver who is now a part of the group, to do their part. This, for Sartre, is what a revolutionary act looks like. It is an example of a group-in-fusion that Gerassi not only provides but also deems “Spontaneous. And extremely moral” (94-5).

Still, Gerassi is quick to expresses his apprehensions about the massive decentralization and effectiveness of the direct democracy that general assemblies entail even as a series of “fused groups.” Gerassi points out that such group-in-fusions are rare and far too demanding because they eventually break up. That is, its members always end up serialized once again and have to start the process anew. Sartre responds by explaining that revolution is never easy, that if progress is defined “as the increase of people participating in the decisions that affect their lives,” then there has indeed been a great deal of progress in history. He admits that each group-in-fusion ends in defeat as it deteriorates to serialized individuals. “But no one will ever forget how fantastic they felt while living out that fusion” (147). Meaning that such events are what the revolutionary continually strives for and benefits from.

Sartre cites events like the Contrexeville strike as real-life examples of how a conglomeration of serialized individuals can become a fused group. There had not been a strike in Contrexeville in thirty years but conditions had gotten so bad that the workers decided to strike. Yet, not wanting to risk too much, the strike was scheduled for one hour. But their cause was made so popular by an emergency issue of La Cause du Peuple (a newspaper funded and directed by Sartre that advocated direct action and the use of violence) that workers from all around came to support them. The result was a vote to extend the strike which lasted until all of the workers’ demands were finally met three weeks later.

Those familiar with Sartre’s work will find such invocation of the Critique of Dialectical Reason’s group-in-fusion refreshing as it prompts a new perspective on Sartre’s trajectory, one that retrospectively renders Being and Nothingness as an explication of the serialized individual subject. Such a reading provides a theoretical bridge between Sartre’s earlier and later work, as opposed to imposing either a break or a shift in his interests as the majority of commentators do. Consider that in one interview Sartre agrees that his play No Exit discloses the essential tenets of Being and Nothingness while in another he grants that the play’s characters were serialized individuals. Further, he explains that many people readily identify the idea “hell is other people,” but fail to see that at the same time “heaven is each other” (130). As Gerassi points out, following the Critique of course, if the characters had gotten over their incessant need to present themselves as righteous people, they could have accepted their situation through the formation of a group-in-fusion that would have resulted in mutual care. Sartre adds that this is something “that’s possible on a sustained basis only in collectivity.”  

Contextually, it should be borne in mind that these conversations and debates take place after the events of May 1968 when students and workers nearly toppled the ruling class in France, events that, according to Sartre, finally radicalized him and engendered his revolutionary politics. The Sartre Gerassi engages is one who believes that everything is political, that to be a revolutionary is to be against, not a whom, “but a state, a system, which must be overthrown.” Praising Foucault’s “first rate analysis” regarding the ruling class’ use of “justice” as one of its arms of repression, Sartre ushers in numerous detailed examples of phony trials used to deter dissent or repress anti-capitalist movements.

On the other hand, Sartre is also the first to admit that, if one is what one does, then he, having never been in “the front lines,” is a parlor-type revolutionary: a petit-bourgeois reformer. He explains that prior to the events of May 68 he felt that to be political was to be moral and reaches for his play, The Flies, as an example of this line of thinking. “I wrote it to convince the French that, yes, to murder a German [in WWII German occupied France] is to be guilty of murder, but morally it is the right thing to do, though he who commits the murder will find no solace in the act … an act has no moral character. What does is the effect of that act” (114-5).

Thus, despite the general consensus amongst Sartreologists, Sartre’s revolutionary politics did not emerge after the Second World War. Instead, by his own account, at that time he became politically engaged on an emotive level which he attributes to the rebel. Recasting Camus’ concept of the rebel as one who is propelled by emotion, the rebel is described as the anti-capitalist who is politically motivated by the atrocities committed against the poor and powerless, whereas the revolutionary is anti-capitalist because they understand that the bourgeois class is historically compelled to exploit the proletariat. This leads to the thought that what is perhaps required is the rebel-revolutionary. That is one who is unshakably determined to see justice served while reaching his political conviction through an intellectual process. As Sartre puts it, “A rebel who becomes a revolutionary is in the soup. His inner guts are committed” (55).  

Sartre ultimately believed that his responsibility, as a revolutionary who happens to write, was not to lead or be led but to “write for all,” to inform and to hold a mirror up to society. His adherence to this responsibility was so great that it caused breaks with long-loved friends, colleagues, and political parties who, “could never fathom, that one can be critical yet supportive” (170). This unwavering resolve made Sartre the target of two bombs; it made him an enemy of the French Communist Party when he defended Paul Nizan and had pro-French Algeria militants marching in the streets of Paris demanding that he be shot for defending Francis Jeansen and his “suitcase carriers.” Perhaps it even prompted the subtitle to Gerassi’s first book on his friend: Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century.

The special friendship these two men shared is evident from the opening pages. Both men exerted incredible influence on one another as their conversations shifted toward debates that were either temporarily resolved (given that they were reignited during subsequent encounters) or sublimated into new unforeseen territories that force them to reconsider preconceived notions. Talking with Sartre treats the reader to the intimacy of a friendship that introduces Sartre the man, whatever his failings. A testament to what it achieves is found in the kind of amusement that comes from sharing an inside joke; one that reveals why Gerassi and Sartre would find the charge that either of them was “a communist or an anarchist or crazy or all three” complimentary.

4 March 2012

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