The Editorialist as Hero

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JULY 24, 2006

The Editorialist as Hero

is professor emeritus of comparative literature and Slavic languages
and literature at Stanford University and the author, most recently,
of Dostoevsky: The Mantle of The Prophet (Princeton University

Camus at Combat:

Writing 1944-1947Edited by Jacqueline Levi-Valensi

Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

(Princeton University Press, 334 pp.,


Albert Camus will probably be more familiar to American readers as a
novelist and short story writer, or as a philosophical essayist and
political polemicist, than as a journalist. But in the early years
of his career, before The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger had
made their mark, he was best known for his journalism. Alice
Kaplan, a scholar of the checkered and tormented history of
France's emergence from German occupation and the Vichy regime,
rightly says that the "daily editorials [by Camus] in the resistance
newspaper Combat ... made him famous, and he emerged from the war
as a moral and intellectual leader of postwar France."

This exciting new book contains the articles that Camus published
between 1944 and 1947 in Combat, an underground journal established
before France was liberated, and continuing to appear for a few
years afterward. They provide the English reader with a rewarding
immersion in a little-known part of Camus's work as he was
blossoming into a writer of world fame, and also in the social and
political questions that provoked Camus's pieces, which have lost
none of their acuity. It is astonishing to see how many of the
issues on which Camus comments, and which were broached by the
situation in which he was writing, anticipate and prefigure
problems that continue to afflict us today. In his commentaries,
Camus never stays on the surface of the events that provide his
starting point; he is always searching for the deeper causes--moral,
social, psychological, or ultimately religious (though he was not a
believer of any kind)--that motivate human behavior. For this
reason, many of these occasional writings still live.

Journalism played a large role in Camus's life, particularly in the
early years of his career, when he was still living in Algeria and
beginning to develop intellectually. Unlike most French
intellectuals of his generation, who were born into bourgeois
families, Camus came from a working-class background. His family
lacked any but the most rudimentary education, and his widowed
mother worked at menial and ill-paid tasks. Luckily, a teacher in
his elementary school, to whom he later dedicated his speech
accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, recognized the young
man's abilities, gave him extra assignments and lessons, and
recommended him for scholarships that allowed him to continue his
education. He eventually obtained a diploma in philosophy, with an
erudite study on the relations between Hellenism and early
Christianity that illustrated his intimate familiarity with the
classical authors of that period. (In his later work he often makes
casual references to ancient writers, and his first play, Caligula,
is based on material from Suetonius and Seneca.)

Ordinarily, he would have then taken the competitive exams for the
agregation to obtain a teaching post in the French school system,
but he became ill with tuberculosis and was unable to move onward
to the next level. To support himself, Camus worked at a number of
jobs--in the weather service, as an automobile salesman and a
shipping agent, and in the city prefecture. He also taught in
private schools, and in 1938 he became a member of the staff of a
newly established newspaper of vaguely left-wing character, first
called L'Alger Republicain and then Le Soir Republicain. Camus's
contributions ranged over a wide variety of subjects; they occupy
more than a hundred pages in my old copy of the Pleiade edition,
now being extended from two volumes to four. The Camus of Combat,
in other words, was already an old journalistic hand.

Two things are worth noting here about Camus's contributions to
these other journals. The first is a series of articles titled "The
Misery of Kabylia," based on travels in Kabylia in 1939, and
sharply critical of a French policy that had led to famine. Many of
his wartime articles in Combat return to the defects of the French
colonial administration, about which Camus was much better informed
than the critics who later attacked him so ferociously during the
French-Algerian War, and against which he had taken a stand long
before then. He also frequently wrote reviews of books, including
one of Sartre's La Nausee, or Nausea. Working at that time on early
drafts of the philosophy of absurdity that he later expounded in
The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus instantly recognized the merits and the
importance of Sartre's novel.

Yet he also remarked that "[Sartre] has perhaps not provided the
true meaning of his anguish when he insists on what repels him in
mankind rather than grounding his reasons for despair in some of
[mankind's] grandeurs." For Camus, the "grandeur" of mankind was
precisely its struggle to overcome the reasons for despair within
the limits of possibility, while acknowledging that no ultimate
solution could be found to this endless task. From the very first,
then, Camus refused to accept the repugnance toward mankind that was
so prominent in Sartre, and so unforgettably dramatized in the
latter's play Huis Clos, or No Exit.

When The Myth of Sisyphus was published in 1942, it was at first
considered a part of the philosophy of existentialism brought into
vogue by Sartre's novel, and also by his major philosophical work,
Being and Nothingness. In 1945, however, Camus told a journalist:
"I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are surprised at always
seeing our two names associated. We even think of publishing a
small ad declaring that the undersigned affirm they have nothing in
common." The moral nihilism that in the early Sartre emerges from
his concept of freedom can be linked to his complete disinterest in
politics before the war. Camus, by contrast, joined the Communist
Party in 1934, was particularly active on behalf of the Muslims,
and was excluded from the party in 1937 because he sided with a
Muslim group against the party line at that time. Such treatment
may well explain his later rejection of any political position as
unassailable dogma.

In 1940, refusing to bow to the demands of censorship, Camus quit
the Algerian newspaper and went to Paris. His friend Pascal Pia
found him a job at Paris-Soir, but not as a journalist: he was
employed in a technical capacity to help in the concrete tasks of
putting the paper together. Not that he minded such mechanical
employment; indeed, it was the only sort of post that he would have
accepted at this publication, which catered, as he remarked in his
notebook, to "the spirit of shopgirls."

Camus left this job in 1940, after the French defeat, the
establishment of the Vichy government, and the German occupation.
In the following year he joined the French Resistance after reading
about the execution of Gabriel Peri, a French communist politician
who had been troubled by the Hitler-Stalin pact and expressed a
certain amount of independence from the party line. Camus became a
journalist again with Combat in 1943. By this time The Myth of
Sisyphus had attracted considerable attention; and one of the
consequences of Camus's growing reputation was his employment as an
editorial reader of manuscripts at Gallimard, the most important
and influential publishing house in Paris. He took up residence in
the apartment of Andre Gide, continuing to write for Combat at the
same time.

Camus's editorials touch on so many issues that it is difficult to
give any simple overview of them. Moreover, since the background of
events to which he refers is likely to be unfamiliar to non-French
readers (one wonders how familiar this history is any longer to the
French themselves), it may be helpful to summarize the political
situation of the time. In 1944, the Allied armies had liberated
French territory as far as the foothills of the Vosges mountains,
and between August 20 and August 25 the Germans were retreating
from Paris, harassed by street fighters from the French Resistance.
Orders had been given to destroy the city, but the officers of the
Wehrmacht who were in command had refused to carry them out.

An ecstatic article in Combat of August 24, 1944 provides a fine
example of this journalist's extraordinary literary gift--the
restrained but vibrant poetry that Camus was always able to muster,
a style that evokes not only the present but also the past, even in
his physical descriptions. "Paris is firing all its ammunition into
the August night," he writes. "Against a vast backdrop of water and
stone, on both sides of a river awash with history, freedom's
barricades are once again being erected. Once again justice must be
redeemed with men's blood." Camus never forgets the human cost
involved even in this celebration of freedom restored. His lyricism
always has a moral and philosophical dimension.

Another passage is even more poetic:

As freedom's bullets continue to whistle through city streets, the
cannon of liberation are passing through the gates of Paris amid
shouts and flowers. On this sultriest and most beautiful of August
nights, the permanent stars in the skies above the city mingle with
tracer rounds, smoke from burning buildings, and variegated rockets
proclaiming the people's joy. This night unlike any other ends four
years of a monstrous history and an unspeakable struggle that saw
France at grips with its shame and its fury.

It is little wonder that such prose won the writer and the paper
many devoted readers.

France at that time had no official government. A provisional one
had been organized by Charles de Gaulle, but the Allies hesitated
to accept it because, under the circumstances, no elections of any
kind had been held. Commenting on a speech of Churchill's
expressing his sympathy for France but leaving the question of
recognition unclear, Camus remarks that "it is no secret that
certain quarters of American officialdom are opposed to
recognition." One reason is "opposition to General de Gaulle
personally"; another is the belief that the party of the Resistance
is "entirely communist." Camus considers this to be an internal
French matter that should not influence the problem of recognition,
and remarks that "we are not obliged to approve of General de
Gaulle in every instance or to share all his views of the Communist
Party." (Nor did Camus ever feel obliged to share all the views of
the Communist Party. ) Even though no elections had been held, he
insisted that "the people have just spoken ... they spoke with
their rifles and grenades from many barricades. " He believed (or
wished to believe) that the country had become united by its
opposition to the German occupation. "We experienced four years of
fraternity," he writes, basing his hopes for the future on this
presumed fulfillment of one of the French ideals.

For all his hatred of the Vichy regime, Camus had no sympathy for
the unstable democratic state that it had replaced, which he
chastises in the severest terms. The Resistance, he declares, will
have accomplished "only an infinitesimal part of our task if the
French Republic of tomorrow were to find itself, like the Third
Republic, under the strict control of Money." In the first freely
published issue of Combat, which appeared on August 21, 1944, Camus
defines what he believes Frenchmen then wanted: "a single politics
in the noble sense of the word. Having begun with resistance, they
want to end with Revolution." What this means is "to be done with
the spirit of mediocrity and the moneyed interests and with a
social state whose ruling class failed in all its duties.... We
want without delay to institute a true people's and workers'
democracy.... We believe that any politics that cuts itself off from
the working class is nothing."

These words were written in the first glow of liberation; but
Camus's hopeful enthusiasm gradually ebbed once the compromises and
concessions of ordinary political life began to exercise their
inevitable sway. He could not reconcile himself to this return of
politics as usual, which he believed had led the Third Republic to
its ruin, and he attacks the so-called "political realism" that
invariably involves a surrender to existing circumstance. "Thus in
politics realism is always right, even if it is morally wrong," he
wrote on August 29. He was particularly merciless with those
run-of-the-mill politicians who had been even minimally guilty of
accepting in any way the government of Marshal Petain and Vichy:
"We are resolved ... not to open the doors of French politics to
those who left at a time when the resistance was prepared to
welcome them."

In an article devoted to a speech by the minister of information,
who had been a resister from the earliest days, Camus wrote
approvingly that he "has analyzed the mechanism of concession that
led so many Frenchmen from weakness to treason. Each concession
made to the enemy and each decision to follow the path of least
resistance led to another.... Two acts of cowardice added up to
dishonor." No politician who behaved in this manner escaped the
pitiless lash of Camus's censure.

One of the thorniest problems of the Liberation was how to deal with
collaborators. The problem of epuration, or purification, as it was
called, is an issue that comes up again and again in Camus's
articles. It is also an issue on which he entered into a famous
polemic with Francois Mauriac, the important Catholic novelist, who
had distanced himself from right-wing French Catholicism by his
attacks on fascism in the 1930s and his later sympathy for the

Camus at first adopted a very hard line on collaborators. After
describing in ghastly detail an atrocity committed at Vincennes,
presumably by the Vichy militia ("and the men who did these things
were men polite enough to give up their seats on the subway"), he
asked: "Who in such circumstances would dare to speak of
forgiveness? ... It is not hatred that will speak out tomorrow but
justice itself, justice based on memory." He was among those who
were in favor of capital punishment for "those who killed and those
who permitted murder," since both were "equally responsible before
their victims."

Mauriac protested against any indiscriminate application of the
death penalty, and invoked the Christian principle of charity to
counterbalance the demands of justice. Camus replied that "so
singular is the virtue of charity ... that in calling for justice I
seemed to be pleading on behalf of hatred." But Camus insisted that
"in dealing with these mundane matters," it is not necessary "to
make an absolute choice between the love of Christ and the hatred
of men.... Between these two extremes we are searching for the just
voice that will give us truth without shame."

As time went on, it became clearer and clearer that the epuration
had not found "the just voice" to which Camus aspired--not only in
this instance, but on every other social and political issue as
well. On the contrary, as he wrote in January 1945, "columnists and
editorialists can thus take their pick of absurd sentences and
preposterous instances of leniency. In between, prisoners are
snatched from their prisons and shot because they were pardoned."

Later in the same year, Camus protested against the purge trials
even more strongly: "There can no longer be any doubt that the
postwar purge itself has not only failed in France but is now
completely discredited. The word `purge' was already rather
distressing. The actual thing became odious." He continued to
support the death penalty throughout 1944, but by the summer of 1945
he was writing that "[the tribunals] will go on handing out death
sentences to journalists who don't deserve as much. They will go on
half-acquitting recruiters [who served the Vichy government] with
silver tongues. And the people, tired of their sick justice, will
continue to intervene from time to time in cases that should no
longer be their concern."

Robert Brasillach, a brilliant journalist and writer, had used his
considerable talents to denounce the opponents of Vichy in the most
virulent and dangerous terms, but when the fascist writer and
collaborator was condemned to death, Camus signed a petition
against the sentence (which was nonetheless carried out). He made
it clear that he abhorred everything Brasillach represented, but
also that "I have always been horrified by the death penalty, and I
have judged that as an individual the least I could do is not
participate in it, even by abstention." By this time he had become
a principled opponent of the death penalty, and he continued to
remain so. In a speech given at a Dominican monastery in 1948, he
declared that "I have come to recognize in myself and publicly here
... that on the exact issue of our controversy, Francois Mauriac
was on the right side and I was not."

Most of the particular matters on which Camus writes have long since
fallen into oblivion and are the concern only of scholars and
historians. But he had an unerring eye for what the future was to
hold for France, and one can only be impressed by his prescience in
recognizing what would happen to the French colonial empire as a
result of World War II. Another example of such prescience, which
today seems astonishingly close to home, stems from his perception
that all such empires were doomed, and that "colonial civilizations
from the four corners of the earth are making themselves heard. Ten
or fifty years from now, the challenge will be to the preeminence
of western civilization."

With reference to his own time, he had no illusions about Indochina,
where, "as everyone knows," the budget was balanced "by selling
opium, just as [the government] browbeat `local elites' and
oppressed the people." Commenting on a statement by de Gaulle that
matters would change for the better, Camus remarks that if
improvements are seen as concessions rather than as "formal signs of
a policy of emancipation," the reforms will have little effect:
"Indochina will be with us if France leads the way by introducing
both democracy and freedom there. But if we hesitate at all,
Indochina will join forces with anyone at all, provided they are
against us." Whether the Indochinese would ultimately have
consented to French rule, if a serious effort of reform had been
made, may well be doubted; but Camus was right to consider it the
only hope. Nothing of the kind happened, and the French army
finally capitulated to the forces of Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu.

Camus was much more familiar with Algeria than with Indochina, and
his numerous articles on the Algerian situation emerged from his
own experience. In 1936, he had agitated on behalf of a plan of the
government of Leon Blum to grant political rights to certain
categories of the Muslim population; but this was fiercely opposed
by the local French population, who (as Camus later remarked) also
supported Vichy. When the plan re-emerged in 1944, the Arabs who
had favored it earlier were quite wary of accepting it. In a piece
called "Time Marches On," he observes that "Arabs seem to have lost
their faith in democracy, of which they were offered only a
caricature." But he gives careful attention to a plan offered by
one Algerian Arab leader, which, while not calling for separatism,
nonetheless proposed a federal arrangement with a parliament
containing 50 percent representation of the Arabs.

All this came to nothing because of an uprising in several Algerian
localities that led to many French deaths. "Unfortunate and innocent
French victims have lost their lives," Camus wrote, "and this crime
itself is inexcusable. But I hope that we will respond to murder
with nothing other than justice, so as to avoid doing irreparable
harm." This plea was the only one of its kind in the furious French
reaction, which led to a merciless slaughter in reprisal. "Do you
truly want to be hated by millions of people, as you have hated
thousands of others?" Camus asked his French readers. "If so, let
things continue on their present course in North Africa." They did,
and the result was the French-Algerian War, which led to Algerian
independence only after a bloody conflict and with consequences
still unresolved today.

Camus was caught in the middle, feeling the Arabs to be justified by
their previous mistreatment, and using his influence to free those
political figures whom he knew to have been unfairly imprisoned.
But his view of the problem was more complicated--tormentedly so.
In 1957, at a press conference in Stockholm after receiving the
Nobel Prize, he famously said this: "I have always condemned
terrorism. I must also condemn a terrorism blindly carried on [by
the insurgents] in the streets of Algiers ... and that one day
could strike my mother and my family. I believe in justice, but I
will protect my mother before justice."

This statement was wrongly interpreted as an unequivocal defense of
the French. In fact, it showed Camus defending human values, as he
always did, against the claims of political abstractions that could
lead to justifying murder--and had done so on both sides. But his
remark unleashed a storm of criticism that for years made him a
pariah among the French left-wing intelligentsia.

All this occurred long after his articles in Combat had appeared,
but Camus's statement in Stockholm was foreshadowed by positions
that he took in these earlier years. In 1946, for example, in a
series titled "Neither Victims nor Executioners" (printed under his
own name and given special prominence), he attempted to define the
moral and political stance that he was seeking. He called it "a
relative utopia." By this he meant "a philosophy free of all
messianic elements and devoid of any nostalgia for an earthly
paradise." People such as himself, he said, are not after "a world
in which people don't kill one another (we're not that crazy!) but
a world in which murder is not legitimized."

These articles are directed primarily against the socialists, who
were caught in a contradiction between their moral values and a
Marxism that they refused to abandon even though it made nonsense
of their moral aims. Marxists, Camus declared, are ready to accept
"a hundred thousand deaths" to provide for "the happiness of
hundreds of millions." But "the certain death of hundreds of
millions of people ... is too high a price to pay for the supposed
happiness of those who remain." He implored his readers to join him
in doing battle "within the historical arena in order to save from
history that part of man which does not belong to it." Later he
used the same type of reasoning to argue against indiscriminate
terror from whatever source it came. "We live in terror," he
writes, "because man has been delivered entirely into the hands of
history and can no longer turn toward that part of himself which is
as true as the historic part, and which he discovers when he
confronts the beauty of the world and of people's faces."

Along with his articles in Combat, the present volume also includes
a welcome interview with Camus about literature, which presents,
even if only minimally, another and more important aspect of his
multi-faceted career. His novel The Stranger had been seen as an
example of the influence of the contemporary American novel because
of the impassivity of the main character; and he agrees that "I
used it ... because it suited my purpose, which was to describe a
man who was apparently without conscience." But he adds that he
hopes this technical influence would not become widespread, because
it simply bypasses "the proper subject of literature ... the inner
life. Man is described but never explained or interpreted."

He makes an exception for Faulkner, whose Requiem for a Nun he
adapted for the stage, and he puts in a good word for Hemingway's
The Sun Also Rises. "But his book about Spain [For Whom the Bell
Tolls]," he continued, "is a children's book compared to Malraux's
L'Espoir [Man's Hope]." Camus objected to the "MGM love story" that
Hemingway inserted "into the middle of the prodigious events that
took place in Spain. You can't mix Hollywood and Guernica." (All
through his Combat articles Camus keeps insisting that a legitimate
Spanish republican government existed in exile, and should be
recognized by the Allies against Franco.) While reserved about
other recent American novels (he refers to Erskine Caldwell and
Steinbeck), he expresses a reverence for "the great Melville, who
died in squalor ... surrounded by his neglected masterpieces," and
he refers to Poe and Hawthorne in the same terms.

For many years the reputation of Camus remained under a cloud in
France, even though his novels were widely read, because of his
attack on Marxism in his Combat articles and then in his major
philosophical work, L'Homme revolte, or The Rebel. The latter was
greeted with scorn, especially in Sartre's journal Les temps
modernes, and Camus was ridiculed for his "Red Cross mentality,"
and as merely a "philosopher for classes terminales" [the basic
philosophy course taught in the last years of the French lycee].
But the collapse of Marxism, Maoism, and other leftist ideologies,
which exercised such a strong grip in France for so many years, has
led to a new and much more positive evaluation of Camus's point of

A recent issue of Le Magazine Litteraire devoted to Camus contains a
dialogue between two important members of the older generation,
Olivier Todd and Alain Finkielkraut, in which both acknowledge
having changed their minds about Camus. Todd is particularly
important in this context, because he was very close to Sartre (he
called himself Sartre's "rebellious son"), and also because he is
the author of a major biography of Camus that has not been
bettered. Having spent five years of his life writing the biography,
he now says that "I have altered many of my attitudes regarding
Camus. Today, his personality pleases me very much. He was not only
a genuinely sincere man but one who was truly virtuous--and

Finkielkraut, who admits to not having liked Camus "for political as
well as philosophical reasons," now praises his courage in having
attacked "icons of radicality" in The Rebel at a time when to do so
was to invite the venomous repudiation that Camus in fact received.
Also, he rejects Sartre's withering denigration of Camus as failing
to attain the caliber of "a thinker" in that book. "He threw a huge
brick into the Parisian swamp," writes Finkielkraut. "I see only
George Orwell and Arthur Koestler as having done as much to open
people's eyes." The new Pleiade edition of Camus's work now in
preparation could thus not have come at a more propitious time.

Camus was killed in an auto accident in January 1960, carrying with
him in a briefcase the manuscript of an unfinished novel called Le
premier homme, or The First Man. This work remained buried among
his papers, and was unearthed and published only in 1994; and this
lapse of time indicates the relative disfavor into which he had
fallen in the intervening period. Camus told a friend that this
book was to be his first real novel, and so indeed it was. Just a
few months before his death, he told another friend: "I've written
only one-third of my work. I truly begin it with this book."
Largely autobiographical, and intended as the beginning of a much
more extensive evocation of his early Algerian years, the novel
puts aside the ideological motivations that inspired Camus's
earlier works and returns to his childhood. The book was a huge
success, despite its uncompleted state. (Finkielkraut called it
Proustian, because of the density of the sensations that Camus
evokes.) The publication of The First Man did much to call
attention to Camus again after thirty-five years, and helped to
inspire the revaluation of his work that has now occurred.

For an American reader of the articles in Combat, written more than
half a century ago, no words of Camus's strike home more forcibly
than those in which he condemns indiscriminate terrorism on both
sides. Caught as we are in a war against terrorism, what we
euphemistically call "collateral damage" inevitably involves
innocent civilians. No one has treated this issue with more
poignancy and scrupulousness than Camus, who rejected all attempts
to justify the murder of innocents in the name of French or
Algerian nationalism. Nor would he, it seems to me, view the
elusive aim of spreading American democracy to countries and
peoples with a totally different history and culture as providing
any such justification. The Arabs, he told his compatriots, "are a
people of impressive traditions, whose virtues are eminently clear
to anyone willing to approach them without prejudice." It is
certainly impossible to read him now without thinking of such
matters, and this gives his old journalistic forays a new and
terrible immediacy.

By Joseph Frank

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