Within the mainly left-wing circles of French intellectual life, a David and Goliath conflict between a handful of libertarians on one side and a pro-Stalinist majority on the other was starting to make itself felt. Only when the Cold War began to develop its own Manichaean logic did the French Communist Party find itself on the defensive.
Thorez’s remarks after the Prague coup, tantamount to an admission that Communists would support the Red Army in the event of war, put them back into an ideological ghetto comparable to their position in 1939 after the Nazi–Soviet pact. Most of the admiration for the Soviet Union which had existed in France in 1944 and 1945 had turned into distrust, even fear, by the end of the decade. The group in French society which most conspicuously failed to follow this change was the progressiste intelligentsia, their resolve strengthened by anti-American rhetoric. If the Communist Party could no longer present itself as the standard-bearer of French patriotism, it could still portray itself as the defender of French culture against a transatlantic invasion.
Shortly after Communist ministers had left government, Thorez called for the establishment of a Front littéraire. The party, with political power slipping from its grasp, wanted to secure the commanding heights of art and thought. This determination redoubled after it lost so many working-class members as a result of the disastrous strikes in 1947 and 1948. Laurent Casanova, the cultural commissar, called on writers to formulate new values. A commission of intellectuals met weekly under his direction. They included Annie Besse (later the historian Annie Kriegel) and Victor Leduc, the son of a Russian revolutionary. Leduc, an academic and a fanatic, became a member of the section idéologique – the Communist Party’s equivalent of the Holy Office.
Intellectuals were managed through an appeal to idealism and moral blackmail. To let the party down in the slightest way was portrayed as a betrayal of the hopes of ‘all progressive mankind’. Often little pressure was needed, because most Communist intellectuals longed to be accepted by the working class, and only engagement in its international movement could absolve themof bourgeois guilt.
After his return from the United States, André Breton observed that: ‘The ignoble word of “engagement”, which has become current since the war, exudes a servility horrifying for poetry and art.’ Engagement meant eradicating the truth at the whim of the party. Paul Éluard confessed to suppressing a poem he had written about the bombing of Hiroshima after Aragon told him that it did not follow the party line.
The party policy of mingling intellectuals and workers was more symbolic than real. Annie Besse, who was in charge of the Quartier Latin – an area where intellectual and working-class life overlapped round the Place de la Contrescarpe and the rue Mouffetard – managed to achieve a mixture in the cells. They may have sold L’Humanité alongside each other in the Sunday morning market of La Mouffe, but the result was bound to remain contrived.
Cell meetings took place for Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie every week or fortnight in a bistro or café on the rue Gay-Lussac. Over glasses of cheap beer, they would ‘talk for hours at a stretch about party dialectics’. In the Latin Quarter, the Communist Party could tolerate the odd eccentric, even Michel Foucault, the most unpredictable of members, who was ‘already absorbed in his research into madness’.
Paul Éluard, who had a real sympathy for the working-class people around him in the 18th arrondissement, had few illusions about the possibility of intelligentsia and proletariat mingling unselfconsciously. In 1945 Éluard had returned to live on the rue Marx Dormoy, close to his old haunts. His interest in the political life of the quartier was genuine. He encouraged the sons of party workers to follow further education and even wrote marching songs for the local Communist youth. Éluard, unlike some party stars, was naturally modest. Jean Gager, who accompanied him to a meeting of railway workers, remembered that he never said a word throughout the proceedings, because he felt that he had nothing useful to contribute. But as they left, Éluard had turned to him: ‘Are you sure that they did not change their vocabulary in my presence?’
‘Yes, it’s true,’ Gager had to acknowledge. Their language had been much more formal than usual.
The submission of intellectuals to dogma may have seemed stultifying to an outsider, but the party was clever. It knew how to flatter young writers. Maurice Thorez took Pierre Daix aside after a meeting to congratulate him on his novel La Dernière Forteresse. For a young Communist, this was the greatest moment of his life. Thorez’s companion Jeanette Vermeersch then featured Daix on the cover of the party’s magazine for women, Femmes françaises.
The party also knew how to flatter fellow-travellers and manipulate sceptics who could still be useful. Georges Soria, one of its senior journalists, explained at his meeting in the Kremlin in September 1948 that Julien Benda, the author of La Trahison des clercs,was judged useful because, ‘even though he was against Marxism and Communism, he supported the party’s present policies in France’. Soria went on to explain that they had set up various magazines, ‘Pensée in particular, precisely to attract fellow-travellers such as Benda’.
The first great post-war test of Communist loyalty arrived in the spring of 1948. Almost overnight, Marshal Tito, the hero and role model of Communist members of the French Resistance, was declared a traitor. The accusations against Tito even extended to ‘hiding White Russian officers who tortured and killed the mothers and fathers of Bolsheviks during the Revolution’.
The French party leadership had a very clear idea of the situation and was only too keen to follow Moscow’s orders. Yet some party members, including Louis Teuléry, the former member of Tillon’s ministerial cabinet, did not conceal their feelings that Tito had been wronged. They paid for their views with summary expulsion. Teuléry was privately warned by a friend, ‘they’re going to accuse you of being a Trotskyist’. After he was ejected, his comrades, a number of them old friends from the Resistance, refused to speak to him– or their wives to his wife – for over thirty years.
Several hundred members of the French Communist Party were expelled. The novelist Marguerite Duras also left at this time. Daix swallowed the brutal change in the party line because men he respected, such as Charles Tillon, had accepted it without a murmur. ‘You’ve got to know how to grit your teeth,’ Casanova had told him.
The prostration of some intellectuals before the party could provide moments which were beyond satire. Just after the war, Jacqueline Ventadour (later the wife of the painter Jean Hélion) was married to Sinbad Vail, Peggy Guggenheim’s son, who founded the literary magazine Points. She was then a Communist and a member of the same cell as Victor Leduc, the philosophy professor in the section idéologique. Leduc was married to Jeanne Modigliani, the daughter of the painter and a close friend of both Jacqueline and Sinbad. The austere and fanatical Leduc had renounced all wealth, so Jeanne, desperate to leave their squalid little apartment, needed a deposit to move to a slightly better one and borrowed the money secretly from Sinbad. But when Leduc discovered that she had borrowed from an American capitalist, he became hysterical with fear that the party might find out. Sinbad and Jacqueline had to swear never to say anything to anybody, and Leduc went round begging money from party comrades to pay them back.
At the time of Tito’s break with Stalin, Sinbad and Jacqueline went to dinner with Victor and Jeanne. Several leading French Communist intellectuals were there, as well as the Hungarian cultural attaché, the writer Zoltÿn Szabó. The conversation inevitably locked on to the subject of Tito, arch-criminal and traitor. Someone, forgetting that Sinbad Vail was not a party member, asked him what he thought. Sinbad, exasperated by the grotesque conversation, said that he still considered Tito a great man. A shocked and frightened silence fell. Eventually, it was broken by a low, rumbling laugh from the Hungarian: he had never seen anything so funny as the terrified faces of these French intellectuals.
Sartre at this time was involved in the only formal political venture of his life. In the autumn of 1947, he joined the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire, a party founded by Georges Altman and David Rousset to create a movement independent of the United States or the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin already had its eye on the ‘Trotskyist and provocateur’ Rousset. The French Communist Party underlined the danger of Sartre’s contribution. ‘There are two ideological dangers in France,’ Georges Soria told Kamenov, his interlocutor in the Kremlin. ‘The first is the militant fascismof Malraux with his false heroism – the ideology of Gaullism – and the second is the philosophy of decadence expounded by Sartre which now acts openly against Communism by talking of a “Third Force”. Both have their followers and an influence, especially among the young.’
It was Andrei Zhdanov who masterminded the attacks on Sartre and his ‘bourgeois reactionary philosophy’. The most vicious campaign was triggered by Sartre’s play Dirty Hands, which opened in April 1948. The play depicts brutal power politics within the Communist Party of a Balkan country during the war as the Red Army advances upon it. Sartre argues from both sides of the fence with clever dialogue, and although his characters lack psychological depth, they are at least intellectual rather than political pawns. His seemingly improbable choice of Jean Cocteau to take over as director proved a good decision. The production and the acting were powerful.
Anybody in touch with reality would have known that the Communists would be infuriated by this chilling portrait of party life; yet Sartre, as David Rousset observed, ‘lived in a bubble’. French Communists were even more furious, because Hoederer, the Communist leader assassinated by his party in the play, had been following a similar line to that of Maurice Thorez during the war. Ilya Ehrenberg told Sartre that he had nothing but contempt for him. Sartre might shrug this off, but he seems to have been genuinely dismayed when the play was used as anti-Communist propaganda. The Kremlin had Dirty Hands suppressed in Finland on the grounds that propaganda hostile to the Soviet Union was against the provisions of their peace treaty. But within five years, Sartre’s own position had changed to such an extent that he would consent to productions of the play only with the agreement of the local Communist Party, which of course meant suppressing it entirely.
Stalinist hatred for Sartre burst forth in an astonishing piece of stage-management in August 1948, during the Congress of Intellectuals for World Peace at Wrocław (formerly Breslau) in Soviet-occupied Poland.
Some 500 participants were invited from forty-five countries to this typical Communist-front event, organized by Andrei Zhdanov two months after the Soviet blockade of Berlin commenced. The congress’s main objective was to protest at the American and British plan to rebuild Germany, claiming that it was a plot to make it a base once more for aggression against the popular democracies and the Soviet Union. The choice of Poland as the venue was deliberate.
The French delegation included the painters Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, and the writers Vercors, Roger Vailland, Jean Kanapa, Pierre Daix and Paul Éluard, still mourning the death of his wife, Nusch. Laurent Casanova was their organizer and chaperon. The British delegation was more mixed, with the historian A. J. P. Taylor, the scientist J. B. S. Haldane, the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury Dr Hewlett-Johnson, and the young George Weidenfeld. The Russian delegation included Alexander Fadeyev, president of the Union of Soviet Writers, the ubiquitous Ilya Ehrenberg, and Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of And Quiet Flows the Don. Jorge Amado came from Brazil and George Lukacs from Hungary. The joint presidents were Julian Huxley, the Director-General of UNESCO, who was neutral, and Irène Joliot-Curie, who was a Communist.
On arrival, the delegates were greeted by lavish yet unenjoyable entertainment amid the ruins. The Poles received Picasso like royalty and put him in the bedroom which Hitler had used during the war. Once the congress started, Picasso made his first political address, calling for the release of his friend Pablo Neruda, who was imprisoned in Chile. His speech did not last long and its simplicity had a powerful effect. He was followed to the rostrum by Alexander Fadeyev; the contrast could not have been greater.
Zhdanov had instructed the speaker carefully. Fadeyev, whose most recent novel, The Young Guard, had been severely criticized for not having exalted the role of the party, was desperate to clear his name. He demanded open war against the decadence of Western literature and art. Picasso was not mentioned by name, but the thrust of the attack was clear. Only painters of socialist realism could be accepted as aligned with the working class. But when Fadeyev described Sartre as a ‘jackal with a pen’, delegates from the West instinctively snatched off their headphones in disbelief. Ignoring the effect in the hall, Fadeyev simply went on reading his text.
Despite the watchful eye of Laurent Casanova, several members of the French delegation – Picasso, Léger and Vercors – did not hide their disgust. For Vercors it was a major blow to his faith. He would turn against the party before the end of the following year and prove a formidable critic of the show trials in Eastern Europe. Julian Huxley, after a brief exchange of notes with his co-president, Irène Joliot-Curie, left the hall and took the next flight home.
That evening in the bar of the Monopol Hotel, Picasso became drunk, exasperated by arguments with Russian socialist-realist painters. Journalists kept asking him what he thought of the congress, but he refused to answer.
On the last day of the congress, delegates were shocked by news of the unexpected death of Zhdanov. For Fadeyev especially, it was a devastating blow. The journalist Dominique Desanti saw Fadeyev’s hands shake after he received the news. He must have assumed that his controller had been liquidated on Stalin’s orders – the circumstances of Zhdanov’s death are still uncertain – and feared that he would follow him. Fadeyev, who had sold his soul to the system, committed suicide after Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Party Congress. His self-destruction was a harshly appropriate ending to a tale of those times.
After the congress, Picasso, Éluard and Daix were taken by the Polish Communist Party on a visit to Auschwitz and then to Warsaw, where they stood, Picasso in tears, on the crushed rubble of what had been the ghetto. Nazi atrocities still formed one of the strongest themes in Stalinist propaganda – only the Soviet Union, it was claimed, could prevent the recurrence of such crimes.
The French Communist Party, however, found itself pushed into ever more indefensible positions as the era of Eastern European show trials began. Every negative was turned into a positive. The bigger the lie, the greater the leap of faith, and the more desperately would loyal party members defend it. Their rationale was based on one of the most shameless manipulations of logic ever known. Comrade Stalin and Communist parties everywhere were fighting for the good of the people. They were therefore incapable of torturing a loyal Communist to force him to confess to appalling crimes.
The greatest challenge to the reputation of the Soviet Union came early in 1949 with the Kravchenko court case in Paris, an event which was followed with obsessive interest all round the world.
Viktor Kravchenko, a Russian engineer who had defected from a Soviet trade mission in the United States in 1944, published his memoirs, I Chose Freedom. The book became one of the great bestsellers of the post-war period and was translated into twenty-two languages. It was the first widely published account by a Russian eyewitness of Stalin’s forced collectivizations, the persecution of the kulaks and the famine in the Ukraine; it also gave a clear idea of the Soviet labour camps twenty-five years before Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
The book’s appearance in France in 1947 caused a sensation. It sold 400,000 copies and received the Prix Sainte-Beuve, yet such was the power of the Communist Party in the publishing world that none of the major houses had dared touch it.
The party denounced all the book’s allegations, especially the idea that there were labour camps in the Soviet Union. Les Lettres françaises led the attack on 13 November 1947 with an article signed ‘SimThomas’, supposedly a former officer of the American OSS. This piece claimed that American intelligence agents had written the book, not Kravchenko, who was dismissed as an alcoholic and compulsive liar. There were other insulting articles by the Communist writer André Wurmser. On hearing of these attacks, Kravchenko, who had temporarily settled in the United States, launched a libel case against ‘Sim Thomas’, André Wurmser, Les Lettres françaises and its director, Claude Morgan, a former right-winger who had turned Communist.
When the trial opened on 24 January 1949, the Palais de Justice was overrun by newsreel crews, journalists and press photographers. A company of the Garde Républicaine had to be brought in to restore order. The scope and significance of the battle taking place in the overcrowded courtroom quickly became clear. However much the defence tried to turn the case into a trial of Kravchenko’s character, it remained what Kravchenko had intended it to be: a tribunal by proxy of the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Both sides brought in their witnesses, entirely at the plaintiff’s expense. Although the American authorities provided no financial aid, they helped Kravchenko assemble Ukrainians from displaced persons’ camps in Germany who could testify to conditions during the 1930s.
The Lettres françaises defence team turned to the Soviet Union for witnesses. The NKVD rounded up individuals who could be persuaded to blacken Kravchenko’s character and veracity. The most vulnerable of all was Kravchenko’s first wife, because her father, a former officer in the White Army, was still in a prison camp.
Before the Soviet witnesses appeared, the defence tried to play the card of French patriotism against a defector and thus a deserter in wartime. When Kravchenko’s counsel countered with the question of Thorez’s desertion in 1939 and Wurmser’s lawyer, Maître Nordmann, demanded, ‘Un peu de respect pour ce grand homme politique français’, there was an outburst of derisive laughter in court.
Because the vast majority of the public present openly supported Kravchenko, the Communist press claimed that the benches were packed with women from the beaux quartiers in fur coats. It is true that this trial had become such a sensation in Paris that American bars were offering an ‘I-Chose-Freedom’ cocktail, a mixture of whisky and vodka, as a publicity gimmick. Many people did come to the trial to see Communist noses rubbed in the dirt – André Gide would hardly have been human if he had not relished the prospect after what Les Lettres françaises had said about him. But many others came who were not prejudiced against the defendants, such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
Nordmann brought in the most prominent fellow-travellers available to express their disdain for Kravchenko – Pierre Cot, the aviation minister in the Popular Front government of 1936, Louis Martin-Chauffier, the president of the National Committee of Writers, Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, Dr Hewlett-Johnson and General Petit – as well as Communist writers Pierre Courtade, Vercors and Wurmser’s brother-in-law, Jean Cassou – the former Communist minister Ferdinand Grenier (who gave his profession as bakery worker) and the ubiquitous Nobel laureate Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who, during his testimony, proceeded to defend the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. The one witness the defence never produced was ‘Sim Thomas’, the alleged American author of the original article. He did not exist. The author had in fact been André Ulmann, editor of the Soviet-backed Tribune des nations.
On 7 February, Kravchenko’s former wife, Zinaïda Gorlova, made her appearance for the defence. The courtroom became tense with anticipation. ‘She’s a prepossessing blonde,’ wrote an eyewitness, ‘thirtysix years old, with what used to be called “advantages” which are tightly restrained in a corset. She wears a black dress. Her face is pale, with a closed expression.’ Gorlova had been flown into Paris with a woman guard, presumably from the NKVD, who escorted her everywhere from an apartment rented by the Soviet Embassy in the Boulevard Suchet. In a voice which sounded monotonous from over-rehearsal, she recounted that Kravchenko had beaten her, broken china and forced her to have an abortion. He was a liar, a womanizer and a drunkard.
Kravchenko’s lawyer, Maître Georges Izard, had little difficulty in making the poor woman squirm. She refused to admit that her father was either a former White Guard or in a prison camp. She claimed that he was dead. She had never seen the scenes of famine in the Ukraine which Kravchenko had claimed to witness with her. The effort was so great for her that she had to ask for a chair so that she could sit down. Nordmann, for the defence, tried to stop Kravchenko speaking to his former wife. The president of the court told him to be quiet. A furious row broke out between them, and in the uproar Gorlova continued to repeat mechanically the insults against her former husband. ‘Always the same recording!’ Kravchenko yelled, as the president of the court brought the session to a hurried close.
The proceedings were often chaotic. One exchange led to Kravchenko throwing himself at Wurmser, before being dragged back by a gendarme. Many of his remarks were not only clever and funny; they cut to the bone, to the delight of his supporters on the public benches. Claude Morgan, on another occasion, burst out: ‘They’re not the public, they’re cagoulards!’ André Wurmser, too, could not contain his unfeigned outrage that a man he considered a traitor should be allowed a public hearing.
Over the next few days, Gorlova’s appearance changed. She had become listless, her face looked yellow, her hair was unkempt, she had lost weight. Kravchenko felt sorry for her, knowing that her failure to make an impression boded ill for her and her family. ‘She did not come to France voluntarily,’ he cried to the court. He promised to look after her in the West for the rest of her life. ‘But she must say why she came here!’ The courtroom was electrified. Gorlova collapsed, vainly searching for a handkerchief in her handbag. Her female guard sat frozen beside her. Before the court reassembled, Gorlova was taken to Orly, where a Soviet military aircraft was waiting to fly her back to the Soviet Union.
It was then Kravchenko’s turn to call his witnesses. Almost all came from camps for displaced persons in Germany, but his most effective witness had arrived from Stockholm. This was Margarete Buber-Neumann, the widow of a pre-war leader of the German Communist Party, Heinz Neumann. On Hitler’s rise to power the couple had sought refuge in Russia, but were sent to Soviet labour camps, accused of political deviationism.
In 1940, after the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union handed them and some German Jews over to the Nazis. Margarete Buber-Neumann survived five years in Ravensbrück and managed to escape just before the Red Army arrived. According to Galtier-Boissière, who was watching closely, Claude Morgan and André Wurmser looked down at the ground during her description of the Soviet labour camps. Her account was clear and unflinching in every detail, and revealed an astonishing courage and stamina. Only the most fanatical Stalinist could have disbelieved her. That other Communist renegade, Arthur Koestler, exulted at the effect of her contribution. Buber-Neumann went to stay with him and Mamaine Paget for a couple of days.
The verdict in Kravchenko’s favour was announced on 4 April, the same day as the signature of the North Atlantic Alliance. Almost as if to prove his point, the press in Russia claimed the opposite: that Kravchenko’s case had collapsed before the truth of the Soviet position. Yet news of the Communist defeat in Paris still reached Solzhenitsyn in the prison camp of Kuibyshev, bringing a glimmer of hope.
The trial, coming after the Communist Party’s reverses in 1947 and 1948, began to convince France that the Soviet Union was not a workers’ paradise. The debates in the courtroom launched a wave of cynicism and people were no longer frightened of criticizing the Communists openly. On the last day of the month, the anti-Stalinist left held a conference at the Sorbonne on war and dictatorship, an event unthinkable two years before.
On 20 April, just over two weeks after the end of the trial, the Soviet Union tried a new tactic. The French Communist Party launched the Mouvement de la Paix at a meeting at the Salle Pleyel, presided over by Professor Joliot-Curie. Picasso’s dove, the emblem of the movement, was prominently displayed. A mass meeting followed on the same day and soon propaganda posters with the dove covered walls across the city. It was not long before an anti-Communist group, Paix et Liberté, began to produce counter-propaganda. The dove of peace was portrayed as a Russian bomber – ‘La colombe qui fait boum!’ – in a poster campaign designed to challenge the Communists’ virtual monopoly of the walls of Paris.
At the time of the Kravchenko trial, Koestler and Mamaine moved into a house called Verte Rive on the Seine at Fontainebleau. Just as they were moving, a fresh row exploded, only this time Koestler took Sartre and Beauvoir’s side against André Malraux. Malraux had been outraged by a recent attack on himin Les Temps modernes, and Gaston Gallimard had suddenly withdrawn his support for the publication. Sartre and Beauvoir discovered that Malraux had apparently threatened to expose Gallimard’s record during the Occupation if he continued to support Les Temps modernes.
Mamaine Paget recalled the evening of 1 March 1949, when Koestler ‘bearded’ Malraux. ‘At first when K. asked him about this, Malraux made evasive replies, but finally he more or less admitted that it was true… K. feels that his great faith in and friendship with Malraux is at an end – it really was a stinking thing to do… in fact, simply blackmail.’
The last joint outing of the three couples – Koestler, Sartre, Camus – had a certain air of déjà vu, although this time they did not go to the Schéhérazade, but to the Troïka, another smart nightclub run by White Russians.
A few days later, Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir discussed the evening. Camus asked: ‘Do you think we can honestly go on drinking like that and work?’ When Sartre and Beauvoir next encountered Koestler outside the Hotel Pont-Royal and he suggested that they should all meet up again, Sartre took out his diary as a matter of habit, then stopped himself.
‘We’ve nothing more to say to each other.’
‘Surely we’re not going to mess everything up for purely political reasons!’ Koestler protested.
‘When one has such different opinions,’ Sartre replied, ‘one can’t even see a film together.’
Koestler, who did not duck his share of the blame for the ending of their friendship, encountered Sartre again in June 1950 at the Gare de l’Est. They were both taking the overnight train to Germany. Koestler and Mamaine, now his wife, were off to Berlin for the Congress of Cultural Freedom, while Sartre was leaving for a conference in Frankfurt. Without the disapproving presence of Simone de Beauvoir, they shared their picnic supper with Sartre, along with two anti-Communist Poles and a police bodyguard assigned to Koestler by the Sûreté after he had received death threats from the Communists.
Sartre, although looking very ill – according to Mamaine, he was virtually living off a form of amphetamine called Corydrane – made a great effort and they had an amusing time together. But Koestler and Mamaine felt sorry for him. ‘On that evening in the sleeping-car,’ Koestler wrote at the end of his life, ‘Sartre complained that they hardly went out in the evening because there were so few people left with whom they agreed about politics.’
The year 1949 saw a wave of doubt among many Communist intellectuals. Both Vercors and Jean Cassou, Wurmser’s brother-in-law, resigned from the party, and were attacked by L’Humanité on 16 December as ‘traitors’. For Les Lettres françaises, however, which was trying to appeal against the verdict in the Kravchenko case, this decision by two of their witnesses was embarrassing.
Sartre’s rift with Camus had also widened. After Camus returned to France from South America, his play Les Justes appeared in December 1949 at the Théâtre Hébertot, where his Caligula had proved such a great success in 1945.Les Justes, which dealt with revolutionary violence in tsarist Russia, marked a further step away from his communisant contemporaries. Some saw the play as a veiled attack on the Resistance, but Camus’s target was clear: the idea that revolutionary violence could be justified by the vague promise of a better future. The next step away from Sartre was his essay ‘The Rebel’, which came out two years later. It constituted a direct attack on intellectuals who allowed political considerations to corrupt their artistic integrity.
Sartre did not believe that a writer could ever stand aside politically. In his case, political commitment was already subordinating art. He was patronizing about Camus’s scruples and refusal to swim with the progressive tide of history. ‘I only see one solution for you,’ he concluded, ‘the Galapagos Islands.’
The final break did not come until 1952. Sartre saw Camus in the bar of the Hotel Pont-Royal and warned him to expect a savage review of ‘The Rebel’ by Francis Jeanson in Les Temps modernes. The editorial committee had refused to censor what had been written.
Camus replied to the article on 30 June. Ignoring Jeanson, he addressed his letter to Sartre – as ‘Monsieur le Directeur’. In particular, he attacked ‘the intellectual method and attitude’ of the piece. His arguments may have lacked philosophical rigour, but he posed enough well-directed questions to render his opponents very uncomfortable. ‘One does not decide the truth of a thought according to whether it is right-wing or left-wing.’ He pointed out the fundamental contradiction of existentialists justifying a system which was totally opposed to the idea of the responsibility of the individual.
‘Such a polemic,’ commented Raymond Aron, ‘would hardly be understood outside France and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.’ There, more than anywhere else, progressive intellectuals continued to turn a blind eye to Stalinist methods. Some acknowledged them, but justified them. Others, like Simone de Beauvoir, acknowledged them and dismissed them as irrelevant. She argued that if you made an issue of them, you must be a supporter of American capitalism. She accepted that, though she disliked Kravchenko, the trial had undoubtedly proved that labour camps existed in the Soviet Union. Yet she revealed herself in a passage describing the American writer Richard Wright: ‘With his eyes shining from misguided fanaticism, he was breathlessly recounting stories of clandestine arrests, betrayal and liquidation – no doubt true – but one did not understand either the point or the scope of what he was saying.’
This new trahison des clercs was firmly in the Jacobin tradition: an intellectual terrorism justifying physical terror. Stalin’s regime might be pitiless, his apologists argued, but all revolutions had a terrible majesty. What mattered was that the Soviet Union’s stated philosophy was on the side of human justice. Against this, the United States offered no ideological or social programme except economic freedom, which simply meant the freedom to exploit others.
Those who were not sealed inside bubbles of morally vacuous theory might have fallen for the wartime appeal of a party of martyrs. But they could not blind themselves to the suspicion that the terrifying sacrifices which had fuelled the Soviet system had been wasted and were still being wasted. No Utopia could be built on a mass graveyard.