Sartre: Intellectual responsibility is practical, action-oriented

sartre

An excerpt from Ronald Aronson’s Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (1980), which mentions some changes in Sartre’s thought and orientation following the revolutionary upsurge of May 1968 in France (p. 317-9).  Sartre’s provocative turn expressed here retains all of its relevance 40 years on.

“But as he absorbed the experience of May, he decided that the intellectual should first ‘suppress himself as intellectual’ in order then to put his skills ‘directly at the service of the masses’. […] This new posture was most sharply and provocatively defined in his interview with John Gerassi in 1971.

Sartre here gave the simplest answer yet to his constant question: what should the intellectual do? – he should act. To be a radical intellectual was above all to be committed to put oneself bodily in opposition to the system. In conversation with Gerassi he reviewed his own political history going back to the Occupation and describing his shifting relations with the Communist party thereafter. The Algerian and Vietnamese wars had convinced him of the need to develop a movement to the left of the pcf; and by his own activity, he had helped to bring that new movement into being. ‘But I was still a typical intellectual. That is, I did my work at my desk, and occasionally joined a parade in the streets or spoke at some meeting. Then May 1968 happened, and I understood that what the young were putting into question was not just capitalism, imperialism, the system, etc., but those of us who pretended to be against all that, as well. We can say that from 1940 to 1968 I was a left-wing intellectual (un intellectuel de gauche) and from 1968 on I became a leftist intellectual (un intellectuel gauchiste). The difference is one of action. A leftist intellectual is one who realizes that being an intellectual exempts him from nothing. He forsakes his privileges, or tries to, in actions. It is similar, I think, to what in the us you would call white-skin privileges. A white leftist intellectual, in America, I presume, understands that because he is white he has certain privileges which he must smash through direct action. Not to do so is to be guilty of murder of the blacks – just as much as if he actually pulled the triggers that killed, for example, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, and all the other Black Panthers murdered by the police, by the system.’ […]

‘It is very easy to denounce the war in Vietnam by signing petitions or marching in a parade with 20,000 comrades. But it doesn’t accomplish one-millionth what could be accomplished if all your big-name intellectuals went into the ghettos, into the Oakland port, to the war factories, and risked being manhandled by the roughs of the maritime union. In my view, the intellectual who does all his fighting from an office is counter-revolutionary today, no matter what he writes.’

‘Are you saying,’ Gerassi inquired, ‘that the responsibility of the intellectual is not intellectual?’

‘Yes,’ Sartre replied, ‘it is in action. It is to put his status at the service of the oppressed directly. Just as the German intellectual who told Hitler and talked about his anti-Nazism while he earned money writing scripts for Hollywood was as responsible for Hitler as the German who closed his eyes, just as the American intellectual who only denounces the Vietnam war and the fate of your political prisoners but continues to teach in a university that carries out war research and insists on law and order (which is a euphemism for letting the courts and police repress active dissenters) is as responsible for the murders and repression as is the Government and its institutions, so too, here in France, the intellectual who does not put his body as well as his mind on the line against the system is fundamentally supporting the system and should be judged accordingly.'”

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