Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Sartre Against Stalinism (2005)

Ian H Birchall, Sartre Against Stalinism (Bergahn Books)
Written By: Neil Rogall
Date: October 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 25: Autumn 2005 

Review of Ian H Birchall, Sartre Against Stalinism (Bergahn Books, New York, Oxford 2004 ISBN: 1-57181-542-20)

Encountering Sartre’s novels in 1967 when I was 17 was one of those key moments in my political and intellectual development. Attending his huge funeral march with its thousands of mourners in Paris in 1980, an event that was effectively a demonstration celebrating his life, was one of those once a lifetime moments. Yet, despite my affection for Sartre’s writing and political activities, I have always had that awful nagging feeling, that his politics were deeply flawed, that he was a fellow-traveller of Stalinism, that maybe my affections were misplaced.

It was with these doubts that I picked up Birchall’s book. I was worried that it might be a case of special pleading – an attempt to turn Sartre into a hidden member of Birchall’s own political tendency, the International Socialists. Far from it. This is a fascinating text, based on painstaking researches through the political history of a half century, an adventure through the ‘secret’ history of the French far left. Ian’s understanding of, and familiarity with the history of French revolutionary politics illuminates the influences on Sartre – in fact creates the impression that Ian ‘knew’ personally all those he writes about, from Colette Audry onwards.

Yet for all his concern with revealing the influence on Sartre from the ranks of Trotskyism in particular, and anti-Stalinism in general, Birchall is equally incisive when dealing with Sartre’s tortuous ‘hesitation waltz’ with the French Communist Party (PCF). At one level this isn’t difficult. Communist denunciations of Sartre over the years as ‘the falsifier of history’, ‘the conscious agent of reaction’, ‘the grave digger of literature’ were frequent. Yet Birchall is at his best when dealing with the years 1952-56 when Sartre drew closer to the PCF. It was in these years that Sartre appeared on Stalinist platforms and praised the Soviet Union. Here Brchall is able to both explain the context for Sartre’s apparent capitulation to Stalinism in the cold war atmosphere of the early 50s, and regret the positions that he took: positions that have allowed the right to dismiss Sartre as a supporter of the Gulags.

Of course the real antidote to the ‘tragedy’ of Sartre’s positions in this period was his denunciation of the Russian invasion of Hungary, and his active and courageous support for the Algerian resistance against French rule.

In the end however Sartre was never able to contribute to the building of a new left. How does Ian explain this? Firstly whilst Sartre always seemed to be in dialogue with the anti-Stalinist left, he never took it seriously as an alternative. It was too small, too fragmented and faction ridden. His own experience of the RDR in the late 40s reinforced this. Secondly because the PCF organised most class-conscious workers in France, Sartre believed that to break with Stalinism was to break with the working class. Thirdly he couldn’t accept that the legacy of 1917 had been completely lost; he was desperate to salvage something from the wreckage. This muddied his thoughts, prevented him from coming to a clear analysis of what the Soviet Union had become. Finally he feared that to condemn the betrayal of the revolution would line him up with ex-left wing cheerleaders of US imperialism

So in the end Sartre was trapped. He couldn’t join the PCF, he couldn’t break with it, he couldn’t build something new. Even in 1968 when he finally and totally broke with the PCF, and was full of enthusiasm for a new generation of socialists the contradictions of his politics continued as Ian illustrates.

Ian Birchall by holding a mirror to Sartre’s political history illuminates the dilemmas that so many good socialists faced during the years of Stalinism. Now, after its demise, with a new generation of anti-capitalists and an ascendant movement across much of the planet those difficulties can seem distant. But the experiences and lessons of Sartre’s lifelong involvement in the socialist movement have much to teach us. Birchall, in this highly readable book has done our movement a great service.

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