Interview with Jean Paul Sartre on the War Crimes Tribunal

It has been said that Bertrand Russell’s tribunal would only be able to deliver a parody of justice. It is made up of committed individuals, hostile to American policies, their verdict, it is said, known in advance. According to an English journalist, ‘It will be like in Alice in Wonderland: there will be the sentence first, and the trial afterwards’.

J. P. Sartre. Let me outline the purpose, and the limits of our tribunal. There is no question of judging whether American policy in Vietnam is evil—of which most of us have not the slightest doubt—but of seeing whether it falls within the compass of international law on war crimes. There would be no point in condemning, in a legal sense, the onslaught of American imperialism against the countries of the Third World which attempt to escape its domination. That struggle is in fact merely the transposition, on an international level, of the class struggle, and is determined by the structure of the groups engaged in it.

Imperialist policy is a necessary historical reality. By this fact it is beyond the reach of any legal or moral condemnation. The only thing possible is to combat it; intellectually by revealing its inner mechanism, politically by attempting to disengage oneself from it (the French government, contrary to appearances, does not really attempt this), or by armed struggle. I admit that I am, like other members of the ‘tribunal’, a declared enemy of imperialism and that I feel myself in solidarity with all those who fight against it. Commitment, from this point of view, must be total. Each individual sees the totality of the struggle and aligns himself on one side or on the other, from motives which may range from his objective situation to a certain idea that he holds of human life. On this level one may hate the class enemy. But one cannot judge him in the legal sense. It is even difficult, if not impossible, so long as one keeps to the purely realistic viewpoint of the class struggle, to see one’s own allies in legal terms and rigorously to define the ‘crimes’ committed by their governments. This was clearly shown by the problem of the Stalinist labour camps. One either delivered moral judgments on them, which were entirely beside the point, or satisfied oneself with evaluating the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’ in Stalin’s policies. Some said, ‘It’s positive in the last analysis’ and others said, ‘It’s negative’. That too led nowhere.

In fact, though the development of history is not determined by law and morality—which are, on the contrary, its products—these two superstructures do exert a ‘feed back’ effect on that development. It is this which allows one to judge a society in terms of the criteria which it has itself established. It is therefore entirely normal to inquire, at any given moment, if such and such an action can really be judged purely in terms of utility and likely outcome, or whether it does not in fact transcend such criteria and come within the scope of an international jurisprudence which has slowly been built up.