There is no shortage of either scholarly or popular works on Jean-Paul Sartre, or on the intellectuals with whom he sparred in post-war France.footnote1 Yet if the number of studies continues to expand, the themes they treat tend, at the same time, to narrow: friendships, paramours and quarrels are laced into larger, moralizing narratives of alleged Sartrean backsliding on camps in the Soviet Union and show trials under its client regimes in Eastern Europe. This tradition found its own shrill champion in Tony Judt, whose Past Imperfect (1992) dwelt on the silence or complicity of intellectuals in and outside the pcf who, ‘in the name of the proletarian and the class struggle made a daily contribution to the legitimation of the enslavement of the satellite states.’ A methodological consensus has meanwhile congealed around the work of Anna Boschetti, itself heavily indebted to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which interprets Sartre’s long career through the lens of self-promotion and the accumulation of—and competition for—intellectual capital.
These approaches, dominant since at least the mid-1980s, are in need of revision. It is not just that they have aged poorly since the polemics attendant upon the end of the Cold War, but that they depend on the most pious and rudimentary of mises-en-scène. Sartre is given the role of villain in an anti-totalitarian passion play in which his anti-colonialism is all but ignored: essays, newspaper articles, speeches, interviews, correspondence and well-publicized speaking tours and voyages that extended from the immediate post-war period up through the 1970s. A portion of Europe over which Frenchmen exerted no control has obscured debates about the vast empire whose destiny France never willingly ceased to direct. Sartre pronounced the necessity of colonial independence well in advance of his apparent moral betters, and did more than most to secure it as a matter of fact.
Such a reassessment is necessary not only for making sense of Sartre’s diverse theoretical insights into racism and anti-Semitism, the extent and shape of human freedom, or the meaning of literary engagement, but just as much for appraising the intellectual constellation within which Sartre was enmeshed. Les Temps Modernes, the journal Sartre founded in 1944 with Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Ollivier and Jean Paulhan, adopted an intransigently internationalist outlook from the start. Sartre and Beauvoir also travelled widely on intensive fact-finding missions. The information they gathered on race relations in the us during trips in 1945 and 1947, respectively, made its way into novels, memoirs, reportages and plays. Their journey to Cuba in 1960 was the occasion for interviews, speeches and articles aimed at publicizing the revolution for a global audience.
Sartre’s own evolving critique of racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism was extensive and varied. The racial problem in the us was the focus of a number of post-war works, including the 1946 play La Putain respectueuse, unfolding the prostitute Lizzie’s dubious struggle to protect a black man accused of her rape in the South. Sartre’s contribution to the inaugural issue of Présence Africaine (1947) and his introduction to a selection of Francophone poets in 1948 marked his early appreciation for the négritude movement and the way in which, by refashioning the French language for their own ends, its poets might play an important role in the process of colonial emancipation. As early as 1956 Sartre argued against the idea that economic reforms could ever seriously attenuate the basic political demand for Algerian independence in ‘Colonialism is a System’ (Les Temps Modernes did so a year earlier in ‘L’Algérie n’est pas la France’). His 1962 preface to the political writings of Patrice Lumumba analysed the challenges confronting newly independent states in a world in which different forms of domination had emerged even as formal colonization ended. In 1967 Sartre agreed to chair the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam, and his activism continued through the 1970s even as his health began to deteriorate.
Despite the chronological and thematic breath of these writings—and the trade winds blowing scholars in the direction of global histories of empire—little systematic attention has been devoted to them in either French or English. Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre by Paige Arthur, and the translation of some of Sartre’s anti-colonial writings by Routledge in 2001 (first published by Gallimard in 1964 in Situations V), suggest renewed interest among Anglophone scholars in this aspect of Sartre’s oeuvre. Arthur’s study draws needed attention to the early Sartre, attempting to place his most famous and controversial preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) in the context of a continuous and less hortatory engagement with the Third World. Her contribution to the most recent sedimentation of scholarship on Sartre is twofold. On the one hand, Arthur fills a void in the biographical feuilletons assembled by Annie Cohen-Solal and Bernard-Henri Lévy, both of whom omit any mention of their subject’s anti-colonialism before 1961. On the other hand, by reading the Fanon preface alongside his other writings on colonialism and neo-colonialism, she suggests that Sartre’s attitude towards violence was neither adulatory nor ‘curiously ambivalent’, but historically situated, intriguingly consistent.