Albert Camus is one of the great 20th-century critics of totalitarian thought. Along with writers such as Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, Camus identified the human longing for unity – and the impulse to escape the irrational absurdity of life – as one of the foundations for totalitarian political rule.
As such, his works offer something to the 21st-century reader in a complex, insecure world where the urge to embrace any “ism” that purports to explain everything is ever-present.
Born into poverty in a remote area of French Algeria, Camus began his political life as a man of the Left. He was active in the French Resistance to the German occupation during the Second World War and, from 1943 to 1947, edited the movement’s newspaper Combat in Paris. Camus would later oppose General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain and resigned in principle from his work with Unesco over the UN’s acceptance of Spain as a member.
Yet Camus’ most important contribution to 20th-century thought derived – like Orwell’s – from his attacks on the fashionable theories of the mainstream (French) Left. His suspicion of grand historical narratives – which viewed the individual as disposable – is worth holding on to when the complexity of contemporary life increases the temptation to throw one’s lot in with revelatory, all-encompassing explanations and solutions.
Camus fell out with his fellow Leftist intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre in 1952 over the latter’s acceptance of state terror as an acceptable price to pay in the name of the Communist ideal. In his 1947 novel The Plague, Camus mocked those who, like Sartre, justified the concept of the ‘necessary murder’ for political ends.
“But I was told that these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be. That was true up to a point, and maybe I’m not capable of standing fast where that order of truths is concerned,” Camus wrote sarcastically. By contrast, Sartre likened anti-Communists – with their delicate humanist scruples about the sanctity of human life – to “dogs” .
Aristotle's answer to identity politics
Predictably, the French Left could not forgive Camus for his anti-Communist heresy, and although The Plague sold hundreds of thousands of copies, the pompous intellectual set orbiting around Sartre and his partner, the feminist author Simone de Beauvoir, greeted subsequent works by Camus frostily. Sartre commissioned a faithful underling to trash Camus’ 1951 philosophical masterpiece The Rebel, a book-length humanist critique of the totalitarian impulse.
In his sordid rejoinder to Camus’ response to totalitarianism, Sartre forgot a point that Orwell had made a decade and a half earlier: that some things are true even if The Daily Telegraph says they are true. “Yes, Camus, like you, I find these camps inadmissible,” Sartre wrote of the Soviet gulag system, “but equally inadmissible is the use that the ‘so-called bourgeois press’ makes of them every day.”
In other words, one ought to stay quiet about Stalin’s gulags, lest the information be used as ammunition by Communism’s enemies. A similar line of thinking, if one can call it that, is discernible today. In our increasingly partisan political climate, lies are frequently given a veneer of truth by political activists if they are considered helpful to one’s own side. Those who have championed particular policies or causes in disparate countries – Venezuela, Yemen, Syria, Iraq – typically fall silent when the time comes to count the pile of corpses produced by those policies or causes. Candidly to account for one’s errors of judgement may discredit the cause. And besides, what’s a little injustice now in the service of justice in the future?
The posthumous recognition of Camus as a great 20th-century philosopher in France hinges, at least in part, on his rejection of totalitarianism when so many of his contemporaries were disgracing themselves by justifying (usually from a great distance) the use of extreme violence to remake society along altruistic lines. In this sense, Sartre and others resembled the Communist fellow-travellers whom Arthur Koestler had likened to peeping toms, “peering through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves”. The great feats of the new society were celebrated uncritically, while the horror stories were either rubbished or interpreted as a price worth paying. This kind of historical ignorance/revisionism goes on: just last week students at a London university described the Soviet gulag system – which worked over a million people to death – as “compassionate”.
But Camus’ contribution to anti-totalitarian thought extends beyond the internecine squabbles of the 20th-century Left. His embryonic theoretical approach, which led to his rejection of totalitarianism, is discernible in his early writings on suicide, and these have as much value today as when they were first written. The appetite in life for resolution, unity, and for an absolute reconciliation of life’s various chaotic threads, drives a person inexorably toward one of several conclusions. He or she may attempt to escape altogether from existential anxiety through death, or else by dedicating his or her life to hopes that are projected on to the future (by embracing religion or the urge to embody life with a higher purpose).
This offers a lesson to those who wish to improve today’s world. The desire itself is admirable. However, allowing ‘the cause’ to consume every facet of one’s life (aiming even to “politicise sleep”, as it was joked the Bolsheviks wanted to do) can also be a misguided attempt at negating life’s absurdity.
John Milton: smug liberal and free-speech warrior
Embracing the absurd needn’t lead to resignation and depression, however. Camus cannot accept that “refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living”. Instead, he urges readers to enjoy the beauty, texture and ambiguity that ordinary life has to offer, despite its essential meaninglessness. Orwell was aiming at something similar – albeit in a far less theoretical way – in his literary focus on the beauty of “solid things” and small worlds: the art of Donald McGill, the local pub, English cooking.
Camus uses the example of Sisyphus from Greek mythology to make his point – a point that eastern philosophers also make – about the power of acceptance. Sisyphus was punished by the gods for imprisoning death in chains. Once captured, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to the futile task of pushing a large boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again. He must do so over and over again; there is no escape. In using the example of Sisyphus as the tragic hero, Camus holds up the absurdity of Sisyphus’ fate and his acceptance of it as a wider lesson for life itself. One needn’t passively accept injustice; however, there is no ultimate resolution, no nirvana, paradise or classless society in which all conflict will finally be resolved.
In his later, more explicitly anti-totalitarian treatise, The Rebel, Camus takes aim at those who seek a political antidote for the condition of mankind in what Hannah Arendt had described in The Origins of Totalitarianism as “a suicidal escape from…reality”. The urge to rebel is an inherent feature of modernity, Camus maintains.
“Modern times begin with the crash of falling ramparts,” he writes of the French revolution. But surveyed from amid the rubble and bloodshed of the mid-point of the 20th century – the midnight of century, as the Russian revolutionary Marxist Victor Serge had phrased it – Camus notices that the desire to rebel often comes pregnant with the urge to dominate. “The slave starts by begging for justice,” Camus writes, “and ends by wanting to wear the crown.”
Camus' rejection of tyranny is worth remembering today
The Rebel wasn’t an indictment of rebellion so much as an examination of the way in which revolutions frequently attempt to negate the tension inherent in political conflict, and in life itself. At some point, triumphant revolutionaries abandon pluralism for “complete negation or total submission”. Totalitarian ideologues have an undeviating view of life which seeks to exchange the fragmented duality of liberalism for human perfection.
“Since the world has no direction, man, from the moment that he accepts this, [believes he] must give it one which will eventually lead to a superior type of humanity,” Camus writes. Ideas such as Communism are, as Friedrich Nietzsche described them, merely degenerate forms of Christianity – yet another attempt at forging certainty out of the absurd.
What Camus offers the modern reader is a reminder that the temptation to think of a single political creed as the solution to our deepest longings is a dead end. Not only that, but it is a dead end that comes steeped in blood, however altruistic the proclamations of its adherents. Beware those who say that an ideology or movement has given them “something to live for”, for this is simply another evasion.