Monday, August 03, 2009

Francis Jeanson RIP

The French philosopher Francis Jeanson has died. Sadly, he isn't famous enough to inspire the British press to its usual frothing when a French philosopher snuffs it. If they only knew what a traitor he was to Europe, and to Western values. Jeanson had been a Resistant during WWII, and became an existentialist philosopher afterwards. A colleague of Sartre's, he acted as the managing editor of Les Temps modernes after Merleau-Ponty vacated the post in 1951. He was a marxist, though never more than a critical supporter of the French communist party (PCF). And he was at the centre of the prolonged dissensus between Sartre and Camus, particularly as the latter's increasingly pronounced anticommunism became an embarrassment.*

More important than any of this, though, Jeanson was one of the few in the French left who took an early and consistent stance against the French empire in Algeria. His sympathy for anticolonial struggle was evident in his preface to the first edition of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks. But having visited Algeria in 1948, three years after the repression of the Setif uprising (during which the communist faily L'Humanite had described the insurgents as 'Hitlerite killers'), he set up what became known as the Jeanson Network, an alliance of leftists and avant garde intellectuals supporting self-determination for Algeria. The book Jeanson co-wrote with his wife Colette Jeanson about the FLN's rebellion, based on their visits to Algeria, explicitly took the side of the rebels, and would provide Sartre with the ammunition to denounce the pitiless colonial system, particularly those who favoured a 'good' colonialism and who worried about 'abandoning' Algeria. The Network didn't just passively support the uprising: it funnelled money and documents to the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) after the group's formation in 1954, and was important in winning thargument in the left for solidarity with the anticolonial movement. For this reason, the Network was awarded the contemptuous sobriquet, 'porteurs de valise', or 'bag carriers' (just for chuckles, wiki describes it as a "fifth column"). Their manifesto declared, as the Gaullist state was arresting antiwar dissenters:

The undersigned, considering that each of us must take a stand concerning acts which it is from here on in impossible to present as isolated news stories; considering that whatever their location and whatever their means, they have the obligation to intervene; not in order to give advice to men who have to make their own decision before such serious problems, but to ask of those who judge them to not let themselves be caught up in the ambiguity of words and values, declare:

* We respect and judge justified the refusal to take up arms against the Algerian people.
* We respect and judge justified the conduct of those French men and women who consider it their obligation to give aid and protection to the Algerians, oppressed in the name of the French people.
* The cause of the Algerian people, which contributes decisively to the ruin of the colonial system, is the cause of all free men and women.

The record of the French left on this issue is one I discuss elsewhere (can't remember the name of the book, something about murderous liberalism), but suffice to say that the Socialists under Guy Mollett prosecuted the war as ferociously as the right. And the PCF - who had in better years taken a principled anti-imperialist position, and helped found the Étoile Nord Africaine, the first Algerian nationalist group - voted to give them 'special powers' to do so, while publicly advocating an 'antiwar' position that didn't challenge France's right to possess Algeria. Indeed, the PCF distrusted the anticolonial revolutionaries, believing that Islam was "essentially reactionary" and therefore couldn't be the basis for a supportable national rebellion. Jeanson was the FLN's delegate in negotiations with the PCF during which he demanded that they accept independence for Algeria, and not merely an end to the war. They promised to do so, but only after the USSR recognised Algeria's independence did they actually support independence - long after de Gaulle and the right-wing philosopher Raymond Aron had come to acknowledge that independence for Algeria was inevitable. Only in the last year of guerilla struggle did the PCF become involved in active resistance to the war. And even then, their struggle was more against the fascist Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS), since the OAS was waging the most vicious terroristic aspect of the war. (By the way, the OAS distinguished itself as possibly the first 'politically correct' fascist organisation, when it argued that support for independence was both racist toward Muslims, denying them the right to be Frenchmen, and antisemitic since the policy was latterly supported by a Gaullist state that had Nazi connections). According to Martin Evans' book about the rebellion, The Memory of Resistance, two key clarifying moments in the struggle were 1956, when the socialists and communists backed 'special powers' and when the first rumours of torture started to emerge, and 1958, when the French left basically capitulated to the Gaullist coup without a whisper of resistance. It confirmed the rebels in their strategy of armed insurrection, and demonstrated to them that they had no choice but to win complete independence from France.

Given this terrible record, Jeanson's role is all the more remarkable and valuable. He escaped arrest when several of his fellow militants were captured and put on trial in 1960, but he was tried in absentia and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was pardoned in 1966, and remained a significant enough figure in French politics and culture to feature in Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, about the New Left and the growing radicalism among French students, released a year before the May 1968 general strike and riots (those who don't need the subtitles can cut straight to his dialogue here and here). Unfortunately for those interested to learn more, the only English-language biography of Jeanson costs over fifty quid in its current hardback edition.

*Jeanson's highly critical review of Camus' Man in Revolt, which appeared in Les Temps modernes, was the kind of cutting attack that Sartre was not himself prepared to deliver to his old friend. He castigated Camus' reputation for saintliness, ironised about his Beautiful Soul moralism, denounced his implicit attack on revolutionary ideology - but still, for it was early days, held up the PCF as the party of the French working class, and the USSR as a successful revolutionary state. It was a review-cum-attack that provoked intense controversy, drawing a ferocious seventeen page response from Camus which implied that it was more or less the dictated thoughts of Sartre himself, an unflattering distortion of Camus' politics in the service of Sartre's communism. Though Sartre had not written the review and, apparently, didn't even like it very much, it was a seminal moment in the contretemps, crystallising disagreements that would later be expressed in relation to Algeria, with Camus refusing to back the rebellion. (I'm drawing heavily on Ron Aaronson's book on the Camus-Sartre split, here - better you should read it yourself).