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Philosophy of Action

Camus: On and In Action

Joseph Bien
University of Missouri

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ABSTRACT:In this paper I wish to examine the position of Camus regarding social change, namely his concepts of rebellion and revolution. I in no way question his well-deserved status as a major twentieth-century French writer, nor do I wish to suggest that he may have been someone caught in a Sartrean notion of 'bad faith.' I am concerned with what one might call his theory of social action. I do wish to assert that Camus was a good man who seriously wrestled with the events of his time. Yet his claims on behalf of suffering humanity, while honest, are not sufficient when faced with complex social issues. That his move toward the right that today might well be taken for a supposed liberalism was undoubtedly bound up with his continued misunderstanding of the dialectic of history.

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A Series of Critical Observations

Camus continually stresses the break from Christianity (God is dead—the world is without order) whether in speaking of the French Revolution or what he calls the new absolutism of the communist revolution. In the first case there is a degree of confusion on the issue when speaking of Rousseau, St. Just, and the divine right monarchies. Camus obviously holds to one traditional view of the king as God's representative on earth and from this lays the groundwork for his future project. I would like to suggest that there are at least two alternate interpretations of divine right monarchy that vie for our attention. First, there is the view forwarded by Reinhart Koselleck in his 1959 book Kritik und Krise. There in he suggests that rather than a union of the sacred and the secular, divine right monarchy already announced the triumph of the secular over the sacred. Before this period there had been the two worlds of religion and politics. With the Reformation Christianity no longer was unified under the pope but broke into various factions. The divine right of kings, whether it is in England or France, certainly allowed for an absolutism, but relegated the religious partner to the outer fringe of politics where it was left to argue matters of theology and direct the religious faithful while recognizing the supremacy of the King in all matters political, or even, as in England, recognizing the King as leader in both matters. When Camus points to Marx's observation that the beginning of a radical critique of society is a radical critique of religion, he believes his own critical project to be partly vindicated. What Camus misses is the heart of Marx's effort here: the examination of the role of money regarding civil society, and its extension, the state. Unless remembered, Marx's own criticism of Feuerbach for not having gone far enough would be forgotten. Then, too, Marx is concerned with showing why the mire intellectual recognition of the death of God is not adequate. The dialectic must push on to reveal not only that money is the new god but that the mere separation of state and religion does not end religious force for it remains in civil society and is reflected in the workings of politics. Either of these alternative interpretations need to be considered but Camus at best only mentions the second in passing and appears unaware of the first.

In speaking of Rousseau and St. Just one is aware of another of Camus' problems. Namely, the general will and the will of all. Camus, the individualist, stresses the will of all as being the collective will of all (made up of each and every) single individual and thus somehow the correct reflection of individual men acting as a social unit. Over and against the will of all he gives us the general will with its moral oughtness as the concept by which social action will become absolute and thus, in his mind, totalitarian. Camus' problem is to confuse these two wills. The will of all is somehow a collectivity and may or may not be in accord with the general will which is to be understood as correct in each situation. A simple example. In 1984 A and B voted for Reagan for another four years in the American presidential elections. C voted for Mondale. In 1988 those same foolish individuals, A and B, voted for Bush and intelligent C voted Dukakis. In 1992 A and B realized the error of their ways and A, B, and C voted for the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. One might say that in 1984 and 1988 A and B could be seen as the majority will, in this case, read the will of all whereas C in both years represented the correct will, the general will. In 1992 A, B, and C all represented the will of all (majority will) and the general will. There is nothing absolute or totalitarian about this, unless perhaps, you are a confused Republican and not an enlightened Democrat. The morality that St. Just uses to carry forward the general will of Rousseau need not be seen as formal or absolute. Laws now are not seen as absolute or eternal and citizens' needs do not need to be described as, or be failures or divergent factors to be silenced as Camus would lead us to believe. The general will might be understood as the democratic expression of humanity.

Camus' continual preoccupation is with the concept and concretazation of justice. On the one hand the rebel's negation is an appeal for a withheld right that is somehow based on justice. On the other, Rousseau's call for justice is seen as being, in its own name, turned against itself by St. Just, the French Revolution, and finally by the Marxist revolution. What seems in error here is the very emphasis on justice itself at least at the earlier stages. "What justice," what is justice?, on what is this justice based? might better be asked. Or still better, one might remember how Socrates when asked, "What is justice?" demonstrated that the answer could not be given in a near vacuum where appeal was only to immediate experience, traditional wisdom, or what Camus might vaguely call humanity. Socrates as we all know turned from justice in relation to the individual to a discussion of justice in the state or community and only after to see how the conclusions reached apply to the individual. For staying on the level of right conduct or morality in the individual at the least makes it extremely difficult to answer when speaking in a larger social context, and at worst may thwart a richer understanding all together.

Camus' attack on Marxism for ignoring the individual because of an abstract claim to universal redemption through some mystical and mystifying liberation by the universal class of the proletariat is based on at least two misunderstandings. First it is Camus' inability to step outside the immediate to recognize that the alternatives for human history are not the static absolute of God and communism or man in simple individual or group behavior. Rather it is to recognize that the concept of Absolute God and all that goes with it has on some variation of a Reurerbachian description taken place and to understand that history continues to move through human endeavor to new descriptions of humanity, and in a dialectical manner, moves forward to a stage of human encounter of man with man and man with nature to, hopefully historically, realize a Marxian theory of human nature rather than being reduced to describing this human activity as utopia building on the bodies of millions. Because this endeavor may sometimes appear to share the notions of hope and even faith with the absolutism of Christianity is not to equate the two for such would be to forget that the hope is for mankind, and men in particular, and is a trust in the possibility of the very betterment of humanity.

While the social is obviously seen from individual perspectives one must not confuse egoism with individual perspective nor one can never get beyond counting particulars that once added up do give a whole of particulars but lack totalization. Without a concept of totality one is truly left with the Camusian dilemma of mystifying and unjustifiable counterclaims of Absolute God and communist revolution or, the radical isolation of The Rebel's Meaursault and individual social action to give meaning to one's life. It is to this latter individual social action as observed through the stages of Camus' own activities that I now wish to turn.

Camus as Historian and as Historical Actor

Throughout Camus' writings there appears to be a confusion of abstract understanding with mystification and a turn toward rejecting this confusion for an individual understanding in day-to-day existence or, as he has put it, rejecting the utopian thinker by accepting the man of the earth.

By briefly examining three moments of his own existence, we may be able to get some appreciation of how well he was personally able to resolve social dilemmas. Those I will look at are Camus as underground activist, Camus as anti-revolutionary, and Camus faced with the Algerian Revolution.

In terms of his resistance action and editorial work with Liberation there seems no question that his stance as man of the earth was fully successful. Camus stood on the side of right, against that of the German invaders and Nazi ideals. No call to some abstraction was necessary. Evil was understood, confronted, and overcome in the immediate. While in no way down playing Camus' work in the resistance, it might be compared to The Plague wherein a plague that is seen as evil besets a city. The various characters in the novel confront and overcome it and in so doing for a time give meaning to their lives. The Plague is surely a first-rate novel but what has always troubled many with the novel is the question, "What happens next?" The characters have given meaning to their lives through what can only be considered good, even noble action but now that the evil is gone do the characters have to wait around for some new evil to appear before again experiencing their true humanity? The French experience in the Second World War brought all sorts of individuals and groups together with the common desire of over throwing the German occupation. For a moment they all may have experienced a sense of universality much like Marx describes in terms of the initial moment of revolution when all are seen as the oppressed in common effort against the oppressor. Just as Marx points out, that universal feeling quickly changes to an understanding of the dominant class' ideological claim to universality that in fact is nothing more than a new dominant class' statement of its view of world order. With the end of the war, groups momentarily united, broke into warring camps and, among the intellectuals, the Sartres, de Beauvoirs, Merleau-Pontys, and Lefevres moved toward the left, while the Mauriacs and Arons moved right, and Camus was left in a state of ambiguity while editing Combat.

Camus, as anti-revolutionary, chose as his examples the French and Russian revolutions and through the indisputable fact of the terrible suffering and millions of deaths made to take place in their names, claimed that modern revolutions always lead to oppression and ended in totalitarianism. I am not here to dispute the agony of those revolutions. That I leave to my betters who are more knowledgeable in such matters. It is as amateur historian that I question Camus' selection of revolutions to make his claim. In the first place he only goes back to the French Revolution. If he had added another century or so to his historical perspective he would have encountered the English "Glorious" Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776. Both were also filled with bloodshed and death but neither ended in totalitarianism. In the English example serious legislative government and limited monarchy were the results. In the American example a more democratic form of government grew out of the initial "war with the colonies." It might be objected that Camus' selection is fair for what he had in mind by revolution was a total break with past absolutism in the name of a new form of the same, now filling the break with God only to end with the domination of men by the dictates of revolutionary man. Neither the American nor English examples undercut God and in this respect might be put aside if not for two other points. First, one can recall Reinhart Koselleck's alternate interpretation of divine right monarchies and then say that neither was the French nor, for that matter, possibly the Russian revolution, fought in any serious measure simply to replace religion for the very existence of divine right monarchs had already put aside the rule of God in favor of the absolute political rule of kings. Even some Marxist interpretations might be made to, in part, agree with such a suggestion. Further if one takes the American Revolution as the first stage of a two-part event one sees it ending in its most bloody conflict, the Civil War. With this one then sees an end to slavery and the beginnings of the realization for blacks of the proclamation of equality that was made for white, propertied males in 1776. In an analogous move one aspect of the Russian Revolution resulted in the realization of freedom for the serfs, something proclaimed but not carried out by the Tsarist regime in the nineteenth century. Let us return to the French Revolution. Camus claims absolute repression through the reign of terror and what followed, and by this believes he is vindicated as an anti-revolutionary. What he naively or intentionally overlooks is the series of smaller revolutions in nineteenth century France. 1830, 1848, 1870 may be understood as a succession of moments leading to the full realization of the bourgeois concept of human nature. If such 19th century moments are seen as heirs to the French Revolution, then 1789 and what follow are serious revolutions leading to democratic rule under bourgeois notion of equality. With this wider scope of historical revolution we still do not have perfection but Camus does not want perfection for he insists that his man of the earth live in less than perfect times and will always do so.

Finally, let us look at his stance in terms of Algeria. Camus sees the counter-claims of the Arabs and his fellow pied noir. For him it is impossible to choose. Both sides call for justice and both have justice in their camps. Both camps also contain needless, evil bloodshed. No resolution is possible without doing injustice to the claim of the other. Camus cannot bring himself to sign the document of a hundred calling for the end of the war. What he does is call for justice for all. This call brings justice for none. Calling for justice here may well be a variation of the call for justice in terms of an abstract principle, the very thing that he had so strongly condemned in The Rebel. Justice can only be fully understood and hopefully administered when one has an understanding of the social totality. This Camus has rejected as leading to absolutism, this he cannot have to serve him in his greatest dilemma. Thus he fails. In the Second World War good and evil may easily be seen in this simply through horrible confrontation. There, his man of the earth is correctly able to choose. With Algeria, Camus is faced with conflicting claims of good and recriminations of evil. With the perspective of his limited immediate he is unable to act or, as some have suggested, his stance is not that of the tortured noble soul but the lack of action that is action and covers all violence in the name of justice.

In conclusion, I wish to stress that I have not been trying to condemn Camus the man. It should be remembered that in the 1930's he strongly supported the communist party's efforts to better the lots of both the downtrodden Arabs and the poor pied noirs. I do wish to assert that Camus was a good man who seriously wrestled with the events of his time. Yet his claims on behalf of suffering humanity while honest were not sufficient when faced with complex social crisis. That his was a move toward the right that today might well be taken for a supposed liberalism was undoubtedly bound up with his continued misunderstanding of the dialectic of history.

It might be remembered that when concluding Les aventures de la dialectique, Merleau-Ponty remarked that those who had most profited from the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie, are now those who most strongly condemn it. For them radical change is abhorrent, defense of the status quo is the rule of the day.

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(1) Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenisis at Modern Society. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988. Also, of interest is his Futures Past: On the Semanties of Historical Time. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986 and Carl Schmitt's Political Romanticism. G. Oakes trans., Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985. Schmitt stresses political action based on morality over and against the passivity of the romanticization of experience.

(2) A different version of this paper was first presented at the Kurs Marximers und Philosophie: Das Denken der Revolution—100 Jahre nack der Franzosischen Revolution in Dubrovnic, March 1989. The Graduate School of the University of Missouri-Columbia helped me with a partial travel grant. I wish to thank Kathy Basnett, Francoise Bien, Gvozden Flego, and Heinz Paetzold for their comments. Longer versions of this essay have been published in Filozofskim Istrazivanjima and Revue Roumaine de Philosophie.

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