French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, born on 21 June 1905, is remembered primarily as one of the main proponents of existentialism—a philosophy centring on the absolute freedom of the individual, which was popular in Europe in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Less known is his political activism and commitment, from World War Two onwards, to socialism.

Sartre was born in Paris but, after the death of his father, moved to the country where he was raised by his mother and maternal grandfather. He was interested in literature and ideas and excelled at school. He was accepted into the elite École normale supérieure (a kind of finishing school for the French elite) in Paris, where he met Simone de Beauvoir and many others who formed his intellectual milieu in the longer-term.

Sartre graduated from the École in 1929, having placed first in the final exam (ahead of the second-placed de Beauvoir). They both then began work as high school teachersa profession that, in stark contrast to today, guaranteed them a well-paid job for life and involved, on average, only 10-15 hours a week in the classroom.

During his time working as a teacher in the 1930s, Sartre’s brand of existentialism took shape. Throughout this period, he lived in hotel rooms and worked out of cafes and bars. It was an existence marked by its freedom from the kinds of constraints faced by the mass of ordinary people—the day-to-day drudgery of working life, the family responsibilities, worries about rent, mortgage payments, bills and so on.

It was an existence that could easily come to seem weightless and detached from the world, and which could lead one to make the kind of statements of existential angst that Sartre has become famous for. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance”, reflects the protagonist in Sartre’s breakthrough novel Nausea, published in 1938.

According to Sartre, the Second World War was the defining event of his life. “That was when”, he later wrote, “I made the transition from individualism and the pure individual ... to the social, to socialism”. Sartre was conscripted in late 1939 and was put to work in a meteorological unit near the front line between France and Germany. In his notebooks from this period, we can see the tensions playing out between his existentialist standpoint and the highly constraining circumstances of the army.

His initial conclusion was that, despite appearances, individuals were free to accept or reject the war—that it was happening was the consequence of each individual’s choice not to oppose it. In his notebook, Sartre reflected: “The further I go, the more I see that men deserve war ... The declaration of war, which was the fault of certain men, we all adopt as our own, with our freedom”.

In these notebooks, he first set-out the core ideas of his masterwork Being and Nothingness—which was published in 1943. The basic insight of Sartre’s existentialism is that existence precedes essence. We are, as individuals, thrown into a world. Before anything else we exist. Only subsequently do we come to find meaning in our lives. “Man”, as Sartre put it, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself”. 

To live authentically means to not shy away from the absolute, anguish-inducing freedom inherent to existence. It means to recognise that whatever situation we’re in, the way we choose to act is up to us alone. It means, to come back again to existentialism in its popularised form, that we should strive at every point to “be ourselves!” and not let other people or circumstances define who we are.

Released from a German prisoner of war camp in early 1941, Sartre returned to Paris, and immediately set about the work of organising resistance, of a sort, to the Nazi occupation. The vehicle for this was the “Socialism and Freedom” group—which comprised a number of Sartre’s immediate intellectual milieu, as well as various figures from the anti-Stalinist left.

Sartre was subsequently criticised for a lack of seriousness in his involvement with the resistance. It was, nonetheless, a sign of a shift in his understanding of the role of the intellectual in society. Gone was the emphasis on the status of the intellectual as an outsider, standing aloof from the day-to-day struggles of the world. There was no avoiding the basic questions raised by the war—of how the individual could be “free” in the context of a foreign occupation or, more generally, how a recognition of our fundamental autonomy as individuals could be balanced with an understanding of the constraints imposed on us by history and society.

Sartre’s engagement with such questions led him to put a more activist spin on his existentialism. Freedom was no longer reduced to an abstract condition. Rather, he came to see that our individual existence was linked to the fate of society as a whole, and that a genuinely liberatory philosophy needed to address the question of how the conditions for individual freedom could be fostered at this level.

This is reflected in the addition, in his post-war works, of a kind of existential version of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Whereas the stress in Being and Nothingness had been on the essential conflict involved in our relationship with others—epitomised by the most famous of all Sartrean tropes, “hell is other people”—by the end of the war, he had come to a different conclusion: “I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim”.

In the cultural life of post-war Paris, Sartre was everywhere. Apart from the popularity of Being and Nothingness, there was the play Huis Clos (No Exit) which opened in mid-1944. Then there was the publication of his novel The Age of Reason, the first part of what became the series The Roads to Freedom—intended as a further illustration of the main existentialist themes of Being and Nothingness.

There was the launch of the journal Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), which Sartre edited along with de Beauvoir and a number of his other close collaborators such as Raymond Aron and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Finally, there were his lectures—the most famous of which was delivered in October 1945 and titled “Existentialism is a humanism”. The excitement about Sartre was by this point so intense that the crowd for this lecture overflowed the venue, and there was a crush in which a number of people fainted.

To understand Sartre’s pop-star status it’s necessary to get a sense of the atmosphere in France at the time. Revolution was very much in the air. But the alternatives offered in the political mainstream were far from satisfying. The French Communist Party (the PCF) returned to the “popular front” strategy of the pre-war years—reflecting Stalin’s desire not to upset the applecart following his agreement on the post-war division of Europe with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt. On the right it was the same old conservatism—a return to family values, order, respectability and so on.

There was a widespread yearning for freedom, particularly among young people—but little sense of the politics that could make it a reality. Existentialism seemed, for a time, to hold out the hope of a new beginning. For Sartre however, status as a kind of benign counter-cultural icon failed to satisfy. Reflecting back on this period he later said: “For my part, I had become a convinced socialist ... but an anti-hierarchical and libertarian one, one if favour of direct democracy”. In 1948, Sartre and several other prominent figures in the anti-Stalinist left established the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly (RDR). In its founding statement, they wrote:

“Between the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of freedom and human dignity by binding them to the struggle for social revolution.”

Unfortunately, the whole thing collapsed in a heap barely a year later, with membership never having exceeded 4,000 at most. The cause of its break-up was the lack of any coherent political analysis that could withstand the immense pressures of the emerging Cold War. The lesson Sartre drew from the shipwreck of the RDR was that the anti-Stalinist left couldn’t really offer a genuine alternative. The key to the future was the working class. And this class was by and large under the sway of the PCF. As Sartre himself put it: “The majority of the proletariat ... forms a closed society with no doors or windows. [There is] only one way in, and a very narrow one—the Communist Party”.

From around 1952 until 1956 Sartre became a kind of “fellow traveller” of the PCF. In his book The Communists and Peace, he stated his “agreement with the Communists on specific and limited subjects, arguing on the basis of my principles and not theirs”. What is clear, however, is that over time he began to adapt his principles somewhat to fit more into the PCF mould.

The most appalling example came with Sartre’s visit to the USSR in 1954. On his return, he published a series of articles lauding the supposedly open culture, freedom of speech and so on. Perhaps even more appallingly, Sartre later tried to limit the damage by claiming that owing to his ill-health, his secretary did a chunk of the work on these articles on his behalf. So much for existentialist self-responsibility.

Nevertheless, Sartre’s position during this time wasn’t quite so straightforward as to be an outright apologist for Stalinism. While he adapted himself to the PCF in some ways, in others he maintained a more independent stance. So, for example, Les Temps Modernes continued to provide a platform for contributions from the anti-Stalinist left.

Sartre also continued to publish works in his own name that went strongly against the grain of Communist policy. One example is his book Saint Genet, published in 1952, about French writer, and contemporary of Sartre’s, Jean Genet. Genet was gay, and Sartre’s canonisation of him as a “saint” provoked a strongly homophobic response, including on the left. This was at a time when the PCF refused membership to “conspicuous homosexuals”.

The contradictory nature of Sartre’s politics found its most worked out philosophical expression in the monumental Critique of Dialectical Reason, published in 1960. The Critique was an attempt to rejuvenate what Sartre saw as the genuine, critical spirit of Marxism, using insights drawn from existentialism. The usefulness of existentialism derived, in Sartre’s view, from a focus on the individual that he believed was lacking from historical materialism. “If we do not wish the dialectic to become a divine law again”, he wrote, “it must proceed from individuals and not from some kind of supra-individual ensemble”.

What he ended up with, however, was neither existentialist nor Marxist, but a hodgepodge of ideas and concepts drawn from each. In large part, this owed to his misconceived notion of what Marxism was. Sartre saw the Stalinist distortions of Marxism (dialectic as “a divine law”, the individual sacrificed to the “supra-individual ensemble” and so on), as resulting from a defect in Marxism itself. In trying to rectify this, he threw the baby out with the bathwater.

What was required to save Marxism wasn’t the addition of existentialist philosophy, but rather a return to the genuine Marxist tradition—the tradition of Marx and Engels themselves, and of later figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and Georg Lukács. In this tradition, in contrast to Stalinism, the notion of individual freedom was very much centred. The struggle for socialism, as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, is a struggle for a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

While Sartre was writing the Critique, he was also involved in the campaign against France’s war in Algeria (1954-62). This again put him at odds with the PCF, which in 1956 gave its support to new powers demanded by the recently elected French Socialist Party for the purpose of upping the ante in the war. The PCF’s stance, along with the crushing of the Hungarian revolution via a Soviet invasion in the same year, brought an end to Sartre’s period of direct collaboration with the Stalinists.

Sartre’s support for national liberation struggles in Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba and so on was based on the fundamental philosophical outlook of existentialism. Inherent to this outlook, as Sartre came to understand it in the post-war period, was the view that if the freedom of others is limited, then the freedom of all will be limited. It was in this context that he wrote one of his most hard-hitting political pieces, the preface to Franz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. There he took aim directly at the more respectable pacifist tendencies—the kind of people who call for an end to violence on both sides.

“If violence began this very evening, and if exploitation and oppression had never existed on the earth, perhaps the slogans of non-violence might end the quarrel”, Sartre wrote. “But if the whole regime, even your non-violent ideas, are conditioned by a thousand-year-old oppression, your passivity serves only to place you in the ranks of the oppressors.”

The significance of Sartre’s stance in support of the Algerian independence can be understood only when viewed in the light of the intensely polarised atmosphere in France in those years. In October 1961, a demonstration of 30,000 Algerians in Paris was savagely attacked by police. More than 200 were killed, many drowning after being thrown into the Seine. At the same time, there was a wave of terrorist bombings by far-right French nationalists. As France’s most prominent intellectual, Sartre’s stance put him at the centre of all this. His apartment was bombed on two occasions, and right-wing protesters marched down the street chanting “shoot Sartre”.

The one shameful exception to Sartre’s anti-colonial stance was his support for the establishment of Israel. He later came to be more sensitive to the Palestinian struggle, but in 1976, when he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Jerusalem, he declared: “I am as much pro-Palestinian as I am pro-Israeli and vice versa”.

Sartre’s role in the struggle against the Algerian war, and his subsequent involvement in the early days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, cemented his reputation among the generation of young people who came to play the leading role in the events of May 1968. His radical reputation was further reinforced by his rejection, in 1964, of the Nobel Prize for Literature—which he refused because he saw it as part of an attempt to transform him into a harmless cultural icon for the bourgeoisie. 

In 1968, Sartre played an active role in the struggle, giving lectures to students at the occupied Sorbonne, and associating himself with the most militant elements. In a radio interview at the height of the protests, he railed against the idea of a “reform” of the university system, saying “the only relationship that [the students] can have with this university is to smash it and in order to smash it there is only one solution: to take to the streets”.

During this period he strongly associated with the Maoist currents that were rapidly growing. In 1970, one of the main Maoist groups, Gauche prolétarienne (Proletarian Left), asked Sartre if he would agree to be listed as the editor of its paper because the two previous editors had been arrested and imprisoned. Sartre agreed, and even went so far as to sell the papers on the streets. He was arrested, but the government didn’t dare send someone of Sartre’s repute to jail. Sartre’s association with the Maoists didn’t position him well, however, to deal with the subsequent political downturn of the late 1970s. From the mid-70s until his death in April 1980, he drifted from active involvement in French political life.

So how are we to assess Sartre’s life and work overall? While neither his early “pure” existentialism nor his later existentialist brand of Marxism is compelling, his status as among the most committed left-wing public intellectuals of the twentieth century is worth celebrating. His consistent radicalism and activist orientation in the post-war period place him far above most of today’s intellectuals.