Taking Sides

The New Year is as good a divide to consider this question as any. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Albert Camus gave an interview, which is included in his collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. This question and his answer are included under the sub-head, The Intellectual Must Take Sides:

3) If the contrary is true, what can the intellectual do today? Does he have a duty, in each and every circumstance, to express his feeling and opinion publicly and to anyone at all? Or else, because of the seriousness of events and the lack of valid political forces, do you feel that one can do no better than to carry on one’s own work as well as one can?

It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time. To begin with, it would exhaust him, and, above all, it would keep him from thinking. He must create if he can, first and foremost, especially if his creation does not sidestep the problems of his time. But in certain exceptional circumstances (Spanish civil war, Hilterian prosecutions and concentration camps, Hungarian war) he must leave no room for doubt as to the side he takes; he must be very careful not to let his choice be clouded by wily distinctions or discreet balancing tricks, and to leave no question as to his personal determination to defend liberty. Groupings of intellectuals can, in certain cases, and particularly when the liberty of the masses and of the spirit is mortally threatened, constitute a strength and exert an influence; Hungarian intellectuals have just proved this. However, it should be pointed out for our own guidance in the West that the continual signing of manifestoes and protests is one of the surest ways of undermining the efficacy and dignity of the intellectual. There exists a permanent blackmail we all know and that we must have the often solitary courage to resist.

Subject to these reservations, we must hope for a common rallying. But first our Leftist intellectuals, who have swallowed so many insults and may well have to begin doing so again, would have to undertake a critique of the reasonings and ideologies to which they have wreaked the havoc they have seen in our most recent history. That will be the hardest thing. We must admit today conformity is on the Left. To be sure, the Right is not brilliant. But the left is in complete decadence, a prisoner of words, caught in its own vocabulary, capable merely of stereotyped replies, constantly at a loss when faced with the truth, from which it nevertheless claimed to derive its laws. The Left is schizophrenic and needs doctoring through pitiless self-criticism, exercise of the heart, close reasoning, and a little modesty. Until such an effort at re-examination is well under way, any rallying will be useless and even harmful. Meanwhile, the intellectual’s role will be to say that the king is naked when he is, and not to go into raptures at his imaginary trappings.

In order to strike a constructive tone, however, I shall propose as one of the preliminaries to any future gathering the unqualified acceptance of the following principle: none of the evils that totalitarianism (defined by the single party and the suppression of all opposition) claims to remedy is worse than totalitarianism itself.

In conclusion, I believe (as people say: I believe in God, creator of heaven and earth) that the indispensable conditions for intellectual creation and historical justice are liberty and the free confronting of differences. Without freedom, not art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others. But without freedom, no socialism either, except the socialism of the gallows.

DEMAIN, 21-27 February 1957

Translation by Justin O’Brien.