Committment & Social Criticism: Camus’s Algerian War

Committment & Social Criticism: Camus’s Algerian War

For men and women of the democratic left, Albert Camus is an exemplary figure. His writing and his life, both of them enhanced, perhaps, by his early and senseless death, have taken on mythic proportions, so that we can plausibly feel that we know him well even without knowing much about him. We know what he stood for: he was a man of principle, a “just man.” (We also know, because of Herbert Lottman’s biography, what he did every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; oddly, that doesn’t dispel the myth, any more than it reveals the inner man.) But there is one moment in his life when Camus is commonly said to have betrayed his principles—an all-important and long-drawn-out moment, dominating the last years of his life: the moment of the Algerian War. Here he became “that just man without justice,” described by Simone de Beauvoir in her memoirs; austere urgency collapsing, says Conor Cruise O’Brien, into hollow rhetoric. From 1954 on, he provides an example
only of the inability of the “moderate bourgeoisie” of France to come to grips with the brutality of colonialism. Even this failure serves, in a way, to sustain the myth: it makes Camus into a disfigured hero, human, all-too human. But how exactly did he fail?

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Lima