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The Two Most Influential Intellectuals of the 20th Century

The Wisdom of Jean Paul Sartre and how to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age of Selfishness, Stupidity and Universal Deceit

By JR, August/September 2020

The optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears this is true – J. Robert Oppenheimer

Intellectual Influences

If I had to name two writers who influenced my thinking and world view more than any others, it would be Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Both men were unapologetic atheists, brilliant philosophers, critics and well known public intellectuals, anti-war, anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists who challenged the status quo.

My best high school friend and I stumbled on Russell’s collection of essays Why I’m not a Christian in our high school library. We were naïve but very inquisitive grade ten students and surprised that this revealing heretical book had not been purged by the Christian zealots in our Northern British Columbia home town. But we were even more amazed at the compelling arguments the book provided, confirming intuitive arguments we were able to internalize from dialogue during our long walks to and from school, regarding what we considered the absurdities and irrationalities of the Christian religion that had been pounded into our heads, including the boring daily bible readings in our public schools.

In this piece, I’d like to focus on Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) who I discovered at university many years ago.

Sartre is considered by many, especially the religious, as a pessimistic thinker - and hey, there’s nothing wrong with pessimism – seriously read human history, consider the dire state of our screwed up planet and the farcical political freak shows that pass for “democracy”. Moreover, as Barbara Ehrenriech points out in her excellent book Bright Sided that challenges the cult of positive thinking and eternal optimism, those with rose tinted spectacles tend to be uncritical, docile and complacent – rarely challenging power and the status quo - which undermines and is antithetical to real democracy – and generally acquiescent to elitist power structures.

In his novel Nausea, he heretically wrote: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” Perhaps the best-known quotation of Sartre’s comes from his play No Exit - “hell is other people.” But if his starting-point seems bleak - we live in a godless universe without meaning - the logic is that the source of all meaning, all values are from human beings. Of course there is no meaning of life but meaning in life. Only we humans can provide meaning to our lives, and surely anyone who is sufficiently curious, takes an interest in the world, life and other people, will discover their own relevancies, hobbies, passions, intellectual pursuits and meanings. Only you, as a freedom loving thinking being, can provide this, not any cultural, political or religious shackles or any external transcendent or teleological source. In Sartre’s own words, even if we prefer slavery to freedom, we are still “condemned to be free” which as one of his influences Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), argued was the source of “angst”, the stress induced by the seemingly endless process of having to make choices.

Considering the insanity of our consumer culture and faced with non-stop mind-numbing marketing of far too often superfluous frivolous products and far too many often inconsequential choices over minor distinctions, this has created serious psychological maladies. Add to that the distractions, silly “apps”, cell phone mania and mostly useless information overload with which our single task brains are bombarded, many people are becoming incapable of focusing on what is most important, in some cases even powerless to engage in intellectually serious thought at all.

As Sartre himself noted, it was not his alleged pessimism that outraged people, but rather his powerful optimism in human personal responsibility and his insistence that we are free to act, free to change the world and hence be responsible for the world as it is - responsible for war, poverty, starvation, oppression and the horrific conditions of so many other human beings. The fact of this freedom, experienced often not enjoyably, but rather as anguish, is central to all of Sartre’s work, as are the strategies we develop to deny our own responsibility - what he referred to as “bad faith” and an affront to our “authenticity”.

Sartre insisted that there was no such thing as a natural disaster: “It is man who destroys his cities through the agency of earthquakes.” In a world without human beings, an earthquake would be of no significance: just a meaningless contingent upheaval of matter. It is only when the earthquake comes up against human projects - roads, buildings, towns - that it is considered a disaster. It is a stark reminder that in the current era of disaster capitalism, rampant greed and plunder, corrupt corporate fascism, financial parasitism, imperialism and war, global warming, pollution and failing ecosystems result not from nature but from arrogant and immoral human choices, human avarice and hubris, exploitation, love of power and cruelty.

Sartre fought in the French Underground, challenging the Nazi occupation of France and spent about a year in prison. In the post World War II era his  opposition to the Indo-China and Algerian Wars made him a moral icon for those campaigning against brutal anti-colonialism, war and rabid anti-communism , many of whom went on to be leaders of the student revolts in Paris during 1968. In the 1960s Sartre and Bertrand Russell, the two most renowned living philosophers of the 20th century, albeit from very different traditions, came together to vehemently oppose the Vietnam War.

Although Jean Paul Sartre was already a philosophical rock star, I never encountered his writings until my second year as a mathematics student at UBC when I audited an introductory philosophy course as an elective. I was hooked. To the best of my knowledge I have in my library every book published by both Russell and Sartre, including dozens of secondary sources on these two intellectual giants. I have recently ordered a book of essays by Sartre titled We Have Only This Life To Live: The Selected Essays Of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939-1975 which includes some writings of which I am not familiar.

Although I could cite dozens of other writers who have influenced me greatly such as Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, H L Mencken, Victor Serge, Noam Chomsky (who also considers Russell his intellectual mentor), Michael Parenti, John Pilger, Richard Dawkins, Slavoj Zizek, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, David Graeber and many others, Russell and Sartre continue to be numbers one and two on my list of intellectual influences.

The Relevance of Sartre Today

In an age of anti-intellectualism, creeping fascism and other forms of authoritarianism, global capitalist tyranny and their market deities, shallow self-serving political and corporate leaders coterminous with widespread systemic corruption, unprecedented economic inequalities, injustice, loneliness, distraction, rampant drug use and never-ending imperialistic war and subsequent existential angst, I have begun to re-read Jean Paul Sartre.

As the geopolitical chessboard and global economic world order continues to deteriorate within a swirling ethical cesspool, an exhausted Western world wallows in the mire of its own moral failings and lack of imagination, the planet faces a mounting existential crisis and more recently with the pandemic and global economic calamities. In fact we are facing precipitous tipping points that seem apocalyptic in their gravity and scope. We might pause and reflect on how one of the great minds of a previous generation may assist us in making sense of an impending dystopian nightmare of social, political, economic and ecological collapse.

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the last towering giants of an Enlightenment pantheon that challenged the hegemony of a feudalistic theocratic world order (appropriately referred to as the Dark Ages as religion and the divine right of kings ruled) and concerned with the whole spectrum of human existence. Incisive, curious independent minds have always enjoyed the inspiration and joie de vivre that permeated Western culture with the advent of the Renaissance, Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution that arose from the depths of religious obscurantism about five centuries ago. Jean Paul Sartre was one of those radiant minds that inspired many during the horrors of a very violent and oppressive 20th century that included two world wars and the growth of fascism – an emergent cancer that has always lurked within the ideology, not only of capitalism, but mainstream social and political conservatism.

Bertrand Russell and Sartre, with his avant-garde philosophy, was indisputably the preeminent moral voice and intelligence of the second half of the 20th century, with protest carrying the meaning it was imbued with by the vision of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, the slogan of the French Revolution.

Sartre’s messages were many, the most important of which was anti-essentialist: “Existence precedes essence.” Before “being,” Man exists. In other words, no external power, innate human nature or fictitious God conceived him; ergo, there’s is no God and no preset immutable human nature. And if there’s no God, humankind is thereby “condemned to be free.” So, in agreement with one of his existentialist predecessors, Friedrich Nietzsche, we must overcome our condition and venture beyond moral absolutisms such as good and evil. In his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, 1943, Sartre’s claim that you are free implies responsibility; after all what is freedom without it?  The first thought that jumps out at you from Sartre’s argument about the necessity of freedom is that we cannot not choose to be not free, which is what he means in his famous statement “we are condemned to be free”.

Even choosing not to act is still a choice with consequences. So we are responsible for how we respond to events, what we make of the world and the political, moral, ethical and other philosophical positions we decide to make. Sartre calls refusal to own up to our responsibility “bad faith”, which is an odd expression coming from him since he had no use for the irrationalities inherent in “faith”. According to Sartre, if our conscious states were only aware of the present, we could not escape the present, nor choose. But what we imagine for the world, not just our own plans and life aspirations, but for those other life forms and their futures in the world. We cannot remain locked in the present. Moreover, our being in the world and the choices derived from “nothingness”, are never deterministic or inevitable. Humanity’s future and the futures of all other living things are now being threatened by a myriad many external threats for which we humans are responsible.

During World War II Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist, polymath, and intellectual headed The Manhattan Project which was a group of top physicists and other scientists assigned to develop a nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer felt a deep sense of moral responsibility for what they had created and the devastating murderous effect on those impacted by the experiment when it was tested and then inflicted on a defeated Japan with horrific consequences. He argued that scientists should be aware of the consequences of their discoveries even though the end product might be far removed from their initial decisions. In light of the impact of addictive and OCD cell phones, perhaps we need to consider Robert Oppenheimer’s thinking in the ongoing research and development of technologies such as robotics, VR and AI. One of his famous lines is from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Its meaning is more complex and prophetic today than many realize, especially in light of a predatory capitalism and multiple political, economic and ecological existential threats.

Sartre’s Nausea was a novel capable of changing one’s life, especially reading it as an idealistic, yet confused, young man since it was so very readable and far from arcane abstruse philosophy. Both revolutionary fervor (as an outgrowth of a war incited by European conservative elites and emerging bourgeois values and capitalist society), including narcissism and extreme individualism irrevocably exploded in the post World War I era. Fascism and its ideological partner Nazism were what might be referred to as Frankenstein reactionary responses to revolutionary unrest and the reincarnation/mutation of capitalist- bourgeoisie concepts and norms. The alternative, the masses were informed, was Stalinism the totalitarian malignancy of the doomed to fail Russian Revolution. Following the death of Lenin and the purges of the old revolutionary Bolsheviks by Joseph Stalin who came to hold absolute power - which included the banishment of Leon Trotsky from the USSR - the revolutionary fervor against those conservative elites who were responsible for World War One, died with it. Trotsky, who referred to Stalin as the “gravedigger of the revolution”, travelled from country to country seeking asylum, finally settling in Mexico but was eventually tracked down and brutally murdered in 1940 by Stalin’s secret police.

Nausea represented the conviction that humankind must build himself and create his his/her own existences. Sartre - a notorious procrastinator - did not finish his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness and a promised volume on ethics never materialized. His 700 plus word notebook on Ethics would have conferred added value to his avant-garde philosophy. [1]

Sartre, like every progressive intellectual in the 20th century, had to face the most urgent questions: could the liberating power of Marx’s analysis be resurrected amid the Stalinist totalitarian nightmare? Sartre preferred not to inform the French working classes about the Stalinist show trials, mass executions of old Bolsheviks and the brutal gulag death camps. He didn’t wish to dash the workers’ hopes for a better future. Albert Camus, another brilliant Frenchman and Sartre contemporary, may have been appalled by what was happening in the Soviet Union, but in any case he had a tendency to be selectively scandalized, believing there to be no difference between the terrorism of the oppressed and the terrorism of oppressors especially in relation to his place of birth, Algeria.

By the way, Sartre seemed to have won the intellectual argument against his former friend and fellow existentialist Camus. The bourgeoisie, as he pointed out, was always allowed to exploit with impunity and prevaricate at will, feeding “distraction and entertainment” (as 1960s New Left icon Herbert Marcuse rightly claimed) to the masses to keep them in a state of eternal docility and servitude.

Sartre considered humankind as a perpetual work in progress, creating himself constantly through thought and action. This is the human condition: “I am my own freedom”. He was tremendously loyal to close friends and intellectual fellow travelers he admired, such as Merleau-Ponty and the talented writer Paul Nizan. Nizan was only 35 when he was killed at the outset of World War II, anguished both by Vichy France’s predicament and the stab in the back of the Hitler-Stalin pact. These events are at the root of Sartre’s conversion to Marxism and his turbulent coexistence with communism.

Sartre’s intellectual gaze in a sense followed the surrealist maxim according to which our heads are round in order to allow thought to change direction. Sartre may have collaborated with the French Communist Party in denouncing the Korean War – as some Washington war mongering lunatics such as General Douglas Macarthur peddled the idea of going nuclear. But at the same time, Sartre in following the Soviet invasion of Hungary wrote the most devastating analysis of the corruptions of Marxism in his book The Ghost of Stalin.

He was a very fortunate man to have intimately shared his life and first rate intellectual passions with an extraordinary woman with a first rate mind. Think of Simone de Beauvoir in Occupied France, strolling every afternoon to the library at the Sorbonne to plow through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, mixed in with some Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and emerge with two sources that would suffuse both her own writing and existentialism as well: Kierkegaard as an icon of freedom, Nietzsche the classic contrarian and Hegel with his unique vision of history playing out on an epic scale.

De Beauvoir at the time did not know if Sartre was even alive then. He was locked up in a POW camp Stalag 12D in the Rhineland, reading Heidegger and plotting a “treatise” that would become his magnum opus Being and Nothingness. Fortunately for intellectual posterity, he was finally released by the Nazis on account of his extremely poor eyesight.

In the last stretch of his life, Sartre seemed to have lost any trust in political solutions and the possibility of bottom up revolution. His last great passion was for the creative anarchism and revolts of Paris in 1968, the half-centenary of which was celebrated two years ago. At the time, he remarked: “If anyone rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.” For many readers who have accepted the inculcated conception of anarchism by our religious and secular ruling elites and their massive propaganda structures including the schools, anarchism is little understood. Anarchist history is as long as our historical record whereby people who value freedom and self-management have challenged invariably illegitimate sources of authority and hierarchy. One of the earliest accounts recorded in writing can be traced to 16th century philosopher Étienne de La Boétie in his marvelous tract of 1552 called The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, describing the medieval socio-economic tyrannies of theocracy and the divine right of kings which differs only in kind with our current neo-liberal corporate capitalist age of “winner take all” financial, technocratic and bureaucratic authoritarianism. Etienne de la Boétie is probably best known in the English-speaking world through a footnote in his good friend Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Friendship”. Even in France, La Boétie is a shadowy figure as no portrait of him has survived. Montaigne compares him to Socrates as a beautiful soul behind an ugly face. His life is poorly documented, yet he is arguably the most influential French political theorist of the sixteenth century. [2]

May 1968

Consider May 20, 1968 and re-imagine Sartre speaking to at least 7,000 students occupying the Sorbonne’s magnificent statue-filled auditorium as “there were students sitting in the arms of Descartes and others on Richelieu’s shoulders” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her memoirs. Sartre, almost 63 by that time, was speaking to his virtual grandchildren, making sense of history, linking them to his own generation of angry students in the late 1920s and further down to a dynasty of philosophical radicals and rebels with a cause, from Spartacus to Nietzsche to Marx.

And yet to determine the origins of Sartre’s existentialism in Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche is likely futile and inconsequential. His works are brilliant original creations dictated by and within the specific context of European society’s decadent capitalist fascism, imperialism and colonialism.

Sartre was more like Jean Jacques Rousseau than Voltaire. And, despite the charges to the contrary, it’s not true that Sartre, like so many in the 1960s, became a Maoist. He always regarded Maoism – the version immortalized in Jean-Luc Godard movies such as La Chinoise - as naive and facile. But Sartre still defended Maoist intellectuals and accepted an invitation as the nominal editor of their newspaper to protect them from the censors, book burners and other sources of conservative and liberal thought control and repression. Whenever there was oppression, tyranny or injustice, Sartre invariably sided with the victims.

Near death in 1980, Sartre became isolated (“we live as we dream, alone,” Joseph Conrad had written), consistently condemning the uncurious banality, docility, crassness, cruelty and stupidity of so many human beings, but always ready to assist them against state, religious, cultural and ideological oppression.

His work is such a breath of fresh air to re-read today. Sartre as Socrates or Sophocles unleashing his fury against the imperial capitalist powers as he agonized at the dismal impoverished state of Biafra; the serene and melancholic Sartre dissecting what was made of the dreams of Lenin and Trotsky in The Ghost of Stalin; or the extraordinary foreword he wrote for Frantz Fanon’s immensely influential The Wretched of the Earth. In that foreword he stressed the notion that an anti-imperialist revolution must be violent because it is the only way the colonized can shake off the paralysis of racism, exploitation and inescapable violence of the oppressor.

Simone de Beauvoir was mesmerized and seduced by the United States when she first visited in the late 1940s: “Abundance, and infinite horizons; it was a crazy magic lantern of legendary images”. And yet, along with Sartre and Camus, she was also horrified by the country’s racial inequality and reactionary politics. Sartre later wrote about black “untouchables” and “invisibles” haunting the streets and never meeting your gaze.

Sartre’s Anti-Capitalist Critique

People today are likely unaware that there was a time not to read Sartre’s popular periodical Les Temps Modernes, was to be de facto detached from enlightened and progressive Western thought. Sartre recruited a team of writers as his journal welcomed various currents of the radical left. For example, Les Temps Modernes published material by the great anarchist writer Victor Serge (1890-1947), an early supporter of the Bolsheviks who had been imprisoned under Stalin. All of Serge’s books, collections of essays and particularly his magnum opus Memoirs of a Revolutionary - which in the most recent release by New York Review of Books includes an excellent foreword by Adam Hochschild - remain some of the most insightful, incisive and enlightening pieces of writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. His remarkable shortened life, much of which was spent in prison or in flight from the reactionary forces of state oppression - in many cases in so-called Western “democracies” - regardless of where he lived, is detailed in the Memoirs which I highly recommend. Serge died, apparently from a heart attack in the back of a taxi, while in exile in Mexico City. An incredible book by Serge, long out of print, but recently re-released by the New York Review of Books Classics Series, is his Notebooks: 1936-1947, all 731 riveting pages which I had the pleasure of reading a few months ago. There is a brief biography of Serge at the Spartacus Educational web site here and an excellent essay by Susan Weissman here who wrote a decent biography of Victor Serge.

Sartre’s magazine also included an account by Richard Wright of his experiences as a black militant in the US Communist Party. Whole generations of Global South intellectuals, fabulous cinematic avant-gardes in the 1960s and 1970s, and a wave of leftist intellectuals emerging from Stalinism’s anesthesia, were all influenced by the revelations and wisdom of Sartre’s journal.

Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason continues to be a one of the great works of socio-political thought and a tour de force and even considering some of its flaws, is a must read for those of us who still perhaps naively believe in anarchic revolutionary movements - against all evidence offered by the intractability of identity politics, systemic political and cultural hierarchies, irrationalities and superstitions of fundamentalist religion, widespread injustice and economic inequities  and growing geopolitical fascistic tyranny - that truth, reason, humanism, ethics, justice, respect for the natural world and the desire and will to change a decadent capitalist world order are forces for good.[3] Because capitalism is unable to impose limits (the essence of ethical rules), the notion of preservation or conservation is a systemic impossibility – and why we will be very lucky to survive the 21st century as pollution and species extinction is rampant, ecosystems are in free fall and the prevalence of insatiable decadent barbaric billionaires, eight of whom have more wealth than half the world’s population. 

Sartre’s acute observations and account of growing atomized self-interested monadic capitalist socio-economic realities in a world that has now reached the dystopian nadir in which all sense of community, solidarity, common good or our unique status as a part of the natural order are still relevant today. In our hollow narcissistic anti-intellectual conformist identities, we seem powerless to perceive the natural world other than as a source of exploitation, plunder and consumption. Sartre referred to this autonomic individualistic capitalist stasis as seriality and this seemingly incurable autistic hallucinatory affliction does not bode well for the possibility of revolutionary movements against the dictatorship of corporatism and finance capital as the corporate managerial bureaucrats, bean counting economic theocrats, wealthy oligarchs and their one-dimensional careerist sock puppets and pimps in government (Adam Smith’s “masters of mankind”) seem to be able to adapt to anything and save themselves from ongoing disasters and economics collapse with massive multi-trillion dollar bailouts on the backs of the mummified docile and unquestioning masses. Social media will not help us in solving the problem of isolation and lack of community since, like other technologies of cyberspace such as mobile phones they have merely become instruments of our own oppression, atomization and self-surveillance. Hey buddy, are you still waiting for that next time wasting superfluous “app” by gig economy vampires such as Skip the Dishes and Uber Drives?

Fellow travelers Sartre and Russell

Although both Sartre and Bertrand Russell were humanists, atheists, men of the Enlightenment tradition, anti-capitalists, contrarians, anti-authoritarians, social critics, anti-war activists and extraordinary public intellectuals, they never became close friends. Both were visible in many anti-Vietnam War/anti-nuclear demonstrations and popular agitators for civil rights and freedom of speech. Their inspiring examples remain in people such as Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Michael Parenti. It is scarcely possible to deny that Sartre was both a gifted writer and an eminent influential philosopher, but his political commitment remains a thorn in the side of all hierarchies, including our phony democracies, the Christian religion, capitalist imperialists and oppressors with their sycophant intellectual enablers, cops, spy agencies, useful idiots in the corporate media, economic hit men and killer errand-boys.

For those of us who believe that libertarian socialism – stripped of the monstrous deformations of the state and Stalinist totalitarianism – still offers hope to humanity, Sartre’s work belongs not just to the 20th century, but also to the 21st. The central theme of all Sartre’s work is the question of the unity of theory and practice. His entire philosophy promotes the notion of human action; focusing on questions of values and ethical norms, even though Sartre disavowed any sort of conventional top down moralizing, especially the vile authoritarianism of Christianity which he found repugnant. This sets him firmly in opposition, not only to command ethics, but to postmodernism, which is based on a quite willing disjunction of theory and practice, leading to a fatalistic attitude towards knowledge, truth, action and the scientific project.

Sartre’s work does not give us a doctrine or strategy in the face of today’s fragmented globalized world now facing dire existentialist challenges, not the least of which are crumbling infrastructure, widespread financial and corporate parasitism and corruption, creeping fascism, grotesque economic disparities, global warming, pollution, failing ecosystems and now, with a global pandemic, like all disasters, human misery being exploited for profit by capitalism, leading to a possible decent into a neo-fascist political and economic apocalypse.

No organized political ideology can claim his legacy. But in studying Sartre we see a man facing the problems of his own age, a man grappling with the questions of epistemology, freedom and responsibility, morality and politics, of violence, war and of the possibility of real democracy and collective action. The mere manner in which he asked questions may help those of us who are still seeking answers.

A good place to start for neophytes of Sartre is a lecture he delivered in Paris on October 1945 with the title Existentialism is a Humanism. It is also available in paperback, still in print. In the fascinating in print transcript in 1946 he wrote:

“Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish fascism, and others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.”

This is very much in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg’s stark alternative for humanity: “socialism or barbarism.”

But the text of the lecture can be read here:


On Amazon:


There are several biographies of Sartre but Annie Cohen-Solal’s Sartre: A Life, Minerva, 1991, 2nd Ed. is a fascinating biography of the great man.


[1] Sartre recognised that any political ideology or stance had to have a moral foundation. This brought him into conflict with many doctrinaire Marxists. Sartre criticized the French Communist Party’s contradictory attitude to morality. On the one hand its textbooks of Marxism claimed that capitalists were obliged by inexorable axiomatic economic laws to maximise profit while at the same time denouncing capitalism’s “wicked” bosses.

But if a moral impulse lay behind any attempt to change society, at the same time it was impossible to establish universal moral principles in a society based on gross inequality. Even if we all held to a minimalist ethical principle such as the Golden Rule, it’s difficult to see how capitalism could survive, especially in its current authoritarian, exploitive and corrupt forms. Kant had argued that ends and means cannot be conflated, that we should act according to ethical norms which we desire to become universal laws. To cite one example, suppose I cheat on my taxes? I may falsely assume that everybody cheats but if that was the case it would be an intolerable world in which democracy, justice and fairness would not be possible.

Sartre rightly claimed that we live in a world in which the distribution of wealth and property are based on past theft, raw power and violence, however much the present order may condemn them. Sartre’s position is wonderfully explained by the story of the Yorkshire miner walking across open fields and moors. The local landlord appeared and informed him he was trespassing on private property. The miner enquired how the land came to be his. “My great-great-great-grandfather won it in a battle,” replied the landlord. “Take your coat off,” said the miner, “and I’ll fight you for it now.”

Sartre’s arguments about ends and means were based on his understanding of history. Unlike many of the doctrinaire Marxists he met in the French Communist Party, Sartre did not accept a history which developed through predetermined stages to a necessary teleological end. History, he thought, was little more than the accumulation of human choices.

On taking this stance Sartre made an important distinction. If we believe - as he did not - that we can have a clear idea of what a future society based on liberty and equality would look like and if that future society will be based on a fixed and predetermined idea, then any strategy or path that will get us there, the sooner the better, is legitimate, and any sacrifices – including moral transgressions or crimes - can be justified by simple capitalist balance sheet profit and loss accounting. The sum total of human suffering will be perhaps be less but if there is no predetermined end, then any end we arrive at will be the product of the means used to get there. In Sartre’s words:

“If the end is still to be made, if it is a choice and a risk for man, then it can be corrupted by the means, for it is what we make it and it is transformed at the same time as man transforms himself by the use he makes of the means. But if the end is to be reached, if in a sense it has a sufficiency of being, then it is independent of the means. In that case one can choose any means to achieve it.”

This is somewhat like the difference between travelling by train to a well-known destination, with a room already booked at a nearby hotel, and wandering across country without maps, setting up camp where it appears suitable.

In his discussion of ends and means Sartre referred to Leon Trotsky’s well-known pamphlet Their Morals and Ours. Trotsky’s works were not at all easy to come by in France in the 1940s as Stalin’s secret police goons had been pursuing him (finally murdering him in Mexico) and with Nazi Occupation having given way to a period where the whole left was dominated by the Stalinist dominated Communist Party. Sartre perhaps acquired Trotsky’s book from Merleau-Ponty who was knowledgeable about Leon Trotsky’s ideas. Trotsky wrote brilliantly with first-hand experience of the early years of the Russian Revolution, and the harsh choices necessary when foreign armies attempted to strangle the Revolution at birth, inciting a three year civil war. Like Sartre, Trotsky rejected the facile formulation that the end justifies the means. A simple ledger calculation of profit/loss, void of ethical controls could not serve justice to problems. He argued that there was a dialectical interaction whereby the means used conditioned the end arrived at. Since socialism involved egalitarianism, sharing of resources and the caring for societies worst off as a priority, including the self-emancipation of the working class, then the only means permissible were those which raised proletarian consciousness - the working class could not be liberated by elitist political shenanigans behind its own back.

While Sartre noted some reservations about Trotsky’s position, he basically accepted its moral reasoning and logic. The problem was examined from a different perspective in his discussion of oppression. For Sartre, oppression involved a human agent and a human victim. We cannot be oppressed by a rock, only by a free human will. A rock becomes an obstacle only in terms of a human project, so a rock can destroy a human body but not human freedom and flourishing. Only a free human will can be oppressed, precisely by the project of another to deny the victim’s freedom and turn her/him into an object. The project of oppression within capitalism or in any other authoritarian environment is inevitably contradictory.

In the 1960s during the brutal murderous wars in Algeria and Vietnam, Sartre returned to his arguments about means and ends. In discussing Vietnam, he insisted that there could be no moral equivalence between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressors:

“During the Algerian war I always refused to make a parallel between the terrorist use of bombs, the only weapon available to the Algerians, and the actions and extortions of a rich army of half a million, which occupied the entire country. It’s the same in Vietnam.”

[2] Contra Machiavelli and Hobbes, La Boétie was probably the first to recognize that fear and threats of violence were not sufficient for a monarch, theocrat or any other tyrant to remain in power; that people had to be led to complicity and consent to their own exploitation, domination and enslavement. One of his many insightful comments is:

“It is incredible how as soon as a people become subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and willingly that one is led to say that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement.”

 I do not know if Sartre was familiar with his fellow 16th century philosopher, and countryman but he would have undoubtedly agreed with his assertions and arguments. Sartre certainly had no illusions about the existence of any democracy and genuine liberty in the world traditionally understood as “the will of the people” within any state, especially the existing hierarchical state run capitalist political systems and societies he witnessed in his own life. After all, the American constitution was written by aristocratic slave owners, a rigged document from the start - and Canada’s so-called parliamentary farce is still essentially a constitutional monarchy that serves wealth, high finance and corporate power. In fact it wasn’t until about 500 years ago when the idea of a “state” arose and began universally imposing its bureaucratic byzantine system of laws, controls and coercion over the masses, including police and prisons to control the impoverished majority. It wasn’t until these phony democratic tyrannies intensified and consolidated during the 19th century that people began calling themselves “anarchists”. Anarchists are highly principled individuals who believe in conscience, self-management, order, mutual aid and ethics - without top down power. Anarchism is more a dispositional state of mind than anything else, unified by defiance against all hierarchies and invariably illegitimate sources of power and authority, including states, governments, gods, masters, bosses, laws and farcical elections. Of course anarchists will defer to authorities such as a physician, physicist or plumber who demonstrates via evidence expertise and capability. The only obstacles to a better way to live than an immoral capitalist system based on greed, selfishness, inequality and authoritarianism are the limitations of our imaginations.

Throughout most of human history people lived in non-hierarchical, egalitarian and libertarian communities that reflected the mutual aid and solidarity communistic adage of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”. The Indigenous peoples of North America, deemed “uncivilized” and “savages” by the white Christian European invaders, despite the fact they were far more democratic than their greedy murderous Christian oppressors, torturers, rapists and murderers. The “Chief” of First Nations tribal communities was more a community organizer and source of wisdom than he was a “leader” – and women filled important roles within the tribal councils. And there was no police, standing military or prisons.

A French soldier and explorer, Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, in 1703 published a revealing account of his years living with the “savages” in New France, what is currently Quebec and Ontario. In his book Lahontan created a fictional character called Adario, a member of the Huron-Wendat people and imagined a dialogue regarding various social issues such as authority, religion and marriage. Adario is shocked and disgusted by the authoritarian political, social and religious practises of the French colonists. How could they blindly obey their king and the gods? How could they accept a legal system that was unjust; so lenient with the privileged and wealthy and so unjust and cruel to the poor? Why do Europeans work themselves so hard for their masters producing superfluous luxury goods rather than necessities and having time to enjoy their lives? All these slavish practises of domination, oppression, exploitation and exclusionary practises seemed not only unjust, but absurd to Adario. The modern capitalist state (which is ostensibly a protector of the worst off) is a copy of this same world view in which a thin elite layer of society is its only concern. So who or what exists to protect us from the agents of the state such as the preferential laws crafted to serve wealth and power, the police, military, spy agencies and prisons?

Yes, anarchists are stereotypically tainted and vilified forever by a few bomb throwers and assassins of tyrants from the late nineteenth century, but when compared to the coercion and violence of the imperialist state? These were people who saw few options for change other than using the very same tactics as violent capitalist state tyranny. For example, in Russia between 1902 and 1917 there were 20,000 attempted assassinations. Anarchism remains one of the least understood political and social concepts, distorted by decades of both conservative and liberal streams of endless propaganda. What is a Molotov cocktail when compared with the atomic bombs dropped on a defeated Japan in 1945 by a self-described liberal republican democratic state, slaughtering and maiming for life hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians? Honesty demands we admit that it has been states that have been responsible for slavery, endless wars, colonialism, racism, sexism, religious fundamentalist persecution and intolerance for political left politics. Anarchists are highly principled people who appeal to conscience, not the power “principles” of religious or political hierarchies and promote egalitarianism, cooperation, self-management and direct democracy. They would certainly reject the ideology of self-interest peddled by Adam Smith, considered the godfather of capitalism, although few capitalist disciples have read his works. Smith wrote, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor,” To enable such a system required the creation of police and prisons to enable and protect such an undemocratic unjust authoritarian world order. Any working class person typically planning to pursue a career as a cop or soldier ought to consider the facts of who they will become. You are complicit in the dominant oligarchic corporatist classes - the lords of capital - who have hired you to kill on command anyone who is deemed a threat to their rule and pursuit of profit. And what of the Christian churches? Being equally authoritarian and hierarchical, they have invariably sided with the state and the wealthy classes as they did in the Spanish Civil War, siding with the Catholic fanatic and fascist General Francisco Franco against the newly formed democratic republic which had attempted to take Spain out of the medievalism of the Dark Ages. It’s sad to admit, but most people don’t seem to eschew various forms of authoritarianism or resist voluntary servitude, but rather just replace one form of tyranny with some other. “The Lord is my shepherd, what does that make me?”

[3] From a simplified perspective, “humanism” implies that human problems can only be solved by humans, independent of any historical determinism, teleology or theological/supernatural doctrines. The bile that spewed from the lips of authoritarians such as Margaret Thatcher such as “there is no such thing as society” and that “there is no alternative to capitalism” (the infamous TINA principle) are the quintessence of dogmatism.

Similarly the recent incredibly crass statement of US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell that “we will do whatever it takes” to save the banks, corporations and other deities of the  capitalist religion with unlimited trillions in mammon is Thatcherism on steroids. In other words, contra Sartre, “any means will justify the end” which is close to utterly rock bottom in moral depravity, folly and gross stupidity. Over one hundred years ago Nietzsche declared that God is dead” but the big dude in the sky is back in the form of neo-liberal fascistic theology and arcane gods of mathematical algorithms and computer programmed trading that “manage” the massive casino of the securities markets for the benefit of a corporatist plutocracy.


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