Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were titans of French literature and philosophy in the mid-20th century. They were initially friends and compatriots, both being involved in the Resistance movement during World War II and often sitting in the same cafes discussing philosophy and literature. However, their friendship ultimately fractured due to profound disagreements over politics and philosophical ideologies.
Sartre was a Marxist and a strong supporter of the Soviet Union. In his view, Communism represented the best path toward a just society, where workers would own the means of production and wealth would be distributed more equitably. Sartre’s support for the Soviet Union persisted despite the emerging evidence of Stalin’s purges, gulags, and the show trials of dissidents, which were being widely reported in the West. Sartre’s justification was that the ends justified the means and the revolution required a certain degree of brutality.
Camus, on the other hand, was deeply disturbed by the realities of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Having grown up in poverty in Algeria, he had a deep sympathy for the oppressed and a visceral opposition to totalitarianism in any form. He was committed to social justice, but he strongly believed in the value of individual freedom and dignity. He was horrified by the abuses being reported in the Soviet Union and was deeply disappointed with Sartre’s refusal to condemn them.
The two intellectuals clashed openly over these issues in 1952, when Camus published “The Rebel,” an extended essay on the nature of rebellion, revolution, and the role of the intellectual. Sartre saw this work as an attack on the Communist cause and wrote a vitriolic response, leading to a bitter and very public feud.
Their philosophical differences were intertwined with their political disagreements. Sartre was an existentialist, arguing that life is inherently devoid of meaning, and it is the responsibility of each individual to create their own purpose. His famous phrase “existence precedes essence” encapsulates this view: there is no pre-determined human nature or moral truth; we create ourselves and our values through our actions.
Camus, conversely, formulated the philosophy known as Absurdism, arguing that the human search for meaning is fundamentally in conflict with the indifferent universe. He believed that life is absurd and that this must be confronted and accepted to live authentically. However, unlike Sartre, Camus did not believe that individuals could create their own values or moral truths; instead, he argued for a kind of moral integrity and solidarity in the face of the absurd.
In the end, their political and philosophical differences proved insurmountable, and their feud became one of the most famous in intellectual history. However, both continued to exert profound influence on literature, philosophy, and political thought long after their falling out.