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Conversations with a “Bourgeois Revolutionary”

Friday, July 9, 2010

Joseph L. Walsh reviews the book Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates by John Gerassi.  Here are some key points from the review:

“I want to know, Sartre, how a bourgeois like you—and you, Sartre, no matter how much you hate the bourgeoisie are still a bourgeois through and through—became a revolutionary.” In this way, John Gerassi once informed an audience of Jean-Paul Sartre scholars and aficionados about what to expect from the 2,000-plus pages of edited transcripts of his conversations with Sartre, taped from 1970 to 1974 and recently deposited in the Yale University library. Although this remark is not included, Talking with Sartre distills those interviews into similar challenges from Gerassi, followed by Sartre’s direct, spontaneous responses. No major political and literary figure was interviewed as often as was Sartre. And nothing else, including Simone de Beauvoir’s 1974 interviews with Sartre, comes close to matching the vitality and intensity here.

Gerassi asks Sartre, “Is revolution without terror possible, and do you support such a revolution?”

“Wow,” Sartre replies, “you really want to put me on the spot today…OK yes, I believe that a revolution is impossible without terror, precisely because the right will resort to terror to stop it.” He continues, “that brings up another aspect of revolution, which is this: to succeed a revolution must go all the way. No stopping midstream. The right will always use terror to foil it, so the revolution must use terror to stop it.”

Many difficult questions arise from this notion of “no stopping midstream.” Does it mean until the economy is entirely socially owned? Or until certain levels of income parity are achieved? These are complex questions that go beyond the scope of this book. But an exchange concerning the early days of the Cuban Revolution indicates perhaps what the principled direction of terror and violence might entail for both Sartre and Gerassi. The latter describes Fidel’s prosecution of the Batista regime’s torturers as almost “a people’s trial…anyone could testify, and hundreds of folks who were tortured or who saw their loved ones tortured to death did testify…even Time magazine [agreed] that the trials were a catharsis, saving the country from a wild bloodbath of vengeance.” Gerassi, who sees himself as totally opposed to capital punishment, asks Sartre, “Should the torturers have been executed, when we all knew, and Castro knew that the real culprits were the top echelons of Batista’s government…and the owners of…the American corporations for whom Batista and his henchmen exploited the people of Cuba?”

“Under an ideal situation,” Sartre replies, “the torturers could have been rehabilitated. But I also agree with Fidel, at that moment a bloodbath had to be avoided, and so if executing them for their proven crimes…will avoid that bloodbath, then ethically their execution was justified.” But, he continues, “had the trials taken place a year later and with no bloodbath to avoid, then no, their execution would not have been justified.” Using the likelihood of a bloodbath with its inevitable excesses and attacks on innocent people as his criterion, Sartre justifies the use of violence here to prevent greater violence.


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