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Colonialism within J-P. SARTRE'S existentialism
 Article publié le 11 juillet 2008.


Colonialism within J-P. SARTRE’S existentialism


I) Introduction


Analysis of Sartre’s rhetoric throughout the question of colonialism


The promotion of Existentialism needs to be sustained and supported by a pre-philosophy, one of vulgarization. The concepts as they may appear to the reader in Sartre’s general theorization, especially in L’Être et le Néant, risk being abstract, thus difficult to apprehend to those for whom they were specifically written. Therefore, Sartre uses his terminology in several contexts, making it very repetitive and recurrent. Colonialism is one of the numerous objects of analysis throughout which Sartre experiments with his theory of Existentialism. Of course, this is not the only one : in all of Sartre’s essays, the notion of a methodical narrative system is abundant and relevant. There is no difficulty in recognizing Sartre’s style of writing which remains the same, almost tautological from one text to another. This strategy is very much an imitation by opposition of the other system that he is condemning : colonialism, exploitation of the working class by the capitalist, economic racism against the Jews and a biological one against Blacks, Orientalist imagery regarding the Chinese, Arabs, etc. In Sartre’s perspective, the coherence of the capitalist system of domination requires a coherent and rigorous system of discourse deconstruction. It should not be seen as coincidence that one of his essays is explicitly entitled Le colonialisme est un système. In order to oppose this economical and political phenomenon, he builds a general theory of liberation, what is referred to as Existentialism. This new philosophy aims to be a political charter with universal ambition. The promotion of Existentialism’s criteria is born within a conflict between Sartre and the intellectual establishment among whom the French communists are not the last opponents of this philosophy. Simply stated, we can observe that Sartre’s philosophy was rejected because it presents a pessimistic picture of humanity. Sartre was accused of depicting very tragic characters who are totally negativistic. For his opponents, it is hard to admit that the universe could be reduced in such a way to emptiness and loneliness. The repetitive reference to Antoine Roquentin (La Nausée), for example, is a justification of anguish and nothingness in the world as Sartre suggests it, as constituting the sole alternative to a human being. Naturally, Sartre says exactly the opposite arguing that Existentialism is the very project where humanity regenerates itself and where the opportunity of action in order to transform the lethargy of the human condition into a movement of liberation, is given to everybody.

Jean-Paul Sartre - L'existentialisme est un humanisme

In his short essay L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, Sartre opposes the depression of the subject, this is the humanism of his project. Man is a project, he declares. Consequently, to gain emancipation, one must make a choice. He must choose himself within his real authenticity and by doing so he chooses the whole of humanity.


In this short essay, we will see how Sartre’s procedure is crystallized by the injection of Existentialist terminology into his narratives and his essays. We will focus more precisely on his treatment of the question of colonialism where one can notice a plethora of his concepts, used intentionally as a support for his argumentation. Some of them are defined by opposition to one another (essentiality vs. inessentiality / authenticity vs inauthenticity/ bad faith vs. good faith) whereas others, on the contrary, supplement each other mutually (individual freedomcollective freedom / choosing one’s selfchoosing all men / being responsible of one’s selfbeing responsible for all men ), for the individual action engages all men.

Secondly, we will see how Sartre apprehends colonialism as a laboratory of analysis where the notion of exclusion is highly elaborated and hence measured by a systematic ideology. Despite everything, this ideology is for him, an incarnation of the capitalist system. Finally, a comparison between Sartre’s essays about colonialism and those of others for whom he wrote prefaces (A. Memmi, F.Fanon, Les poètes de la négritude), is interesting to make in order to understand their similarities and their differences.


II) Sartre’s texts (prefaces) about the question of colonialism


“Orphée Noir” :


In this text, Sartre analyses the concept of Negritude. What does it mean to be Negro ? Is claiming one’s negritude analogous to belonging to the labor class, which could lead to the universality of negritude ? Is fighting against racial discrimination in Africa the same struggle, the same political and social reality or the same wound as that of the workers in Europe ?

Sartre writes this :

« Le nègre, comme le travailleur blanc, est victime de la structure capitaliste de notre société ; cette situation lui dévoile son étroite solidarité, par delà les nuances de peau, avec certaines classes d’Européens opprimés comme lui ; elle l’incite à projeter une société sans privilège où la pigmentation de la peau sera tenue pour un simple accident. »Orphée noir (Situations III, p.236)


However, one can argue that if these workers are suffering from the economical discrimination where they are maintained as victims of the capitalist system, they are not distinguished among the other classes (from those who have Capital for instance) by the color of their skin, or by their race. They all belong to the same race : they are all whites. The conditions of domination are then structural and subject to change from the very moment when they are conscious of their condition.

Although it is hard for a worker to possess something other than his labor power (force de travail) ; or to obtain for himself a small amount of the capitalistic goods, the possibility of reaching this goal is still not absolutely excluded from his project. Unlike for others, this condition of material dispossession is presupposed for blacks and assumed by their color. Despite the fact that is his nature to be genetically once and for all black, the black could eventually improve his social condition and his class condition (and from this point of view he may resemble very much his proletarian fellows in the West) but never could he be a complete member of their society. After - or perhaps at the same time as - the fight for his rights as an exploited proletarian, he has to engage his power in another battle which is even more pertinent and which requires from him much abnegation. He needs to proclaim his difference, his blackness and to be accepted as a “black”.

Thus, there is no escape from his responsibility to be an authentic black :


« Le nègre ne peut nier qu’il soit nègre ni réclamer pour lui, cette abstraite humanité incolore : il est noir. Ainsi est-il acculé à l’authenticité : insulté, asservi, il se redresse, il ramasse le mot de « nègre » qu’on lui a jeté comme une pierre, il se revendique comme noir, en face du blanc, dans la fierté. » (ibidem, p.237)- My emphasis.


Racial exclusion from the white imaginary and from its psychological sphere as the “eternal other” - different and savage - may force the black to go back to his people. The very place where he has the best chance of creating and inventing his identity seems to be nowhere but among them.


« L’aliénation qu’une pensée étrangère lui impose sous le nom d’assimilation le [met] dans l’obligation de reconquérir son unité existentielle de nègre ou si l’on préfère, la pureté originelle de son projet par une ascèse progressive. » (ibidem, p.252)- My emphasis.


Sartre notices this political project and immediately links it to his own philosophical terminology. The notion of authenticity in Sartre’s Existentialism is here re-examined and revisited as it is the main marker (clue) of the self re-appropriation by the anguished subject who no longer flees from his responsibility.

Sartre’s reading of L. SENGHOR, A. CESAIRE and others from the underdeveloped countries of the third world is rather an investigation into adapting his language to the colonialism agenda.

As the ultimate phase of the war against colonialist pressure and the oppression of his daily life, the colonized must declare a total revolution. He must invent an absolute union with the oppressed wherever they are. Hence, black poetry becomes in Sartre’s rhetoric, a truly revolutionary one. Despite his defense of the opposite position in other texts (prose vs. poetry), Sartre is nevertheless convinced that black poetry could be at the origin of the revolutionary dialectic which is thus the beginning of liberation. The failure of the poetry to signify the subject, argues Sartre, is probably an attempt to achieve the process of language distortion and can be considered therefore as the only one way to ultimately signify the colonized subject. If prose is assigned to the colonialist, his poetry being regarded as a dematerialized one ; the black has no choice but to choose poetry for it is the alternative response to the failure of prose, exactly like the failure of the colonized before the colonizer.

But the poetic word, the verse, is incantatory.


This return to the private space (the family for example where the colonizer is not allowed) is the source of the regeneration of the colonized. Sartre’s emphasis on the poetic instance as the moment where the colonizer language is subverted and pushed to its limits by the colonized poet - who then uses syntax as a weapon against the colonizer - shows us how the linguistic heritage from colonialism is a laboratory where western poetry (which is in decline) could be reinvested with vigor and reoriented towards a manifesto of freedom. This new poetry is a part of the body ; it’s all rhythm (Tam Tam) and breath. By freeing himself, the oppressed frees the language and brings oxygen into it. Classicism is no longer appropriate because it is on the side of archaistic forms. The language of blood and suffering is a language living. The black will be the one who is capable of reincarnating this renewal of poetic word energy.

« Le poète européen d’aujourd’hui tente de déshumaniser les mots pour les rendre à la nature ; le héraut noir, lui, va les défranciser ; il les concassera, rompra leurs associations coutumières, les accouplera par la violence. » Orphée noir(274) (ibidem, p.252)


Jean-Paul Sartre - Réflexions sur la question juive

III) En marge de : Relexion on the Jewish issue


“Réflexion sur la question juive”


Sartre wrote about the Jew, about the colonized [Algerians, Blacks in Africa and in the Pacific], the Chinese, the poor in Parisian suburbs, workers in factories and capitalist industries but never writes directly to them.

The impossibility of feeling in his own body the reality of colonization ; the paradox of being outside these historical tragedies while reason and the intellect are constantly evolving inside of them - all of this is submerged in Sartre’s essays and raises the ultimate impossibility for him to write anything other than prefaces. Indeed, except for his long Réflexion sur la question juive where he has a tendency to consider the Jew as “the other from inside” - even though the Jew is not excluded from the capitalistic system, but rather is at its heart (he is accused of belonging to the upper middle class) precisely because he is regarded as the enemy who contaminates moral and secular traditions of Old Europe by his ingenuity at the same time that he is disseminated everywhere in the society - Sartre conceives his essays through very specific criteria which are those of emphasizing the work of those who are concerned.


The Jew is not physically different from others, despite the fact that some talk about certain aspects in his body : nose, hair color, etc., Sartre demonstrates that the “anti-Semite” knows very well how ridiculous his assumption is about the Jewish physical characterization.

Finally, this essay appears to be an additional long preface, once again, because of the impossibility for Sartre to do anything but make projections. He is not a Jew but he gives us numerous examples in order to convince us that he knows this or that particular Jew ; this or that friend told him about this or that specific incident in which a Jew, as an individual or as part of a ethnic community is involved. Once we read the essay, we find ourselves as readers, in a position of expectation. We expect the “real text” after the preface to come from “a real Jew” talking about his people from the inside.]


Leaving this text aside, we must concentrate on the concept of colonialism in Sartre’s universe even if Sartre’s political, philosophical and ethical point of view is very much wide-spread throughout all his work. According to the opinion which one can form, concerning the analysis of his existentialist philosophy, he is the author of one big narrative.

Every part of it is linked systematically to another in such a manner that the understanding of the spirit of Sartre’s project supposes those of the general dialectic’s movement. Sartre mentions Blacks very often when he is talking about Jews, Chinese and talks about Algerians, etc. These very structural connections build the core of the world’s division between rich and poor, colonizer and colonized, Black and White. This Manichaeism according to Sartre is nothing other than the expected result of the economical system. Sartre plays the devil’s advocate for the oppressed people whenever the oppression conforms to the same universal mechanism : the capitalist ideology in Western countries where the working classes are dominated and conditioned to reproduce the means of their own exploitation. For example, trained to be passive and docile, capitalism gives them the illusion that they are still superior to the indigenous people and that their living conditions, as far as they are mediocre, are still better than those of Africans and Asians.

The conflict with colonialism is undoubtedly subjugated to the supra-structure, to transnational interests - capitalism. The debate on the origins of racial discrimination against Black people underlines the implicit and intrinsic articulation of the proletarian struggle. The exploitation is above all economical ; the notion of race is only its substratum, pretext. Racial inferiority of the other is used as an alibi to justify the class domination within the class division and stratification. Slavery must be seen, finally, as an economic domination : the Black man is an essential link in the stratification of work. He is characterized as an absolute force of work “force de travail” in the colonialist’s hands which ensures him his permanence. In his economic agenda, he does not ignore the danger or the inaccuracy of the race myth and the hierarchy in terms of values. The colonialist slave-owner knows that he needs to put the supremacy of his own race (White) in opposition to the savage’s inanity (Black, Asian, Arab, etc.) in the economic sphere. By doing so, he is sure to establish the pertinence or legitimacy of colonization. He has technology, machines and intelligence while the colonized is still in the Stone Age, ignorant, uneducated and without any hope of self-emancipation.


The reinvestment of the “verb” or in other words, poetry universe and its “deterritorialization” in favor of the colonized, does not seem to generate any kind of obstacle for Sartre. Although he previously criticized strongly poetry’s inefficiency and its ineptitude (opposed to the very necessity of the prose for one who wishes to express himself), accusing it as being rigid and disincarnated when used by the western poets, in this text, Sartre suddenly proclaims the rehabilitation of poetry. He sees the opportunity of this renewal brought by the poetry of negritude. The use of language by oppressed people is different, deconstructed and reoriented into a new direction in order to promote the aspirations of the local population. The French language in a colonial context, for example, does not represent the French spirit. The paradox of writing in a colonialist language is partly absorbed by this distortion introduced by the colonized into the traditional syntax, lexicology and esthetics’ categories.


The difficulty in entering into this language is, at the same time, a chance to innovate. The colonized poet has no choice : killing all the artifacts of the “old” language where the expressions are stereotyped in order to deny him existence or dying within the other’s phantasmagoria of glory and empire. He must destroy the stereotype supported by a battery of writing reflexes, thus he will destroy the projection which defines him one and for all as the inferior. According to Sartre, when the black poet liberates himself, he also liberates French poetry from dehumanization. To the danger of :

« Et comme les mots sont des idées, quand le nègre déclare en français qu’il rejette la culture française, il prend d’une main ce qu’il repousse de l’autre.[...] cette syntaxe et ce vocabulaire forgés en d’autres temps, à des milliers de lieues, pour répondre à d’autres objets sont impropres à lui fournir les moyens de parler de lui, de ses soucis, de ses espoirs. » p.244


The response of the colonized is to say : my strategy is to beat the colonialist with his own weapon. The colonialist’s language does not belong to him any more because of this re-foundation of the criterion by which the colonized uses poetry as a vision of identity restoration :

« À la ruse du colon, ils [les poètes noirs] répondent par une ruse inverse et semblable : puisque l’oppresseur est présent jusque dans la langue qu’ils parlent, ils parleront cette langue pour la détruire. Le poète européen d’aujourd’hui tente de déshumaniser les mots pour les rendre à la nature ; le héraut noir, lui, va les défranciser ; il les concassera, rompra leurs associations coutumières, les accouplera par la violence. » p.247

As we can see, the language becomes then what Sartre calls a super-language (superlangage). What is more, Sartre suggests going beyond negritude, which must be considered as a mean rather than as an end : a mean to achieve the workers’ liberation all over the world :

« Et parce qu’il est le plus opprimé, c’est la libération de tous qu’il poursuit nécessairement, lorsqu’il travaille à sa propre délivrance. »(p.278)

Once again, Sartre notices a necessary link between the black’s struggle and that of the international worker as Marx defines him. Therefore, it is not a surprise for him to discover that most of these poets are none other than Marxists. For him, negritude should be considered as the mirror of the universal proletariat. The thesis is white ; the antithesis is the very moment when the black refuses the white dictator and the synthesis should be the project of one society without the notion of the race. Human freedom would be possible only if the following statement which blacks offer to humanity is taken into consideration.

« Ils savant [les noirs] qu’il [ ‘il’] est le moment de négativité et d’opposition au Blanc] vise à préparer la synthèse ou réalisation de l’humain dans une société sans races. »


Finally, it is not very difficult to understand why Sartre was necessarily and structurally for the black cause. His conception of an existentialist philosophy is one of liberation, action and responsibility. All these notions are a part of his terminology and he finds their echo in the combat against the colonialism. Hence, we can move now to another part of Africa (The Maghreb) where the same causes produce the same effects. We will see how Sartre seems to be very familiar with the reality of colonialism there. We suggest looking at colonialism in Tunisia (with A. Memmi) and Algeria (with F. Fanon) and how Sartre reacts to their respective essays.


IV) Sartre’s preface to Albert MEMMI’s “Portrait du colonisé précédé du portrait du colonisateur


Albert Memmi - Portrait du colonisé/Portrait du colonisateur

The first comment Sartre makes is to talk about the writer himself. Like he did with black poets concerning the ambiguity of their linguistic situation - using French language to speak about French colonization - he very much insists on the necessity of accepting this uncomfortable and instable position. But Sartre says that A. Memmi came to terms with himself. In fact, Memmi is neither considered as European nor indigenous : he is from the Jewish minority in Tunisia which has certain privileges denied to the Muslims. For this reason, Sartre immediately sees the contradiction : the anguish of being acculturated, and consequently, the good faith which one must have towards himself. Sartre is grateful to Memmi of being authentic by confessing his ambivalent position. Furthermore, Sartre says ironically that perhaps Memmi is both colonizer and colonized. If we follow Sartre’s philosophy, the tragic aspect of this situation forces one to make a choice. That is to say, Memmi could not have chosen anything other than the denunciation of the colonialism.


« Unis par une solidarité de fait au sous-prolétariat, séparé de lui par de maigres privilèges, leurs membres [‘membres’ de la communauté juive] vivent dans un malaise perpétuel. »


The first important condition for one who wants to free himself is to confront this notion of acceptation. In Sartre’s eyes, one of the most fundamental strengths of Memmi’s text is precisely that he is very conscientious about his hybrid situation. There is nothing more adaptable to Sartre’s point of view than Memmi speaking from his own experience. Sartre’s Existentialism presupposes the existence of an identity crisis and suggests the conceptual material needed to get through the ordeal of colonialist pressure. For him, Memmi’s book is the result of a sort of combination between subjectivity - which is extremely necessary to maintain the individual project of achievement - and a political theorization on colonialism which is rather a generalization which englobes all humans. Then, authenticity and good faith mean perpetual awareness about one’s self, hence, about the others. The individual project promotes solidarity among all men. Sartre’s statement : L’existence précède l’essence implies that a man is his own project ; he is at his own origin despite certain circumstances which superficially influence his choices.


« Memmi a éprouvé cette double solidarité et ce double refus : le mouvement qui oppose les colons aux colonisés, les ‘colons qui se refusent’ ‘aux colons qui s’acceptent’. »[1]


Memmi’s position (in between two opposite sides which condemn him to be quartered) gives Sartre the opportunity to bring up this essential notion of liberation : anguish. Indeed, one cannot make a choice but in anguish :


« Mais celui qui en [les conflits d’appartenance] souffre, s’il prend conscience de soi, s’il connaît ses complicités, ses tentations et son exil, peut éclairer les autres en parlant de soi-même. »


Of course, Memmi does not tell anything [Il ne raconte pas], Sartre says. Like F. Fanon, he speaks from his real experience which can be generalized by including the universal :


« Il [Memmi] essaye de vivre sa particularité en la dépassant vers l’universel. »



V) What does Albert MEMMI say ?


Inhisownpreface(forthe1966 editionwrittennine years after the original text), Memmi makes this retrospective remark :

« Ce sont les voyages, les conversations et les lectures qui me confirmèrent, au fur et à mesure que j’avançais, que ce que j’avais écrit était le lot d’une multitude d’hommes à travers le monde. Je découvrais du même coup, en somme, que tous les Colonisés se ressemblaient ; je devais constater par la suite que tous les Opprimés se ressemblaient en quelque mesure »

Because of the situation, Memmi adds : Je suis inconditionnellement contre toutes les oppressions.(20)

Substantially, Memmi says that the colonialist has, as his project, the destruction of any kind of traditional structures which belong to the colonized.

« Ajoutons maintenant qu’il dispose de moins en moins de son passé. Le colonisateur ne lui en a même jamais connu ; et tout le monde sait que le roturier, dont on ignore les origines, n’en a pas. »(131)

These are declared archaisms. He denies him any past and any form of history or culture by pretending that the white civilization is the only one which will enable him to improve his social and cultural conditions. He should, however, consider the colonizer as his savior. He was struggling in the midst of darkness. Thankfully, the white came and pulled him into the light : a light which opens his eyes ; a light which shows him the path towards freedom and progress.

But the reality of the colonialist system is that it is nourished by exploitation which the colonizer knows very well. He has to live thus with his bad conscience. Memmi writes this Sartrian sentence :

« Pour vivre sans angoisse, il faut vivre distrait de soi-même et du monde. » (56)

The paradox, in the other hand, is that the end of slavery would signify at the same time that of his reign. He wants to kill in him any trace of humanity (both Sartre and Memmi talk about dehumanization, cf. p.113) ; reducing him to a pure expression of instinct and thus returning to an animal state (animalité).

His language is killed, eradicated. Since the psychological operation of eliminating the essence of beliefs of the colonized which come into his language, the colonialist creates an empty space immediately filled by the dominate language. So that is not a negligible part of his supremacy in the daily life of the colonized. It is positive while the one of the colonized is negative, pejorative and unessential.


« En outre, la langue maternelle du colonisé, celle qui est nourrie de ses sensations, ses passions et ses rêves, celle dans laquelle se libèrent sa tendresse et ses étonnements, celle enfin qui recèle la plus grande charge affective, celle-là précisément est la moins valorisée. » (136) Memmi’s emphasis.

The economic and social conditions are in the colonizer’s favor. Supported by the colonialist administration policies - which are all made for him and for the systematic discrimination of the colonized- he soon finds out that he is really the master. Coming from nowhere and designated as nobody, he quickly becomes “mister somebody”. The change in his situation is guaranteed by the colonialist system. He is a member of this system ; he is the soul of the ideology supported by a political superstructure. In his turn, he will ultimately be the major root of it. The existence of colonialism implies automatically the existence of a colonizer. Thus, there is no colonialism without the machinery which produces the colonizers in mass. Conceptualized in this manner, the colonizer becomes the first link in the chain of colonialism while the colonized is the last one. Memmi comes out with the conclusion that what he calls valeurs-refuge (family, traditions and religion) should be overcome. But still, the colonized needs to radicalize his struggle, like Fanon and Sartre proclaim it :


« Que reste-t-il alors à faire au colonisé ? Ne pouvant quitter sa condition dans l’accord et la communion avec le colonisateur, il essaiera de se libérer contre lui : il va se révolter. » (155)


VI) What does Frantz FANON say ?


Frantz Fanon - Peau noire, masques blancs

a) Colonial situation and the process of decolonization


According to Fanon, decolonization is not only a historical process but an irreversible one as well. The colonizer made the colonized.

“Le colon fait l’histoire. Sa vie est une épopée, odyssée. Il est le commencement absolu : ‘Cette terre, c’est nous qui l’avons faite’.”(40)

He did so, on the basis of spoliation and on a violent confiscation of the colonized goods (the land). This fact is presented by Fanon as the former violence with two poles : physical violence resulted from invasion, maintained without failure during the whole colonization, and economic violence which is the systematic dispossession of the colonized means of existence : his farm, his land, his elementary rights as a human being.

The violence of the colonized in return is the one only by reaction : Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Decolonization could be possible only on the condition that the colonized responds to the colonizer’s radicalization by a radicalization of his own struggle in order to raise it to the level of - and maybe above- the one he endures at the hands of the colonizer.


“Le colonialisme n’est pas une machine à penser, n’est pas un corps doué de raison. Il est la violence à l’état de nature et ne peut s’incliner que devant une plus grande violence.”(47)


In Fanon’s ideology, any fight for liberation means the eradication and the death of the colonizer. If the colonizer’s project is clear (the dispossession of the colonized), it is thus necessary for the colonized to globalize his opposition to him. He must reject this project in its totality, without any illusion which consists of the hope that the colonizer will abandon his empire. Fanon thinks that he will never give up defending his privileges, by nature.


The use of violence as the ultimate weapon to destroy the colonialist system is the Fanon’s credo. For him, the philosophy of the struggle is subsequently reduced to a pure violence, to what one can call Manichaeism : the colonizer is the product of his violence ; the colonized should then emancipate himself by means of violence as well. Finally, the only possible outcome of this confrontation is one of bloodshed. Fanon compares the colonized to a muscle, a bloody knife :

« La première chose que l’indigène apprend, c’est à rester à sa place, à ne pas dépasser les limites. C’est pourquoi les rêves de l’indigène sont des rêves musculaires, des rêves d’action, des rêves agressifs. »


So, in his body, the colonized is invested with muscular power : Dans ses muscles, le colonisé est toujours en attente.” (41) The flag, the policeman and the bugle no longer don’t cause inhibition, but rather, excitement.

Then, Fanon establishes a difference between capitalist exploitation (within capitalist countries) and the colony which has no intermediates. In Western Europe, the capitalist system of oppression - a sophisticated one based on an esthetic moral - is supported by a series of these intermediates between workers and Capital : Fanon calls them professors of moral whose function is to inhibit the exploited. In the colonies, the policeman and the soldier are the guarantors of the colonialist order. They contribute to the exacerbation of this order by their endemic violence. By consequent, the violence is not hidden, but constantly visible and without any mediation. Thus, every day, the native is reminded of the very reason for his constant oppression.


Afterwards, Fanon draws a terrifying portrait of what he thinks to be the colonial reality : a world divided in two, compartmented. First of all, the colonizers are sated, overly saturated with wealth and protected more than needed within their city-fortresses. The latter represent archetypal figures of the success of the occidental model where every glance from the colonized is suspected and interpreted as a sign of violation and intrusion. On the other hand, we have the colonized who lives in anarchy, violence and emptiness. He has no life project and his society is without any kind of hierarchy, without coherence.

« La ville du colon est une ville en dur, toute de pierre et de fer. C’est une ville illuminée, asphaltée, où les poubelles regorgent toujours de restes inconnus, jamais vus même pas rêvées.[...] La ville du colonisé, ou du moins la ville indigène, le village nègre, la médina, la réserve est un lieu mal famé, peuplée d’hommes mal famés On y naît n’importe où, n’importe comment. On y meurt n’importe où, de n’importe quoi. » (31-32)


b) The intellectual colonized, seen by Fanon


The dialogue between colonized intellectuals and the “bourgeois” of the colonialist country is based on a structural positioning, Fanon says. During the colonial phase, these intellectuals are not heard but, in times of trouble, they will be solicited to provide help for the colonialist upper middle class. They will then be regarded as the elite, capable of playing an essential role in promoting western values (culture, technical progress, etc.). They obviously accept this charge because they are afraid that the insurrection machinery will pulverize their few privileges. To the colonizer, they have the illusion of being attached by their belonging to the same class. While people are asking for bread and land, the colonized intellectual talks about ideals and humanism.

Fanon denounces all these pseudo-intellectuals for their naivety and for their proclamation of the 1789 universalism that the masses don’t even care about. The principle of an egalitarian society - in the name of human dignity - has no chance of interesting those who are suffering from inferiorization and humiliation.

« Pendant la période de décolonisation, certains intellectuels colonisés ont établi un dialogue avec la bourgeoisie du pays colonialiste. »


One of the major debates that could be adaptable to Sartre is the one on the workers’ class. For both Sartre and Fanon, the role of the intellectual should be absorbed by the preeminence of the workers in terms of the means of struggle. According to them, the prior role should be played by the masses which then contribute to the disappearance of the intellectual.

Mohammed Dib - L'incendie

They are joined at this point by the Algerian novelist Mohammed DIB. In his book L’Incendie, DIB shows that the intellectual must abandon the city in favor of the country where the peasants are the very people who know the real anguish of being persecuted.

Sometimes, this intellectual could remain in bad faith even more after independence where he is still used as a facilitator between local bourgeoisie (comprador) and neo-colonialist ideology.


« L’intellectuel se comporte objectivement, dans cette période [décolonisation] comme un vulgaire opportuniste. » (39)


c) Post war : desegregation of the colonial model and hope


Fanon warns against what he calls the false decolonization which is distinguishable from the real one : the new revolutionary order might not be so demanding for his people who are heavily handicapped by starvation and misery. It is necessary to redefine the society around the notion of prevention against the western model of economy. In other words, structures of production need to be reoriented towards local aspirations. Competition against the old enemy would become suicidal. So, the economy should rather start from the very essence of the revolution. In short, adoption of Socialism is the only path for those who suffered from the imperialist and capitalist system. The threat - this is precisely the bad decolonization - would be, then, to have the illusion that the success of the capitalist countries could automatically apply to decolonized ones. In this case, the colonizer who was thrown out by force will quickly come back by means of his economical war machine. Fanon is convinced that the best position towards the old colonialist countries is to ask for reparation rather then alms. Destruction caused by the war should be taken into account in any negotiations with the ex-colonizer. The colonized has no reason to be ashamed of asking for the participation of the colonizer in this effort to reconstruct the young decolonized country. Finally, according to Fanon, there is no real independence without solidarity with socialist countries which should be regarded as their friends. Socialism is the only path to achieving a substantial decolonization.


VII) What does Sartre respond to Fanon ?


What is most revolutionary in Fanon’s book, according to Sartre’s reading, is this very new way of choosing an audience. Fanon does not write for everybody. He does not write to the colonizer or to the Europeans. This (enormous) political dimension within the body of the writing, which is the one adopted by Fanon, introduces distortion in the traditional colonized discourse. For Sartre, it is essential to see how the radicalization of the struggle against colonialism begins by literally killing the idea of the colonizer. The negation from which the colonized suffered as an exploited individual should be turned now against the colonizer during the war of liberation. Exactly like the colonizer ignored him, tried by all means to dehumanize him, the colonized in the period of his liberation, must first conceptualize and achieve in his mind the same disintegration of the colonizer myth.

« On y [dans ce livre] parle de vous souvent, à vous jamais. Finis les Goncourt noires et les Nobel jaunes. [...] S’il démonte les mécanismes du colonialisme, le jeu complexe des relations qui unissent et qui opposent les colons aux « métropolitains » c’est pour ses frères ; son but est de leur apprendre à nous déjouer. » Sartre’s emphasis.

Nevertheless, Sartre is very much fascinated by Fanon’s rhetoric of an absolute violence. The demystification of the colonialist’s discourse[2] in a book written by a colonized intellectual appears to Sartre as the moment of truth : the colonizer’s truth, and by extension, this reality can be generalized to include the responsibility of all. In L’existentialisme est un humanisme, Sartre puts emphasis on collective responsibility whenever any individual produces a particular action. He says that one’s actions engage all men. Also, the use of the “nous” should then be taken as a marker of the collective responsibility of Europeans concerning their colonies. Furthermore, what Sartre notices is the opportunity given by Fanon or by poets of negritude to learn about one’s self through the eyes of the colonized. As the other tells me who I am, I have to listen to him in order to learn about myself.


« Pourquoi le [ce livre] lire puisqu’il n’est pas écrit pour nous ? Pour deux motifs dont le premier est que Fanon vous explique à ses frères et démonte pour eux le mécanisme de nos aliénations : profitez-en pour vous découvrir à vous-même dans votre vérité d’objets. » (13)

The second reason given by Sartre for reading Fanon is the assumption made by the colonialist that a human can be reduced to an animal. The separation between Europeans and indigenous people is perceived in terms of human v inhuman.

Sartre invites Europeans to read this book. “Européens, ouvrez ce livre, entrez-y.” (13)

This book, even though it is not written for Europeans, helps them understand the hypocrisy of the liberal system which includes and affects European societies.


« Il [Fanon] se fait l’interprète de la situation, rien de plus. Mais cela suffit pour qu’il constitue, étape par étape, la dialectique que l’hypocrisie libérale vous cache et qui nous a produits tout autant que lui. » (14)


Sartre agrees obviously with Fanon. Like him, he thinks that the violence of the colonized is a legitimate one because it is the result of that of the colonizer. He insists strongly on the notion of dehumanization which seems to be an illusion. Finally, Sartre says that Fanon’s book does not need a preface since it is not written for Europeans. In other words, Fanon’s pamphlet against colonialism does not need a preface by an European. But Sartre thinks that this preface could be used as an occasion to push Fanon’s dialectic to its limits : to suggest an additional thesis - existentialist one - in order to decolonize the European himself.


« Ce livre n’avait nul besoin d’une préface. D’autant moins qu’il ne s’adresse à nous. J’en ai fait une cependant, pour mener jusqu’au bout la dialectique : nous aussi, gens de l’Europe, on nous décolonise : cela veut dire qu’on extirpe par une opération sanglante le colon qui est en chacun de nous. » (22)


First of all, the European must admit that he is an exploitative power :


« Vous savez bien que nous sommes des exploiteurs. Vous savez bien que nous avons pris l’or et les métaux puis le pétrole des “continents neufs” et que nous les avons ramenés dans les vieilles métropoles. » (22)


Indeed, Sartre’s preface resembles a supplement to the colonialism issue. Since Fanon ignores the European, Sartre attempts to open the eyes of the latter. He pushes him to decolonize himself and to create solidarity with Algerian revolutionaries, thus, to support violence as the only choice to access freedom.


« C’est le dernier moment de la dialectique : vous condamnez cette guerre mais n’osez pas encore vous déclarer solidaires des combattants algériens ; n’ayez crainte, comptez sur les colons et sur les mercenaires : ils vous feront sauter le pas. » (26)


VIII) Conclusion


In this short study, we tried to analyze Sartre’s discourse through his essays, especially those about colonialism. Our perspective was to verify whether or not his existentialist rhetoric could encounter a favorable echo among the colonized authors and to see how it is adaptable to their work. We must respond immediately in the affirmative. One of the major questions we had raised was the following : is being existentialist necessarily being anti-colonialist ? To this question, we have also to respond once again by another “yes”. We tried to demonstrate how the problematic of colonialism nourishes Sartre’s philosophical methodology and also how it defines his terminology. We have seen that the majority of the concepts to which he contributed to the valorization (authenticity, anguish, essentiality, freedom, responsibility, individuality, action, project, etc.) are massively present in his writing about colonialism.

As his philosophy is one of liberation, and the struggle of the colonized is to have liberation in its sights. Sartre could not, evidently, write anything other than pro-revolutionary texts. Sartre’s eclectics in his essays should be seen rather as a syncretism around the same topic : enhancement of the human condition. Sartre’s project is consequently the project of living in authenticity. The black, the Jew, the colonized, the immigrant wherever they are, are condemned to make a choice. They have to choose to be free. In the texts we read, Sartre tried to avoid a systematic reference to men as an indissoluble totality. The notion of “individual” is, therefore, essential. We have seen several times during our seminar that Sartre constantly writes against himself. The individual project may be opposed to the collective one. When Sartre talks about communities, (Colonized, Blacks, Jews, Chinese, Immigrants, and Workers) he could hardly refer to specific individuals with an individual ideal of living. In the struggle of classes, one can encounter a system of exploitation in the presence of a collectivity of exploited people but not this or that particular individual. Unity is achieved only at the expense of the individual. Of course, according to Marx, the ultimate phase of socialism is to ensure freedom for the individual when the whole privileges disappear. In the contrary, Sartre’s conception of a political philosophy is to suggest starting from the very individual before the collectivity. Naturally, for one who wants to understand Sartre’s philosophy, it is necessary to go back to his biography where, finally, we can find elements of clarification. Sartre struggles with his former class : the French bourgeoisie (cf. Les mots) in which he does not find any accountancy. Then, he has to write for his own liberation from this dilemma : being an intellectual bourgeois and talking about the poor.

Sartre was very conscious about his own priesthood and about his merit as well. His popularity allows him to criticize harshly the western society. He is convinced to having a main role to play in making people be more vigilant and more engaged in their political duties and rights. Because Sartre is very much convinced that writing may serve humanity, it is indeed a priesthood to write for ever. His universalism is that one of de-constructing the traditional western universalism and the humanism. Writing essays about local causes in the same manner that he writes about those that are furthest from him, is somehow the same thing for Sartre. Then, one can see the justification of such statement : By choosing myself, I chose all men. Sartre does this with - and among - people like Frantz Fanon or Albert Memmi which is the figuration of a sort of debate on colonialism that Sartre would like to bring in Europe while someone like Fanon is not preoccupied at all about the matter of saying or teaching anything to those who created exploitation and colonialism.


IX) Bibliography & references


  • Jean-Paul SARTRE, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, Gallimard, Paris, 1945.
  • J-P SARTRE, Réflexions sur la question juive, Gallimard, Paris, 1954.
  • J-P SARTRE, Le colonialisme est un système, Paris, Les Temps Modernes, n°123, March/April, 1956.
  • J-P SARTRE, Le tiers-monde commence en banlieue, Paris, Les Temps Modernes,
  • J-P SARTRE, La Nausée, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.
  • J-P SARTRE, D’une Chine à l’autre, preface to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Delpine, 1954.
  • J-P SARTRE, Les mots, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.
  • Mohammed DIB, L’incendie, Paris, Seuil, 1954.
  • Frantz FANON, Les damnés de la terre, Maspero, Paris, 1961.
  • Albert MEMMI, Portrait du colonisateur, suivi du portrait du colonisé, Paris, Gallimard /Folio, 2002.
  • Albert Camus, Algérie 1958, Paris Gallimard, 1958.

 Prefaces :

  • J-P SARTRE, Les damnés de la terre, (Frantz FANON), Paris, Maspero, 1961.
  • J-P SARTRE, Portrait du colonisé (Albert MEMMI), Paris, Gallimard, 2002.
  • J-P SARTRE, Orphée Noir (poésies noires), Paris, Situations III, 1948.

[1] It is Sartre who puts quotations.

[2] The paternalist discourse and the operation of reducing the colonizer to objects are here explained by Sartre : “Quelle déchéance : pour les pères, nous étions les uniques interlocuteurs ; les fils ne nous tiennent même plus pour des interlocuteurs valables : nous sommes les objets du discours. » (11)


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