Ron Aronson is widely regarded as the preeminent scholar of
Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy in the English-speaking world.
A professor of interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State
University in Detroit, his books include Jean-Paul Sartre,
Philosophy in the World (1980), The Dialectics of Disaster:
A Preface to Hope (1983), Sartre’s Second Critique (1987),
“Stay Out of Politics”: A Philosopher Views South Africa
(1990), After Marxism (1995), and Camus and Sartre: The
Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (2004)
will be published in paperback in April by the University of
Chicago Press. A French translation of the book will appear
in March from
This interview took place at the Left of Center Bookstore in
Why has it taken so long—half a century—for the full story
of the Camus-Sartre relationship to be told?
It was, of course, wonderful to have the whole story to
myself, but it was curious that no one had ever told it
before. In 1938 Camus read Sartre’s Nausea with
enormous enthusiasm. He discovered it and it had a great
effect on him, as you can see in The Myth of Sisyphus.
In 1939 he read Sartre’s book of short stories, The Wall.
He had been critical of Nausea, but by the time he
read The Wall, he said, “This is a great writer.”
Sartre discovered Camus in 1942 and wrote a long review of
his novel The Stranger in connection with the ideas
of The Myth of Sisyphus. Clearly there was a kinship
between the two of them before they even met.
Simone de Beauvoir recounts how they met in 1943, at the
premiere of Sartre’s play The Flies. This was
followed by immediate friendship, particularly because Camus
was marooned in France. An Algerian pied-noir (the
the former French colonists of North Africa, especially
he couldn’t go back home because of the war. As they became
close, Sartre told him about his new play, No Exit.
He asked Camus, an actor and leader of a theater troupe in
Algiers, to play the lead. Previous writers have shown
little interest in the fact that Garcin, the male lead in
Sartre’s most famous play, may have been developed with
Camus in mind. But already this suggests that they may have
been influencing each other. It is an interaction made to
order for the literary biographer, yet no one has told the
The deeper you go into the story, the more fascinating it
becomes. As you continue to trace their interaction, you can
observe each one influencing the other. In decisive places
Sartre and Camus shape themselves in relation to each other.
For example, Sartre was sent to the United States by Camus
in 1945 to write articles for the former Resistance
newspaper he edited, Combat. Sartre gave a lecture
at Columbia University which was never published in French
during Camus’s or his lifetime. It appeared in Vogue
magazine during July, 1945, entitled “New Writing in
France.” In it Sartre spends the most time on “Albert Camus,
who is 30 years old.” He relates the plot of Camus’s The
Plague, his novel in progress (as a close friend, he
happened to be privileged to read a draft). Sartre discusses
Camus as a Resistance writer. Putting this lecture alongside
Sartre’s celebrated statement published a few months later
demanding that the writer should be politically committed,
we can see that Camus was a model for Sartre—the committed,
engaged writer willing to risk himself as a member of the
As both men continued to develop, Camus related to Sartre’s
ideas, and Sartre related to Camus the person. So, why did
no one ever tell this story? In part it resembles a marriage
gone sour, when, after an ugly divorce, both parties deny
any trace of a connection. “He never had any effect on me.”
“I never loved her.” Doris Lessing describes this attitude
in The Golden Notebook. And that’s really the sort of
shutting off that Sartre and Camus did with each other. Each
one refused to acknowledge that the other had an effect on
them, and everyone close to them followed their lead. The
biographers and commentators followed their lead. This is
the personal reason the story remained untold, which we can
all relate to.
There’s also a political reason.
Yes. The political reason was the Cold War. Sartre and Camus
“broke up” in 1952, over the Cold War. Like the “war on
terrorism,” the Cold War was a war of “good” versus “evil.”
In a Manichean war, whichever side you’re on is the good
side, and the other side is the evil side. Dramatically this
made their conflict totally uninteresting. It was not a
tragedy, but a morality play. And in a morality play, good
wins, evil loses, and you pay little attention to the story.
This is what happened to the Sartre-Camus relationship. No
one was interested in the story, because everyone had to
take sides—the famous Sartrean idea: you must choose. In
President Bush’s words: “Either you’re with us or you’re
against us.” Sartre and Camus too: you’re with us or you’re
with the enemy. Which side are you on? You’re with Camus or
with Sartre. For Camus, Sartre became the incarnation of the
devil—and he still is for many people. For Sartre, Camus was
politically vapid—and still is to many.
But in fact it is a very interesting story—morally,
politically, philosophically, and personally. No one thought
it was worth telling. And so not long after the end of the
Cold War, I found myself saying, “Wait a second. It’s not
that simple. If you start looking at what actually happened,
it was profoundly interesting. There was a genuine
relationship between them.
Did you once see the schism in these either/or, Manichean
terms, back in the day?
Yes, definitely. As I saw it then, Sartre was right. The
radical Left, myself included, sided with Sartre. The
moderate Left sided with Camus. The radicals saw the
moderate Left as always selling out. The moderate Left saw
the radicals as being addicted to violence.
And you chose Sartre’s side?
It wasn’t even a question of choosing. Sartre came with the
What sort of presence did Camus have in your imagination at
that point? Where did he figure in?
He was the Other. In the either/or, he was the Other, who
one didn’t want to be. He was an anti-Communist. If you were
on Sartre’s side, you had to be against Camus. If you were
on Camus’s side, you had to be against Sartre.
Today, some might even say you’re more sympathetic to Camus
than you are to Sartre—as did the Village Voice
reviewer, who praised you for it. How did your
appreciation for Camus eventually deepen?
I was asked to do an introduction to a collection of the
documents of the Sartre-Camus conflict. The documents
include the 1952 review in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps
modernes, by Sartre’s young protégé Francis Jeanson, who
slammed Camus’ book The Rebel. The second document
is Camus’s angry letter to the journal, “To the Editor”—he
refused to say “Cher Sartre.” This is a hostile 16-page
reply to the hostile review. And then Sartre wrote an even
longer reply to Camus, in which he wiped the floor with him.
Then Jeanson concluded with a 30-page reply. These are the
David Sprintzen, the author of an excellent book on Camus,
had this project in mind for years. He wanted to present the
documents to the public—these primary sources—with essays by
various people. I was to write an introductory essay. So I
wrote a lengthy essay about my fascination with the Sartre-Camus
debate. It was the first time I had read the two together.
The Cold War had ended, which had changed everything for me:
I no longer had to choose. The either/or was over. As a
result, I started seeing Camus with great sympathy. And then
I read much more by Camus, and I realized that, in spite of
his faults, I loved his work. There’s something so
attractive and appealing about Camus as a writer, as a
person, as a sensibility. Very different from Sartre.
Sartre was a political and philosophical genius; Camus was a
literary genius. Sartre’s relationship with his body was
very problematic, as you can see from his writing; Camus is
the sensuous writer, totally at home with his body, with the
sun and the sand. You can feel the alienation in Sartre’s
writing and the heat in Camus’.
Sartre was the philosopher who dabbled in literature, while
Camus was the writer who dabbled in philosophy.
Exactly. As I appreciated Camus for himself, the either/or
about Communism was fading into the background. I could
begin to appreciate Camus’s arguments and feel much more
sympathetic to him. This 25-page introduction wound up being
75 pages. I sent it off to the editor and he had no problem
with the length. He never said anything negative about it
except, when I got it back, he had written an introduction
to my introduction. I had been psychologically and
politically and philosophically working my way to a more
balanced sense of the Cold War, and of Sartre and Camus—of
the friendship, of the break, of the issues. I had begun to
appreciate both sides, and felt an immense pleasure in this.
And then when I read Sprintzen’s introduction, I concluded
that he was spinning it Camus’ way: Camus was right; Sartre
was wrong. I asked him to change or withdrawal his
introduction, and when he didn’t, I withdrew from the
And then I found out that an essay by Sartre’s biographer,
John Gerassi, who was sharply pro-Sartre and anti-Camus, was
rejected. I felt that the book was becoming
another post-Cold War effort to vindicate Camus. So I sent
my essay off to my editor at the University of Chicago
Press, who said, “This should be a book.” And so I became
enthusiastic about the idea of telling the whole story.
And here it is.
And here it is. My goal was to refuse to take sides. This is
a moving story, a meaningful story. In some ways, a
beautiful story. And a tragedy.
What is the story’s beauty?
My book is the biography of the relationship. Most of the
other biographers had said, or written as if, the two
weren’t important to each other. Patrick McCarthy, for
example, argues that the relationship didn’t last very long,
only a few months at best. And all of them suggest that the
two didn’t care very much about each other. But Simone de
Beauvoir said to her biographer, Deidre Bair, that their
early relationship was like a love affair. Sartre was
involved with Camus as if he was falling in love, and
Beauvoir was very disturbed by this. She insisted that
“Sartre was the strongest heterosexual I know”—as if to make
sure that no one would suspect any homosexuality. But she
also tells us that Sartre was talking about Camus the way
one talks about a lover. Clearly Sartre felt a very powerful
connection with Camus.
And the connection was important, based on that sense that
they were opposites.
They were opposites, yes.
Camus is beautiful; Sartre is unattractive.
Camus is younger. He’s from Algeria.
He’s working-class; Sartre is bourgeois.
In his review of my book in The Nation, Russell
Jacoby takes issue with my sense of their strong connection
by stressing their differences and arguing that theirs was
an “accidental” relationship. But so often in falling in
love you’re attracted to your opposite. With Sartre and
Camus, it’s very clear that opposites attracted. Camus came
to Paris from a colonial backwater, and Sartre introduced
him to famous Parisian intellectuals and artists like
Picasso, and he took Camus into his and Beauvoir’s circle. I
don’t think Camus was an opportunist but rather a
pied-noir being brought into the exciting world of
Paris. Sartre did this for Camus. What Camus offered Sartre
was his political involvement, having come naturally to
something Sartre wrestled with for years.
You’re talking about their respective roles in the
Yes, for Camus, being a political intellectual, entering
into the Resistance as a newspaper editor, was not something
he pondered endlessly, but came to spontaneously. He never
discussed it in his journal. He said, this is just something
one does. But it is striking how many times Sartre reflected
on it. Most of his plays until the 1950s asked: How do you
commit yourself? How do you become politically effective?
This was a major issue for Sartre. During the liberation of
Paris in August, 1944, Sartre was in the national theater
group of the resistance. He was given a rusty old pistol and
he went with other theater people to guard the Comedie
Française to ensure that the Germans didn’t blow it up as
they withdrew. He was part of the troop that was guarding
And Camus was the editor of Combat, the underground
newspaper that was now publishing openly. As editor, he
walked around Paris observing what was happening as the
Germans were departing and as the French were taking the
city back. Knowing that Sartre was at the Comedie Française
he walked into the theatre. And Sartre, who had apparently
spent some time walking across Paris to get there, and was
exhausted, was slumped in his theater seat, asleep. Camus
went up to Sartre and woke him up, saying, “At least your
theater seat is pointed in the direction of history.”
Sartre had obviously carried on about being in history’s
direction. And Camus was poking affectionate fun at his
friend, who could do no more than point his theatre seat in
history’s direction, while Camus was putting out a newspaper
and influencing events. This was where things stood between
them in August of 1944. Camus was the serious political
activist, and Sartre was the wall-eyed philosopher who was
always thinking about how to become involved but could never
pull it off.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Sartre
happened to be studying in Berlin. And there is no account
in Sartre’s writings or his diaries that he had anything to
say about the Third Reich. In fact, he spent every day
during this period, during this historical turning point, in
the library with his head buried in the writings of Edmund
Husserl, a philosopher who was persecuted by the Nazis for
being a Jew.
Hitler took power in January of 1933, and Sartre went to
Berlin in the fall of that year. German writers like Adorno
and Mann were leaving. They were traveling in the other
direction while Sartre was in Berlin studying German
philosophy. He was disconnected from what was happening
And in some sense this forms the backdrop to this tension
between Sartre and Camus: Sartre had to prove what a
committed intellectual he was.
How would you characterize the friendship’s trajectory?
In researching and writing this book I had no access to
unpublished letters. I had access to only a single
unpublished work and only when, as the book was being
typeset, I was able to see the manuscript of a play Camus
had written in 1946. During this period people were writing
spoofs about the great genius Sartre. Boris Vian, Sartre’s
friend and a jazz musician and novelist, wrote a book in
which one of the main characters, Jean-Sol Partre, writes
dozens of articles each week and is working on an
encyclopedia of vomit. His former student, Jean Kanapa, a
Communist, wrote a novel attacking Sartre. This prodigious
intellectual was being written about and talked about
everywhere. And Camus, too, wrote a play—I think only three
people besides me have seen it—called L’Impromptu des
philosophes (The Philosophers’ Farce). The main
character is M. Néant—M. Nothingness. He carries around a
big fat book that no one has ever read. For people in Paris
during this period, and for twenty years afterwards, this
was a famous joke.
Being and Nothingness.
Yes. Everybody owned it; few read it. And this character is
carrying this big, fat book no one has ever read, and, as in
Moliere, he visits a provincial mayor and traduces the
family. He seduces them into his philosophy, which is about
absurdity, responsibility, freedom, and nothingness.
This is during their friendship.
During their friendship. Camus wrote a play about
this famous French intellectual who is seducing people with
his ideas and who, it turns out, has escaped from an insane
asylum. The play ends, after a whole family is taken over by
his philosophy, when the director of the insane asylum comes
to recapture him and bring him back to the asylum, and so
everybody returns to their old way of life. Obviously this
would have been another of the famous Sartre spoofs of the
time, except that Camus never put it on as a play, and never
had it published. I told Catherine Camus, his daughter, that
it should be performed because it’s delightful. It’s great
fun. The point is that, in reading the play, you realize
that Camus was making fun of his good friend. He took great
pleasure in this, and the spoof suggests that he saw his
good friend as a rather strange kind of beast.
This was a friendship of two men who became famous as soon
as Paris was liberated. Their names were on everyone’s lips.
One of them was the editor of one of the most important new
French newspapers, Combat. The other was the editor
of the most important new French magazine, Les Temps
modernes. The two publications cooperated, and both
sought to create a new non-Communist Left—Sartre acting
through a magazine, Camus through a newspaper. Sartre wrote
for Combat and Camus declined being on the editorial
board of Sartre’s new magazine only because he was too busy.
Was that the real reason?
Your comment indicates a problem. Everybody writing about
this is obsessed with seeing the differences between them
from the beginning. Again, a la Lessing, once the divorce
occurs everyone looks at the early years only to find the
seeds of the split. So commentators and biographers claim to
find the seeds of their breakup in 1944 or 1945. Like you,
they ask why they weren’t working together on the same
newspaper, or the same journal. And they claim to find the
seeds of hostility and tension, the way we do after a
But in fact, in 1946, they were still, as Catherine Camus
said to me, copains, pals. Of course there were
differences. There were disagreements. But they were both on
the Left. Communism wasn’t to become an issue between them
until after 1949. The Cold War had not started, and after
the Liberation they were very much involved in the same or
similar projects, and working together.
Now the fascinating thing is that in exploring and
discussing this I only looked at a single unpublished work,
the one-act play. I did not look at any unpublished letters
where one was criticizing the other. As far as I know, there
aren’t any. But as we look at their published writings, we
begin to notice Sartre and Camus replying to each other.
Not by name, though.
Not by name. Without using names, Camus was replying to
Sartre here, Sartre was replying to Camus there. And they
were part of a common milieu, the Parisian non-Communist
literary and intellectual Left. In 1947 the Cold War was
beginning. President Harry Truman went to Rio de Janeiro to
announce the Western Hemisphere version of NATO, the Rio
Pact. And he announced it saying that Communism was
forbidden in the Western Hemisphere; we’re going to defend
ourselves against subversion in our half of the world. Camus
read about this in Paris and was furious. He said that
Truman was creating a new war. Although he was already an
anti-Communist and already working on the ideas that grew
into The Rebel, he didn’t accept the coming of the
Camus wrote an open letter, in which he attacked Truman and
the Rio Pact, and he attacked the American efforts to create
a cold war. Why is this important? Only because—and no one
ever noticed this before, which is a scholar’s delight—we
see, in the Sartre bibliography by Contat and Rybalka, an
open letter attributed to Sartre dated December, 1947. And
upon inspection it turns out that this is, remarkably, the
Camus letter revised. The Camus letter was rewritten and
given Sartre’s name. What happened? Well, to figure it out,
we have to read Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Nelson
Algren and her memoirs. In these places she talks about a
series of meetings they attended in the Fall of 1947. We can
piece together what happened: Camus brought the letter to
the first meeting, the goal of which was to set up a
non-Communist Left independent of NATO and Washington, and
also independent of Moscow. They sought a “third way”—a
French path to socialism that would be independent of East
and West. And obviously they started with Camus’ text, and
it was passed around and they reworked it. The main person
reworking it was Sartre. Beauvoir talks about how they met
with this group several times in the Fall. She tells us that
every comma, every period was reworked. The text they came
up with wound up in Sartre’s collected works.
They were co-thinkers.
Co-thinkers. This was Sartre’s first properly political
activity. I find it fascinating that Sartre’s first real
political activity is to rework a text of his friend Camus,
with Camus as one of the participants.
So they were collaborators, fellow travelers. They were
thinking about the same problems, trying to shape a third
way. But something obviously went horribly wrong.
Yes, and I think it’s worth looking at this in terms of the
historical situation. They were not only specific
individuals. They became themselves in their historical
environment, which made certain demands on each of them, or
pushed one in a certain direction and the other in the
opposite direction. The Cold War was beginning to impose
itself on them, and beginning to push and pull them. And at
the same time, they began to get irritated and bothered by
each other. Sartre thought that Camus was going along too
much with the French establishment. Sartre was too radical
for Camus’ taste. It was in and through the demands their
situations placed on them that that Sartre became the
revolutionary Sartre and Camus became the reformist Camus.
And each one was part of the other’s situation: he became
the reformist Camus against the revolutionary Sartre.
So as we see each man develop, we see how and why Sartre
embraces violence. We see how and why Camus criticizes
violence. And the Cold-War issue between them became: will
you accept violence in the process of embracing social
change? After waiting as long as possible, Sartre attacked
Camus for avoiding the issue, and after waiting as long as
possible, Camus attacked Sartre for being violent. But each
man is in a way attacking his alter ego. He’s attacking the
person he chose not to be, or not to become. But this
shaping of each against the other took place under the
pressure of the Cold War. If the Cold War hadn’t existed,
they might have been able to remain friends.
So you see the dissolution as having been imposed from
outside by the Cold War—its logic, its ethos, the
polarizations that it generated.
Yes, except that both men were active agents in this
process. Both furthered the Cold-War polarization. One of
the last friendly encounters between them, which stretched
over a period of several weeks, was during the spring of
1951. Sartre’s play The Devil and the Good Lord was
in rehearsal. Sartre was at the theater and Camus went there
to pick up the love of his life, the actress Maria Casares.
A lot of the interaction between them had to do with women,
because they were both involved with countless women, and
sometimes there was tension and even real anger about it.
Beauvoir, in one of her 1970s interviews with Sartre, asked,
“Didn’t the breakup have to do with a woman?” And he
suggested that this was an important part of the story. It’s
not inconceivable that Maria Casares may have been one of
those women. She was the female lead in The Devil and the
Good Lord. And Sartre and Camus were watching the
rehearsals, while Camus corrected the proofs for The
Rebel. The Rebel was one of the major Cold War
French treatises against Communism, against revolution.
Still friends, Sartre asked Camus for his excellent chapter
on Nietzsche to be published in Le Temps modernes in
the summer of 1951. And Camus agreed. In the play Sartre was
intellectually working through the opposite question to the
one Camus posed in The Rebel: how do you transform
the world while still being a part of it? Sartre’s position
was deeply thought out: we have to use the means of this
world to make this world a better place. And if this means
embracing violence, so be it, because that may be the only
tool available to us.
So if it means getting your hands dirty…
Yes, “dirty hands,” exactly.
Sartre says that Camus is too preoccupied with keeping his
Exactly. But he doesn’t criticize Camus in the play, only
later. Camus was watching the rehearsals of the play in
which Sartre is embracing dirty hands for the purpose of
revolutionary change. And he was correcting the proofs of
The Rebel, which rejects this position. Towards the end
of The Rebel Camus discusses not only Sartre but the
play. He criticizes the play, which is no surprise because,
after all, The Rebel rejects the idea of revolution,
while in The Devil and the Good Lord Sartre embraces
it. At this point they were developing against each
other. They could not avoid this, after all, because they
were the two dominant political intellectuals in France.
Each man became the symbol for and leader of forces well
beyond himself. Each man came to mean much more than he
said. Perhaps that is the privilege, and the burden, of
You lament the new consensus that has emerged which holds
that Camus was right and Sartre was wrong about the Cold
War. But wherein, exactly, is the error in the claim that
Camus was right? Wasn’t he, essentially?
Aronson: Camus was half-right. He had a profound
insight into the way in which anti-systemic or revolutionary
violence, once justified, can become a law unto itself. And
he also had insights into how some spirits seek to overcome
the world’s absurdity by violently reshaping it.
Intellectuals—and policymakers—often approach using violence
with the kind of steely abstractness he describes, willing
to sacrifice whatever number of lives in the service of a
better future. Marxists and Commmunists did this, but so
have all wielders of power and their intellectual
spokespeople. By itself Camus’s insight is only a
half-truth, and it functions among the latter-day Camuseans
and “Cold-War vindicationists” (Allen Hunter’s term) to
indict the violences we don’t like, while excusing those we
find useful. The war in Iraq is one example. Aren’t we
remaking the world to our own liking there? Camus was
equally selective: while devoting virtually all of his
political energy for several years to attacking Communism,
he was not above using his anti-Communism against the FLN in
Algeria, or approving of the disastrous Suez operation of
Postel: If he was half-right, what about the other
This leads us to the unresolved dimension of the Sartre-Camus
conflict, the aspect of it that is still very much with us
today and needs addressing. The other half of the story is
Sartre’s equally compelling insight into systemic violence.
Sartre understood deeply the violences built into capitalism
and colonialism, which he found no less appalling than Camus
found revolutionary violence. He illuminated, as no one else
has, the everyday structured violence of oppressive social
relations, the violence that comes to be depersonalized and
experienced as “the way things are.” Like Camus, he was
selective, and thus half-wrong, and for a period he
championed overthrowing these violences by any means
necessary, including terrorism.