Reviewer: Colin Ward
Albert Camus “Neither Victims nor Executioners”
Social Anarchism 19 (1994)
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I am obliged to begin with an apology. In 1987 I volunteered to Chris Stadler to review this book. Consequently in 1988 the publishers sent me a copy. The rest is, more or less, silence, apart from a few mumbled regrets to Chris. Some explanation is needed.
Camus was a French Algerian born in 1913. His father was killed in the First World War, his mother was an illiterate Spanish immigrant and his childhood was spent in sunshine and poverty. He won a scholarship to the lycée in Algiers but fell ill with tuberculosis, the illness that plagued him all through life until his death in a car accident in 1960. In 1937 he joined the Communist Party but was expelled for his support for the Algerian Arabs. In 1939 he edited an Algerian newspaper which was first censored and then banned, and he was obliged to leave for France. His books The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus appeared in 1942. In 1944 he became the editor of Combat, the underground paper of a resistance group, which after the liberation became an important left-wing journal.
His series of articles Neither Victims nor Executioners appeared there in November 1946. I remember being thrilled by it when that remarkable journalist Dwight Macdonald published it in his magazine Politics in the July August 1947 issue. The essay was a repudiation of the emerging Cold War and a refusal to take sides. It alienated Camus both from the supporters of the American side, and those, like Sartre, who had concluded that it was OK to ignore Stalin's slave state since, in a metaphysical way, the world's Communist parties represented the future.
But to my dismay, when I re-read the pamphlet in 1988, I found the language both dated and opaque. I remembered the comment on Camus by another of his American friends, A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker, "His energies were dissipated in creative writing and we lost a great journalist.'' So I concluded that if I couldn't wholeheartedly praise that little book, I ought to remain silent.
But something needs to be said about its author. Camus went on to write his most celebrated book The Plague in 1947 and his most anarchic book The Rebel in 1951. There he claimed that all modern revolutions have simply enlarged the power of the state, and he moved on to his last gloomy novel The Fall in 1956. In the 1950s he was drawn ever closer to the struggling journals of the anarchists. His biographer Herbert Lottman comments on his association with Pierre Monatte, who published Révolution Prolétarienne, with Giovanna Berneri of Volontà, Jean Paul Samson who published Témoins, Maurice Joyeux of Le Libertaire and Le Monde Libertaire, and with the Spanish exiles who produced Solidaridad Obrera until, as Lottman explains, "the paper was eventually banned by the de Gaulle government to avoid giving offence to General Franco.'' In his political isolation he had recourse to "the men and women of political movements with which he could still sympathize, those of the far-out left, who on their own chosen terrain were often as lonely as he was.'' (1)
One of his closest friends for many years was Nicola Chiaramonte, who until his death in 1972 was a frequent contributor to the left wing press in America. Camus once explained his political attitudes to Chiaramonte in these terms:
I have been called a sentimentalist. It's true. I was a journalist because, when I got up in the morning and read the paper, there were pieces of news in it that made me mad. I wanted to express my anger as clearly as possible, but I was unable to do much more than that. I certainly didn't have a theory, much less a comprehensive ideology. I didn't want to go beyond the limits of what I was sure of. Hence, I was considered unconstructive, irresolute, and a paltry moderate. Still, I don't think I am ready to compromise on the matters that make me mad: nationalism, colonialism, social injustice, and the absurdity of the modern State.
Perhaps it was the very exploratory nature of his approach that gave me an initial disappointment on re-reading his pamphlet. Even his editors in their introduction register a certain surprise that Camus seemed to have known little about others who had renounced violence, neither of the French pacifist tradition nor of world figures like Gandhi. I'll read it again with a more open mind.
Neither Victims nor Executioners by Albert Camus. Introduced by R. Scott Kennedy and Peter Klotz-Chamberlin.64 pp. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1986. $16.95 hardback, $5.95 paperback.
(1) Herbert Lotman, Albert Camus : A Biography. Paperback ed. Gingko Press, 1997 (repr.). ISBN 3927258067