FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Albert Camus and the Liberal Dilemma

by RON JACOBS

Albert Camus is arguably one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His relatively short life is well chronicled and the fodder of multiple conversations in university literature classes. His novels and essays raise fundamental questions about life in a world where life can easily be seen to mean absolutely nothing. Like Jean Paul Sartre–another writer with whom Camus is often compared and contrasted–Camus’ search for meaning in a world rendered meaningless strikes a chord in every human, especially those who do not seek easy answers. The conclusion these men reached was that it is up to us to provide our own meaning.

It has always been a curiosity, then, why Camus had such a difficult time understanding the desire of the Algerians to create a meaning to their lives that required overthrowing the French colonialists. His understanding that human freedom was perhaps the greatest quality humanity possessed seemed to stop short of recognizing the denial of that freedom under colonialism. This shortsightedness led Camus to justify situations in a manner that remind this reviewer of Rube Goldberg’s inventions, only without the result desired.  In other words, explanations full of loops and turns but without even the conclusive ending Goldberg’s inventions achieved.9780674072589_p0_v1_s260x420

So, it was with just such a hope for clarification that I picked up Camus’ recently published (in English) Algerian Chronicles. Perhaps these writing would reveal some clarity to his position not found previously. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. While Camus certainly goes further in explaining his position (or perhaps lack of a position would be a better phrasing) regarding the situation of the French vis-a-vis their occupation of Algeria, that position is no less muddleheaded than any explanation previously published.

This collection of writings includes a number of articles and essays Camus wrote for French journals.  It also includes some rather extensive reporting on the situation of the colonized Algerians.  These writings do much toward describing the plight of these people, but suffer from an inability to acknowledge, much less examine the root cause for their situation. After citing example after example of colonial neglect and abuse, Camus still fails to point the finger at the cause of these failings.  My visceral reaction is simply, how can he not understand that these examples are not failings of colonialism, but exactly how colonialism works. The psychological underpinnings are fundamental to the dynamic, affecting both the colonized and the colonizer.

In what is best described as the liberal dilemma, by refusing to accept that history is as important as the present when examining colonial and imperial situations, Camus’ writing consistently falls short in its explanation of why Algeria and France found themselves in conflict in the years of the Algerian liberation struggle.  In the historical vacuum that Camus places himself in, he ends up accepting the facts of French colonialism and oppression as immutable.  Furthermore, he seems to reject the idea that the Algerians should have any say in their own future unless it is on terms determined mostly by the French colonizers.

As always, Camus’ writing shines.  Reading these relatively short articles prove his ability to evoke emotion and make his argument eloquently.  Unbeknownst at the time of their writing, Camus’ writings about the French colonization of Algeria Camus are also chronicling its end. His personal laments regarding that demise represent the thinking of those who either cannot or will not acknowledge that the brutality and theft that all too often defines settler colonialism does not appear able to end without violence and tragedy.

Parallels to the situation of Algeria abound in modern history.  One could easily argue that one of today’s still existing examples of this dynamic is found in Palestine.  The Palestinians are colonized in their own lands and their struggle to liberate those lands is often violent, as is the repression of that struggle.  Most of the solutions presented are those created in Washington and Tel Aviv, much like many of the solutions to Algeria’s situation were created in Paris.  The idea that Palestinians deserve the right to determine the nature of their struggle is still not a popular one in imperial capitals.  Neither was the idea that the Algerians (or the Vietnamese, to name another people struggling for their liberation) deserved that right in the time of their struggle.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Lewis Evans
Executing Children Won’t Save the Tiger or the Rhino
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
Chris Odinet
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
David Rovics
The Republicans and Democrats Have Now Switched Places
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Rev. William Alberts
“Law and Order:” Code words for White Lives Matter Most
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
The Artistic Representation of War and Peace, Politics and the Global Crisis
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Elliot Sperber
Pseudo-Democracy, Reparations, and Actual Democracy
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Kathleen Wallace
Feel the About Turn
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Phillip Kim et al.
Open Letter to Bernie Sanders from Former Campaign Staffers
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
Charles R. Larson
Review: B. George’s “The Death of Rex Ndongo”
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail