Jean-Paul Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre : biography

21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980

Sartre always sympathized with the Left, and supported the French Communist Party (PCF) until the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Following the Liberation the PCF were infuriated by Sartre’s philosophy, which appeared to lure young French men and women away from the ideology of communism and into Sartre’s own existentialism.Scriven 1999: 13 From 1956 onwards Sartre rejected the claims of the PCF to represent the French working classes, objecting to its "authoritarian tendencies". In the late 1960s Sartre supported the Maoists, a movement that rejected the authority of established communist parties. However, despite aligning with the Maoists, Sartre said after the May events: "If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist." He would later explicitly allow himself to be called an anarchist.

In the aftermath of a war that had for the first time properly engaged Sartre in political matters, he set forth a body of work which "reflected on virtually every important theme of his early thought and began to explore alternative solutions to the problems posed there".Aronson 1980: 121 The greatest difficulties that he and all public intellectuals of the time faced were the increasing technological aspects of the world that were outdating the printed word as a form of expression. In Sartre’s opinion, the "traditional bourgeois literary forms remain innately superior", but there is "a recognition that the new technological ‘mass media’ forms must be embraced" if Sartre’s ethical and political goals as an authentic, committed intellectual are to be achieved: the demystification of bourgeois political practices and the raising of the consciousness, both political and cultural, of the working class.Scriven 1993: 8

The struggle for Sartre was against the monopolising moguls who were beginning to take over the media and destroy the role of the intellectual. His attempts to reach a public were mediated by these powers, and it was often these powers he had to campaign against. He was skilled enough, however, to circumvent some of these issues by his interactive approach to the various forms of media, advertising his radio interviews in a newspaper column for example, and vice versa.Scriven 1993: 22

The role of a public intellectual can lead to the individual placing himself in danger as he engages with disputed topics. In Sartre’s case, this was witnessed in June 1961, when a plastic bomb exploded in the entrance of his apartment building. His public support of Algerian self-determination at the time had led Sartre to become a target of the campaign of terror that mounted as the colonists’ position deteriorated. A similar occurrence took place the next year and he had begun to receive threatening letters from Oran.Aronson 1980: 157


Sartre wrote successfully in a number of literary modes and made major contributions to literary criticism and literary biography. His plays are richly symbolic and serve as a means of conveying his philosophy. The best-known, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line "L’enfer, c’est les autres," usually translated as "Hell is other people." Aside from the impact of Nausea, Sartre’s major work of fiction was The Roads to Freedom trilogy which charts the progression of how World War II affected Sartre’s ideas. In this way, Roads to Freedom presents a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism.

Despite their similarities as polemicists, novelists, adapters, and playwrights, Sartre’s literary work has been counterposed, often pejoratively, to that of Camus in the popular imagination. In 1948 the Roman Catholic Church placed Sartre’s oeuvre on the Index of prohibited books.