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The Cult of Redemptive Violence

Jean-Paul Sartre | Abode of Chaos / Flickr

The cult of redemptive violence is one of the darkest currents in the political thought of the last few centuries. Although they were not squeamish, ancient writers on violence such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Tacitus had no notion of killing as a source of meaning, rather than the means to specific ends.

Even Machiavelli, who condemns princes’ failure to deal decisively with enemies, does not suggest that they should derive any personal satisfaction from “execution”. On the contrary, Machiavelli argues that violence must be governed by reasons of state rather than the whims of a monster.

Machiavelli’s arguments for a rational economy of violence were swept away by the French Revolution. In a world turned upside down, killing and risking death came to be seen as constitutive of the resolute individual, rather than as necessary evils. Hegel’s so-called dialectic of master and slave is the most sophisticated articulation of this idea.

The Romantic understanding of violence as the crucible of the self had advocates on the Right, the Left, and those somewhere in between. In the 19th century, its protagonists included both Maistre and Bakunin. In the first half of the 20th century, mortal danger found its  propagandist in Sorel, its philosopher in Heidegger, and its poet in Jünger (and, perhaps, its president in Theodore Roosevelt).

In the decades after World War II, however, the cult of violence found its home on the European Left. In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre described the anti-colonial terrorist as follows:

…this new man begins his life as a man at the end of it; he considers himself as a potential corpse. He will be killed; not only does he accept this risk, he’s sure of it. This potential dead man has lost his wife and his children; he has seen so many dying men that he prefers victory to survival; others, not he, will have the fruits of victory; he is too weary of it all. But this weariness of the heart is the root of an unbelievable courage. We find our humanity on this side of death and despair; he finds it beyond torture and death. We have sown the wind; he is the whirlwind. The child of violence, at every moment he draws from it his humanity. We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; of higher quality.

Sartre was both revered and reviled for this assertion. So it’s interesting to watch him grapple with its implications just a few years later. In 1974, Sartre made a pilgrimage to Germany, where he visited the imprisoned Andreas Baader, leader of the murderous Red Army Faction. After a brief meeting, Sartre held a press conference at which he denounced the inhumanity of West Germany’s treatment of the martyr. At least in the mainstream press, Sartre’s accusations were widely understood as a confession of moral bankruptcy.

The release of new documents complicate this picture. According to a transcript of the meeting acquired by Der Spiegel, Sartre actually tried to convince Baader to abandon terror. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

Sartre: The masses — the RAF has undertaken clear actions that the people don’t agree with.

Baader: It’s been established that 20 percent of the population sympathizes with us …

Sartre: I know. The statistics were prepared in Hamburg.

Baader: The situation in Germany is geared to small groups, both in terms of legality and illegality.

Sartre: These actions might be justified for Brazil, but not for Germany.

Baader: Why?

Sartre: In Brazil independent actions were needed to change the situation. They were necessary preparatory work.

Baader: Why is it any different here?

Sartre: Here there isn’t the same type of proletariat as in Brazil.

What’s happening is that Sartre is trying to put the genie of redemptive violence back into the bottle of rational control. Violence, he argues, can be justified when it contributes to a discernable goal, namely socialist revolution. Yet it is not an end in itself, as if it were just a form of expressive self-assertion.

Even apart from the absurdity of his politics, Sartre had no authority to make this argument. Perhaps more than any other Western intellectual, he had legitimized and even glamorized the use of violence without consideration of its likely results. Moreover, Sartre could not bring himself to condemn Baader’s methods in public. Rather than mourning the victims of the RAF, Sartre complained that Baader was being subjected to “a torture that leads to psychological disturbance…”

Sartre’s legacy has proved a heavy burden for the European Left, which has never quite shaken its reputation for nihilism. It is a case study in the old conservative slogan that ideas have consequences. But serious conservatives should not make the mistake of assuming that Left alone is susceptible to the cult of violence. The same temptation lurks behind the veneration of soldiers, war, and toughness that deforms  the contemporary American Right.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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