Betrayal Can Never Be Forgiven, Research Time, 13/09/2013

So Jean-Paul Sartre finally comes to the question that every Marxist political philosopher has to deal with in the post-Lenin world: when do you start killing?

Ordinarily, a military government kills opponents because that’s simply what it does. Whatever public sops to human rights a military government (or if not openly run by the military, a militarized government) may make to human rights or ideals of freedom and peace, everyone basically understands that opposition members and sympathizers (or those who can be vaguely suspected of not being 100% enthusiastic about a government) will be rounded up, tortured, and killed fairly regularly as a matter of the regime's daily maintenance. You clean the streets, you streamline the postal service, you gang-rape the wife and daughters of an underground publisher in front of him for three hours. Ordinary stuff, nothing in particular worth remarking on in the context of a military government.

Josef Stalin transformed himself, even while alive, into a
creature more brand than person. That's why I think it's
freakier to use pictures of him that are relatively candid,
instead of the stock images of official photographs and
portraits. It reminds you that such a horrible figure was
human, just like you and me.
Perhaps I should say a militant government. Because when you’re writing a book after Lenin and Stalin, as well as today when I'm also writing after Mao, you have to deal with the argument that every empirical case of a violent revolution whose goal was to usher the dictatorship of the proletariat has quickly become a regime of legalized mass murder. It’s taken Sartre 400 pages to get to this point, and I’m glad there’s another 800 pages to overcome it. Because in all good conscience, a political philosophy that cares at all about emancipation and freedom must be non-violent. After the last hundred years, political philosophers can’t excuse violence anymore. I sometimes feel ashamed that there are so many in the Western philosophical tradition who have, Marx and Engels included.

The focus here isn’t political violence in general, such a diverse phenomenon that you can’t really make a coherent universal statement about it. Instead, Sartre focusses on betrayal: What do you do with people who were part of the revolutionary group, but who have now left it or betrayed it?

Here, Sartre describes the idea that is the central hook of the utopias project. The betrayers are killed, but they are never regarded as having left the revolutionary community. Their killers murder them out of love for them as a revolutionary, and the one being killed reciprocates his love. The victim of killing understands his betrayal to have resulted in his murder, but still regards his killer with love thanks to the fraternity of the revolutionary community itself. That fraternal love that overcomes even the hatred implicit in the act of killing is manifested in the pledge that first brings a revolutionary community together. The militants, in joining the cause, join a fraternity, an inescapable family in political activity. Just as in a real family, each member is a brother not in virtue of his actions, but the common origin of all the members in the revolutionary cause. Sartre calls that common origin each member’s “own birth as a common individual.” The members of a revolutionary community move as one, a super-organism. In other words, a body politic. 

Now, this inescapable fraternity is entirely theoretical. In real life, members of revolutionary groups quite likely kill traitors in utter rage, incensed at the act of betrayal and taking it as an insult to the party and themselves personally. What concerns me about theories of revolutionary politics is that this act of hatred is understood as an act of love. In so doing, theorists of revolutionary politics excuse violence and murder, transforming hatred of a betrayer into love of a movement. A central moral goal of the utopias project is understanding the frameworks and tools of thinking that can make such violence sound not only acceptable, but sensible and embraceable.


  1. Just to clarify, your reading of Sartre is that a revolutionary movement (at least in principle) can retain its revolutionary credentials (i.e. still be considered good by the category of people Sartre thinks are entitled to judge such matters) even when they start killing other revolutionaries so long as their killing is done expeditiously and in good faith -- i.e. to advance the true revolution, and with little gusto.

    If I'm paraphrasing this correctly, it seems to be a sort of apotheosis of Marx's false consciousness: the rot of false consciousness can go all the way to the top of the heap of revolutionaries, and even the top revolutionaries can be killed justly, if only it can be made certain that the revolutionary spirit will be advanced.

    I've never understood the foundational orientation to revolution on the part of many progressive people. I mean, progress and revolution are not only different, they are normally in opposition, since if you are revolving something you are disrupting the given sequence of progression and starting up a new one. My mind always goes to the new one, and what sort of fate the revolutionaries will for that.

    I am however hopelessly bourgeois (as least Sartre would probably think so). The celebration of revolutionaries has always struck me as puerile and bathetic. I'm not saying that this is my reasoned opinion today, only that that is my natural reaction. And indeed I may well be accused of being reactionary (I don't think I am, but it's all relative).

    I mention this because Sartre and other leading intellectuals of his generation really do seem alien to me in their lack of engagement with what I consider to be the foundational elements of political commitment, i.e. legal precedent, balance of powers, cultural structures moderating excesses and oriented to ever greater inclusion, the slow building of consensus, and lots and lots of oversight of powerful institutions. Admittedly these are all "conservative" in one sense and so are generally used as whipped posts for progressive thought; but surely too they are the best guarantors and indeed necessary elements of relatively more equitable societies. What I mean is that if you get your utopian moment, then what do you do? Presumably, you build things up to prevent the bad thing your overthrow from coming back, prevent other expected bad things from developing, and ideally develop things that are responsive to unknown bad things of the future. Jefferson's notion of a revolution ever now and again to clear the air seems utterly bizarre to me, but maybe you or someone else can explain it to me. The only position where this does make sense (as I see it) would be one that is extremely misanthropic and skeptical of any human capacity for improving the common weal: we screw everything up all the time completely anyway, so what we need to do is have some guys come around and kill and the powerful people ever generation or so and then let the next group of doomed fools take over.

    If your position is that formal (i.e. depersonalized) structures are tools that CAN be used to make things relatively better than they would otherwise be, then you really don't need to worry about justifying the killing of revolutionaries on the grounds of justifying the revolution; you justify it on the grounds of your new systems (i.e. go through due process etc). I assume Sartre is going to pains to avoid exactly that sort of justification: he wants to think of revolution as the justification for its own existence, I imagine.

    I'm not accusing you of being a Sartrean, by the way -- just trying to think through utopias as buoyant vessels pushed off from shore rather than old boats burning on the beach... in a neap tide. Somewhere in Labrador.

    1. The interesting thing about the section where Jean-Paul talks about this is that he describes the revolutionary movement, but there's no sense that he's riling people up to actually behave this way. He just seems to be giving an account of a social phenomena, and trying to describe how it works with the tools of dialectical philosophy. He's thinks about revolution trying to understand it, but nowhere in this book so far is he encouraging actual revolutionary behaviour.

      Just the same way anyone can write a book examining a political movement without being a member of that movement. I find when people read someone who writes very insightfully about politics, they this that writing expresses his political agenda. This is the dialogue of philosophers of the left with revolution. In the immediate wake of Marx, they were advocates and agitators for revolution, theorizing what kind of society would be built after the revolution. And we got anarchist political philosophy. After the First World War, the theory turned to why there hadn't been a successful revolution in the regions where the theory expected it to be. And we got hegemony theory. Now by Sartre's time, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were illustrating the inability of revolutionary leaders to bring genuine freedom. And it seems we get the Critique of Dialectical Reason, which shows how inherently violent and strange revolution is.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I suppose my comments stand as middle class confusion about revolution but don't apply so much for Sartre. But in terms of your utopias project, I'll be interested to see how you pick up this thread of the banality of post-revolutionary time (so to speak).

    It might be useful to build your discussion in that project around a few historical cases -- if so, I'd be very interested to see where you place the US as a revolutionary state that succeeded in becoming very stable. Although now that I think about it, I get the feeling that your project is more about the thought experiments of philosophers rather than real-world cases which might prompt such thought experiments. Anyway, I'm looking forward to updates on what your plans are for this.

    1. My project isn't delineated so much in terms of empirical cases on one hand and theoretical explorations on the other. It's more like the theoretical conceptions of time exist within the philosopher members of various political movements, like in the case of the Italian Futurist artists, Boccioni and Marinetti. And for the less political conceptions of time (like the deterministic block time of some interpretations of relativity physics), I put that process of interpretation in reverse, extrapolating political principles from the concept of time. Spinoza's writings on political philosophy might be helpful to me here as well.