Camus: On and In Action
ABSTRACT:In this paper I wish to examine the position of Camus regarding social change, namely his concepts of rebellion and revolution. I in no way question his well-deserved status as a major twentieth-century French writer, nor do I wish to suggest that he may have been someone caught in a Sartrean notion of ‘bad faith.’ I am concerned with what one might call his theory of social action. I do wish to assert that Camus was a good man who seriously wrestled with the events of his time. Yet his claims on behalf of suffering humanity, while honest, are not sufficient when faced with complex social issues. That his move toward the right that today might well be taken for a supposed liberalism was undoubtedly bound up with his continued misunderstanding of the dialectic of history.
A Series of Critical Observations
Camus continually stresses the break from Christianity (God is dead—the world is without order) whether in speaking of the French Revolution or what he calls the new absolutism of the communist revolution. In the first case there is a degree of confusion on the issue when speaking of Rousseau, St. Just, and the divine right monarchies. Camus obviously holds to one traditional view of the king as God’s representative on earth and from this lays the groundwork for his future project. I would like to suggest that there are at least two alternate interpretations of divine right monarchy that vie for our attention. First, there is the view forwarded by Reinhart Koselleck in his 1959 book Kritik und Krise. There in he suggests that rather than a union of the sacred and the secular, divine right monarchy already announced the triumph of the secular over the sacred. Before this period there had been the two worlds of religion and politics. With the Reformation Christianity no longer was unified under the pope but broke into various factions. The divine right of kings, whether it is in England or France, certainly allowed for an absolutism, but relegated the religious partner to the outer fringe of politics where it was left to argue matters of theology and direct the religious faithful while recognizing the supremacy of the King in all matters political, or even, as in England, recognizing the King as leader in both matters. When Camus points to Marx’s observation that the beginning of a radical critique of society is a radical critique of religion, he believes his own critical project to be partly vindicated. What Camus misses is the heart of Marx’s effort here: the examination of the role of money regarding civil society, and its extension, the state. Unless remembered, Marx’s own criticism of Feuerbach for not having gone far enough would be forgotten. Then, too, Marx is concerned with showing why the mire intellectual recognition of the death of God is not adequate. The dialectic must push on to reveal not only that money is the new god but that the mere separation of state and religion does not end religious force for it remains in civil society and is reflected in the workings of politics. Either of these alternative interpretations need to be considered but Camus at best only mentions the second in passing and appears unaware of the first.
In speaking of Rousseau and St. Just one is aware of another of Camus’ problems. Namely, the general will and the will of all. Camus, the individualist, stresses the will of all as being the collective will of all (made up of each and every) single individual and thus somehow the correct reflection of individual men acting as a social unit. Over and against the will of all he gives us the general will with its moral oughtness as the concept by which social action will become absolute and thus, in his mind, totalitarian. Camus’ problem is to confuse these two wills. The will of all is somehow a collectivity and may or may not be in accord with the general will which is to be understood as correct in each situation. A simple example. In 1984 A and B voted for Reagan for another four years in the American presidential elections. C voted for Mondale. In 1988 those same foolish individuals, A and B, voted for Bush and intelligent C voted Dukakis. In 1992 A and B realized the error of their ways and A, B, and C voted for the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. One might say that in 1984 and 1988 A and B could be seen as the majority will, in this case, read the will of all whereas C in both years represented the correct will, the general will. In 1992 A, B, and C all represented the will of all (majority will) and the general will. There is nothing absolute or totalitarian about this, unless perhaps, you are a confused Republican and not an enlightened Democrat. The morality that St. Just uses to carry forward the general will of Rousseau need not be seen as formal or absolute. Laws now are not seen as absolute or eternal and citizens’ needs do not need to be described as, or be failures or divergent factors to be silenced as Camus would lead us to believe. The general will might be understood as the democratic expression of humanity.
Camus: On and In Action