Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most remarkable intellectuals of the 20th century. A new exhibition in Paris commemorates the 100th anniversary of his birth and places Sartre amid the conflicts of his age.
The exhibition displays a copy of the French resistance newspaper Combat from 28 August 1944. On the front page is a report by Sartre of the fighting in Paris during the previous days.
For Sartre intellectuals had a double duty — to ask awkward questions that didn’t have a simple answer, but at the same time to relate to the immediate struggles of their own time.
It was not an easy time. From 1939 to 1962 France was permanently at war —the German Occupation was followed by bitter colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria.
Sartre’s finest moments came during the Algerian War, when he made public his willingness to “carry suitcases” for the Algerian National Liberation Front.
He was an inspiration to a generation of young people conscripted to fight a war they knew was unjust and unwinnable. A display shows messages of support from trade union representatives.
Sartre was one of the first public figures to back the student revolt in 1968, a revolt which set off the biggest general strike in history in May 1968. Afterwards he aligned himself with the revolutionary left.
When the government tried to make some revolutionary papers illegal, he sold them on the street to defy the police. Film of his funeral in 1980 shows massive crowds, just like an enormous demonstration.
The exhibition is full of images of Sartre—photographs, portraits by contemporary artists, and film. In many of the pictures he has his characteristic miserable expression, which has perhaps contributed to his reputation as a pessimistic thinker.
In fact he was one the last century’s great optimists. The central theme of Sartre’s thought is that human beings are free to change the world — and responsible for their failure not to.
The exhibition is very much geared to French speakers. This is a pity. Sartre is not the property of France, whose imperialist history he hated and despised, but of those fighting for freedom everywhere. But when I visited, I was pleased to see many young people who were not even born when Sartre died taking a keen interest.
The Sartre exhibition is at the Biblioth&egrav;que Nationale (site François-Mitterand) in Paris until 21 August. Go to www.bnf.fr for details. Stathis Kouvelakis and Rebecca Pitt will discuss Sartre on Sunday 10 July at Marxism 2005. Go to www.marxism2005.net