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Imperialist Morality, by Jean-Paul Sartre

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You might of course ask whether it is possible to fight an imperialist war of repression without violating international laws. But that is not our business. As an ordinary citizen, as a philosopher, as a Marxist, I have the right to believe that that type of war always leads to the use of torture, to the creation of concentration camps, and so on. As a member of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal, that does not interest me. I only have to try to discover whether laws have been violated, in order to reintroduce the legal notion of international crime.

We must ask ourselves whether the views, correct ones, which we hold about politics--(that politics must be considered realistically, that they are determined by a relation of forces, that the end pursued must be taken into account)--must necessarily lead us, as they did many people during the Stalin period, to consider politics solely from the angle of expediency, and to indulge in passive complicity by only judging a government's actions from a practical perspective. Does a political fact not also possess an ethico-juridical structure?

On this ground, our judgments cannot be given in advance, even if we are committed, as individuals, in the struggle against imperialism. Again, I oppose the de Gaulle government with my vote but it would never enter my head to say that Gaullist policies were criminal. One might talk indignantly of "the crime' of the Ben Barka affair, but I do not see what law we would apply if we wanted to condemn the French government for its role in it. It is entirely different when it is a question of judging a certain act of war by the Americans in Vietnam, a certain bombardment, a certain military operation ordered at top level. To want to set up a real tribunal and to pronounce sentences would be to act as idealists. But we have the right to meet, as citizens, in order to give renewed strength to the notion of a war crime, by showing that any policy can and must be objectively judged in terms of the legal criteria which exist.

When somebody shouts out in a meeting: "The war in Vietnam is a crime' we are in the realm of emotion. This war is certainly contrary to the interests of the vast majority of people, but is it legally criminal? This is what we will try to determine. We cannot say in advance what our conclusions will be.

Some people will reproach you for not judging the Vietnamese at the same time as the Americans, and will say that war crimes are committed by both sides.

I refuse to place in the same category the actions of an organization of poor peasants, hunted, obliged to maintain an iron discipline in their ranks, and those of an immense army backed up by a highly industrialized country of 200 million inhabitants. And then, it is not the Vietnamese who have invaded America nor who have rained down a deluge of fire upon a foreign people. In the Algerian war, I always refused to place on an equal footing the terrorism by means of bombs which was the only weapon available to the Algerians, and the actions and exactions of a rich army of half a million men occupying the entire country. The same is true in Vietnam.

Can this possibility which will be offered you during the "trial', of bringing to light legal norms which can be applied to the policies of any government, debouch on to wider opposition to American policies in Vietnam?

Of course. But that will only be able to come afterwards. It is on the basis of the results of our inquiry--if it terminates in a condemnation-- --that it will be possible to organize demonstrations, meetings, marches, signature campaigns. Our first task will be one of education, of information and our hearings will naturally be public.

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We have been reproached with petit bourgeois legalism. It is true, and I accept that objection. But who are we trying to convince? The classes who are engaged in the struggle against capitalism and who are already convinced (crimes or no crimes) that it is necessary to fight to the bitter end against imperialism? Or that very broad fringe of the middle class which, at the moment, is undecided? It is the petit bourgeois masses which must today be aroused and shaken, since their alliance with the working class--even from a purely local political point of view--is to be desired. And it is by means of legalism that their eyes can be opened. Besides it is no bad thing either to remind the working class, who too often have been led to think only in terms of immediate effects, that every historical action has an ethico-juridical structure. In the post-Stalin period in which we live, it is very important to try to highlight that structure.

How do you explain the fact that the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam have been more numerous and more vigorous in West Germany, in England, in Italy and in Belgium than in France?

In France, it is true, there does exist a certain impermeability in the consciousness of the petit-bourgeoisie, and even to some extent in that of the working-class. This comes, I believe, from the fact that we are only just emerging from a long period of colonial wars. For a very long time we were "blocked' on all problems of world importance--particularly those of the Third World--because we were the oppressors in Indo-China, and then in Algeria. It was an epoch, you will recall, in which the whole world was becoming anxious about the development of nuclear weapons. The French, for their part, never gave it a thought. They never understood that their country, which harboured American bases on its territory, would be annihilated just like other countries in case of nuclear war. They never understood it because their attention was continuously engaged by colonial problems.

There is another reason for French apathy--the confusion which de Gaulle succeeds in creating when he passes off as a genuine anti-imperialist policy what is, in fact, a purely verbal affirmation of independence. The Phnom-Pehn speech was only fine words since de Gaulle, while condemning American policies, does not give himself within France the economic means of escaping American tutelage.

But the fact that de Gaulle is the only head of a capitalist state who denounces the policies of the United States gives the French a good conscience. The same citizen who, hostile to Algerian independence, was still only too happy that a venerated leader should put an end to a war impossible to win, is today very pleased that the definitive words of the great man, with whom he identifies, should supply a justification for his passivity: "Since de Gaulle is taking such a firm stand on Vietnam, it is useless for me to do more'.

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If the parties of the left were united, they would have to discover through experience that the Gaullist ambition to make France into a serious adversary of American imperialism has no meaning, since it is not based on an internal policy capable of genuinely freeing us from the grasp of the Americans.

Today France is nothing but a rebellious slave, still subject to American authority. The headquarters of Nato will have to set itself up somewhere else, maybe, but the Americans can put French workers out of work where and when they wish; they can paralyse our economy merely by withdrawing their computers; they can exert enormous pressure against which we are defenceless.

The first point of a left programme would have to be the need to combat, by means of a policy of priority investments--a great proportion of them public ones--the invasion of American capital. It would be very difficult, I know, and France could not do it alone. She would have to make use of the Common Market and to be able to induce her partners to adopt the same policy. They too, for the moment, are dominated by American economic power; but certain countries--Italy, for instance--could be brought to revise their attitude if France practised a policy of genuine economic independence.

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)

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of the French intellectual Left, but I really get ... by GLloyd Rowsey on Tuesday, Sep 28, 2010 at 10:29:09 PM
Brought to you by La Francais since 17th century. ... by Allan Wayne on Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 1:08:30 AM
about French imperialism, and Dien Bien Phu (sp?) ... by GLloyd Rowsey on Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 9:32:18 AM
The changing of the mind must precede the eliminat... by David Roche on Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 10:39:55 AM
Like Talleyrand said, it's worse than crime, it's ... by martin weiss on Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 1:23:44 PM
It's almost eerie how well JPS's principal objecti... by GLloyd Rowsey on Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 6:51:11 PM
issue of the New Left Review, pages 3-20.... by GLloyd Rowsey on Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 9:21:56 PM