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Imperialist Morality, by Jean-Paul Sartre

By       Message GLloyd Rowsey       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   7 comments

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Sartre and Beauvoir Interviewing Che Guevara in 1960,
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It has been said that Bertrand Russell's tribunal would only be able to deliver a parody of justice. It is made up of committed individuals, hostile to American policies, their verdict, it is said, known in advance. According to an English journalist, "It will be like in Alice in Wonderland: there will be the sentence first, and the trial afterwards'.

J. P. Sartre. Let me outline the purpose, and the limits of our tribunal. There is no question of judging whether American policy in Vietnam is evil--of which most of us have not the slightest doubt--but of seeing whether it falls within the compass of international law on war crimes. There would be no point in condemning, in a legal sense, the onslaught of American imperialism against the countries of the Third World which attempt to escape its domination. That struggle is in fact merely the transposition, on an international level, of the class struggle, and is determined by the structure of the groups engaged in it.

Imperialist policy is a necessary historical reality. By this fact it is beyond the reach of any legal or moral condemnation. The only thing possible is to combat it; intellectually by revealing its inner mechanism, politically by attempting to disengage oneself from it (the French government, contrary to appearances, does not really attempt this), or by armed struggle. I admit that I am, like other members of the "tribunal', a declared enemy of imperialism and that I feel myself in solidarity with all those who fight against it. Commitment, from this point of view, must be total. Each individual sees the totality of the struggle and aligns himself on one side or on the other, from motives which may range from his objective situation to a certain idea that he holds of human life. On this level one may hate the class enemy. But one cannot judge him in the legal sense. It is even difficult, if not impossible, so long as one keeps to the purely realistic viewpoint of the class struggle, to see one's own allies in legal terms and rigorously to define the "crimes' committed by their governments. This was clearly shown by the problem of the Stalinist labour camps. One either delivered moral judgments on them, which were entirely beside the point, or satisfied oneself with evaluating the "positive' and the "negative' in Stalin's policies. Some said, "It's positive in the last analysis' and others said, "It's negative'. That too led nowhere.

In fact, though the development of history is not determined by law and morality--which are, on the contrary, its products--these two superstructures do exert a "feed back' effect on that development. It is this which allows one to judge a society in terms of the criteria which it has itself established. It is therefore entirely normal to inquire, at any given moment, if such and such an action can really be judged purely in terms of utility and likely outcome, or whether it does not in fact transcend such criteria and come within the scope of an international jurisprudence which has slowly been built up.

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Marx, in one of the prefaces to "Capital', makes a remark to the effect that--We are the last people who can be accused of condemning the bourgeois, since we consider that, conditioned by the process of capital and by the class struggle, their conduct is necessary. But there are moments, all the same, when they exceed the limits.

The whole problem is to know if, today, the imperialists are exceeding the limits.

When Talleyrand says: "It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake', he sums up very well the way in which political actions have always been considered throughout history. They might be skilful or clumsy, effective or ill-starred; they always escaped legal sanction. There was no such thing as a "criminal policy'.

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And then, at Nurenburg, in 1945, there appeared for the first time the notion of a "political crime'. It was suspect, certainly, since it consisted in imposing the law of the conqueror upon the conquered. But the condemnation of the leaders of Nazi Germany by the Nurenburg Tribunal only had any meaning at all if it implied that any government which, in the future, committed acts which could be condemned under one or other of the articles of the Nurenburg laws, would be subject to trial by a similar tribunal. Our tribunal today merely proposes to apply to capitalist imperialism its own laws. The arsenal of jurisprudence, moreover, is not limited to the laws of Nurenburg; there was already the Briand-Kellog pact; and there are the Geneva Convention and other international agreements.

The question in this case is not one of condemning a policy in the name of history, of judging whether it is or is not contrary to the interests of humanity; it is rather a question of saying if it infringes existing laws. For example, you may criticize the present policies of France, you may be totally opposed to them, as I am, but you cannot call them "criminal'. That would be meaningless. But you could do so during the Algerian war. Torture, the organization of concentration camps, reprisals on the civilian population, executions without trial could all be equated with some of the crimes condemned at Nurenburg. If anybody at the time had set up a tribunal like the one conceived by Bertrand Russell, I would certainly have agreed to take part in it. Because it was not done at that time with reference to France is no reason not to do it today with reference to the United States.

You will be asked by what legal right, since it is the law which you are invoking, you are setting yourselves up as judges, which you are not . . .

Quite true. After that, people will say, anybody can judge anything! And then, doesn't the project risk falling on the one side into petitbourgeois idealism (a number of well-known personalities make a protest in the name of exalted human values) and on the other into fascism, with a vengeance-seeking aspect to it which recalls Arsene Lupin and the whole of fascist literature?

To this I would reply first of all that there is no question of condemning anybody to any penalty whatever. Any judgment which cannot be executed is evidently derisory. I can hardly see myself condemning President Johnson to death. I would cover myself with ridicule.

Our aim is a different one. It is to study all the existing documentation on the war in Vietnam, to bring forward all the possible witnesses--American and Vietnamese--and to determine whether certain actions fall within the competence of the laws of which I have spoken. We will not invent any new legislation. We will merely say, if we establish it--and I cannot prejudge this--"Such and such acts, committed in such and such places, represent a violation of such and such international laws, and are, consequently, crimes. And there stand those who are responsible for them.' This would, if a real international tribunal existed, make the latter subject--by virtue, for example, of the laws applied at Nurenburg--to various sanctions. So it is not at all a question of demonstrating the indignant disapproval of a group of honest citizens, but of giving a juridical dimension to acts of international politics, in order to combat the tendency of the majority of people only to judge the conduct of a social group or of a government in expedient or in moral terms.

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Does this not lead you to the view that there is a way of waging war which is to be condemned, and another which is not?

Certainly not! The onslaught of imperialism against certain peoples of the third world is a fact which is clear to me. I oppose it with all my strength, to the limit of the feeble means at my disposal, but there is no point in my saying whether there is a good and a bad way in which it can be carried out. In fact, although the good, peaceful people in our consumer societies would like to ignore it, everywhere there is fighting, struggle; the world is in flames and we could have a world war from one moment to the next. I have to take sides in the struggle, not to humanize it. We only have to try and find out whether, in the course of this struggle, there are people who are exceeding the limits; whether imperialist policies infringe laws formulated by imperialism itself.

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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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