John Pistelli


Albert Camus, The Rebel

The Rebel: An Essay on Man in RevoltThe Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Rebel is Albert Camus’s answer, written in 1951, to the painful question of why the human attempt to overcome oppression, to destroy all religiously and socially prescribed hierarchies, led instead to fascism, communism, imperialism, and the softer but still decisive tyranny of the machine in the industrial and administrative states of capitalism. Camus is not a conservative commending acquiescence in the status quo. An atheist, existentialist, and absurdist, he revises Descartes so that human beings only affirm their identity by rebelling. Yet this rebellion is paradoxical, in that one man’s rebellion may be another man’s tyranny.

In his introduction to The Rebel, Camus states the paradox that rebellion both forbids the rebel to kill other human beings—because rebellion itself is premised on the recognition of absolute individual human rights, compelling the rebel to universal solidarity—and enjoins the rebel to kill others in seeking his own freedom—because rebellion has no internal limit and sweeps away all moral and metaphysical limitations. Whether he becomes Sade celebrating torture and rape in the boudoir or Stalin overseeing secret police and sending dissidents to the gulag, the rebel is likely to depose God only to become a murderous deity in his turn. To affirm rebellion, then, Camus needs to find its internal limit, what forestalls its turn to murder.

Most of The Rebel is a literary and philosophical history of how modern thinkers have failed to find this limit and so have abetted the transformation of rebellion into oppression. Camus begins in antiquity, finding the ancestor of the rebel in Prometheus and Cain and locating early attempts to limit rebellion. The Greeks are this book’s philosophical and artistic heroes, largely, I take it, because of their beneficent lack of monotheism. For Camus, rebellion, a human universal, begins to go seriously wrong with the idea of one tyrannical God, which the rebel, in deposing, may merely replace as unaccountable lord of all the earth: “To kill God and to build a Church are the constant and contradictory purpose of rebellion.” A myriad of divine and natural agencies, though, moderates this contradiction, which is why Camus finds it in his heart to praise even Christianity, with its functional or pragmatic polytheistic distribution of authority among Christ, the Virgin, the saints, the church hierarchy, etc. (Compare The Rebel in this respect to Jung’s otherwise very dissimilar Answer to Job, written almost contemporaneously.)

It is with the modern period of revolutions, following the early modern “deicide,” though, that rebellion and its dangers come into their own. Consequently, Camus analyzes the French Revolution and its dictatorship of virtue (which he ambivalently lauds for at least upholding an ideal—virtue itself—that could serve as a standard for the rebellion’s moral worth), the “thirty years apostolate of blood” that concluded the nineteenth century with a rash of anarchist terrorism and assassination (which he reads as a lamentable embrace of the irrational, but by activists who were at least willing to die for their nihilist convictions), the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler (which he condemns utterly as pathetic attempts to cover brutality with the moral prestige of rebellion), and the Russian Revolution and its aftermath (which he likewise damns as the cynical apotheosis of an ideology of force-without-restraint empowering murderous bureaucrats and a hypertrophic state).

When it leaves the realm of myth and becomes history, when it goes from rebellion to revolution, humanity’s resistance to its lot seems to follow a fateful cycle, which Camus describes archetypally in a passage the beauty of which will give you a sense of this book’s lyricism (in Anthony Bower’s translation):

Here ends Prometheus’ surprising itinerary. Proclaiming his hatred of the gods and his love of mankind, he turns away from Zeus with scorn and approaches mortal men in order to lead them in an assault against the heavens. But men are weak and cowardly; they must be organized. They love pleasure and immediate happiness; they must be taught to refuse, in order to grow up, immediate rewards. Thus Prometheus becomes, in his turn, a master who first teaches and then commands. Men doubt that they can safely attack the city of light and are even uncertain whether the city exists. They must be saved from themselves. The hero then tells them that he, and he alone, knows the city. Those who doubt his word will be thrown into the desert, chained to a rock, offered to the vultures. The others will march henceforth in darkness, behind the pensive and solitary master. Prometheus alone has become god and reigns over the solitude of men. But from Zeus he has gained only solitude and cruelty; he is no longer Prometheus, he is Caesar. The real, the eternal Prometheus has now assumed the aspect of one of his victims. The same cry, springing from the depths of the past, rings forever through the Scythian desert.

The Rebel, though, is a history of ideas rather than of events, and Camus’s philosophical bill of indictment will perhaps interest readers more than his impressionistic historiography. Throughout the book, Camus addresses Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and the artistic avant-gardes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of this list, he expresses outright contempt only for Hegel.

Rousseau may have claimed that people should be “forced to be free,” but at least he maintained a fortifying idealism; Marx may have, in his political imprecision and messianism, left an opening in his political theory big enough for Stalinism to get through, but at least he was criticizing a genuinely exploitative social system in the name of genuine compassion; Nietzsche may have, in his embrace of amor fati, robbed the individual of moral resources to challenge fascism’s modern refurbishment of the claim that might is right, but at least he was standing up for the irrepressible insurgency of free human beings and their inability to be captured fully by any system (and the avant-garde from Baudelaire to Surrealism, for all its sometimes troubling irrationalism and nihilism, joined or followed Nietzsche in this).

But Hegel, charges Camus, is the philosopher of tyranny: his understanding of social life as the dialectic of master and slave reduces history to “a prolonged fight to the death for the conquest of universal prestige and absolute power.” Hegel dissolves reason into history, seeing it as an immanent human attribute rather than a transcendent value; thus, all values are historically relative, and the “slave” (which refers not only to the literally enslaved but to any dependent or subordinate class, e.g., the peasantry, the industrial proletariat, the petit bourgeoisie, etc.) is without moral limitation in the means he may use to rebel. This in turn implies that “the slave could only free himself by enslaving in his turn,” aided by Hegel’s theory of the modern state, with its vast technical capacity for domination, as the ultimate embodiment of collective human reason. History, defined by Hegel as the contest for universal freedom and the equal recognition of each by all, will end when there are no more slaves. Morality will then be possible, but until then, “every human activity is sinful,” a claim that entails the inability to discriminate morally between any human activities. Hegel, therefore, implicitly or unwittingly licenses any and all means to the end of a utopian freedom on an ever-receding horizon.

Hegel is the most totalizing of modern thinkers, his system a complete answer to the question of what we are to do with ourselves if there is no transcendent God nor any transcendent values such a God could support. If his system is irredeemably corrupt because Hitler and Stalin are already coiled in its deep structure, where is Camus to go if he does not go back to God? He seeks two places of intellectual refuge.

First, he claims, we must have recourse to nature, as the Greeks did. If we abandon the idea that there is a universal human nature, then the human being is only clay to be molded by Hegel’s new gods in the bureaucracy of the administrative state. This is a common position on the political right today, but the left—to include liberals—have necessarily abandoned it in the wake of postmodernism; even a brief contemplation of contemporary progressive thought about gender, to take the most salient example, should suffice to show why.

Camus’s second recourse is to art: “Rebellion can be observed [in art] in its pure state and in its original complexities.” In rejecting given reality for a created one, the artist is the prototypical rebel. But the artist cannot be a nihilist, dismissing the real in its entirety, the way anarchist terrorists or Hegelian historicists can. Silently following Aristotle, for whom art was mimesis, Camus argues that the artist is always representing reality so as to give it a shape it does not possess in its unmediated state: “To create beauty, [the artist] must simultaneously reject reality and exalt certain of its aspects,” which leads the artist to imagine a “living transcendence” (as opposed to the merely ideal transcendence of monotheism and the deadening immanence of Marxism and related ideologies).

Camus singles out the novel, because it is the literary form that coincides with the modern era of rebellion; prior literature tended toward what Camus calls “consent” to the status quo, whereas the novel, with its restive protagonists, answers the “metaphysical need” of rebelling by giving ethical form to experience, which form in turn tempers the rebellion so that it does not spin off into totalitarianism. Camus further argues that contemporary literature must go beyond the psychological novel, with its treatment of private passions, to attempt to control “collective passions and the historical struggle.”

Camus notes that “all revolutionary reformers” must show “hostility” to art, because it demonstrates forces of nature and beauty beyond their puritanical control. The danger to art in the twentieth century is found on two sides, two versions of nihilism: either an over-stressing of mimesis, as in Marxism’s exaltation of realism, or an over-emphasis on form, as in the abstractions of the avant-garde, neither capable of creating a living art that holds reality and form in vital tension.

In sum, art transfigures reality and so provides a better model for politics than the modern period’s revolutionary systems.

Art, at least, teaches us that man cannot be explained by history alone and that he also finds a reason for existence in the order of nature. The rebels who wish to ignore nature and beauty are condemned to banish from history everything with which they want to construct the dignity of existence and of labor. Every great reformer tries to create in history what Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and Tolstoy knew how to create: a world always ready to satisfy the hunger for freedom and dignity which every man carries in his heart.

Needless to say, I agree with just about all of that. I even wrote it out at regrettable length, with the professionally necessary concessions to Hegel & Co., in my doctoral dissertation many years before reading The Rebel.

It must be said, though, that Camus’s more practical political recommendations leave much to be desired. He endorses a vague anarcho-syndicalism (shades of Simone Weil) that has been made irrelevant for Europe and the U.S. by the deindustrialization of western society. This is moreover premised on an even less creditable ethnic distinction between what Camus sees as the libertarianism and rationalism of Mediterranean civilization as against the seemingly perennial Gothic irrationalism of “German ideology.” (If ideology is reducible to ethnos, then Camus’s struggle against fascism may have been in vain. I will leave the implications of this remark for some contemporary currents in American liberalism to your imagination.) Camus states, at the book’s conclusion, that “[r]ebellion itself is moderation,” and that we need to read all of the thinkers he has discussed because they will, in our rebellion, “correct one another,” as “[e]ach tells the other that he is not God.” He concludes that “in order to be a man” we have “to refuse to be a god.” Not bad advice, but its concrete application is unclear. Here Camus’s charge against Marx may redound upon himself: his vagueness invited his philosophy’s abuse—for instance, its use to provide intellectual cover for America’s disastrous interventions in the Middle East.

It is when he champions art and the novel that Camus speaks for durable and still relevant values. I myself am only qualified to rebel through the exercise of the artistic intelligence; that Camus reconciles me to this fate is doubtless why he has, in some quarters, a reputation for bourgeois cowardice and mediocrity, but all the same it is a good thing to find a philosophical warrant to go on with one’s life. Moreover, today’s much-remarked upsurge of neo-fascist and neo-Stalinist thinking is enough to convince me that Camus’s controversial advocacy for balance and caution, even in the face of real oppression, might not be amiss. Unfashionable as it may be, The Rebel is a book to read.

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