When Political Activism Becomes Personal: Camus and Algeria

By Tom van der Meij

Albert Camus was a French philosopher and writer. As an absurdist, he was convinced that there is no point in looking for any meaning in our existence. When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, he was the second-youngest writer to have obtained the award. The day he died in a car crash in 1960, France mourned his death, and 60 years later, his sudden passing is still the subject of numerous conspiracy theories. Another interesting life fact: he was born in French-Algeria, to so-called pieds-noirs parents. Also worth mentioning is that Camus was a political activist, opposing and campaigning against human rights violations and totalitarianism all over the world. Until the Algerian people screamed for independence.

This story begins in the city of Mondovi, a small town in French-Algeria. Albert Camus was born in this town but grew up in Algiers with his mother, brother, and grandmother; Camus’ father died in the mud fields of the first world war when Camus was one year old. His mother was deaf and grieving, his grandmother illiterate and violent. The apartment they lived in was decrepit, there was no electricity nor running water, neither were there any books, newspapers, nor a radio. It is these conditions that have structured Camus’ life and his works. In his first diary he writes:

‘A certain number of years lived without money are enough to create a whole sensibility’

Although Camus grows up in misery, he has an advantage over many of the other inhabitants of Algiers: he has French ancestors and therefore a privileged starting position. This advantage of Camus above the native population characterizes French-Algeria. A state in which the pieds-noirs, the mostly French settlers in the colony, had exclusive political rights and the best pieces of land. The Algerians, or ‘les indigènes’, as the French called them, could gain a French nationality, but only if they renounced their religion. Even though in many aspects they were privileged, the pieds-noirs were also estranged from their surroundings and their origins. Separated from and loathed by the Algerians whilst simultaneously far removed from France, a country many second and third-generation pieds-noirs had never even set foot on.

Camus did however go to France, to Paris specifically, and continued what he had started in Algeria: a career in writing and journalism. There he also outlined his philosophy: absurdism. It is a school of thought that initially seems to counter every philosophical argument. Absurdists believe that the human quest to find meaning in their own life, the environment they find themselves in, and the events that happen in their life creates a conflict with the absurd: the absolute meaninglessness of the universe. Camus subsequently developed three solutions for this internal conflict.

A first option would be suicide, which Camus disapproves of because it does not solve the conflict. Another pathway is a religious or spiritual conviction that has a given meaning, but Camus sees this as a restriction of man’s critical thinking. The best outcome, according to Camus, is the acceptance of the absurd: living your life in the knowledge that the lack of given meaning gives individuals the chance to create meaning themselves. 

Camus’ first novel, the Outsider, was published in 1942. It is set in French-Algeria and shows the warmth Camus felt for his country of birth. Simultaneously, it is a cold and estranging book. The main character, a man called Meursault, seems to be a person without feelings or a moral compass: when his mother dies, he barely shows any emotions, and when a friend wants Meursault’s assistance to emotionally hurt his ex-girlfriend, he is pleased to help. In his most shocking act, Meursault kills ‘an Arab’, whose name is never given, while nostalgically looking out over the Mediterranean sea, being dazed by the sun’s reflection. Shortly before he receives the punishment for this act, death by guillotine, Meursault can be found in a cell, captured again by the beautiful Algerian sky and wondering about the ‘tender indifference of the world’. This all seems slightly ridiculous but purely analyzed in its form it fits into the context of Camus’ absurdist philosophy. When you believe that life does not have a preset meaning and is essentially absurd, indifference and nihilism can be a logical consequence. In creating Meursault, Camus shows this process in an extreme form. And following the tragic death of his father, the misery of his youth, and the gloomy scenery of German-controlled Paris, it is not that surprising Camus opts for a story filled with distress and violence.

With The outsider, and his sequent work The myth of Sysiphus, Camus gives more depth to the question of how to react when we find out that life does not have a determined purpose. It puts him in the foreground of 1950’s European thinkers. During the Second World War, Camus was an important figure in the Parisian resistance, writing and spreading underground newspapers. It makes him a beloved and admired public figure in France after the war. At this time, Camus’ political activism became increasingly prominent. The ’50s were a turbulent time in which Western-Europeans rebuilt and reinvented their countries, their politics, and their culture. Although the Second World War created rather detrimental doubts about the nature of humankind, it also created a renewed evaluation of Western colonialism. Now that most Europeans had felt the repression of the Nazi regime, colonial practices suddenly seemed even more unjust.

A feeling that also got reflected in the writings of Camus and his circle of influential friends and acquaintances, such as famous philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Anti-colonial tendencies quickly became prominent in progressive circles and got expressed in student protests, left-wing newspapers, and the books of third-world writers. During the cold war, many of the prominent intellectuals attached themselves to the communist ideology. Sartre argued that the voices of the least heard or ‘those treated the most unjustly’ had to serve as a moral basis for political decisions. A bold, but also relatively easy proclamation for a settled philosophical icon, safely written in Les Deux Magots. A stance, furthermore, that was easy to refute when Sartre refused to speak out against the imprisonment of political dissidents in the Soviet Union. It is also questionable if the miserable youth of the regardless privileged Camus would count as an example of someone ‘treated the most unjustly’. 

And even though it glances as a prototypical communist notion, Sartre’s position was unacceptable for some hardliner communists, who argue that it is up to the communist party to decide who is morally justified to be heard politically. Being a political activist in the 1950’s was a complicated pastime.

Camus distanced himself from the French communist party and the Soviet Union. He advocated against totalitarianism and brutalism, regardless of its political form. The manner Camus had experienced the world war seems to differ from the writers and thinkers in his surroundings. For Camus it was straightforward: there can be no legitimation of violence, especially from a state’s side, and to turn a blind eye towards it is morally unjust. It is the obligation of intellectuals and public figures to distance themselves from it. In 1940 he writes:

‘I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder’

After the war, Camus follows the situation in his home country with interest and concern. What he saw and heard made him feel uneasy; the French colony had turned into a totalitarian state (as can be seen in the movie The Battle of Algiers). This unease got worse when the Algerian revolution started in 1954. The combination of a larger wave of independence movements all around the world and political instability in France made this Algerian struggle for independence inevitable. It did not take long before the strife for an independent Algeria also reached mainland France. On the 17th of October 1961, the movement for an independent Algeria, the Front de libération nationale (FLN), organized a massive protest against a restriction of their freedom in Paris: a curfew solely for ‘French Muslim Workers’. Some 40.000 protesters peacefully gathered in various public squares until the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, violently cracked down on the protests. Protestors were shot and thrown in the Seine river. Approximately 200 died; up until this day, the French government only acknowledges 40 deaths. 

The French were initially not planning on simply giving up their colony or succumbing to Algerian violence. On the contrary; the determination to keep Algeria in French hands culminated in terrific blood-shedding on both sides. While the French clearly had the military advantage in this conflict, it was the Algerians who had the moral overhand and the support of neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. A man who thought to have solved the question of our existence, and even proposed solutions to the conflict that arises from its answers, now had to solve a more challenging internal conflict. In his absolute aversion to all sorts of (political) violence, but also with nostalgia towards his country of birth and his family, it was this moment Camus’ political activism reached him personally and he had to ask the question: which side am I on? 

It is the French side, the side of his family, that he opts for, although with hesitation. The colonial attitude and aggression of the French army disgust him and he is in favor of more political authority for the Algerians, but it are the bombings of the FLN that affect him more personally. He says:

‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’

In January 1956 Camus traveled to Algiers, to see with his own eyes what was going on and in an attempt to ease the conflict. His task was to settle some sort of peace agreement between the French Armed Forces and the FLN. His visit did not have the desired outcome; quite the opposite. From the pieds-noirs he heard ‘death to Camus’, in the eyes of the FLN he is a traitor and a hypocrite, due to his refusal to clearly pick one side. Camus returns to France and decides to remain silent regarding the struggle for independence until the conflict is over. In 1961, one year after his death, Algeria became an independent country. Nowadays Camus is celebrated in the West, especially for his novel The Plague, which is set in Algeria and deals with a fictional contagious disease outbreak in the existing city of Oran. In Algeria, he is mostly forgotten, ignored by the regime, seen as an embodiment of the darker French imperialism. It shows again: being a political activist is a complicated pastime.

Edited by Helena Reinders

Artwork by Oscar Laviolette


Sarah Bakewell, At the existentialist café & Agnés Poirier, Left Bank.