Hugh McDonnell – Jean-Paul Sartre’s Europe

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 9 Mar 2016

Photo: Government Press Office (GPO)


“To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at the same time”. This provocative defence of violence as not only compatible with but essential to the liberation of the colonial subject – made in the Preface to Frantz Franon’s Wretched of the Earth at the height of the Algerian war of independence – has long coloured the reception of Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of Europe. On the strength of this Preface alone, critics have charged Sartre with irresponsible Third Worldism, a wilful ignorance of the achievements of Europe, and a failure to care for his own continent. Whilst not denying that Sartre’s oeuvre contains imprudent and reckless judgements, Hugh McDonnell attempts to rehabilitate this image of Sartre through a skilful reconstruction of his wide-ranging statements about Europe throughout the course of his life. For McDonnell, Sartre’s idea of Europe is best understood according to the metaphor of a knot, bringing together four related but interweaving elements around a core, existentialist philosophy of freedom.

First, Sartre argued that the plague of fascism and the lived experience of servitude and resistance which it foisted upon all Europeans forged a cultural and moral bedrock around which the continent was united. To be a European was to have acted in the heavy mist of death, famine and torture which suffocated the continent under Nazism. Second, in the post-war years Sartre came to juxtapose the Old and New Worlds. Where European cities are historically layered, circuitous and public, American urban space is a fast-moving, constantly evolving piece of highway. European culture is characterised by a hopeless, secular fight to contain evil, American culture by optimistic, instrumentalist and scientific reasoning. Third, Sartre rejected the idea that Europe had to choose between America and the Soviet Union. In opposition to both options, he called for a strong, independent and socialist Europe. It should not be a pawn in the Cold War, but a political subject unto itself. Fourth, the Third World held a mirror up to Europe, for its idyllic self-image as a benevolent agent of historical progress was wrecked upon the violent reality of colonialism.

All considered, this is a far more complicated, and far more interesting account of Sartre’s relationship to Europe than we are led to believe by his critics.

Discussion in the seminar revolved around the various contexts through which Sartre’s conception of Europe took shape, the extent to which Sartre’s Europe is reducible to his existentialism, the role of Sartre’s fraught relationships with Albert Camus and Raymond Aron in the evolution of his outlook on world affairs, whether Sartre can properly said to be a ‘cosmopolitan’, Sartre’s use of ‘shame’ rather than ‘guilt’ to speak of the history of European colonialism, and Sartre’s attempt to articulate a philosophy that was at once provincial and universal.

Written by Louis Fletcher


Hugh McDonnell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Greyzone Research Team directed by Dr Mihaela Mihai of the Just World Institute.