Jean-Paul Sartre, born in Paris in 1905, was a leading exponent of existentialism, a philosophical movement that celebrates the freedom of individual human existence while mourning its inherent meaninglessness. The author of more than 20 novels, plays, and philosophical treatises, Sartre refused the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature on the grounds that a writer “should refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution.” However, Sartre was an institution: first as the voice of existentialism and later as the conscience of communism.
As a student in Paris and Berlin, Sartre was greatly influenced by German philosophy, particularly the existentialism of Martin Heidegger and the phenomenological method of Edmund Hussel, who advocated cautious, unbiased description over terse deduction. Sartre’s first major work was the novel Nausea (1938), a narrative of existential angst written in the form of a diary. Other major existential works were No Exit (1946) and Being and Nothingness (1956).
After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Sartre served briefly in the French army before becoming a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1941. After his release, he settled in Nazi-occupied Paris, where he taught, wrote, and conspired with the French Resistance. It was during the war that Marxism developed into Sartre’s second intellectual love. Although he never joined the French Communist Party, he was one of France’s best-known communists, and he often spoke out in support of the USSR and its policies. In 1954, he visited the Soviet Union.
After the November 4, 1956, invasion of Hungary by Soviet forces, Sartre denounced the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party to the dictates of Moscow. On November 9, in the French magazine L’Express, he declared, “I condemn the Soviet invasion wholeheartedly and without any reservation. Without putting any responsibility onto the Russian people, I nevertheless insist that its current government has committed a crime…. And the crime, to me, is not just the invasion of Budapest by army tanks, but the fact that this was made possible by twelve years of terror and imbecility…. It is and will be impossible to reestablish any sort of contact with the men who are currently at the head of the [French Communist Party]. Each sentence they utter, each action they take is the culmination of 30 years of lies and sclerosis.”
Although Sartre’s hopes for communism were crushed, he continued to advocate Marxism and sought to develop a new kind of socialism in Search for a Method (1960). A final break with the Soviet Union came in 1968 with the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring.” After that, Sartre’s allegiance was given to young revolutionaries in France, and he sometimes served as titular editor of small, radical newspapers. His last major work was a monumental four-volume study of the 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, and his funeral was attended by 25,000 people.
READ MORE: Communism Timeline