“Those who claim to know everything and to settle everything end up killing everything. The day comes when they have no other rule but murder, no other science than the poor scholastic arguments which occasionally serve to justify murder” (Albert Camus, quoted in Lottman 1980: 437).

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When asked how he could mention the word happiness in light of the devastation of World War II, Albert Camus responded that happiness is not a “children’s book” but a state of lucidity (Lottman 1980: 444). The war had made reality more concrete, and had dispelled illusions—though by no means ending them since individuals still find solace in absolute ideals, as knowledge is power. But for the fictional characters of The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), or The Just Assassins (1949), or the philosophical reflections of The Rebel (1951), happiness is the momentary surge of lucidity that exists even in suffering. This faith in the present world as it is shaped by the active commitment of individuals remains for Camus the guiding light of political action.

Camus wrote The Just Assassins in search of this type of committed individual, who in making meaningful an otherwise absurd world, had little choice but to confront the Nazi occupation of Paris, French collaborators, Franco’s Spain, Tito’s Yugoslavia, French radicals who placed hope behind Stalinist socialism, and what he called the “American worship of technology” (Lottman 1980: 460). The latter point seemed to suggest that even as war and visible totalitarianism end, its symptoms can resurface in totalizing forms of entertainment, television, radio, and consumer-propelled mediocrity. The dormant plague that is quickly recalled, the allegory that ends The Plague, was not simply the absolutism of a regime, but the always present threat of individual subjectivity compromised.[1]

In 1949, Camus worked intently on a play called The Just Assassins and, while suffering from intensifying fits of tuberculosis, visited Brazil, and gave lectures in Chile while student protests flooded the nearby streets. I need to check his American Journals to see if he elaborates upon Lottman’s quick mention of these events, since the academic norm is still conveyed in articles that draw Camus as “a poor philosopher and never really a man of politics, much less a man of action” (Brooks 1982). Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion (1994) and Stephen Eric Bronner’s Camus: Portrait of a Moralist (1999) led me in the opposite direction, just as reading Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero as a doctoral student confirmed to me why Camus fiction is political. Writing is an organizational event that “achieves its ideal neutral zone when all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (Barthes 1999 [1977]: 142). Camus’ works were never simply about his life or time, but about the situational and recurring elements of political mobilization. These works amount to no one definitive position, but to the politics of aesthetics that continues to redraw the lines between the solitary individual and the solidarity of each new event.  After Camus returned to Paris, he staged the The Just Assassins for several months where it “made the Parisians…burst into tears at some of its scenes” because it recalled the still recent memory of the French Resistance (See Lottman 1980: 305). Amid the conquest of absolutism Camus mobilized behind the Resistance by joining an underground movement called Combat where he devoted most of his time. Whether through a dramaturgy that stages action, or a newspaper that operates from underground, the means of political activity grow from the possibilities of the medium itself.

The Just Assassins returns to Russia in 1905, when a small crew of anarchists (Militant socialists? Insurgents? Revolutionaries or Rebels?) from the Organization of Social Revolutionaries plan and carry out the assassination of a high ranking royal official (the Grand Duke). Each character exudes a varying level of commitment to the cause: some are driven by envy and revenge, yet all express their unwavering devotion the use of violence to achieve a more just Russia. In the play’s climactic event, Kaliayev, the most reflective of the crew, refuses to dispatch the bomb into the Grand Duke’s moving carriage when he sees that children are onboard.  The conflicting responses to this decision on the part of the others, Stepan, Dora, Voinov and Annenkov, weave together a dialogue about the limits of violence and the justified balance between means and ends of political action. The primary theme of The Just Assassins is that despotism is not simply an object, but a disposition weaved into the modern mind. The despotic revolutionary is concerned about the future, while the true rebel must love the world in its present state (see p. 260). Committed ethical action in the present will pave the way for the state of the future.

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WHAT MY STUDENTS SAID

Students began to quickly take the sides of characters they empathized with. One student sided with Voinov because he seems deeply committed to the revolution but could not bring himself to carry out a violent act (though he’s clearly a possible informer, which I suspect since he’s the only character with a coherent backstory). He accepts the propaganda of the deed (i.e., the bombs), but would rather help the movement from a distant position so he does not have to “see” the violence. This student justified her answer by stating that she supports the troops, though from a geographic distance, since it is they who draw the limits to the unacceptable atrocity of 9-11. As one of the few students who still support the ongoing war on terrorism, she claimed that she can be for the war effort without having to witness violence, and that national morality does not entail that its civilians give their lives in exchange for those taken during wars they support. I believe that this is precisely the dilemma that underlies Camus’ critique. Another student called out Annenkov, the leader of the revolutionary cadre, for orchestrating the plot while assigning others to carry it through. He claimed that everyone who believes in an ideal that requires violence “should put themselves on the frontlines”. All political officials should prove their devotion when and if there exists a literal battlefield.

Strangely, students found Kaliayev and Dora, who occupy the majority of the dialogue, to be of minor importance since they are the least likely to dominate the group. In other words, these are the characters that are least antagonistic, flexible, and vulnerable to the collective will. It is true that even as Kaliayev asserts his individuality in refusing to plant the bomb at the sight of children, he later agrees to suppress his individual reservations if a collective vote so determines. But this position fails to account for Kaliayev’s juxtaposition between the collective instrumentality of means and ends (i.e., the collective vote binds him to their will) and the individual act of momentary refusal. For Kaliayev, otherwise known as “the poet,” taking a life demands the sacrifice of one’s own, an act with the undertone of salvation. One atones for ones actions through the cost of one’s life, thereby ensuring the salvation of those who one loves. Kaliayev concludes, “[t]o die for an ideal—that’s the only way of proving oneself worthy of it. It’s our only justification” (Camus 1962: 246).

Works Cited

Peter Brooks. From Albert Camus to Roland Barthes. New York Times. 12 Sep 1982.

Albert Camus. Caligula and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage, 1962.

Herbert Lottman. Albert Camus: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1980.


[1] “[T]he plague bacillus never dies or appears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (Camus 1991: 320).

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