Saving Our Skins: Camus’ Neither Victims nor Executioners

The Power of Nonviolence Writings by Advocates of PeaceThe eleventh chapter of The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace contains Albert Camus‘ 1946 essay Neither Victims nor Executioners. This week we discuss the second part of the essay, Saving Our Skins. Camus wrote this 16-page essay as World War II had just ended, and it seemed as if the Soviet Union and the United States were dragging the planet into the horrors of a third world war. Eleven years later, he would win the Nobel prize for literature. This week we discuss the second part of the essay.

The title of this section comes from the conclusion of the first section that we must refuse to either to kill or be killed.  This launches the discussion of the accusations that Camus is living in a Utopia because so-called political reality calls for murder. He finds the ease with which his accusers call for murder is “a freak of the times” where the accusers are disassociated from the actuality of what they are calling for.  Camus describes how the whole culture is disassociated from reality:

We make love by telephone, we work not on matter but on machines, and we kill and are killed by proxy. We gain in cleanliness, but lose in understanding.

This poetically describes the evil of our current world where we execute innocent children by drones operated by someone half way across the globe. 

Camus describes the reasonableness of his alternate world view:

People like myself want not a world where murder no longer exists (we are not as crazy as that!) but rather one in which murder is not legitimate.

And with that he describes the heart of why he is called Utopian.  His accusers cannot imagine changing from the world in which we live “where murder is legitimate” without using murder as a tool for change. Camus rejects murder as a path to making murder illegitimate.  In other words, he rejects those who even today say that the only successful revolution will require violence on the part of the change-agents.

And then Camus turns his gaze upon his accusers.  He finds that no matter where they alight on the political spectrum, they do so because they believe “his particular political truth is the one to make man happy.”  Yet all these philosophies have created a world of violence instead of a world of happiness.  So Camus concludes that

those who accuse us of Utopianism are possibly themselves also living in a Utopia, a different one but perhaps a more costly one in the end.

This leads him to define Utopia as “whatever is in contradiction with reality”.  He agains eschews “absolute Utopia” of “wishing that people “should not longer kill each other” for the “sounder Utopia” where “murder be no longer legitimized.”

With the making of killing illegitimate as his goal, Camus casts a plague upon both political houses:

Indeed, the Marxian and the capitalist ideologies, both based on the idea of progress, both certain that the application of their principles must inevitably bring about a harmonious society, are Utopian to a much greater degree. Furthermore, they are both at the moment costing us dearly.

In this Camus reminds of  Paul Gilk  called eutopian in his book Green Politics Is Eutopian.  In my August 29, 2001 review of that book, I said that:

Gilk finds that capitalism and communism are two faces of the same utopian, patriarchal, urban, mechanistic civilization.  He calls for a eutopian society as the antidote to this destructive path.   The term eutopian, as used in the title of the book is defined in comparison.  While Utopian means ‘no place’, Eutopian means the ‘good place.’

Gilk’s dichotomy between between utopian and eutopian echoes in Camus’ antidote to a world of fear and terror described in the Century of Fear introduction to the Neither Victims nor Executioners essay:

We live in terror because persuasion is no longer possible; because man has been wholly submerged in History; because he can no longer tap that part of his nature, as real as the historical part, which he recaptures in contemplating the beauty of nature and of human faces; because we live in a world of abstractions, of bureaus and machines, of absolute ideas and of crude messianism.

Camus concludes this section by fining that we are not in a contest between Utopia and reality.  Our goal instead is to find the least costly Utopia.   In it, he returns the concepts of the quote just provided from the previous section in that our quest is to

define the conditions for a political position that is modest — i.e. free of messianism and disencumbered of nostolgia for an earthly paradise.


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