Remembering Albert Camus

‘Bread and Freedom’

Sandip Bandyopadhyay

This year marks the birth centenary of Albert Camus (1913- 1960), the Algerian born French novelist who needs no introduction. Besides novels, short-stories and dramas, Camus also wrote a great many political and philosophical essays. While his philosophical writings sought the very meaning of human existence which Camus found to be ‘absurd’, the political essays centred mainly around issues relating to Freedom. Camus wrote those essays when he was associated with the Communist Party and also, later on, when he lost faith in Communism.

To commemorate the birth centenary of this great writer it is better to choose Camus’ brilliant piece—Bread and Freedom because he appears here in rather different colours. There is little trace of his sense of elemental absurdity or the existentialist philosophy with which one often associates Camus. The essay entitled ‘Bread and Freedom’ is actually a speech given by Camus at a Labour Exchange on 10 May, 1953. It was later included in his posthumously published collection of essays—‘Resistance, Rebellion and Death’ (1961).
[Resistance, Rebellion And Death’ Vintage International, 1995]

Albert Camus here addresses the question in a straight forward manner and emphatically notes that ‘Freedom is the concern of the oppressed’ even as he maintains that other classes cannot overlook it because they enjoy privileges of freedom at the cost of the ‘enslaved’ workers. Camus strongly believes that the question of freedom cannot be isolated from the context of poverty because ‘Poverty increases in so far as freedom retreats throughout the world, and vice versa’. He exemplifies his contention by stating the fact that when a worker’s bread is taken away, he loses freedom because henceforth his access to bread will depend on his master’s ‘whim’ (p 94).

As expected, drawing on the ‘not by bread alone’ thesis Camus asserts that freedom does not mean freedom from hunger only; it also entails freedom from the master’s domination. Given his political position, it is not also surprising that Camus denounces both bourgeois and revolutionary (socialist) notions of freedom. He rues the fact that the revolutionary movement in the 20th century has tended to forsake the values of freedom on the pretext that the bourgeois society used it as a ‘hoax’.

Camus, on the other had, refuses to ‘postpone’ freedom in any case and insists on combining freedom with justice. For him, freedom makes no sense without justice. By laying emphasis on justice together with freedom Camus seems to be advocating what is now widely known as human rights. Freedom does not consist in food and shelter only; it must also ensure the right not to be oppressed or dominated by others. The Soviet Union provided for basic necessities of every individual but the dictatorial regime maintained and gradually tightened its domination over individuals. Camus thinks that this is not true freedom because it has been divorced from its natural inseparable component : justice.

For those who are acquainted with the writings of Albert Camus, Arthur Koesler or Howard Fast or the very subtle hints in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Letters from Russia’, this observation is not entirely unique. Many intellectuals who once took interest in Bolshevik Revolution later felt like Camus that the Soviet regime had belied the lofty hope raised by the 1917 revolution. What is significant is that Camus did not uphold freedom in the abstract sense overlooking the basic economic aspect. In unambiguous terms, he stresses that ‘economic revolution must be free just as liberation must include the economic’ (p 94). This is where Camus seems to make his mark and stand a bit apart from some of his contemporary disillusioned intellectuals.

But what makes this essay more striking and relevant is the strong emphasis given on the inseparable relationship between labour and culture. Camus makes no distinction between manual and intellectual labour and situates labour as a whole in relation to culture. According to Camus culture does not mean intellectual or artistic activities isolated from labour. He is convinced that labour cannot be separated from culture just as freedom cannot be divorced from justice. By this equation Camus thus upholds the values of freedom and justice on a par with those of labour and culture. By separating one from the other, the dominant class ‘condemns both labour and culture to impotence’, notes Camus. He goes to the extent of branding this separation as the ‘epitome of social sin’ (p 94).

Almost in line with Gramsci and Athusser, Camus observes that a dictatorship tries to subjugate both labour and culture because it knows that ‘both must be gagged or else... one will speak up for the other’ (p 95). Camus has not clearly defined his concept of culture or intellectual activity. One may hope that by culture he means cultural activism of the ‘organic’ (a la Gramsci) intellectual.

What cannot but strike the reader is that Camus amazingly sounds optimistic towards the end of his speech. Continuing his discourse on freedom, Camus brings in the need for ‘duties’ (not rights only) posed against privileges. He enunciates that once duties are given precedence over privileges, ‘freedom joins together labour and culture and sets in motion the only force that can effectively serve justice’. He ends with the hope that a day will come when people will have time to ‘give a form to the justice and freedom we need’ (p 96).

Such an optimistic note appears to be unlikely of the author of ‘The Plague’ (1948) or ‘The Fall’ (1956). But the fact is that Camus combined two sieves within himself—he was committed and alienated as well. As a writer he had all along defended moral values and pursuit of ‘factual truths’, while receiving the Nobel Prize in 1957, he observed that ‘The Writer’s function is not without arduous duties’.

This statement illustrates why Camus while speaking of freedom and justice emphasises duties along with rights. It may also give one an idea of what Camus means by justice. For him, freedom is made up of not privileges only, but also of duties and he attaches more importance to the latter. Camus believes that freedom that does not entail duties can not ensure justice and without justice freedom is recuded to privileges only.

How can people relate this notion to the present-day reality? In India, the government has taken up several poverty-alleviation programmes aimed at granting the poor freedom from hunger. Even if one agrees, for argument’s sake, that this official move has reduced the ‘problem’ of hunger considerably, does that make sure that justice has been meted out to the impoverished population? Allowing inequality to rise on the one hand and doling out food or a few days’ jobs on the other may amount to charity but that cannot be regarded as justice. Does this not hold true even of the much publicised 100 days’ employment and mid-day meal for school-children schemes?

Where one section of society enjoys high salary for full 365 days a year, why should another section be asked to remain content with 100 days only (much less in reality)? And what does the official propaganda about mid-day meal preach? Children are instructed to go to school because there they will get food and text-books free of cost. This is the very language in which the government sends across its message over the All India Radio (Akasvani) everyday. In the name of charity, the state, as a master, rather insults the deprived sections of society; justice is too noble a concept to apply to this treatment.

The way Camus views culture in relation to labour is a reiteration of the original meaning of culture. In fact culture stemmed from labour, etymologically, from cultivation. One of the Bengali synonyms for culture is Kristi which derives from Krisi i.e. agriculture. This original meaning has got distorted at the hands of the privileged classes and cultural creations, now-a-days, are treated as almost consumer products which efface the role of labour involved in them. The beautiful artifacts at the handicrafts fair attract the visitors—the consumer class—and conceal the condition of the rural artisans who have created those artistic objects.

Born in a working-class family, Albert Camus in his early life had worked at various odd jobs and later earned world-wide fame as a writer. Camus found ‘absurdity’ in individual existence but like the Dr Rieux of his novel ‘The Plague’, he did not forsake his commitment to society. This essay rather reveals his concern for those who have been deprived of justice.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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