French existentialism and the fight against paternalism

Rosie GermainDr. Rosie Germain lectures in modern history at Cambridge University, the University of North Carolina, and Liverpool Hope University.  She gained her BA in history from Oxford University, her MA in history from King’s College London, and her PhD in history from Cambridge University.  Rosie is interested in how and why moral systems change.

In this blog post, Rosie argues that French existentialism had an impact in England and America that went beyond intellectual circles, and was used by various interest groups in the 1960s to publicly reject the paternalistic morality of the past.

In 1966, the American Civil Rights Movement fragmented.  Before this year, civil rights activists were united, in public at least, in their support of a policy of peaceful integration of white and black people.  One of the first black activists to publicly declare the death of integration was Stokely Carmichael.  Carmichael was the leader of a prominent civil rights organisation that had been ‘integrationist’ in the early 1960s: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  But in 1966, Carmichael called for black activists in the SNCC to achieve freedom through separatism, and to withdraw from mixed-race institutions.  In doing so, he quoted from the famous French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Carmichael said that by becoming a black separatist, one was becoming what Sartre had called ‘an anti-racist racist’.[1]  Sartre had coined this term in 1948, and Carmichael believed that ‘anti-racist racism’ – or exclusion of whites from black organisations – would allow African-Americans to recover from the sense of inferiority created by white cultural and social dominance. [2]


Stokely Carmichael, the head of the largest Civil Rights organisation in 1966, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, (SNCC), lectures about black separatism.  Carmichael used Sartre’s term, ‘anti-racist racism’, to label a way of being which embraced black difference. Image:

For historians, Carmichael’s use of Sartre’s terminology is interesting.  It indicates the impact that public intellectuals, such as the French existentialists, can have on cultural and social change.  In this case, Sartre provided a new term and idea that changed a reference point in public debate.  Sartre reinforced black separatist aspiration by providing a language through which to express it.  In this blog post, I discuss some of the ways in which French existentialism was used by social groups to call for change in post-war Britain and America.  The examples demonstrate how French existentialism was used by activists to make a public rupture with the social relations of the past.  Before WWII, social relations were often paternalistic.  Paternalism was an ideology which aimed to reduce social anxiety by keeping different social groups segregated, allotting them distinct and separate roles. A range of groups were perceived to be free under paternalism because they were protected – women were protected by men, students by academics, and blacks by whites.  Paternalism had actually eroded in the inter war period – for instance all adult women got the vote in Britain in 1928, thereby challenging ideas they needed political ‘protection’ from men.  Nevertheless, paternalist thought patterns persisted into the post-war period, and were only pointedly attacked, with the help of French existentialism and the legacy of Nazism, in the 1960s.

But firstly, what was French existentialism, and how did these French ideas enter usage in America and Britain in the 1960s?  French existentialism rose to prominence in France, England and America in 1945, after France was liberated from German Occupation. Two of its adherents who I look at here, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were part of the resistance to the Nazi Occupation.

Beauvoir and Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the leaders of French existentialism.  Photo taken in the early 1960s. Image credits: STF, AFP; The Guardian

At the core of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s writings was the idea that human consciousness was defined by an individual’s ability to create their own self.[3]  They argued that the most moral societies were those in which humans were free to create their own identities.  They noted that moral individuals were those who took the responsibility to choose their identities rather than unthinkingly fitting themselves into pre-conceived identities such as ‘mother’ or ‘waiter’.[4]   The existential challenge to pre-determined social roles was in tension with paternalism, although this connection would not seriously be made by readers until the 1950s.  In the 1940s, French existentialism was seen as a philosophy of individual freedom rather than totalitarian oppression.  This reason alone was enough for publishers and journalists from allied countries to celebrate the philosophy in 1945 as a symbol of the triumph of freedom over Nazi despotism.  Interest in France also stemmed from more long-standing reasons than the conditions of WWII.  In both England and America, France was historically associated with cultural sophistication. Important figures in literary circles who first discussed and published the existentialists, people such as Alfred Knopf (USA) and Cyril Connolly (UK), were keen Francophiles.

I.  French existentialism and black freedom

Existentialists applied their philosophy to criticise social relationships that frustrated individual freedom.  Sartre argued that in societies that were racially mixed but where white people alone held power, black cultural difference was repressed and black freedom denied.  Sartre’s ideas of black difference settled in cultural debate in America in the 1940s and 1950s and were used in celebrations of African culture that did not cross over into political debate.[5]  In these decades, black civil rights activists were integrationist – calling for black people to gain access to white dominated institutions. Sartre’s ideas of black difference did not fit into this political agenda geared to creating sameness between black and white people.  However, integration looked as though it had failed by the late 1960s.  This was partly because the slowness of the American government to make it happen made it transparent that white people were deciding when black people would become free. The value of integration was also questioned in America because African nations, such as Algeria, were pursuing an opposite policy: they were fighting for independence, and therefore separation, from their white colonizers. Leaders of civil rights organisations who had formerly supported integration used Sartre’s idea to redefine integration as a paternalist policy that made black people dependent on whites.  This is the context in which  Stokely Carmichael used Sartre’s idea when speaking to a crowd of 10,000 Berkeley students in 1966:

Now we maintain that we cannot have white people working in the black community, and we mean it on a psychological ground. The fact is that all black people often question whether or not they are equal to whites, because every time they start to do something, white people are around showing them how to do it.    Black people must be seen in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves, for themselves … We must wage a psychological battle on the right for black people to define themselves as they see fit.

That is not to say that one is a reverse racist; it is to say that one is moving in a healthy ground; it is to say what the philosopher Sartre says: one is becoming an “anti-racist racist.”[6]

Carmichael justified black separatism through reference to Sartre.  Sartre didn’t invent separatism, but his high profile combined with the fact that he coined a term, ‘anti-racist racism’, that could be used to visualise an alternative to integration, meant that he became central to the black separatists’ rejection of old-style paternalist relations between black and white.

II. French existentialism and female freedom

In The Second Sex (first English transl. 1953), Simone de Beauvoir argued that modern societies that assumed women needed to be protected by men, and kept women in the home, upheld myths that men and women were fundamentally different because of their biology.[7]  She noted that this myth oppressed women because it prohibited them from entering education or work on equal terms with men.  Betty Friedan, a journalist for women’s magazines that promoted female domesticity, challenged the ideology of the magazines after reading de Beauvoir. Commissioned by the Ladies Home Journal in 1957 to write about whether universities were suitably preparing women for their role in the home, Friedan reversed the question and asked whether the role in the home was, in fact, suitable for women with a university education.[8]   In 1975, Betty Friedan attributed this conceptual leap from acceptance to rejection of the paternalist settlement to de Beauvoir.  She noted that

it was The Second Sex that introduced me to an existential approach to reality and political responsibility – that, in effect, freed me from the rubrics of authoritative ideology and led me to whatever original analysis of women’s existence I have been able to contribute to the Women’s Movement and to its unique politics.[9]

Friedan launched Second Wave Feminism with a work in which she challenged the naturalness of a woman’s domesticity in The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Friedan also campaigned for an end to workplace discrimination against women through the National Organisation for Women (NOW), an organisation that she co-founded in 1966.


Betty Friedan speaks in New York’s Central Park in August 1971. Image credit: AP, The Telegraph

III.  French existentialism and student freedom

While French existentialism was grounded in the writings of two of the most highly trained academic philosophers in France, philosophy students in Britain weren’t even taught existential philosophy at university.  Instead, British philosophy students consumed a diet composed mainly of analytic philosophy – a tradition in which sentence construction was analysed.  The 1960s was a time of university reform in Britain, when the government turned its attention to the function of the university in society.  In this broader context of university reform, the contrast between the existential philosophy of freedom, and the analytic philosophy of sentences, prompted students to challenge the leadership of academics. They saw analytic philosophy as a way to perpetuate the status quo, and a way for academics to prevent their students from challenging the organisation of society.  In 1968, one student at Oxford, Jairus Banaji, argued that analytic philosophy was a:

degeneration, lacking the essential anthropological foundation, [it] is a sterile and vacuous mental gymnastics, abstract and useless except as a consolidation of existing modes of thought. In particular, linguistic philosophy intellectually justifies and corroborates the world of ordinary discourse or ‘common sense’ which Gramsci called the ‘practical wisdom’ of the ruling classes.[10]

Banaji argued that Sartre’s philosophy of human action should be taught instead of analytic philosophy as:

The Critique [Sartre’s work] stands out as an indictment of the … structure of bourgeois- ideological indoctrination … Sartre’s critics refuse to recognise his relevance, greater now than ever before, perhaps because they are not equipped for the task ideologically … they are afraid.[11]

For students who read existentialism, just as with women and African-Americans, the philosophy exposed current relationships between adults with power and those without as damaging to freedom and as inhibiting change.  They used existentialism to challenge paternalism and to visualise equality.

IV.  The legacy of Nazism

These individuals used existentialism to imagine a positive alternative to the paternalistic settlement.  The effectiveness of their use of existentialism to construct a new vision of the future was augmented by their deconstruction of the present by comparing it with Nazism.  In his 1966 Berkeley speech, Stokely Carmichael argued that, as a black American, he needed to point out American racism because for white Americans to identify it, they would have to negate themselves.  He referred to Nazis to illuminate his point, noting that most Nazis who accepted their crimes committed suicide, those who didn’t accept their responsibility for mass-murder could live with themselves.  In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan referred to suburban homes as ‘comfortable concentration camps’, and to women who entered housewifery as walking to their own deaths in the same ways as Jews who entered concentration camps.[12] In 1968, in the Oxford University student magazine, journalists expressed fear that centralised systems that give plenary control to one group resembled those ‘which allowed the rise of the Nazis in the early thirties’.[13]  Such reference to Nazism fitted alongside calls to Marxist revolution[14], and arguments like Banaji’s to motivate students to challenge the authoritarian structure of the British university.[15]

The sixties were special as this was when individuals used existentialism (as well as other philosophies) to make a public rupture with the paternalist consensus of the past. Activists of the 1960s who changed by reading existentialism, such as the African-Americans, women, and students considered here, argued that human happiness was connected with freedom to create oneself.  The legacy of Nazism had heightened the importance of this ideal of self-creation, and French existentialists had demonstrated how such ideas of freedom could not be realised through existing social relationships.   Existential philosophers therefore provided some of the energy for the public’s distancing from the mores of past, and the self-conscious embrace of new ideas of freedom and self-hood, which was so characteristic of the 1960s.


[1] Stokely Carmichael, ‘Berkeley speech (1966)’ in (ed.) Ethel Minor, Stokely Speaks (1971).

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Orphée Noir’ in (ed.) Léopold Sédar Senghor, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue Française (1948).

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and nothingness (first published in English in 1958, page references in this blog post are taken from the University Paperback edition, 1969); Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex (first published in English in 1953, page references in this blog post are taken from Vintage edition, 1997).

[4] Sartre, Being and nothingness, p. 59; de Beauvoir, The second sex, pp. 501 – 542.

[5] Mercer Cook, ‘Review of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue Française : précédée  de Orphée Noir by L. Sédar Senghor’, The Journal of Negro History, 34 (1949), p. 239.

[6] Stokely Carmichael, ‘Berkeley speech (1966)’ in (ed.) Ethel Minor, Stokely Speaks (1971).

[7] de Beauvoir, The second sex, p. 734

[8] Betty Friedan, ‘Up from the kitchen floor’, New York Times (Nov. 4th, 1973).

[9] Betty Friedan, ‘No Gods, No Goddesses’, The Saturday Review (June 14th, 1975).

[10] Jairus Banaji, ‘Towards a critique of Oxford philosophy’, Oxford Left, II, 2 (1968).

[11] Jairus Banaji, ‘Sartre’, Oxford Left, II, 3 (1968).

[12] This has been argued in Kirsten Fermaglich, ‘The Significance of Nazi Imagery in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963)’ in American Jewish History 91.2 (2003) 205-232.

[13] The Isis, 29 May, 1968, p. 16.

[14] The Isis, 16 October, 1968, p. 15.

[15] The Isis, 29 May, 1968, p. 18.