Camus and Political Violence

Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Born in 1913 to a poor pied-noir (ethnically European, geographically African) family in French-colonized Algeria, Albert Camus lost his father in infancy to World War I, took part in the French resistance as an adult in World War II, and wrote journalist articles on the tensions between the Europeans and Africans in Algeria. Author both of fiction and of essays, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. On January 4, 1957, Camus was a passenger in an automobile accident, and he died; two years later, so did French Algeria, when the Africans claimed independence (Carroll xi).

In his Letter to an Algerian Militant, Camus writes to Aziz Kessous, a journalist and socialist like himself, that:

We know nothing of the human heart if we imagine that the Algerian French can now forget the massacres at Philippeville and elsewhere. And it is another form of madness to imagine that repression can make the Arab masses feel confidence and esteem for France. Hence we are pitted against each other, condemned to inflicting the greatest possible pain on each other, inexpiably. The idea is intolerable to me and poisons each of my days (126-27).

What sickened Camus so much about the acts of violence was that they often harmed/killed the innocent, e.g. civilians, and that they only succeeded in perpetuating new acts of violence (and more killing), in doing so also denying the sanctity of human life.



The violence that Camus opposed “should not be confused with armed resistance and guerilla attacks on military targets” (Carroll 108). When a soldier enters combat, they do so knowing they may as likely die as kill; whatever happens to them, they have entered that environment on their own volition. The same does not go for a civilian, who often has no means of defense, and sometimes doesn’t even see the violence coming. Such acts of violence—assassinations, bombings, napalm, torture, et cetera—are terroristic. They don’t rectify acts of violence in the past, and they actually cause rather than prevent violence in the future. An act of counterterrorism, for example, is still an act of terrorism, and will most likely incur yet another act of terrorism—countercounterterrorism, if one will. It is the kill that keeps on killing.

In The Rebel, Camus writes that the act of rebellion is justified only in its defense of man’s solidarity, and “any rebellion which claims the right to deny or destroy this solidarity loses simultaneously its right to be called rebellion and becomes in reality an acquiescence in murder” (22). The terroristic acts described above, even if committed with the intent of fulfilling some noble cause, are murder. In Camus’s opinion, the only legitimate form of violence a rebel can commit, if he must resort to it at all, is that in which he accepts the same consequence that a soldier risks on a battlefield: his own death as well as that of his target.

This is the conclusion that Camus comes to in his based-on-a-true-story play The Just Assassins. It is the stance taken by the play’s hero, Russian revolutionary Kaliayev, assassin of the Grand Duke Sergei Romanov. Even he, who took a life and now looks forward to hanging for it, prefers not to think too much about the human life taken, as demonstrated in an exchange between him and the jailer Skuratov:

KALIAYEV: I threw the bomb at your tyranny, not at a man.
SKURATOV: Perhaps. But it was a living being whom it blew to bits (282).

Of course Kaliayev would rather think he killed an idea as opposed to a man, and not want to hear the flesh-and-blood details of the actual Duke, the person’s, death. He knows, though, as he exclaims to the now-widowed Grand Duchess, “Look at me! I swear to you I wasn’t made to be a murderer” (288). He still understands what a human life is. His assassination of the Grand Duke, via bomb thrown in the Duke’s carriage, succeeded on the second attempt—on the first attempt he could not bear to throw the bomb, as the Grand Duke rode with his niece and nephew, children.

In contention with Kaliayev, Camus casts Stepan, another member of the group that plans the Grand Duke’s assassination. When the first assassination attempt fails because Kaliayev sees the children and cannot carry through, Stepan is furious because someone true to their group’s vision of justice, an eventually (emphasis on eventually) free Russia, shouldn’t have faltered. Stepan views humans not as flesh-and-blood individuals, but in terms of mass quantities: things that more often than not get in the way of the greater universal good, so there should be no problem clearing that way as necessary, in this case by blowing a path through with a bomb. Even as he readies to take out the Grand Duke for real, Kaliayev takes issue with this view:

I am ready to shed blood, so as to overthrow the present despotism. But, behind your words, I see the threat of another despotism which, if ever it comes into power, will make of me a murderer—and what I want to be is a doer of justice, not a man of blood (259).

Ideas don’t bleed; people do. It is a fact that those people who would draw blood from other humans should bear in mind.

Capital Punishment

In Camus’s opinion, the despotism-disguised-as-justice, or despotism-for-the-sake-of-justice, of Stepan above, is a relative of the death penalty, which he opposed just as he did terrorism. Camus’s issue with the death penalty may best be demonstrated via an anecdote he relates in the opening of his essay Reflections on the Guillotine, an anecdote told him by his mother about his father:
Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty frenzy but had aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He got up in the dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off (175).

One of the most common excuses made for the death penalty is that it provides justice for the victims. However, as demonstrated by the story of the farm worker and Camus’s father, the death penalty does not erase the previous crime (most often, murder) in the sense that it was never committed and the victims were never victimized; it erases the previous crime in that the moment spectators see the new act of violence, they forget the old one. Worse, in this pageant of violence they forget the old victims, and make of the committer of the old violence, the victim of the new violence. Thus the number of victims is only increased, and the initial, innocent victims are rendered anonymous (Carroll 88). Where is the justice in that?

Another common excuse for the death penalty is that it serves as an example which will deter potential criminals from future crime. If that were true, we would not still be having executions by which to deter our suspicious public today from becoming the criminals we shall execute tomorrow. For example, Camus cites an account that "at a time when pickpockets were executed in England, other pickpockets exercised their talents in the crowd surrounding the scaffold where their colleague was being hanged" (Reflections on the Guillotine 189). To render matters even more nonsensical, nowadays most societies that think of themselves as polite, prefer to carry out this form of public deterrent, in private.

Now, if the condemned’s victims are dead, or very often even if they are not, they are not present for the act of so-called justice, and by privatizing this ultimate punishment, no longer either is it a public deterrent, so just what is it then? Like terrorism, it is yet another act of violence that does nothing for the acts of violence done in the past, does nothing to stop the acts of violence that will be done in the future, and by communicating the message that the loss of one human life is somehow easily placated by taking another human life, thus trivializes human life in general.


In addition to committing the senseless acts of violence treated above, Camus also takes issue with the society and the individuals in said society just going along with it all as though it has nothing to do with any of them. He writes in the essay Neither Victims nor Executioners that in our world a human being does one of two things. One option is accepting the present reality. However, by that acceptance, we also accept, whether we want to or not, responsibility for the violence present and future, no “I was just following orders” or “the end justifies the means”—putting human lives second to abstract ideas—excuses. The second option in our present reality is to reject it, but rejecting it means that we actually have to do something about it; anything else is lackadaisical “No, don’t” lip service (37).

Choose, and act. Both of these force the individual to actually acknowledge the world around them, and realize that there are other people in it. Violence against anyone suddenly becomes more real once we put faces to the ideas. Either way a person chooses, and however they then choose to act, Camus concludes that “[t]he essential thing is that people should carefully weight the price they must pay” (55).

Works Cited
Camus, Albert. The Just Assassins. In Caligula and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
-->Letter to an Algerian Militant. 1955. In Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. Justin O’Brien. Introduction by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1960. pp. 126-30.
---. Neither Victims nor Executioners, trans. Dwight Macdonald. Chicago: World Without War Publications, 1972.
---. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower. Introduction by Sir Herbert Read. 1956. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
---. Reflections on the Guillotine. 1957. In Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. Justin O’Brien. Introduction by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1960. pp. 175-234.
Carroll, David. Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.