Political Writings

Political Writings

by Simone de Beauvoir

View All Available Formats & Editions

Political Writings offers an abundance of newly translated essays by Simone de Beauvoir that demonstrate a heretofore unknown side of her political philosophy. The volume traces nearly three decades of Beauvoir's leftist political engagement, from exposés of conditions in fascist Spain and Portugal in 1945 and hard-hitting attacks on right-wing French


Political Writings offers an abundance of newly translated essays by Simone de Beauvoir that demonstrate a heretofore unknown side of her political philosophy. The volume traces nearly three decades of Beauvoir's leftist political engagement, from exposés of conditions in fascist Spain and Portugal in 1945 and hard-hitting attacks on right-wing French intellectuals in the 1950s, to the 1962 defense of an Algerian freedom fighter Djamila Boupacha and a 1975 article arguing for what is now called the "two-state solution" in Israel. In addition, this collection includes provocative essays in which Beauvoir analyzes American politics in ways of particular interest to scholars today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rich and illuminating, this collection of essays, reportage, and prefaces by the seminal French philosopher and feminist (part of the Beauvoir series) tackles such disparate topics as the American West and the marquis de Sade, and traverses almost the entire length of de Beauvoir’s (The Second Sex) writing life. Although collected as political writings, the texts prove too varied and complex to sit comfortably within that category. The essay on de Sade, for example, provocatively melds aesthetic and moral concerns, while the final text, a revelatory transcription of an obscure documentary about old age, defies easy categorization. More straightforwardly political pieces on Salazar-era Portugal, right-wing thought, Algeria, and Israel reveal de Beauvoir’s stylistic range, from harshly polemic to tediously pedantic, and always wonderfully descriptive. Astutely edited by Simons (Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir) and translator Timmermann, each section begins with a series of incisive and clear-eyed introductions, of which William Wilkerson’s in particular stands out, while de Beauvoir’s daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, provides the foreword. Though it may arguably hold more interest for the scholar than the general reader, the collection provides a fascinating chart of a brilliant mind struggling to bridge the divide between rarified abstract thinking and concrete social engagement. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Rich and illuminating. . . . A fascinating chart of a brilliant mind struggling to bridge the divide between rarified abstract thinking and concrete social engagement."—Publishers Weekly

"Political Writings likely will shed new light on aspects of de Beauvoir's political thought for those who are familiar with her only through The Second Sex. . . . Recommended."—Choice

"This engaging volume ... is the result of painstaking research and meticulous translation by a team of international scholars. . . . Essential."—Choice

"Political Writings is a carefully selected and newly translated compilation of some of Beauvoir's essays that reflect the eclectic nature of the writer's thoughts, the depth of her analysis and the sheer literary and aesthetic force of her language… Not only are the introductions a pleasure in themselves to read, they also provide the politico-historical context in which the essays were written, allowing the reader to appreciate them all the more."—Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

"This remarkable collection will be most surprising and provocative for thinkers yearning for a political philosophy to accompany Beauvoir's feminist and ethical philosophies. These essays, many of them appearing for the first time in English, make clear Beauvoir's turn away from the abstract philosophical thought and toward political engagement."
—Kelly Oliver, author of Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human

"This remarkable volume demonstrates how Simone de Beauvoir, through her writings, made compelling contributions to the ongoing struggle against ignorance, deception and injustice."—H-France Review

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Beauvoir Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Political Writings

By Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, Marybeth Timmermann


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09720-1


Political Reporting from Spain, Portugal, and the United States


by Eleanore Holveck

These reports from Spain, Portugal, and the United States from 1945 to 1947 reflect a change in Simone de Beauvoir's view of her own role as a writer and intellectual in relation to politics. Beauvoir often described herself up to the 1930s as an apolitical, idealistic Kantian, a solitary individual content to exercise her own petty bourgeois freedom as a teacher and writer and eager to take her place among the great writers of her culture. For example, Françoise and Pierre in Beauvoir's She Came to Stay (1943) are devoted to an ahistorical ideal, timeless Art and Beauty even as they present the play "Julius Caesar." But World War II completely changed Beauvoir's point of view, forcing her to take into account the concrete experience of actual human beings struggling to act freely in situations of oppression.

Beauvoir's writings from 1945 to 1947 reflect this turn to the concrete political. The Blood of Others (1945) is a novel concerned with the French labor movement up to the time of the Resistance; her essay, Pyrrhus and Cineas (1944), the play, Les bouches inutiles (The Useless Mouths), and her novel, All Men Are Mortal (1946) reflect Beauvoir's historical, political interest back to the medieval period. Working on the political and literary journal she helped to establish, Les temps modernes, Beauvoir wrote political essays such as "Moral Idealism and Political Realism" and "An Eye for an Eye." The political reports we have here not only echo these interests; they show a development toward her theory of free choice in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), an early use of the method she uses in The Second Sex (1949), and her turn to the use of writing as an act of collective responsibility, as testimony, in The Mandarins (1954).

In the fall of 1944, Albert Camus, who had worked with a Resistance cell, asked Sartre to write an eyewitness account of the Liberation of Paris for its newspaper, Combat. Deirdre Bair reports that Beauvoir explained that she actually wrote these accounts, because "Sartre was too busy." In any case Beauvoir did write the reports in Combat from Spain and Portugal printed here using the pseudonym Daniel Secretan, because she did not want to harm her brother-in-law, Lionel de Roulet, who was working with the French Institute in Lisbon.

These reports from Spain and Portugal reveal Beauvoir's attempt to grapple with the problem of the place of the intellectual in a Marxist world characterized by class conflict. In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexandre Kojève argues that consciousness as nothingness realizes itself, literally makes itself real, i.e., exists in time, through labor as action on material. Writers and artists, however, do not negate matter. In the fight to the death for recognition that characterizes the world of master and slave, the writer-intellectual is neither. The writer-intellectual can conceive of the time when there will be neither master nor slave, but her synthesis is an abstract conception; it is purely verbal, and, in effect, an empty, useless illusion.

Hence, in her political reports, Simone de Beauvoir seems to content herself with pointing out the intellectual's dilemma concerning the contradictions between the haves and have-nots by the use of striking images. In "Four Days in Madrid," as Beauvoir both enters and leaves the city, she notes the City University. It is bombed, almost destroyed, yet it may be rebuilt. Is this monument to human knowledge the ruin of the past or the way to a free future? Intellectual knowledge is at a crossroad. Her report emphasizes the contradictions in a capitalist country ruled by a right-wing dictatorship. On the wide boulevards there are stores filled with luxury goods that remind her of the prewar Faubourg St. Honoré in Paris. First, Beauvoir lists in great detail the luxury foods available. Then, however, she gives the actual cost of the foods, which she measures in the daily wages of laborers. She concludes that workers cannot afford eggs, milk, meat, vegetables, or fruit. She goes on to describe in painful detail the "Faubourgs de la misère," the poor outlying sections of Madrid such as Tetuan, which are the neighborhoods of those who live on the crumbs from the master's table. She focuses on children and women. Her procedure anticipates her Husserlian method in The Second Sex in that she outlines concepts such as abundance and neutrality and then traces the abstract meanings back to the evidence, the grounding actual experiences. In the language of American pragmatism, she takes an ideal term back to its cash value.

Finally, she ends with the thought that despite their lack of material necessities, poverty has not destroyed the Spanish people's love of life nor their desire for liberty, themes she will develop in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The concrete love of life and freedom, the joy of existence, underlies all human effort and should be the basis of all governments. Beauvoir emphasizes that even though all dissent is brutally punished, some men in Spain strive to exercise their freedom. To face death in order to live is a free, albeit heartbreaking, choice.

Beauvoir's report from Portugal is even more grim; the image that expresses the social situation is a cemetery where the extravagant tombs of distinguished, wealthy citizens contrast with the plain placards, bearing only numbers, which grace the bare plots of the poor. Here love of life and freedom are so impoverished that only tombs and numbers remain. Beauvoir's descriptions of the lives of children and her statistics are staggering, e.g., out of seven million people only seventy thousand have food. In her Prix Goncourt novel, The Mandarins (1956), Beauvoir re-created this trip to Portugal through the eyes of her characters Henri Perron and Nadine Dubreuilh. At first Perron is dazzled by the luxury goods available in the stores of Lisbon, but then, a group of government officials from pre-Salazar days arranges for Henri to see "a series of wretched hovels." Henri acknowledges that he had seen similar squalor before in his travels, but now it haunts him, and he can no longer ignore poverty. "He promised that he would wage a campaign in the press in order to get the facts to the people. Political tyranny, economic exploitation, police terror, the systematic brutalization of the masses, the clergy's shameful complicity—he would tell everything." Like Perron, never again would Beauvoir devote herself to pure literature and ignore the misery of the majority of the human race.

Many feminists have criticized Beauvoir for devoting so much time to Sartre's political travels and writings during the postwar period, claiming that this shows her feeling of intellectual inferiority or her emotional dependence on him. I would submit that these reports of actual people in pain reveal a true concern for political change, which her writings and activities with Sartre embody also. Without this political awareness we would not have The Second Sex.

One of the hot political debates in post–World War II France was whether to build political alliances with the Soviet Union's socialism or United States capitalism. In "Poetry and Truth of the Far West," we find Beauvoir's discussion of one of the fundamental cultural myths of the United States, a myth she finds in Charles Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." A silent version of this film appeared in 1925; an updated version with music and Chaplin's narration was produced in 1942. Beauvoir met Chaplin on her American tour in 1947. The movie spins the tale of a poor, shy, "little man," who, after a series of amusing mishaps in the Klondike, eventually strikes gold, becomes a millionaire, and carries off the fetching heroine of the piece. To Beauvoir, shining Hollywood is the contemporary reincarnation of the dream of following the mirage of gold.

The reality is, however, artificial and dull. Hollywood films tend to be based on trite formulas. At the studio gates, striking carpenters and set decorators picket, warming their hands at wood fires in barrels, much like the vagrants in Paris. There is no nightlife in Hollywood, no conversation in cafés, no music, no dancing, no joy. The puritanism of Hollywood life is counteracted by Reno and Las Vegas. Nevada deals with its poverty by providing "services" like gambling, prostitution, and wedding chapels where one can obtain everything necessary for marriage, including divorce.

Many people in the United States can afford to travel, but this actually means mile after mile of bleak highways with cookie-cutter motels or trailer parks, hamburger stands, and Coca-Cola. By means of the myths of Hollywood and advertising, the dominant economic class in the United States has convinced its poorer citizens that they, too, can strike it rich; in the meantime they are pacified by the empty illusion of abundance and free choice.

Beauvoir ends her article by saying that readers should experience the Far West themselves and that it would take a book to describe more of what she saw; this book was of course America Day by Day (1948). In more detail, Beauvoir describes people she met and liked, numerous trips all over the United States, and both the good and the bad of American culture. But there is something haunting about the images she conjures up in the articles here. In the California mountains framed by the camera to look like India or Switzerland; in the desert that Von Stroheim used to exemplify death, the heart of solitude, in his film "Greed;" in Death Valley with its carcasses of wagon trains; and in ghost towns like Carson City, Beauvoir sees a world more distant than the Stone Age, an age where men followed the dream of gold. For her, obviously, the dream is over.


by Simone de Beauvoir


By ten o'clock in the morning, we have left the dark mass of the Escurial [sic] behind us and have crossed through Paravelo, which was devastated by the civil war, and where all the houses are still in ruins. Now the train is crossing a rocky plateau covered with white frost. And suddenly, with no suburbs to announce it, Madrid surges up. Looking through the door, I see the sections of a large gutted building to the left above the train station; it is the outermost University residence hall.

"Taxi!" One single word, and instantly I've made a leap through time. I am transported into a large pre-war city: alongside the roadway filled with taxis and cars, masses of crowded pedestrians wait for the signal to rush across the street, and the sidewalks are dark with people. Lining the Alcalá and the Gran Via from top to bottom are dazzlingly luxurious shops: there are slippers, leather purses, silk stockings, dresses, ties, raincoats, watches, jewels, baskets of candied fruit, boxes of chocolate, cloth, suits, shirts, etc. I don't remember the windows on the Faubourg-St-Honoré being more brilliant at the time of their splendor. In the bars, cafés, and large pastry shops, coffee with cream and chocolate flow freely. In theory, sugar and bread are rationed, but the famous phrase, "If they don't have bread, let them eat cake," applies exactly here. The rich upper-class easily do without bread; instead they eat little muffins made with milk that are called "Swissos," croissants, cream-filled cakes, and the cafés and pastry shops are allowed to supply sugar at their discretion. In theory, the restaurants are regulated, but in reality all the restaurants, in full view of everyone, serve every customer whatever he desires to order.

The New Neutrality

Dazed and dazzled, eyes blinking, I go up towards the Puerta del Sol. On the way I notice a window devoted to German propaganda. Enormous photographs show a German woman at work and the Volksturm [sic], smiling widely, crowding into the draft offices. Heroic phrases promise victory in big black letters. Not far from there, there is also an English propaganda office. Everyone knows that this symmetry is a lie and how much help Spain still provides to Germany. But what I learn here is how much the Gestapo has reigned here in Madrid as mistress. For example, it has demanded and obtained the expulsion of an 80 year old Polish bishop and several other leading Polish figures. On the other hand, their efforts to create a Spanish anti-Semitism, through press campaigns and every type of propaganda, have been in vain. There are no Jews in Spain since they were all expelled in the sixteenth century, and the colony created by the refugees in the East is seen by the people of this Peninsula as Spanish, not Jewish. A great tenderness is even felt for them because they have conserved the most ancient Spanish traditions intact. Now, the most stubborn German sympathizers cynically admit that the moment has come to "turn their coats" and newspapers that I have seen observe a strict neutrality.

The Apparent Abundance

I pass by the wooden palisades that do little to hide the debris of two large buildings pulverized during the civil war, and I leave Alcalá with relief. This morning it was very cold out, but now the sun beats down on the wide avenue that is thick with a luxury that makes me uneasy. By the Calle Mayor, I enter into the narrow and shadowy streets that are the densely populated heart of Madrid. Here also, there is an amazing abundance. The streets are noisy with people. Clusters of young people and children are hanging on to the back and sides of jolting trams. The shops are overflowing with clothing and food: fruit sellers with their enormous bunches of bananas and baskets of oranges and mandarins; fish shops where pink shrimp and bloody tuna are being cut up; pork butcher shops where hams, sausages, skinned mutton, and also little lambs with curly black wool are hanging up, and suckling pigs cut in half are displayed on large dishes; there are enormous round cheeses, eggs, marzipans, quince pasta, chocolates, and raisins. Under each archway of the Mayor Plaza and all around the Cascarro Plaza, there are street vendors offering the passersby olives, almonds, Swissos, candy, pink sugar scissors, red sugar canes, griddle cakes, doughnuts of all kinds: flat, puffed, round, twisted. They also walk around with baskets full of cigarettes and small loaves of bread. Bread and cigarettes are rationed, but they are sold illegally in full view, with no precautions taken. A little further down, at the end of the Cascarro Plaza and in the neighboring streets, a sort of flea market that sells everything is permanently set up: fabric, linen, phonographs, alarm clocks, frying pans, bullfighting vests, shawls, forks, and popular novels with vibrantly colored covers. And all around the square, all along the streets there are dark, cool taverns decorated with azulejo tiles open for business. Enormous barrels full of wine can be seen in the darkness, with others suspended from the ceiling, and on the counter there are plates of shrimp, prawn, chips, and olives.

Three Days of Work for a Meal

So one's first impression upon arriving in Madrid is a feeling of extraordinary abundance, a generous and easy life, but the perspective changes as soon as one looks at the price of things. An unskilled worker or a maid makes about 9 pesetas a day, and a skilled laborer makes 12 to 15 pesetas, but in the Alcalá region, a meager meal costs 15 pesetas, a decent meal costs 25 pesetas, and a good one costs 40 to 50 pesetas. A coffee with cream costs 1.5 pesetas, a Swisso is 1 peseta, and a piece of cake is 2 pesetas. Comparing these prices to those of the black market in France, one can see that the ratio of prices to working class salaries is about the same. In both cases, a good meal in a restaurant represents two to three days' work and a cream puff is a sixth of a worker's daily salary. The difference is that the meal will be better and more varied in Madrid, and the cakes easier to find. Luxury is not clandestine; it is shown off. But this is an advantage only for the rich.


Excerpted from Political Writings by Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, Marybeth Timmermann. Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) was a French existentialist philosopher who employed a literary-philosophical method in her works, including Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and The Second Sex (1949). Margaret A. Simons is Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the author of Beauvoir and The Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, adopted daughter and literary executor of Simone de Beauvoir, is the editor of Lettres à Sartre and many other works by Beauvoir. Marybeth Timmermann is a contributing translator and editor of Beauvoir's Philosophical Writings.
A volume in The Beauvoir Series, edited by Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >