Coronavirus, Camus and Communism

Lloyd Billingsley, The author of The Plague still speaks truth to power.

The current pandemic is turning up references to Albert Camus, gone since 1960 but still with plenty to say about the modern world. His 1947 novel The Plague, for example, is highly relevant at the present moment.

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we refuse to believe in ones that come crashing down out of a clear blue sky,” and in Oran, in French Algeria, they were unprepared for the surging epidemic that started with dead rats. As Camus notes, “how should they have given a thought to anything like the plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views?”

The residents of Oran had “lost the golden spell of happier summers. Plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure,” and imposed “a complete break with all that life had meant to them.” With the city locked down, and guarded by sentries, the epidemic “spelled the ruin of the tourist trade,” and people had become wary of each other.

“It’s common knowledge you can’t trust your neighbor,” observes Jean Tarrou, “he may pass the disease to you without your knowing it.” As the plague spread, “there was suspicion in the eyes of all,” with people “puzzled over their problem and afraid.” The cautious Cottard sees “a possible police spy in everybody.”  The journalist Raymond Rambert plots to escape but changes his mind.

“We were all up against the wall the plague had built around us,” the narrator explains, “and in its lethal shadow we must work out our salvation.” Dr. Bernard Rieux does what he can but the mounting deaths get to him.  One boy departs with a scream that seemed like a “collective voice,” the “angry death cry that has sounded through all the ages of mankind.” Residents “become allergic to hope in any form” and “even when the plague had run its course, they went on living by its standards.”

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Readers of The Plague will find other parallels to the current pandemic, with some notable exceptions. For example, COVID-19 did not come out of the clear blue sky but arrived on the wings of a coronavirus from a lab in Wuhan, China. The Communist regime has never held human life in high value, and that theme comes up in the back story of Jean Tarrou.

“I became an agitator,” he explains, and “there’s not a country in Europe in whose struggles I haven’t played a part.” On occasion, Tarrou and his comrades passed sentences of death, “but I was told that these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be.”  Such “necessary murder” was part of the Marxist-Leninist dialectic, which also held that under Communism, the state would eventually fade away. In the meantime, Communists would establish the most powerful states in history, crushing all opposition.

Camus had been a member of the French Communist Party in his youth, but in 1956 the novelist broke ranks and sided with the Hungarians in their revolution against their Soviet oppressors. In 1957, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature and continued to speak out against the Communist regime. Camus openly supported Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago, further infuriating the USSR.

Albert Camus, author of The Stranger, The Fall and The Myth of Sisyphus, died in a car crash in January of 1960 at the age of 46. Some 70 years later in The Death of Camus, forthcoming in October, Italian author Giovanni Catelli contends that Camus was the victim of a KGB assassination plot. While the death of Camus will doubtless remain controversial, his work still speaks the truth to power.

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From Stalin to Mao Zedong and the Khmer Rouge, Communist regimes remain the major practitioners of mass murder, with casualties in the range of 100 million, according to The Black Book of Communism. Even so, to this day, prominent Westerners believe that the worst most murderous regimes in human history are models of social justice and a brighter future.

Albert Camus would be appalled at the current tolerance for totalitarianism, with journalists and politicians parroting the talking points of Communist China, the coronavirus’ country of origin. As that pandemic plays out, The Plague provides reason for hope.

“What’s true of all evils in the world is true of the plague as well,” Camus explains. “It helps men to rise above themselves.” In a time of pestilence, “we learn that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Those “unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.” Camus may also have captured the mood of the people as the current pandemic fades:

“A great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn, panicked people, a voice calling them back to the land of their desire, a homeland. It lay outside the walls of the stifled, strangled town, in the fragrant brushwood of the hills, in the waves of the sea, under free skies, and in the custody of love. And it was to this, their lost home, towards happiness, they longed to return, turning their backs disgustedly on all else.”