You Can't Act Without Getting Your Hands Dirty

If you rule out dirty hands, don’t you rule out politics?This is one of several touchy questions confronted by Professor Ellul, who teaches the history of law and social history at the University of Bordeaux. His reputation, already strong in Europe, has grown in the United Stales with publication by Alfred Knopf of three of his books (THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY.1964; PROPAGANDA,1965; and THE POLITICAL ILLUSION,1967 ).This essay is drawn from the new Ellul book, A CRITIQUE OF THE NEW COMMONPLACES,translated from the French by Helen Weaver,and scheduled by Knopf for publication in May.

THIS commonplace, which we may call “existentialist" because it was put into circulation by Sartre, is merely the literary form of the very vulgarly bourgeois expression “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” For this reason I would like to begin with what Léon Bloy said about this last commonplace, which was almost the order of the day: “It was with these words that that colossal bourgeois Stalin/Abdul Hamud must have explained to his good friend and faithful servant Sartre/Hanotaux the massacre of two or three hundred thousand Christians of Armenia (here let us say, to be modest, from two to three million Turcomans, Azerbaijani, Ukrainians, Balts, and Poles). However, he did not invite him to eat the omelette.”

It is obvious that Péguy’s celebrated remark about workers who have dirty hands and those “who have no hands at all” has become the basis for a shameless exploitation. If Péguy could seethe use that is made of it he would be rather surprised. for it provides an excuse, a screen, and a bleach job for all those who delight in getting their hands into the political manure and worry very little and sometimes not at all (and for that matter would be quite incapable of worrying even if they wanted to) about having clean hands. But it also serves to justify the impotent intellectuals, the Parisian intelligentsia, who live on a diet of words, in doing nothing.

For it is not the least important characteristic of this commonplace that it is invoked by those who do nothing and who claim to have dirty hands in order to give the impression that they have done something. “I signed a manifesto, I am committed, see how dirty my hands are!” “I made a speech, I wrote an article, I demonstrated and shouted in the street —just look how dirty my hands are! I am not like those awful intellectuals who . . .” To claim that you have dirty hands is a badge, a guarantee that you aren’t in an ivory tower, that you are in the world, in touch with the workers.

For the very people who have elaborated the doctrine expressed in the commonplace are the mandarins, “the specialists in freedom, justice, and morality,” and although their morality may be a morality of ambiguity, their freedom may be the freedom of a renewed creation, their justice may be the justice of a proletarian social order, nevertheless the applications are deceptive and their virtues are always in capital letters; for where there is only ambiguity, there is no morality. For them, freedom is either total or nonexistent; they cannot be satisfied with the odds and ends of freedoms that can be gathered by the side of any road. The Communist order must result not in a little more justice, always succumbing to injustice, but in the classless society, hence the society without exploitation, hence without evil, hence without a state: a real paradise on earth. Short of this, nothing makes any sense.

This excess of absolutism radically seals off all possibilities of human endeavor, and because one can neither see the real nor take part in a doubtful battle, one praises dirty hands because they are necessary to action. For action in itself is well worth this sacrifice, and we have learned that morality has nothing to do with action. But we must be careful. This is theory, and we will be the first to repudiate the tortures of the Nazi camps or the tanks of Budapest. This forces us to see the ridiculous limit to the dirtiness in question: a manifesto at the most. But as for really getting your hands dirty by torturing your fellowman — come now! The intellectual remains what he is.

It goes without saying that these heroes with their dirty hands have them only figuratively, by mediation or by proxy. “Darling!” says the lovely Françoise, “look at my dirty hands!” — holding out her manicured, bejeweled fingers. The worker has dirty hands, and the intellectual who supports the cause of the worker is ennobled by this dirt. The politician has dirty hands, and the professor who signs a manifesto profits by a few dabs of this reeking slime. It is the guarantee that you are not a useless person, an idle talker. You support the sacred cause of the worker. Or else you are using politics (which is the only way) to work for a better world.

It is true that in our society anyone who makes his living by thinking, or trying to think, is not very highly regarded. He must find some useful purpose for himself, he must attach himself to someone or something useful, something recognized as “valuable” by the society and by public opinion. Under these circumstances, the claim to have dirty hands serves as a justification for the man who never leaves his office. But it also enables our intellectual to perform his proper and traditional function of classical chorus: he explains and justifies the actions of the others. For it goes without saying that in profiting by the filth of men of action, he renders them a little service. He explains and justifies this filth in the eyes of a world that is dazzled by such great theatrical subtlety, such great philosophical profundity.

OUR hero heaves a deep sigh — “Ah ! Look at my dirty hands!” —with the faintest suggestion of disgust, of course, his brow anxious, his lips drawn by this heroic sacrifice, and shaking his head; you must understand that this is not usual for him. that it is only by compulsion and duty that he has come to this. It is not so easy to have dirty hands. But his face also hides a slight sense of triumph; it is the false modesty of the victor. For now this do-nothing is recognized, patented, ennobled by the beauty and purity of the dirt of the worker or the political hero. To be a man you have to pay the price, don’t you? And according to the teachings of the master, you are not born a man, you become one, you create yourself by choice, by action; and you can’t act without getting your hands dirty. See my hands . . . therefore I have become a man. The circle is complete.

In reality all this is a farce, because, among other reasons, nobody ever bothers to ask whether this action has any point, whether it is constructive for man; the intellectual is so thirsty for action these days that he is ready to accept the dictum of a very bourgeois poet: “Learn absurd things in order to learn goodwill.” Do anything at all, as long as you do something! Still less does anybody ask himself whether this action is worth the price he is ready to pay, the price of the filth, and if after all it might not be better to keep one’s hands clean rather than do these idiotic things and undertake these pseudocommitments, manifestos, announcements, signatures, and declarations.

The fact is, of course, that it is difficult to draw the line between a political “action” whose own validity, significance, and complexities are almost impossible to discern and the moral, intellectual, or spiritual corruption to which the action forces you. But I am forgetting myself and getting sidetracked by these intellectual concerns, which are precisely what we want to repudiate by immersing ourselves in action. Away with intellectualizing! Politics calls. We must live for her, and for her we must die.

This intellectualizing is doubly empty, for the person who plays the game of dirty hands and has thrown himself into Sartrian pseudocommitment has never chosen. He has never deliberated or weighed the reasons and the chances. Dirty hands are not the result of a decision or a commitment. The person who protects himself behind this commonplace is aware that he is none too clean and pretends that this is by choice, but this is far from the truth. The man who affects the grime of the worker is in reality immersed in a very different kind of filth. And when someone tells you that you have to get your hands dirty, it means that he is up to his eyes in the septic tank. The commonplace about dirty hands does not imply, as people seem to think, that everything else is quite clean and well scrubbed, and that after all you’ve got to get your hands into the dishwater, but that fortunately in these modern houses the toilet is not far from the shower.

I seem to be contradicting myself. In my first proposition I said that our man did-not have dirty hands in reality, but only by proxy. In my second proposition I am arguing that he is fundamentally dirty and radically corrupt. The contradiction is only apparent. The man who talks about dirty hands, who admits the necessity for having them, is as yet only a talker; he is in fact in no way defiled by action, by real participation, by work, for he plays no effective role, he participates in nothing but words. “Corragio, lavoratori!” When Sartre writes Dirty Hands or The Manifesto of the 121, he is not getting his hands dirty at all — at most, his pen.

But this taint that does not come from action (there is no action!) exists in the conscience. It does not come from participation in politics or from the transformation of the world; it is there to begin with, planted in the bottom of the heart. It is a function of existence rather than of action. To anyone who accuses me of making an arbitrary judgment I will reply that I have objective proof in the very fact of formulating the commonplace “You can’t act without getting your hands dirty.” This simple remark implies on the part of the speaker an a priori acceptance of all compromise and all dirt, all betrayals and all acts of contempt toward man, all degradation and all genocide; it is the voice of consenting cowardice parading as the courage of commitment.

For the man who has acted and killed to repent afterward and say, “ I carry the weight of all the evil I have done” is the true human condition. This man is worthy of respect. But for a man to excuse himself beforehand for the abomination, to accept everything in advance and justify himself in advance, is the worst of corruptions. This is to surrender in advance, without resistance and without conscience, to what happens, to what will be deemed the necessity of action. And once one has started in this direction, everything will very readily be accepted as the necessity of action; which presupposes, therefore, that there is no limit to the evil to be done in order to succeed. And the worst happens when it is the intellectual who provides this advance justification for the man of action, for then the magical prestige of intelligence frees him of his last scruples, and he loses all restraint. The road is wide open for him now that he has the benediction of the intellectual authorities, who play the same role that the Church once played in wars. We can be sure that in the use of torture, the spread of mass murder, and the development of concentration camps, those intellectuals who maintain that “you have to get your hands dirty” have done far more than soldiers and policemen.

Since we are on the subject of dirty hands, we must be willing to look at mud. Why this doctrine? Why this banner? Is it a question of thought, a question of commitment (although, as we have seen, commitment to nothing effective)? Alas, how fine that would be! Certain writers are more naive, and admit what it really means for a writer to be committed is “to be rooted in a collective reality, and the larger this reality is, the greater his chance of speaking the language, meeting the expectations, satisfying the needs of the average reader.” In other words, to be committed is to assure oneself an audience, to attract customers.

You think I am exaggerating? Sartre said as much in The Jewish Question. To make your living as an intellectual “you must seduce, arrest, win people’s confidence . . . the most important thing is reputation: you make a reputation and you live by it.” And it is quite’ true that in our society an intellectual cannot sell his novels unless he is committed, unless he claims to have dirty hands. To sign manifestos (and the more revolutionary, excessive, demanding they are, the more they impress) is to do exactly what the public expects of a writer —this public passionately interested in politics, thirsty for action, believing both in facts and in justice. We are rather far from a lofty reason for agreeing to soil our hands. We are interested only in assuring ourselves an income. But perhaps, after all, this is what the intellectual means by having dirty hands? Ssh, don’t say it.

THE only respectable human decision is to refuse all compromise in advance. It is to know, of course, that in action, in practice, in combat, “evil eventually creeps in,” but never to accept it, never to tolerate it, never to justify it; to know that killing is killing, and that there is no way to resign oneself to it. For the moment this attitude of refusing all compromise is taken, there is no impediment to action, no refuge in sterile purity. It is a point of departure that permits me full liberty, since instead of being bound to action, swept along by the tide of circumstances, I find myself forced to decide again on each occasion whether this action is worthwhile, whether this enterprise is sufficiently trustworthy to merit the risk of soiling my hands. When I have decided to keep my hands clean, it means that at every moment I must consider the degree of corruption that the action involves and how far and how long I can tolerate it. When I have decided to keep my hands clean, I can remain an independent man who imposes a certain direction on politics or on the struggle I am waging instead of yielding to the contingencies of the moment, and in the end I can furnish that testimony to man which contemporary humanists are so eager for but which their commonplaces render them unfit to provide.

There is a final consideration. When we examine these heroes committed to dirty hands, we soon observe that there is no conscience more demanding, more lofty, more moral than theirs — for their adversaries. Those who agree to get their hands dirty, who make this enormous sacrifice for the sake of the action that must be taken, turn out to be amazingly scrupulous when it comes to their enemies: they must have clean hands. It is the adversary who must become a paragon of virtue, and our heroes squawk like guinea hens as soon as they discover the tiniest spot of mud on the hands of the enemy. They invoke natural morality, the dignity of man, the divine virtues, and the international charter of the rights of man. The enemy is forced to represent everything that we (alas!) are obliged not to represent. So we have two sets of weights and measures, all, of course, in praise of the adversary. The FLN murders members of the MNA, plants bombs in cafés, tortures prisoners: ah! it’s very awkward, war involves painful necessities, you know. You don’t win freedom without getting your hands dirty. The French Army tortures its prisoners: it is an inconceivable scandal to moral conscience and Christian civilization; our great ancestors, the virtuous Jacobins, turn over in their graves in indignation. The first duty of the French Army is to keep its hands clean. Surely the most remarkable part is that this demand for honor and purity comes from those who despise the army.

These days we are in the habit of permitting everything and excusing everything in our party, our friends, and our allies, and reserving moral criticism for our enemies. There was a time when the dignity of man implied the opposite behavior! China invades Tibet for no reason, either military or economic: a pure war of conquest, pure aggression. It destroys ancient structures and annihilates part of the population. Why not? The Chinese are carrying out a great plan, they are engaged in an exceptional undertaking that they can achieve only at the price of a few mistakes, and even (let’s admit it) a few injustices; but after all, we know what politics is, and if Mao decided that it was indispensable, though regrettable, which of us could contradict him? But, mind you, if the United States tries to intervene in Colombia or Cuba, that is an intolerable demonstration of imperialism. The United States does not have the right to play politics: it must use only pure methods and preserve virtue and morality. Of course, there is a large measure of truth in this demand, since the United States is hypocritical enough to proclaim itself the defender of morality, freedom, and virtue! And I do not rule out this judgment! But I am amazed that it is made by the very people who regard dirty hands as a necessity of politics and of action and who use them to justify all political action.

So far I have cited only examples from the left, for they are the most frequent today. But the right has known the same orientation with Maurras, and albums like Aucune bête an monde demonstrate that the nobility of dirty hands also belongs to the other side, idem, Montherlant or Saint-Exupéry, to begin with. But in these denunciations of dirty hands by the theorists of commitment we again find the delightful candor of our good intellectuals. Read the juicy Droit à Iinsoumission and the study in Combat in which intellectuals explain why they signed The Manifesto of the 121, and you will see clearly admitted that the reason they signed, the reason they committed themselves, was so that nobody could reproach them, as they did the Germans after the war, for remaining silent in the face of Nazism. Adorable pure consciences, thanks to the theory of dirty hands! I commit myself so I can be sure not to commit myself to anything at all. I sign a protest because that is the best insurance policy for the future — you never know how things will turn out. Father, look out on the right! Father, look out on the left! The main thing is that nobody can reproach us for not protesting, for not making a fuss. So to have dirty hands is to insure yourself against the dirt of a possible concentration camp. Everything depends on being shrewd enough to guess how it will turn out. This is why commitment flourishes among intellectuals when the die has virtually been cast. This, then, by an admirable dialectic, is the theory of dirty hands, the noble affirmation of the necessity of commitment which serves only one purpose: to disassociate oneself, in the eyes of one’s public and of history, from those whose hands are really dirty.

But, someone is sure to object, if you absolutely rule out dirty hands, don’t you rule out politics? Granted! It has rarely been tried. But if this is really so, could we then say that politics is a dirty game? Why should I judge morality in terms of politics, considering the first legitimate, and the second, since contradictory to the first, illegitimate? I have not yet found any proof that politics is the imperative of man’s salvation, although many impassioned declarations have, of course, been written on the subject. But I have not seen one that went beyond the level of the campaign poster.