Jean Salem: Obituary and Remembrance

by Roger Keeran

Feb. 2, 2018

Jean Salem, a dear comrade and friend, a Philosophy Professor at the Sorbonne and one of the most noteworthy Marxist intellectuals of our time, died on January 14, 2018 outside of Paris of brain cancer.

Since no English translations of Salem’s books and articles on philosophy, Marx, Lenin, and contemporary politics exist, most American leftists understandably, and unfortunately, have no acquaintance with him.

Though I knew his father, the French Communist, hero of the Algerian revolution, Henri Alleg, I did not meet Jean until a few years ago, when Alleg found, the French publisher, Editions Delga, for Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union (by Kenny and Keeran), and Jean (along with his mother Gilberte Alleg-Salem, Hervé Fuyet and Janine Lazorthes) translated the book into French.

Like Marx, Salem began his career as a scholar of Greek materialist philosophy. He wrote books on Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, as well as on Schopenhauer and Spinoza, on art and happiness and on historical and contemporary politics. Less than a year before his death, Salem wrote a preface to a book on North Korea by Robert Charvin, in which he scored the hegemony and superiority complex of the West for having caused the tremendous ignorance of North Korea that contributes to the present danger of war.

Besides being a scholar and intellectual, Salem was (in the words of Robert Maggiori in Liberation) an “homme de combat,” a man of political struggle. He was actively engaged in the political struggles of his time.   As a professor at the Sorbonne he travelled widely and established relationships with intellectuals and students in South Korea and elsewhere. He mentored young scholars, sponsored student political organizations, and organized monthly public seminars on Marxism.   Though he lamented the way in which Communists and other leftists in France and elsewhere had been derailed by neo-liberalism in the past 30 years, he was always optimistic about the future and about young Communists and militants in France and abroad who were trying to revive or recreate Communist parties.

Salem was born in Algiers in 1952. His father, Henri Alleg, was editor of the French Communist newspaper in Algeria, Alger républicain, that backed the struggle for Algerian independence.   In 1957, after the French outlawed the paper, Alleg was arrested, and the French paratroopers subjected Alleg to beatings, electric shock, and waterboarding in an attempt to extricate names of other militants. Alleg never cracked. Alleg described his torture on pieces of paper smuggled out of prison by his lawyers and later published as la Question (The Question available in English) with an afterword by Jean-Paul Sartre, an explosive book that though banned was nonetheless circulated surreptitiously by the French Communist Party and played a big role in turning public opinion against French colonialism.

Alleg escaped from prison in France, where he had been sentenced ten years for endangering the security of the state. He and his wife then lived in exile in Cuba and Algeria. Consequently, Jean and his brother were taken care of by supporters in Prague, the Crimea, and outside of Moscow.  In 1964, Jean and his brother were reunited with their parents in Algeria.

Jean was respected for his intelligence, wisdom, and tireless intellectual and political work. The breadth of his knowledge was breathtaking. As one admirer noted, it was hard to mention any book in western civilization that he had not read. With equal ease, he could commend Lucretius for his lessons about “the grandeur and the dignity of pleasure,” and could recommend “reading and re-reading Lenin again in order to prepare for the future.” Jean was admired for his tough-mindedness, optimism, and energy. He was loved for his generosity, modesty, and charm.

Once, when I was speaking on Socialism Betrayed in a small trade union meeting room on the second floor of a backstreet in Paris, Jean showed up to listen. When a young man in the back posed a rude question, Jean took the floor and gave a passionate but patient explanation of why the question was off base and the book was on track.

Jean was an “homme de combat,” for sure, but he was also an “homme.”

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