Raya Dunayevskaya, 1973
Philosophy & Revolution
It will always remain a matter for astonishment how the Kantian philosophy knew that relation of thought to sensuous existence, where it halted, for a merely relative relation of bare appearance, and fully acknowledged and asserted a higher unity of the two in the Idea in general, and, particularly, in the idea of an intuitive understanding; but yet stopped dead at this relative relation and at the assertion that the Notion is and remains utterly separated from reality; so that it affirmed as true what it pronounced to be finite knowledge, and declared to be superfluous and improper figments of thought that which it recognised as truth, and of which it established the definite notion. Hegel
It is of course easy to imagine a powerful, physically superior person, who first captures animals and then captures men in order to make them catch animals for him; in brief, one who uses man as a naturally occurring condition for his reproduction like any other living natural thing; his own labour being exhausted in the act of domination. But such a view is stupid, though it may be correct from the point of view of a given tribal or communal entity; for it takes the isolated man as its starting point. But man in only individualised through the process of history. Marx
Twice since the end of World War II Sartre appeared as so totally a new phenomenon as to attract a large “mass” following; the Left intellectuals surely followed him. But, whereas in the mid-1940s in West Europe it was for originating a new philosophy, Existentialism, in the mid-1950s in East Europe it was for trying to find the “missing link” in Marxism.
Sartre founded French Existentialism in so original a form that his name became synonymous with it. No matter how intense his political flirtations with the Communist Party were, none doubted the originality of Sartre’s Existentialism, born to meet “extreme situations,” the concrete “human reality” in opposition to Marxist “materialism” and “determinism.” For him to have declared in 1957, in the essay “Existentialism and Marxism,” that Marxism was “the one philosophy of our times which we cannot go beyond,” was startling news, made irreversible by 1960. And his declaration was incorporated into his magnum opus, Critique de la raison dialectique. Sartre’s self-inflicted reductionism of Existentialism to the role of a “parasite” on the all-embracing Marxian philosophy seemed to complete his conversion to Marxism. This was most succinctly expressed by Simone de Beauvoir when she wrote: “He had been converted to the dialectic method and was attempting to reconcile it with his basic Existentialism.” Which is exactly why Sartre not only retitled as Question de methode his long essay Existentialism and Marxism, but also wrote in a prefatory note that “logically” this introduction to the Critique really belonged at the end, as its conclusion. As a philosopher Sartre was acutely aware that methodology is the most concentrated expression of theory, a result of a complex interaction of the spirit of the times, class base, theoretical analysis, practical activity, including a struggle with rival theories, rival praxis, rival methodologies. To use an expression most favoured by Sartre, it is a “totalisation.”
The huge (755-page) tome, Critique de la raison dialectique (precede de question de methode), comprises but the first volume of Sartre’s new philosophic work. A second volume has not been completed. That which is relevant to the subject of Alternatives with which we are dealing – Question de methode – is, however, complete in itself. Periods of philosophic creation are so rare, says Sartre, that
Between the seventeenth century and the twentieth, I see three periods, which I would designate by the names of the men who dominated them: there is the “moment” of Descartes and Locke, that of Kant and Hegel, finally that of Marx. These three philosophies become, each in its turn, the humus of every particular thought and the horizon of all culture; there is no going beyond them so long as man has not gone beyond the historical moment which they express. (p. 7)
In contrast to these great periods of creation, there are the ideologues who tend the gardens. As against Marxism, which is “the humus of every particular thought,” there is Existentialism, “a parasitic system which lives on the margins of the real science” (p. 21). Sartre is merciless in tracing the origins of Existentialism to Kierkegaard and in facing the reason for the reappearance of “the Dane” in the twentieth century at a time “when people will take it into their heads to fight against Marxism by opposing to it pluralisms, ambiguities, paradoxes...” (p. 15). Sartre does not flinch from using himself as an example of Marx’s dictum that the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that what the students of his day did to oppose “the sweet dreams of our professors” was to become proponents of “violence”: “It was a wretched violence (insults, brawls, suicides, murders, irreparable catastrophes) which risked leading us to fascism ...” (p. 20).
Sartre takes considerable time out to show how “Marxism, after drawing us to it as the moon draws the tides ... abruptly left us stranded, Marxism stopped” (p. 21). This reference to Marxism is supposed to be to “today’s Marxists,” “lazy Marxism,” in which loose category are included not only Communists but Trotskyists and independent Marxists.
Many instances are recounted against these “dogmatists” who fail to see the particular individual, the concrete event, the singular experience, the new; in a word, human reality. Clearly, the outsider looking in wants to be in.
The original essay was addressed to an East European audience (it was written for the Polish journal Tworczosc). The new Sartre’s goal exceeds Existentialism’s “gala years,” for now the thrust to unite philosophy and revolution stops being mere rhetoric. It is true that in the immediate postwar years in France too, masses were in motion, revolution was in the air, intellectuals were “committed” – and surely none contributed more toward the new climate than did Sartre. Sartrean Existentialism held the youth enthralled, and not only in France. It is true also that what had been uniquely Marxist ground – “Philosophers have only interpreted the world ...; the point is to change it” – had become the “common” characteristic of the whole Left. And again it fit none better than the philosopher Sartre who certainly refused to restrict himself to interpreting the world and most assuredly was bent on uprooting it.
Indeed, whether one viewed Sartre’s Existentialism as the only true philosophy of freedom or considered it the false consciousness which disoriented a whole generation of revolutionaries, one thing no one doubted: Sartrean Existentialism was not enclosed in an ivory tower, and by its identification of Freedom with Revolution it maintained its hold on the youth. But the revolutions did not come or were aborted, and now the new Sartre had a new testing ground. Though he was but Outsider looking in, this could become the proof, so to speak, of “materialism’s” efficacy when properly “infused” with Existentialism. However, to comprehend fully the new Sartre as he weighs the attraction and repulsion between Existentialism and Marxism, we must understand his preoccupation with methodology as it concerns “the unique character” of what he calls “The Progressive-Regressive Method.” It is this which, in Sartre’s eyes, justifies his retention of the autonomy of Existentialism until the time when it will be “integrated” into Marxism.
Sartre makes three fundamental “observations” in order to give a “brief formulation” of the uniqueness and comprehensiveness of his “Progressive-Regressive Method.” One: “The dialectical knowing of man, according to Hegel and Marx, demands a new rationality” (p. 111 ); two: “Our method is heuristic; it teaches something new because it is at once both regressive and progressive” (p. 133); and three: “the totalisation” of past and present and projection into the future: “Man defines himself by his project.” This is the new Existentialism “integrated” within Marxism or, if you wish, Marxism infused with Existentialism, freed from the “mechanical materialism” of “today’s Marxists,” expanded to include certain “Western disciplines,” though it will not be fully developed until Sartre has completed Volume Two of the Critique. The “Method” will indicate how Marxism can conquer “the human dimension.”
Sartre acts as if Marx rather than he had invented the concept of “practico-inert.” Sartre contends that “idealist Marxism” with its “determinism” transformed man into an inert object and threw him into “the social world amidst equally conditioned inertias,” where he could change society only “in the way that a bomb, without ceasing to obey the principle of inertias, can destroy a building” (p. 85). As against this, Sartre proposes to work out what Marx himself only “suggested.” He holds that Marx’s wish to transcend the opposition of externality and internality, of multiplicity and unity, of analysis and synthesis, of nature and anti-nature, is actually the most profound theoretical contribution of Marxism. But these are “suggestions to be developed; the mistake would be to think that the task is an easy one.”
Because no one has been willing to establish “new rationality within experience,” Sartre exclaims: “I state as a fact, – absolutely no one, either in the East or in the West, writes or speaks a sentence or a word about us and our contemporaries that is not gross error” (p. 111). Unfortunately, in his projection of the truth of “contemporary” history, be it of the French Revolution of 1789-94 or of Hungary of 1956 (to which we will return), or of Mao’s China today, the “dialectic of time” “transcends” man himself. Thus, Sartre writes: “For the man in China, the future is more true than the present” (p. 97).
Since, to a philosopher, an “alienated existence” is a theoretical concept rather than an exploitative reality, it becomes easy for him to think that introducing another idea – such as the “dialectic of time” or the “future” – means the achievement of a “synthetic transcendence,” rather than that men and women are asked to give up today though the revolution they have made has abandoned them for some unspecified future. What, precisely, does existentialist rhetoric about “the incommensurability of existence and practical Knowledge” propose to do for the socialist society’s “abandonment” of “the man in China”?
No matter what one thinks of Being and Nothingness, there is no doubt about its originality or its being a carefully elaborated, closely argued work. No matter how a beatnik existentialism seized upon the slogan-like statements of Sartrean philosophy – “There is no moral law,” “Man is a useless passion,” “Life is meaningless,” “The world is a nauseating mess,” “Hell is other people” – these emerged for Sartre only after he had arduously worked out his philosophic categories. Being-for-itself (man’s consciousness) and Being-in-itself (the objects of conscious, or non-conscious reality) demonstrates that the very nature of the individual is to be free. In a sort of purgatory created by “Nothingness,” the Void, Consciousness, and the objects it is conscious of, the struggle is ceaseless, as in the confrontations between the “for-itself” and the “in itself.” The permanent frustrations which end in No Exit as the confrontation with “for-other,” only lead to the recognition that “Hell is other people.” Now it is true that the prevailing theme is that “respect for Other’s freedom is an empty word.”
It is true that because Sartre’s theory of human relations is bound hand and foot, held in confinement to but two “fundamental attitudes” – the equally deplorable extremes of masochism and sadism – “perpetual failure” is the result. The individual is in anguish, loneliness. Frustration is in infinite regress. But it is also true that this fantastic theory of human relations was in conflict with Sartre’s other theory, that of individual freedom. Now, on the other hand, the very nature of the Individual, as of the masses, seems to allow him to be reduced to inert practicality.
Whatever it is that Sartre, as the committed intellectual who at present claims to be an adherent of Marxism, believes in and bases his activities on, Sartre, as the Existential philosopher, has followed a straight line of being grounded in defeats and only defeats. In the 1930s it was not the sit-down strikes in France, which destroyed the pretensions of fascism in his native land, nor the Spanish Revolution in Europe, but rather the proletarian defeats by German and Spanish fascism that set the climate for Being and Nothingness. In the 1950s, it was not the Hungarian revolt against Communist totalitarianism that created the climate for Question de Methode, but the stasis of Communism. Just as one does not have to encounter “Other” as Hell, in Being and Nothingness, to become aware of anguish, frustration, impossibility of effecting a union between consciousness and being, so one does not have to wait to encounter in Critique de la raison dialectique the practico-inert to recognise its kinship to “Other” as Hell. Just as Sartre’s disregard of History in Being and Nothingness, far from allowing him to embrace the human condition in its totality, closes all exits to resolution of contradictions, so his “embrace” of History sans the masses as Subject in the Critique makes it impossible to open any doors to revolution. Finally, just as it could not be otherwise when the human condition is anchored in perpetual failure, frustration, contingency – all are finite situations and each a constant collapsing finite – it could not be otherwise when there is imposed upon actual history the ontological invention of practico – inert who could be made to move rationally only through an outside force – “the group infusion,” the “Party.”‘
It is true that where in Being and Nothingness the singular is always singular, never universal, in the Critique the problem is reversed. But this is only the opposite side of the same coin – a stasis; a listing of opposites, not a live struggle, surely not one in which masses have their say. Not only is history subordinated to ontology, but it is also reduced to either “examples” or “analogy.” As George Lichtheim noted, “Sartre’s humans don’t cooperate, they are thrown together or, as he put it, ‘serialised.’ ... Thus human nature is shown by a state of affairs which bears a marked resemblance to a concentration camp.”
Just as in Being and Nothingness, despite the language of opposition, there is no higher ground emerging from the contradiction in the Hegelian sense of Idea, so in the Critique there is none in the Marxian sense of spontaneous revolts and actual class struggles. Where in Being and Nothingness the process of collapse is everything, in Critique the terror of the “collectivity” becomes everything. Out of neither does there emerge a method, a direction, a development. It may be, as one historian put it, that the Critique had transformed the “perpetual failure” of Being and Nothingness into “perpetual success.” But what is more crucial is the fact that the proletariat is nevertheless present, not as creativity, but as “materiality.” The masses have none of the “human dimension” of the individual in Being and Nothingness. It is true that in Being and Nothingness too, not only are Sartre’s two theories – of human relations and of individual freedom – in irreconcilable conflict, but also, as Herbert Marcuse noted, the theory of “free choice” itself under extant fascism is a macabre joke. Marcuse’s analysis of this as well as of the undialectical methodology of ontological identification of freedom and frustration is profound:
The coincidentia oppositorum is accomplished not through a dialectical process, but through their complete establishment as ontological characteristics. As such, they are transtemporally simultaneous and structurally identical.
The free choice between death and enslavement is neither freedom nor choice, because both alternatives destroy the “realite humaine” which is supposed to be freedom. Established as the locus of freedom in the midst of a world of totalitarian oppression, the Pour-soi, the Cartesian Cogito is no longer the jumping-off point for the conquest of the intellectual and material world, but the last refuge of the individual in an “absurd world” of frustration and failure. In Sartre’s philosophy this refuge is still equipped with all the paraphernalia which characterised the heyday of individualistic society.
However, the conclusion that “Behind the nihilistic language of Existentialism lurks the ideology of free competition, free initiative, and equal opportunity” does not hit the nail on the head. The real tragedy is that “behind” Sartre’s nihilistic language lurks – nothing. Just nothing. And because there was no past and the present world is “absurd,” there is no future. To the isolated intellectual, nothing may have appeared as “creative.” Nothingness, a blank page of history on which the individual could write what he wished.
Sartre himself must have had some recognition that existential philosophy had reached an impasse. How else can one account for the footnote which points to a possible “radical conversion” which “could” resolve the irreconcilable conflicts between total individual freedom unrestricted by “other,” and the “fundamental” human attitudes of masochism and sadism? Surely, this was a vent which the Resistance created for itself. At the same time, it was also a lack of “totalisation” that Sartre, as philosopher, felt. It is true that what was “real” to Sartre was an ontological dehumanised “human reality,” for which the author of Being and Nothingness had invented a new language. But it is no less true that no academic philosopher ever desired more desperately not merely to interpret the world, but to change it. Also, Sartre did recognise his petty-bourgeois character, and none labored harder to overcome bourgeois origins. In all cases, however – and herein lies the tragedy – the truth is that the new Sartre and his heuristic,” “comprehensive,” “Progressive and Regressive” method hardly gets us much further. This is proof of the fact that the impasse in Being and Nothingness was arrived at in part, in a fundamental part it is true, but only a part nevertheless, because of the failure to see in the social individual, or society, what Marx called “history and its process.” That is a totally different quality, and not merely a distinction between individual and social; it means seeing masses as Subject. Let us see what Sartre makes out of the masses in that most creative act of revolution, in the single current event he does deal with in Question de Methode: the Hungarian Revolution.
Sartre opposed the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by Russian might on the ground that it was “not necessary” and did not “enhance the security of socialism.” Philosophically, however, he pours forth his greatest indignation against “today’s Marxists” who had, before “the second Soviet intervention” (November 4, 1956), already made up their minds, thereby displaying their method “in all its nakedness” to be one “which reduces the facts in Hungary to a Soviet act of aggression against the democracy of Workers’ Committees” (p. 34). It is true, he continues, that the Councils were such a “democratic institution,” “direct democracy.” One could
even maintain that they bore within them the future of the socialist society. But this does not alter the fact that they did not exist in Hungary at the time of the first Soviet intervention; and their appearance during the Insurrection was much too brief and too troubled for us to be able to speak of an organised democracy. (p. 24)
And because the Workers’ Councils were not an organised democracy, because the spontaneity of this self-organisation was “much too brief and too troubled,” their forced suppression becomes, for Sartre, ground for not grappling with the elemental creativity although he wishes to penetrate an existential “unsurpassable opaqueness.”
Instead, the exponent of the “unsurpassable singularity of the human adventure” dons a full suit of “totalisation” armour. The first sacrifice to “totalisation” is the actual spontaneous organisation, those same Workers’ Councils. The myriad of new tendencies (whether in the actual Hungarian Revolution or in the near-revolutions in Poland) become the second sacrifice to the Sartrean totalisation: all human, living beings get headshrunk to a nondifferentiated category, “revisionism.” “As for ‘revisionism,’ this is either a truism or an absurdity” (p. 7). Third, the fact that the revisionist appellation was “Other,” the Communist tormentors who had long since transformed Marx’s philosophy of liberation into state-capitalist tyranny seemed so little to disturb the philosopher of existence that not one of the existents in East Europe he was addressing gets personalised – unless the questionable choice of that time and that place for launching an attack on Georg Lukacs can be called “personalisation”: “It is not by chance that Lukacs – Lukacs who so often violates history – has found in 1956 the best definition of this frozen Marxism” (p. 28).
So preoccupied is Sartre with Lukacs’ 1947 vicious attack on Existentialism that he himself becomes forgetful of both Being and Time – at least of that being, Georg Lukacs, who was a true original in Marxist philosophy in the early 1920s and the revolutionary who was swept up by the Hungarian Revolution, after a twenty-five year capitulation to Stalinism, to become a participant in an ongoing revolution against Stalinism. Sartre mainly forgot the present, not merely the past; Lukacs in the early 1920s had restored the revolutionary dialectic after the Social Democracy had discarded it as “prolegomenon” to betrayal of revolution, while the Communists were just embarking on the first freeze of the “Hegelian dialectic.” Moreover, neither Lukacs nor Sartre was the Subject. The Subject was the Hungarian Revolution as it burst upon the historic stage and was destroyed by those with whom Sartre claimed to have broken all relations “regretfully and completely.”
For Marx the dialectic of liberation – whether it was the “quiet” civil war of the hundred-year struggle for the shortening of the working day, or the open revolutions of 1848, or the Paris Commune – not only “concretised” the Hegelian dialectic as “an algebra of revolution,” it also, and above all, emerged from history, proletarian history, from the actuality of the freedom struggles. The Marxian dialectic was thus not a mere standing of Hegelian philosophy on its feet instead of its head. It is true that it had been standing on its head and had to be anchored in reality; but Marx saw masses not merely as “matter” but as Reason. It was not they who were “practicing” Marxism. It was Marx who was universalising their praxis. For Sartre, however, writing in 1957, it is not the movement from practice that constitutes “the profundity of the lived” (p. 165). It is an ideological battle with “lazy Marxism.” Misplaced concreteness reveals him in all the wrong places and by insisting on the particular against the general, the concrete – “incident by incident” – as against the “abstract ideology of universality,” the historic event against the a priori judgment, “absolute empiricism” as against dogmatism, Sartre may have destroyed as many dogmatisms as he claims. But one unstated yet all-pervading dogmatism continues to be the underlying motif of all Sartre thinks, writes, does. It is the dogmatism of the backwardness of the masses, now called “practico-inert” and including the individual as well as the masses.
It may not be fair to judge Sartre by the uncompleted Critique, especially as he has announced that the subject of history proper would first be analysed in Volume II. But we concentrated on the question of method precisely because it is complete in itself and has been recognised by Sartre himself as the summation of the whole work, since there is no other proof of dialectic methodology but the whole content of what preceded it. Unfortunately, Sartre has also asserted that Volume I, rooted in scarcity and the practico-inert, contains “the formal elements of any history,” which is the old perennial enemy Hegel characterised as the synthetic method of abstract identity. When abstract understanding is superimposed on the concrete manifold of actual history, which has been transformed into object in the technical sense Hegel depicted as “rounded in itself as a formal totality and indifferent to determination by another,” no movement forward is possible except through an outside, alien force.
For Sartre, there stands to one side the abstraction – “formal elements of any history” – and to the other side Marxism, the class struggle, the twain coexisting but never clashing in a way that a transition arises from it, and not superimposed upon it by “the political group.” For Marx, on the other hand, there was no such suprahistorical abstraction as “the formal elements of any history.” There is only one history – the concrete, the actual; and from that process, which contains both the historical and logical development, the class struggle as force and as logic, there is a rending of the class structure. Because Sartre has the historic process as an abstraction, in stasis, it has remained motionless. Precisely because Sartre is unable to conceive of the specific content having specific forms of movement, he is always driven to accept an outside force as the mediator. Despite his hatred for the word driven, Sartre seems always to obey its dictates, to use categories of a lower order like inert practicality, which he himself has created and which preclude self-movement. Just as in Being and Nothingness the Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself remain as apart at the end as at the start, so in Critique there is no self-development though the individual is now social man, and the past is not rejected but recognised as History with a capital H.
Notwithstanding all the talk and emphasis and re-emphasis on praxis as he was generalising the concept – “Concrete thought must be born from praxis and must turn back upon it in order to clarify it” (p. 22) – what Sartre does is, one, subordinate the movement from practice to discussion, and the debate is mainly with “Other,” and, two, turn his intellectual arsenal not against “today’s Marxists,” though in words he berates them, but against the Marxism of Marx, whom he praises only in order to show that without the “infusion” of Existentialism, Marxism remains inert and unfinished. Thus, Sartre no sooner contrasts Marx’s “synthetic intent” (p. 25) in the concrete, brilliant study of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat with the fetishisation of events by “today’s Marxists,” than in a closely printed two-page footnote (pp. 32-33), Sartre launches into an attack on Marx. “One must develop a theory of consciousness. Yet the theory of knowledge continues to be the weak point in Marxism” (p. 32n.). Sartre draws this conclusion after he has quoted one sentence from Marx, on the materialist conception of history, and one from Lenin, on consciousness as “reflection of being.” Sartre remarks triumphantly: “In both cases it is a mater of suppressing subjectivity; with Marx, we are placed beyond it; with Lenin on this side of it” (p. 32). That this generalisation flies in the face of all Marx wrote and all Marx did, which the new Sartre wishes to resuscitate, does not deter him. He stubbornly maintains that the sentence he has quoted from Marx (which happens to be from Engels, not Marx) and that is a repeat of the very sentence the old Sartre used 14 years earlier in his attack on historical materialism – “The materialist conception of the world signifies simply the conception of nature as it is without any foreign addition” – amounts to nothing less horrific than this: “Having stripped away all subjectivity and having assimilated himself into pure objective truth, he [Marx] walks in a world of objects inhabited by object-men” (p. 32n.) .
Once again: “Both of these conceptions [the reference is again to the single quotation from Marx and the half-sentence from Lenin] amount to breaking man’s real relation with history, since in the first, knowing is pure theory, a non-situated observing, and, in the second, it is a simple passivity” (p. 32n.). These straw ideas that Sartre has just strung up and attributed to Marx and Lenin he labels “anti-dialectical” and “pre-Marxist” (p. 33n.; emphasis is Sartre’s). He notes condescendingly that “in Marx’s remarks on the practical aspects of truth and on the general relations of theory and praxis, it would be easy to discover the rudiments of a realistic epistemology which has never been developed” (p. 33n.). Within the text, Sartre continues:
The theory of fetishism, outlined by Marx, has never been developed; furthermore, it would not be extended to cover all social realities. Thus Marxism, while rejecting organicism, lacks weapons against it. Marxism considers the market a thing and holds that its inexorable laws contribute to reifying the relations among men. But when, suddenly, – to use Henri Lefebvre’s terms – a dialectical conjuring trick shows us this monstrous abstraction as the veritable concrete ... then we believe that we are returned to Hegelian idealism. (p. 77)
One would be hard put to match the number of errors Sartre succeeds in squeezing into fewer than four sentences. Judged by them, Marx has wasted the arduous labor he put into the creation of the three volumes of Capital, which aims at establishing that the pivot of his theory as well as the actuality of capitalism are not to be found in the market – the favorite hunting ground of utopians, under-consumptionists, and capitalistic buyers of labor power – but are to be found in the process of production, and only there.
For the moment it is necessary to set aside Sartre’s vast accumulation of errors in order to contrast his methodological approach with Marx’s. After more than a quarter of a century of labor, gathering facts as well as working out the theory, Marx, under the impact of a new wave of class struggles in Europe, the Civil War in the United States, and the struggle for the shortening of the working day, decided to restructure his massive manuscripts as they were assuming the form of Capital, Volume I. The year of publication was 1867. In 1871 the Paris Commune erupted, and in 1872 Marx decided to introduce some very fundamental changes into the French edition. They “happen” to have been precisely on the two points that most concerned Sartre in 1960: the fetishism of commodities and the accumulation of capital in advanced industrial societies leading to the collapse of capitalism.
In both instances, as we saw in the chapter on Marx, what was at stake was “history and its process,” specifically the proletariat reshaping history and thereby not only “facticity” but theory itself. Although on the question of reification of labour Sartre acts as if, without Existentialism, Marxism lacks “the human foundation,” actually, in his attack on historical materialism he lashes out precisely against Marx’s Humanism, which aims to unite materialism and idealism, that is, to be the human foundation. Sartre, however, persists: “Let us make no mistake; there is no simultaneous transcendence of materialism and idealism ...” which he footnotes as follows: “Although Marx sometimes claimed there was.” At the same time Sartre credits the Marx of 1844 with a revolutionary realism which could not conceive of “a subjectivity outside the world nor a world which would not be illuminated by an effort on the part of subjectivity....”
The other Marxist, again not one of “today’s Marxists,” Sartre singles out for attack as failing to comprehend “subjectivity” is Lenin. While he wrote many profound economic studies, Lenin’s “economist” statement that Sartre quotes is not from those, but from his very superficial philosophic work, the 1908 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which gave the green light to vulgar materialism. This is the one on which Stalinists, Khrushchevites, Maoists, and fellow travellers base themselves. No serious student of Marxism, certainly no philosopher, can disregard the break in Lenin’s philosophic thought at the time of the collapse of the Second International. For it is this that, at the outbreak of World War I, led Lenin not merely to re-read Hegel, but to reconstitute his own method of thought. As we saw in the chapter on Lenin, it was then that he began fully to appreciate the inseparability of Hegelian philosophy and Marxian philosophic and economic categories. Nothing so lucidly expresses the transformation of Lenin’s view of theory as his own words: “Alias: Man’s Cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” For someone in 1960 to write as if, to Lenin, consciousness was only the reflection of being, “at best an approximately accurate reflection,” and on the basis of that half-sentence run, helter-skelter, to the wild conclusion that “by a single stroke he removes from himself the right to write what he is writing” (p. 32n.) hardly recommends Sartre’s “heuristic,” “comprehensive” “Progressive-Regressive” method.
Sartre stands matters upside down when he continues blithely to talk of the market’s inexorable laws where Marx had demonstrated that the inexorable laws arise from production. They are, of course, manifested in the market, but they cannot be controverted anywhere but in production, and only by human beings, specifically the labourers, who have been transformed into appendages of machines but whose “quest for universality” had given birth to “new passions,” thus making them the forces for the overthrow of capitalism. The market, no doubt, contributes something to the mystification of human relations, since the only thing that relates men in the marketplace is money. But that was not Marx’s point.
On the contrary, Marx insisted that in order to understand what is taking place in the market, it is necessary to leave it and go into the factory. It is there that relations among men get “reified,” made into things. It is there, at that “process of suction,” that capital grows monstrous big, but, far from being an “abstraction,” is the “veritable concrete” which “sucks dry living labor” and makes it into a thing. Far from being the result of “a dialectical conjuring trick,” it is the literal truth of relations of men at the point of production. Above all, the “inexorable laws” that arise from this, and not from the market, make inevitable the collapse of the type of insane productive system that turns man into a thing, not because of the “inexorable laws,” but because of the labourers. Their “quest for universality” sets up the dialectical struggle against reification of labor; they revolt and it is those “new passions and new forces” that overthrow the monstrous system.
Marx states and restates all this in a thousand different ways, in thousands of places throughout all his works – philosophic, economic, historic, and even in the analysis of the relations of works of art to the specificity of history. Surely Sartre must know all this. Why, then, does he continue to read Marx so existentialistically?
Marxism united materialism and idealism, from both the vulgar materialism of “vulgar communism” and the dehumanised bourgeois (Hegelian) idealism, which, despite the revolutionary dialectic, had to lapse into a vulgar idealisation of the Prussian bureaucracy. “Thus,” concluded the young Marx, “nothing need be said of Hegel’s adaptation to religion, the state, etc., for this lie is the lie of his principle.”
Again, surely Sartre knows all this. Then why, at this moment when he tries to become “Marxist,” does he not say of his own methodology what Marx said of Feuerbach, and on a different level what Hegel said of Kant: If at the period of revolution there is in one’s mind a residue of an independent actuality confronting the Subject, an independent Substance with its own inner necessity; if one does not then think of “independent actuality as having all its substantiality in the passage,” then, in thought, one inescapably does what Kant did – “affirm as true what was pronounced to be figments of thought and declare to be superfluous ...that which is recognised as truth”; and, in practice, restrain the proletariat from smashing up the state machine. Which is precisely what was done not only by Khrushchev-Kadar, but also by the critic of that action who nevertheless found an affinity in thought with them.
One would have thought that Sartre, who returned to a work of philosophic rigour after he had become, or at least was in the process of becoming, an adherent of Marx’s Historical Materialism, would at least in theory attempt to end the bifurcation between subject and object, would concretise his project of “going beyond” as the Subject appropriating objectivity, not vice versa. Instead, having laid a foundation for a metaphysic of Stalinism, Sartre seems totally unconscious of the fact that his methodology is at the opposite pole, not from Communism, but from the Marxism of Marx. Despite all rhetoric about praxis, Sartre’s methodology does not emanate from praxis. Far from being any “algebra of revolution,” Sartrean methodology is the abstraction which reduces history to illustrations and analogy. The “Progressive-Regressive” method is neither Hegelian nor Marxian, resembling more that of the Left Hegelians of whom Marx, in The Holy Family, had written: “History, like truth, becomes a person apart, a metaphysical subject, of which the real individuals are merely the bearers.”
The anti-Stalinist, anti-capitalist, revolutionary petty-bourgeois intellectual, himself the victim of the absolute division between mental and manual labor, the climax of centuries of division between philosophers and workers, seemed always ready to hand over the role of workers’ self-emancipation to “the Party,” even though its “philosophy” amounted to ordering the workers to work hard and harder. In the Critique Sartre creates a veritable mystique about Stalinist terror, since it is always “the political group” which is the “action group” that overcomes the “inertia” of the masses. Indeed, Sartre maintains that “the communal freedom creates itself as terror.” No wonder that the Critique, which is supposed to be a plea “to reconquer man within Marxism” (p. 83), ends instead with a plea for integration of intellectual disciplines – from “the West.” The Western disciplines would appear to be the “mediation” rather than the movement of the masses, the movement which is history past and present. And where “mediation” is not reduced to the “mediator” (the Party), it gets reduced to anthropology. “Our examples have revealed at the heart of this philosophy a lack of any concrete anthropology.... The default of Marxism has led us to attempt this integration ourselves ... according to principles which give our ideology its unique character ...” (pp. 83-84). “We have shown that dialectical materialism is reduced to its own skeleton if it does not integrate into itself certain Western disciplines,” concludes Sartre.
No wonder that the final statement of Question de methode which claims the essay is directed “toward hastening the moment of that [Existentialism’s] dissolution” is preceded by, all duly italicised: “Absorbed, surpassed, and conserved by the totalising movement of philosophy, it will cease to be a particular inquiry and will become the foundation of all inquiry.” For, after all, the new Sartre still defines “the human dimension” not as the movement of masses of people in the act of uprooting the old class society and creating the new classless society where, as Marx put it, “human power is its own end,” but as “the existential project” (p. 181).
Since Sartre devoted himself in those years to demoting his own philosophy to an “ideology,” “an enclave” within original, historic, dialectical Marxism, why did he so persist with his own methodology? The first answer is, of course, that Existentialism is part of his very organism, that which was original with him, having come spontaneously and been rigorously worked through his whole adult life, from Nausea and No Exit through Being and Nothingness, and again, from Les Temps Moderne through The Words and his essays, in or out of the magazine he founded. At the same time, it was not the ego called Sartre; it was the social individual (responsible and irresponsible) who wished to escape class reality. It is this, just this, which made him a spokesman for the first postwar generation of intellectuals. In a word, it was the abstract philosophic stand on free choice and unqualified “individual freedom,” when France was occupied and the lived experience was anything but a matter of “choice,” that gave the illusion that, by “rejecting” history, one became “free.” The second answer – the consequences of the abstract universal as methodology – is not so easy to grasp, especially since it would appear that Sartre ought to have found it easy to express in “words,” not just political tension, but the life-and-death struggle in the battle of ideas as they arise from and return to praxis. Methodologically, Sartre’s organic petty-bourgeois inability to understand what it is that Marx meant by praxis has nothing whatever to do with the Ego, much less with not being able “to read” Marx. It has everything to do with his isolation from the proletariat.
The very point at which Sartre thinks that Marx, because he had to turn to “clarifying” practice, stopped developing theory is when Marx broke with the bourgeois concept of theory and created his most original concept of theory out of “history and its process,” not only in the class struggles outside the factory but in it, at the very point of production, faced with the “automaton” which was dominating the worker, transforming him into a mere “appendage.” Marx’s whole point was that the worker was thinking his own thoughts, expressing his total opposition to the mode of labor instinctually and by creating new forms of struggle and new human relations with his fellow workers. Where, in Marx, history comes alive because the masses have been prepared by the daily struggle at the point of production to burst out spontaneously, “to storm the heavens” creatively as they had done in the Paris Commune, in Sartre practice appears as inert practicality bereft of all historic sense and any consciousness of consequences. Where, in Marx, Individuality itself arises through history, in Sartre History means subordination of individual to group-infusion who alone know where the action is. Sartre the Existentialist rightly used to laugh at Communists for thinking man is born on his first payday; Sartre “the Marxist” sees even as world-shaking an event as the Russian Revolution, not at its self-emancipatory moment of birth with its creation of totally new forms of workers’ rule – soviets – but rather at the moment when it was transformed into its opposite with Stalin’s victory, the totalitarian initiation of the Five-Year Plans with the Moscow Frame-Up Trials and forced-labor camps.
And yet this is the same philosopher whose theory of individual freedom acted as a polarising force for a whole generation of youth in the immediate postwar period in the West, and for East Europe in the mid-1950s. It is no accident, however, that just when he developed his existentialised Marxism is when he lost out with Marxists and the “New Left,” or a great part of it, a part which is moving toward a new relationship of theory and practice, basing itself on a movement from practice that would meet philosophically the challenge to make freedom a reality, not an institution. It is not so much the political fellow-travelling with Communists that has served to break the spell of Existentialism, but the fact that Sartre has no more filled the theoretic void since Lenin’s death than have the Communists, Stalinised and de-Stalinised, Trotskyists, Maoists and the latter’s fellow travellers.
The methodological enemy is the empty abstraction which has helped cover up soured revolutions and failed to disclose new roads to revolution in theory, not to mention in fact. The core of Existentialism has always been petty-bourgeois subjectivity. The philosophy of existence fails “to merge” with Marxism because it has remained Subjectivity without a Subject, desire for revolution without the “new forces, new passions” for revolution, and at present escapism into “world revolution” at the very moment when what is required is the concretisation, the unity of philosophy and revolution on native ground, as the only ground for world revolution. The “Alternatives” were detours from “new passions and new forces” in Africa, in East Europe, in the U.S.A. that mark the era of transition to our day.