Chris Harman


Stalin’s Great Shadow

(Summer 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.21, Summer 1965, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Tyranny of Concepts – A Critique of Marxism
Gordon Leff
Merlin, 21s.

The Problem of Method
J.-P. Sartre
Methuen, 30s.

Marx is a perennial problem for the professional academicians of our society. Each generation is plagued by the need to dispose of him. And each generation in turn sees him survive to present a problem for the next generation.

Leff’s book is a product of one of the present array of critics of Marx. It is easily readable, well and carefully argued and sympathetic to left values. But like so many of the same genre it fails miserably. The underlying fault this time is that basic facts about the history of the development of Marxist thought are ignored. In fact, although the author does not know it, the book is not about Marxism at all. It is an intelligent criticism of the distorted dogma that Stalin and his theoretical henchmen created out of Marxism. As such the author has little difficulty in winning arguments. The ‘dialectics’ of Stalin or even of the young Lenin for instance, are easily disposed of. But such treatment does not begin to wrestle with the problems with which Marx or the Lenin of the Philosophical Notebooks were concerned.

Some criticisms of Marxism are essential reading for any Marxist. This is not one. No work which mentions Stalin fifteen times in the index and Gramsci, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Korsch or Marcuse not once, could be.

Sartre’s work is in an entirely different category. The title itself is witness to this. There is a concern with genuine problems; the aim is not merely to effect another ritual burial.

Sartre’s aim is firstly to justify the development of existentialism as a philosophical position independently of and in opposition to Marxism, and secondly to develop an expanded Marxist method in which the insights of existentialism are absorbed. In particular he is concerned with the dehumanising elements in Marxism that have enabled existentialism to outlive the abstract Hegelianism against which it initially rebelled.

He argues that this situation can only be transcended if Marxists employ a method that relates individual suffering and action to the social structure. He claims that the fault of existent Marxism is that it ignores the processes by which individual actions are transmuted into social forces. Instead it accepts social forces as forces in themselves, and the reification that this involves.

The fault with Sartre’s own exposition of this problem is that he himself never succeeds in explaining how we are to comprehend these processes of transformation. At times it seems that these social forces are to be accepted as an objective environment in which individuals act and suffer only to reproduce them; at others as if we could only come to a knowledge of them by an arithmetic summation of individual social acts.

For the most part this does not matter. Sartre’s chief concern is with the use of Marxism for purely intellectual analysis (e.g. of Flaubert). Here the lack of illumination on how to construct a total model of society does not matter. The totality can be presumed. But when he tries to apply this to problems of political analysis the fault in the method is revealed. Sartre argues that attempts to, say, see the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 as a fascist counter-revolution or as a workers’ rejection of bureaucracy are wrong. Why? Because both – equally – mean an underestimation of the historical novelty and uniqueness of the uprising as a fact. But this points to a fundamental methodological error on Sartre’s part. He is in fact arguing that judgement on the fact, that is any attempt to relate it to a total view of society, must be suspended. But for Marxists the whole point of such judgements is their utility in changing the world. And this praxis alone can test the validity of the total view. This means that the one thing we cannot do is to suspend judgements.

Sartre’s method in no way indicates how we are to comprehend the totality. He offers no alternative to the Marxist emphasis on conscious praxis. But this he implicitly rejects. The result is that he alternates between implicit acceptance of an already constructed totality, and rejection (again implicitly) of any totality. Most of the time his concern seems to be to fit the particular fact with which he is concerned into a total view that he accepts, more or less uncritically, in an intellectually honest and convincing way.

It is worth emphasising here that the totality which Sartre accepts is that held to by liberal Stalinists. Although particular acts of the ‘socialist’ states can be criticised, it is accepted that they are ‘unconsciously’ moving towards socialism. In a recent edition of Temps Moderne Sartre wrote a piece on Togliatti. Even Michael Foot’s biography of Bevan was not written in such sycophantic terms. Togliatti’s support for Kadar and his ilk was seen as being of only minor significance; his role in restoring capitalism in Italy ignored. Perhaps this provides an apt commentary on Sartre’s book. The intellectual inadequacies of Stalinism – its theoretical crudity, its bureaucratic manipulation of fact – are rejected. It is hard to see today how any self-respecting intellectual in bourgeois society could do otherwise. But its overriding claims are accepted. Sartre tries to find a new method transcending traditional Marxism. In doing so he says much that is interesting. But the end result of this labour is only to offer an existentialist conscience to the Stalinist hack.

Last updated on 15 November 2009