George Novack’s Understanding History


Existentialism and Marxism

By Doug Lorimer

Post-structuralism, the philosophical rationale of contemporary “post-modernist discourse”, presents itself as a radically new view of the world. However, in many ways it is simply a reincarnation of existentialism, which conceives of nature and society as dominated by accident and chance and stresses the meaningless of human existence.

The Origins Of Existentialism

Existentialism was born as a bourgeois philosophical response to the crisis that World War I and its aftermath dealt to the superficially optimistic world-view and belief in progressive development of capitalist society inherent in middle-class liberalism. Its most prominent figure was Martin Heidegger.

A philosopher of irrationalism, Heidegger maintained that the chief impediment to human self-development was reason and science, which, he claimed, led to a view of humans only as objects of impersonal investigation and practical manipulation. According to Heidegger, human existence could not be understood through rational-scientific thinking or through social practice, but only by an inward-turning orientation to one’s self, particularly in the contemplation of death.

Heidegger was strongly influenced by the 19th century irrationalist philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzche, and was the disciple of the German idealist philosopher Edmund Husserl.

Kierkegaard previewed many of the themes of 20th century existentialism, though in an explicitly religious context. In opposition to Hegelian determinism, Kierkegaard interpreted human existence in terms of chance and possibility. He believed that growing awareness of truth led to despair owing to the contrast between the brevity of individual human life compared to the “infinity of God”. Nietzche developed an anti-rationalist, atheistic humanism based on an extreme individualism that distrusted all group action.

Husserl founded the philosophy of phenomenology, which he claimed superseded both materialism and idealism by rejecting all “presuppositions”. He sought to eliminate any theory of knowledge and called for suspending belief about any previously known fact in the study of a particular phenomenon. The internal logic of a phenomenon was to be reconstructed from the appearances of it available to the observer. Thus far the method appeared to parallel empiricism, but Husserl then asserted that the aim of such investigation was to intuitively grasp the real essence of the phenomenon under observation. During the period of study, no consideration was to be given to the reality or non-reality of the object under examination. Thus, dreams, fantasies, and illusions were to be examined with a seriousness equal to that given to objectively indisputable existences. By 1907 Husserl had become an avowed subjective idealist, asserting that objects had no existence outside of human consciousness.

In 1928 Husserl was stripped of his university post in Freiburg, Germany, because of his Jewish origins. He spent the last years of his life as a pariah in Nazi Germany, although he was not arrested.

Martin Heidegger accepted the chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg after his mentor was forced to relinquish it by the growing Nazi movement. Heidegger was himself a political reactionary. He supported Hitler, which led to his disgrace at the end of World War II, and his retirement in 1951 after a life of rural seclusion.

Heidegger’s existentialist ideas, however, deeply influenced the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was to become the best known populariser of the ideas of existentialism.

Sartrean Existentialism

In his early theoretical writings, culminating in Being and Nothingness (1943) Sartre summed up existentialism’s deeply pessimistic view of life in the phrases “life is hell” and “hell is other people”. By 1947, however, Sartre had begun to evolve away from the gloom and despair this view implied. He now argued that while the world was “hell” it was human beings who created the world. This implied a move away from passive self-contemplation toward an active striving for freedom, in which human action could overcome both “hells”. However, this shift was still confined to a subjectivist and individualistic framework—a demand for absolute personal freedom.

From the late 1950s on, Sartre tried to marry his existentialist philosophy with the revolutionary doctrine of Marxism. In his 1960 philosophical treatise The Critique of Dialectical Reason , for example, Sartre declared that existentialism was a subordinate branch of Marxism which aspired to “renew” and “enrich” it.

But this “enriching” involved discarding the materialist, sociohistorical outlook of Marxism in favour of a subjectivist, individualistic approach to philosophy, sociology, morality and politics.

The whole of Sartre’s philosophy revolved around the absolute primacy of the individual subject over everything objective, whether natural or social. The truth and value of human existence are to be sought exclusively within the existence of the isolated individual. “If we refuse to see the original dialectical movement in the individual and in his enterprise of producing his life, of objectifying himself, then we shall have to give up dialectic or else make of it the immanent law of history”, Sartre wrote in the lengthy preface to his Critique.[1] That is, Sartre located dialectical development exclusively within human practice. Moreover, he considered that the dialectical development of society proceeds from the actions of the isolated individual, rather from the objective realities, laws and necessities of social life.

Marxism takes a diametrically opposite point of view: The thoughts and actions of the individual are determined by the dialectical development of society. The isolated individual—so central to existentialism’s world view—is an abstraction. As Marx himself observed in his “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845): “The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.”[2] That is, the individual, with his or her own particular personality, is the product of society. Everything distinctive about humans, from tool-making, speech and abstract thinking, to the latest products of art and technology, is the result of millions of years of social practice. Human social practice in turn is an historical outgrowth of the dialectical development of nature; the organic developing out of the inorganic; the human from the animal.

Nature, humanity, social life and labour are inseparably interconnected. What separated humanity from the rest of animal life was the practice of labour—the regular, collective production of means of subsistence through the use and fashioning of tools. Through labour prehuman primates began to transform their natural environment to serve their needs, and in the process they transformed themselves and their descendants into a qualitatively new species.

Fundamental changes in the organisation of the labour process are the basis for the dialectical development of society. Subjective components of this development—individual psychology, for example —are integral and subordinate elements of this objective historical process. Thus society is more than the sum of its individuals because it is a product of collective activity. It is only in and through society that we develop as individuals.

Existentialism, on the other hand, pictures the individual as essentially divorced from other people, confronted by an inert, irrational and hostile social environment. It champions the spontaneity of the individual against any established institution or organised movement. It is equally hostile to the social institutions of bourgeois society and to the working class’s collective struggle against them. Rather than being a guide to revolutionary action, it is a philosophy that justifies the individualistic non-conformism of middle-class intellectuals.

Althusserian Structuralism

In a series of essays written in the mid-1960s, French philosophy professor Louis Althusser attacked the views of the “Marxist” existentialists. However, Althusser did not defend orthodox Marxism against the later existentialists’ subjective dialectics and individualistic humanism. Rather, he substituted an interpretation of Marxism that was heavily influenced by the antidialectical structuralist school of bourgeois sociology.

Whereas the “Marxist” existentialists were fixated with individual human subjects to the exclusion of social structures, Althusser produced, as Perry Anderson has noted, “a version of Marxism in which subjects were abolished altogether, save as the illusory effects of ideological structures”.[3] In contrast to the former, who sought to “Hegelianise” Marxism by purging it of its materialist outlook, Althusser sought to “de-Hegelianise” Marxism, i.e., to purge it of dialectics.

“For Hegel’s ‘pure’ principle of consciousness”, Althusser argued, orthodox Marxists, “have substituted another simple principle , its opposite: material life, the economy...”[4] In opposition to Marx’s materialist approach to social life—his recognition that the “mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general”[5]—Althusser substituted an eclectic approach in which each aspect of a given social formation was regarded as a separate structure undetermined by any other. Instead of Marx’s dialectical method of analysing the interconnections between social phenomena, and uncovering the underlying laws of development (contradictions) governing the origin and evolution of a given social formation, Althusser adopted the structuralist approach of analysing social phenomena in a purely synchronic and static manner.

While travelling a somewhat different road, Althusser thus arrived at the same destination as the “Marxist” existentialists he sought to combat: adoption of the liberal-pragmatist view that there are no determining laws of historical development; that there is only historical particularity produced by the accidental conjuncture of multiple and separate events.

While remaining a member of the French Communist Party, Althusser displayed strong sympathies for Maoism. The latter’s hostility to “bourgeois” humanism, its rejection of the determinative role of the productive forces in the historical process, its idealist and voluntarist conception of the class struggle, in which subjective factors (ideology and culture) take precedence over objective factors (class relations) were all highly attractive to Althusser. As a result, Althusser’s structuralist interpretation of Marxism gained wide popularity among the radicalised middle-class intellectuals who were also attracted to the pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric of the Mao regime during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966-76), which also coincided with an upsurge of student and worker struggles in the West.

However, in the wake of the increasingly right-wing evolution of Mao’s foreign policy from the early 1970s on (as his regime moved to take up Washington’s offer of a “detente” with China) and the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy’s repudiation of the policies of the Cultural Revolution after Mao’s death in 1976 (and its exposure of the brutality and hypocrisy of these policies), Althusser’s “Marxist” structuralism waned in popularity among the former student radicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Existentialism And Post-Structuralism

In the 1980s, the generation of middle-class youth who had radicalised in the 1960s and early 1970s had begun to enter middle age, and increasingly occupied comfortable middle-class careers in academia, in the public service and in lower managerial positions in the private sector. Their former hopes of a socialist revolution in the West had vanished. Indeed, they had ceased to even believe in the desirability of such a revolution, accepting the liberal argument that its inevitable outcome could only be a stagnant, totalitarian society, as exemplified by sclerotic Brezhnev regime in the Soviet Union. The rising prosperity of Western middle-class professionals during the 1980s—a result of the debt-driven consumption-oriented “boom” of the Reagan-Thatcher era—combined with a sense of impending global catastrophes (nuclear war, ecological collapse), plus the rejection of socialism by many of its most articulate members, to create the climate for a resurgence of many of the intellectual themes of Heideggerian existentialism, under the name of “post-structuralism”.

The influence that Heidegger has exerted on the leading poststructuralists is openly acknowledged by them. Jacques Derrida, for example, explicitly situates his work as a continuation of Heidegger’s thought. Michel Foucault stated not long before his death: “Heidegger has always been for me the essential philosopher.”[6]

In the light of this, George’ Novack’s Marxist critique of existentialism continues to have relevance today.


[1] Sartre, The Problem of Method (Methuen; London, 1964), p. 161.

[2] Marx et al, Marxism, Socialism and Religion (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2001), p. 22.

[3] Anderson, In The Tracks of Historical Materialism (Verso Books: London, 1983), p. 14.

[4] Althusser, For Marx (Pantheon; New York, 1969), p. 108.

[5] Marx, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1969), p. 503.

[6] Quoted in Callinicos, Against Postmodernism (Polity Press: London, 1989), p. 72.