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Ian Birchall

Sartre: Part Two

(Februar 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.46, February/March 1971, pp.17-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Suppose you see a string of lights at night along the bank of a river. It’s a pretty sight. But when you know they light up cities where people are dying of hunger, they lose all their poetry, become nothing but a mirage. You’ll tell me I can write about other things, about those people who are dying of hunger, for example. But I’d rather discuss those things at meetings or in articles. [1]

In the first part of this article Sartre’s political development was traced up to the collapse of the RDR in 1949. The overriding concern in Sartre’s thought throughout this period was with the possibility of action. It was this concern that brought him to politics in the Resistance; yet the pragmatism it implied led him to a political dead-end.

A failure in politics was, however, an important factor in Sartre’s success in literature. Between 1943 and 1949 he published five plays, three novels and two film scenarios, as well as the long essay What is Literature? [2] and a number of shorter literary essays.

Not that literature was an escape from politics or a compensation for political failure. Sartre’s political and literary activities were closely linked, and he always felt the need to justify his indulgence in literature by political standards. In the long term this meant an increasingly direct commitment to politics; in the short term it led him to make a fundamental reappraisal of the nature of literature.

The scope of the essay What is Literature? is suggested by its title. It is a question which in a sense could not have been asked before the nineteenth century. In a society where the defence of aesthetic standards is an integral part of the ideology of the ruling group, literature needs no self-definition. But in a society based on production for production’s sake artists develop the theory of art for art’s sake. This in turn leads writers concerned with making literature politically relevant to propose a crude subordination of literature to political standards; the most obvious example being the Stalinist theory of ‘socialist realism’, Sartre opposed socialist realism in its practice rather than in its basic premises; but in attempting to go beyond the alternatives of aestheticism and politicisation, he was. forced to try to redefine the very essence of literature.

One important current in modern Marxist literary theory, represented especially by Lukacs and Goldmann, has concentrated on seeing literature as structure – that is, a work of literature is the embodiment and expression of the view of the world of a social group; the particular circumstances of its creation and its audience are merely secondary factors. Sartre, however, pursues a different (though possibly, in a fully Marxist aesthetic, complementary) theme. For him literature is above all action.

What is Literature? sees the writer in a concrete situation, addressing himself to a particular audience. By writing the writer reveals the world to his reader; he is exercising his freedom in a particular way. But if he is addressing the reader in this way, he must also by implication will the freedom of the reader. ‘One does not write for slaves’. In short, to write is to wish freedom. No worthwhile literature can serve oppression; and Sartre challenges his critics to name a good novel written in defence of racialism or similar oppression. A further confirmation is offered by the case of Drieu la Rochelle, who, a sincere fascist, was unable to continue writing under the German Occupation because his audience was not free to react to him.

In one sense, then, all writers are committed, by the very fact of writing, to certain values; but to accept this commitment, to produce a truly revolutionary art, poses further problems. Revolutionary literature must demonstrate the reality of freedom, and make no concessions to a determinist view of the world. This involves challenging many of the conventions of literary form. Sartre argues that in the. novel, a narrative in the past tense sets the action in a past which is already settled, and thus denies the action the sense of freedom. He sharply criticised novelists like Mauriacwho wrote from a God-like position of knowing everything about the characters. ‘God is not an artist; nor is M. Mauriac’.

The Theatre of Freedom

In What is Literature? Sartre had laid down the conditions for a revolutionary literature; in the plays he was writing at around the same time he tried to fulfil these conditions in practice, in what he himself called a ‘theatre of freedom’.

Sartre defined the possibilities of the modern theatre as follows:

If it is true that man is free in a given situation and that he chooses himself in and through this situation, then we must show in the theatre simple human situations, and freedoms which choose themselves in these situations ... The most moving thing the theatre can show is a character in process of creating himself, the moment of choice, of free decision which commits a morality and a whole life.

Revolutionary literature does not provide answers; it confronts the audience with a problem, with a task – as Brecht says in the epilogue to The Good Woman of Sezuan. it is the job of the audience to make the happy ending – outside the theatre. Sartre’s plays of this period hinge around the conflict between morality and effectiveness, around the necessity for compromise. The aim is to make the spectator more aware of his capacity for action.

The Flies (1943), performed under the German Occupation, takes its theme from a Greek myth. Orestes returns to his home town, Argos, to find that his uncle, Aegisthus, has murdered his father, the former king, and by marrying Orestes’ mother, has become tyrannical ruler of Argos. The people are oppressed, not so much by force as by the god Jupiter, who encourages the belief that all their sufferings derive from their own guilt. The people of Argos, like any oppressed people, accept the morality of the oppressors.

Jupiter tries to persuade Orestes that it will prove impossible to liberate the people of Argos. Orestes succeeds in proving the possibility of action, by killing the tyrant – but fails to awaken the people of Argos to their own liberation, so that they curse him for taking away the security of tyranny.

Francis Jeanson has said that this play contains the seeds of all Sartre’s later development. Certainly its problem is central to his work – does one wait for the mass to act “spontaneously” or take “exemplary action” (a theory now much in favour among Guevarists) on their behalf. The play poses the problem rather than answering; it presents a world with the isolated individual on one side, and the blurred mass on the other, with no bridge between them.

The Respectable Prostitute (1946) [3], prophetically dealt with the racial problem in the United States at a time when most European intellectuals still had great illusions about American ‘freedom’. But essentially it is concerned with the question of ideology, with the need for the oppressed to reject the terms of reference of the oppressors.

Lizzie, a prostitute, had seen a white man kill a black on a train. The cousin and uncle of the murderer, anxious to save a white from prison, try to persuade Lizzie to sign a statement that the black and another black, still at large, had attempted to rape her. She resists bribery and threats, but cannot stand up to the arguments of the boy’s uncle, the Senator, who tells her that the facts of the case are not so important as the maintenance of established values. To convict a white for killing a black would threaten these values; whereas blacks can be expected to be guilty. The Senator asks her:

‘Do you think a whole town can be wrong? A whole town, with its priests and ministers, its doctors, its lawyers and painters, with its mayor and his assistants, and all the charitable institutions?’

Lizzie has good intentions – she helps the remaining black to escape. But good intentions are not enough in face of the ideological apparatus of oppression. Without theoretical or organisational support, she is free only to recognise her own impotence.

In these two plays the problem of individual freedom is posed in an abstract way; the political channels through which an individual can act are absent. In two works of 1948, the political factors, the questions of the Party and state power, are concretely present.

In the Mesh, a film script, deals with a small oil-producing country on the frontier of a big power. Jean Aguerra, a revolutionary whose past is shown us through a series of flashbacks, becomes President. But he knows that to nationalise the oil-fields would be unacceptable to the big power; he is therefore compelled to rule increasingly repressively in order to prevent the people demanding nationalisation. Finally he is overthrown and replaced as President by François; in the final scene François meets the Ambassador of the big power, and guarantees that he too will not nationalise the oil-fields.

The story is a study in compromise. Obviously historical parallels could be found, from Lenin’s policy at Brest-Litovsk to Stalin’s opposition to Trotsky. But the work is not a defence of Stalinism. Jean is showed as an anguished alcoholic, as a real human being coming to terms with impossible choices. To Stalinist mythology in the age of the personality cult it was quite inadmissible that the policies of a revolutionary leadership should be seen as human choices and judged as such.

The French Communist Party, as well as many bourgeois critics, took the play Crime Passionnel [4] as being anti-communist, though Sartre himself explicitly denied this. Yet the cynical treatment of the Communist Party in the play hardly makes it comfortable reading for a Stalinist. The action centres around the disputes in the Communist Party of a small Eastern European country towards the end of the Second World War. The play is essentially a dialogue between the young bourgeois intellectual, Hugo, and the old Communist Hoederer. Hugo’s naive idealism is constantly confronted with an image of the revolutionary party that denies any idealism. He is told that the party is not an ‘evening class’ or ‘the boy scouts’; when he says he joined the party so that everyone might have the right to self-respect, he is brusquely informed by two militants that they joined because they were fed up of being hungry. The relation of the party to the intellectual is that the party uses him.

Only very briefly does Hugo get the chance to put a real political argument instead of uttering sentimental rhetoric:

‘For years you will lie, cheat, manoeuvre, you will go from compromise to compromise; you will defend to our comrades reactionary measures taken by a Government which you are participating in. No-one will understand: the hard ones will leave us, the others will lose the political culture they have just acquired. We will be contaminated, softened, disoriented; we shall become reformists and nationalists; in the end, the bourgeois parties will be able to liquidate us if they want to.’

This is a speech of the highest relevance to the policies of the French Communist Party, particularly in the Governmental period from 1944 to 1947; but in the play Hoederer’s only answer is: ‘If you don’t want to take risks, don’t engage in politics.’

Crime Passionnel is, of all Sartre’s plays, the one in which the organised proletariat is most directly present. Yet the possibility of action is still debated between individuals – the idealist Hugo and the manipulator Hoederer. Sartre’s theatre of freedom did not allow for the possibility of the working class itself as the active subject. It is not too much to say that even in the theatre it is the absence of a concept of the party that brings Sartre to a dead end.

Stalinism and Pragmatism

Yet not quite a dead end. By the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950, when the fortunes of the European Left had reached their lowest point, Sartre had abandoned most of his original existentialist positions. But his faith in the possibility of action remained with him. If he did not make the right choices at this time (and the individuals and groups who did can be listed in a very small space), he was at least able to avoid the grotesquely wrong choices of many of his contemporaries.

In 1952 Sartre wrote to Camus, busy taking up moral stances against East and West alike: ‘I can see only one solution for you: the Galapagos Islands’. [5] Sartre was never ready to retreat to the Galapagos Islands; he was concerned to explore what action was possible in France in the immediate future.

And however inadequate his reasons may have been, he went to the right place – the mass labour movement. In France at this time this could mean only the Communist Party. It was hardly the most comfortable place. On the world scale the Cold War was at its peak, with McCarthyism on the ascendant in the USA. The French Government, willing accomplices of US policy, stepped up its repression against the French CP. Leaders of the CP were arrested, most ludicrously Jacques Duclos, who was discovered with two dead pigeons in his car; such was the war hysteria of the time that it was suggested that they were carrier pigeons to be used for communicating with Moscow. Plans to ban the Communist Party were being openly discussed. As Sartre made his way towards the Communist Party, he must have risked serious injury from the flocks of ‘progressive intellectuals’ running away from it as fast as their legs would carry them. In his obituary of Merleau-Ponty Sartre describes his reaction to the Duclos arrest as follows:

‘The last links were broken, my vision was transformed: an anti-communist is a dog, I can’t get over that, I never will get over that.’

Sartre’s perspectives in this period are set out in two major essays published in the Temps ModemesThe Communists and Peace (1952-1954) and The Spectre of Stalin (1956-1957). [6] The Communists and Peace attempts an analysis of the changing nature of the French proletariat, and of the way in which the consciousness of the class is affected by technological change and the changing hierarchies within the factory. Much of the analysis anticipates, in a much clearer and more readable form, the ideas of the Critique of Dialectical Reason But the political point is that the working class faces a threat, both from fragmentation at the point of production and from the repressive machinery of the state. In this situation the class needed the party, to preserve its coherence in struggle and in its own eyes. Attacks on Russia were in effect attacks on the French Communist Party; attacks nn the CP were attacks on the working class. In concrete day-to-day practice one could not defend one without the other.

Sartre’s position was not pro-Communist so much as anti-anti-Communist. He did not join the Party; while considering that workers should join it, he argued that the place for an intellectual was outside, thus recognising that the French CP was not a party which could bring intellectuals into organic relation with the class. While Sartre cultivated friendship with the Party, he did not refrain from criticism of it. He attacked the crude sectarianism of certain articles by Kanapa, spoke out against the expulsion of Hervé and the physical attack on Lecoeur. But more significant is the fact that Sartre, if he defended Stalinism, did not do so for Stalinist reasons. What was seen by orthodox Stalinism as untarnished was for Sartre no more than the result of compromise.

Sartre was, therefore, able to come to terms, not only with the Cold War, but with destalinisation and the Hungarian Revolution. His basic position on Hungary was irreproachable; he condemned the Soviet action unreservedly, while denying the right of those who approved the Anglo-French Suez adventure to make political capital out of it.

The analysis behind the position was shakier; for Sartre had never developed an analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union. He rejected any theory that the Soviet Union was capitalist or a class society; this was largely because most of those he had come across who defended such analyses used it as a justification for anti-Soviet Cold War policies. In particular, at the time of the controversy over the Soviet labour camps, Sartre had, quite correctly, opposed the view that these camps were essential to the Soviet economy, and that therefore the Soviet Union was some kind of slave society.

Sartre comes much closer to the ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ view of the Soviet Union – a socialist economic form dominated by a privileged political bureaucracy. In particular he argues that while Western ruling classes do not accept responsibility for society, but attribute social phenomena to inhuman economic laws, the bureaucrats who control a socialist society take full responsibility for what they do as human choices. In his concern to avoid a schematic black-and-white analysis Sartre insists that the Hungarian Revolution was neither a fascist rising nor a proletarian revolution.

The aim is to show the area for manoeuvre, for active intervention. The bureaucracy is not a class which must pursue certain class interests, but a group subject to pressure and persuasion, which can be assisted to destalinise as rapidly and humanely as possible. And in particular, Sartre locates his own area of potential action in assisting the destalinisation of the French CP.

By orienting himself to the CP, Sartre came to accept its perspective, the reconstruction of the Popular Front, an alliance of the CP and other socialist and democratic forces. But no solutions are so Utopian as the ‘practical’ ones. Just eighteen months after the Hungarian Revolution, with the French working class still suffering from the defeats and demoralisation of the fifties, de Gaulle was brought to power by big capital, with the ultra-right military in Algiers acting as midwife. The majority of Socialist and Radical politicians – the supposed potential members of a Popular Front – flocked to de Gaulle. The Communist Party tried halfheartedly, and failed, to win even a token response from the working class. From de Gaulle’s departure in 1946 to his return in 1958 Sartre could look back on twelve wasted years.

A Dialectical Theatre?

Wasted, at least, for Sartre the politician. But for Sartre the dramatist and the philosopher? Sartre had been drawn to literature both by personal inclination (he tells us in his autobiography that he would rather read thrillers than Wittgenstein), and by the fact that his philosophy centred on personal situation – his philosophical works are full of illustrative anecdotes. But the pressures of the fifties were too much even for Sartre’s literary gifts. It was in his novels and plays that the contradictions and tensions that ran through his personality found their best expression; but as the contradictions became more bitter and called for more direct resolution, literature was forced into second place. This is perhaps to be regretted. A sequel to Roads to Freedom, dealing with the France of the fifties and sixties, might have been more instructive than much else that Sartre has written in the last twenty years.

But Sartre decided otherwise; Simone de Beauvoir tells us that in a fit of depression in 1954 he told her ‘Literature is shit’. But the fifties nonetheless saw the production of two major plays in which he tries to go beyond the simple choices of his early theatre to the more complex dialectic of ends and means involved in collective political action.

Lucifer and the Lord (1951) is set in Germany at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt. The ‘hero’, Goetz, a barbaric military leader, decides, for a wager, that he will do nothing but good. But, like other Sartrean heroes, he finds good intentions are far from enough. He gives his lands to the peasants, and tries to set up a Utopian community, the City of the Sun. He is warned that his generosity can only lead to other peasants rebelling prematurely and being defeated. The peasant revolt leads to the destruction of the City of the Sun; finally, Goetz agrees to take over the leadership of the peasant forces but on condition that he can institute iron discipline, hanging any man who tries to desert. The play ends with the issue of the battle still in doubt. (This summary does not do justice to the richness of the theme of means and ends in the play).

In one sense the play is a devastating critique of idealist morality and Utopianism, an advocacy of collective revolutionary action. Yet is is of some significance that the rebelling oppressed are peasants, not workers; Goetz has to lead them, as an outsider; he has to impose discipline to make up for their lack of consciousness. In the absence of a party to unite organisation and consciousness, action is still conceived on the individual level.

But Lucifer and the Lord is an optimistic play beside Altona [7], first performed in 1959, with de Gaulle in power and the Algerian war at its height. Frantz, a former Nazi officer, who had ordered the torture of Russian partisans in 1944, has hidden himself away in solitude trying to come to terms with his own past. He makes speeches to an imaginary tribunal; finally he kills himself – the first time in Sartre’s theatre that a hero chooses suicide as a solution.

The play drips with political allusions; both to modern Germany, enjoying an economic miracle and forgetting its past, and to the Algerian war, the crimes (especially torture) of which will appear to the future as comparable to the crimes of Nazism. But political action is not present within the play as an alternative; Frantz looks to the past and the future, not the present. Altona marks a move away from the possibility of a genuinely revolutionary theatre.

Marxism and Philosophy

The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) [8] attempts to present a theoretical framework for Sartre’s evolution towards Marxism, and the particular contribution he is trying to make to it. The Critique is long, and at times unreadably complex. It is possible here only to touch on some of the themes and relate them to Sartre’s development.

The Critique, for all its academicism, is a work of polemic, aimed at ‘orthodox’ Stalinist Marxism. Sartre was particularly concerned to exert an influence on those parts of the Stalinist movement where an intellectually liberalising tendency was showing itself. He had close links with the Italian Communist Party, which he saw as more liberal than the French, and the introduction to the Critique, Problem of Method, was first published in Poland in 1957.

Sartre accepts that it is not possible to go beyond Marxism in our period of history. What is required is to revive Marxism’s concern for action and radical criticism; here some elements of existentialism may be relevant.

So far, so good. Sartre can be devastating in his criticism of the dogmatism that passes for Marxism on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But how exactly did the most radically critical theory ever produced in human history turn into a sterile dogmatism, a cover-up for oppression and exploitation, dolled up with the mystique of an infallible ‘science’? Sartre never gives a convincing reply to this question; because such a reply would involve explaining that Marxism has been transformed into the ideology of a ruling class, in the Soviet Union.

Without such an attempt to understand the history of twentieth century Marxism, not as the history of ideas, but in terms of class forces, Sartre fluctuates wildly between Marxism and pragmatism, at his best when he is being critical, at his worst when laying the basis for a positive method.

Sartre’s main concern in the Critique is to go beyond the individualism of his earlier work, and establish the basis for a theory of collective action. He makes a basic distinction between a series and a group; a series exists when people are assembled together, but with each still pursuing, individual purposes, a group exists when there is a shared collective purpose. A bus queue is a series, the mob storming the Bastille is a group. Sartre’s analysis has much to tell us about the transformation of series into group and group into series that is relevant to the problem of fragmentation and class-consciousness in the working class. But where exactly does the working class stand? Is it just one example of a group, or is it a historically unique class, with the ability to achieve totality and universality in a way that no other class can? This point is not made clear. Sartre quite rightly challenges the Stalinist tendency to see workers as automata, acting according to their pre-determined essence. But in so doing he risks accepting the notion that, lies at the basis of all revisionism – that it is possible to establish socialism without the conscious agency of the working class.

Hence the often bizarre eclecticism of Sartre’s politics. He could write an effusive obituary of Togliatti and feel similar enthusiasm for Castro. He combined support for the. Vietnamese with strong sympathy for Israel. In recent writings he refers to the USSR as ‘imperialist’ yet also as ‘socialist’. [9]

Philosophically, the paradox emerges in the Critique itself. Sartre attempts to rescue the idea of practice from historical determinism and locate it in the real choices of real men. But by detaching practice from the conscious self-activity of the proletariat he ends up precisely seeing history as being made unconsciously.

‘It is true also that Marxist practice in the masses does not reflect or reflects only partially the sclerosis of theory. But precisely the conflict between revolutionary action and the scholastic of justification prevents Communist man, in the socialist countries as in the bourgeois countries, from becoming clearly conscious of himself. One of the most striking features of our period is that history makes itself without knowing itself.’ [10]

The value of the Critique as the basis for an analysis of Stalinism is therefore limited. Sartre insists on his criticisms of the so-called ‘socialist’ countries. He rejects any form of schematic determinism which argues that the existence of a socialist form of economy solves everything in advance. The dangers of scarcity, of alienation still exist under socialism. But if this line of attack is effective against the old-style Stalinists, it plays right into the hands of the new-style, reforming, destalinising bureaucrats.

For it is no coincidence that ‘humanism’ of one sort and another has been an important ideological ally of revisionism in in East and West alike. [11] Such humanism stresses the margin for freedom within ‘socialism’, it emphasises the moral aspect of problems. Thus it backs up the alibis of those who claim that everything can be solved by piecemeal reforms, who see intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia as ‘tragic mistakes’. It covers over the need for a structural and scientific analysis of class relations. To support humanism in the Eastern bloc in the fifties could be justified pragmatically, for it permitted the first steps towards critical discussion. But once such consistent Marxists as Kuron and Modzelewski emerged, reformist humanism became positively reactionary.

The Fifth Republic

To plot Sartre’s course in the sixties is a difficult task. Partly this is because his writings are more fragmentary, but the paradoxes are as much in the period as in him. Dramatic crises have alternated with spells of apparent stability; surprising outbursts of working-class spontaneity have been eventually held in check by the bureaucratic leaderships of the labour movements.

In this situation, Sartre’s pragmatic concern for the possible has led him through a series of sharp zigzags. Where a revolutionary mass movement exists, as briefly in France in May 1968, Sartre is cheek by jowl with those in struggle. Where it does not, he is prone to clutch at the straws of a ‘realism’ that is often all too Utopian:


‘I don’t know of any real democracy. It might have been born in Czechoslovakia. Today they are trying to strangle it.’

Or even:

‘I don’t at all know why the Israelis should keep Jerusalem, for example; why Jerusalem shouldn’t be made a completely neutral zone and simply given to the four or five most eminent religious representatives, under UN protection.’ [12]

Not that Sartre has remained content to propose solutions to others; he has always involved himself in action. His courage and integrity must not be belittled. Throughout the period of the Algerian War he stood for unconditional opposition to French imperialism and support for Algerian national liberation. When in 1960 he signed the Manifesto of the 121, urging soldiers to refuse to fight in Algeria, he was not only threatened with death by the extreme right, but politely told by the CP that they could not ‘in any form approve the call for, and organisation of, insubordination’. More recently, Sartre has been Executive President of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal. But if such actions are a rare example of a twentieth century intellectual prepared to assume his responsibilities in society, they fall far short of a revolutionary strategy.

Thus while Sartre opposed de Gaulle from the very outset and with more vigour than the CP, he failed to produce the necessary analysis of Gaullism. Sartre could be mercilessly satirical of de Gaulle:

‘I don’t believe in God, but if in this plebiscite I had to choose between Him and the present claimant, I would rather vote for God. He is more modest’. [13]

Such criticism, putting the emphasis on the irrational and buffoonish trappings of de Gaulle, fails to point to the fact that he was there to do a job for big capital.

For, Sartre’s actions are not organically derived from his theory, out are parasitic on it. Sartre can make the French police look foolish by challenging them to arrest him for an offence for which other militants have been charged. But he can do this only because he is already known as France’s greatest living writer. His actions, however courageous, do not offer a strategy for others to follow.

The politics of gesture have alternated with a reformism that owes much to the CP’s Popular Frontism. This can be illustrated by some extracts from an interview with Sartre on the War Crimes Tribunal [14]:

I oppose the de Gaulle Government with my vote but it would never enter my head to say that Gaullist policies were criminal, [as US policies in Vietnam are].

But who are we trying to convince? .... It is the petty-bourgeois masses which must today be aroused and shaken, since their alliance with the working class – even from a purely local political point of view – is to be desired.

The first point of a left programme would have to be the need to combat, by means of a policy of priority investments – a great proportion of them public ones – the invasion of American capital .... in my opinion, opposition to the Atlantic Pact ought to be the main criterion of a left policy.

Imperialism is thus seen as something which can, in part at least, be fought separately, while waiting socialist action in the more distant future.

The May events of 1968 were in one sense a vindication of Sartre’s politics. They broke the chains of the ideology of passivism by revealing the possibility of action:

‘The area of the possible is much more vast than the dominant classes have accustomed us to believe. Who would have thought that fourteen million peasants would be able to resist the greatest industrial and military power in the world? And yet, this is what happened. Vietnam taught us that the area of the possible is immense, and that one need not be resigned. It is this which was the lever of the students’ revolt, and the workers understood it. In the united demonstration of the 13 of May, this idea suddenly became dominant. “If a few thousand youngsters can occupy the universities and defy the government.why should we not be able to do the same?”’ [15]

May 1968 also clarified the role of the French Communist Party. After a quarter of a century of politics geared to ‘influencing’ the CP, the following was the state of the relationship on October 21st, 1970 at the Renault factory at Billancourt:

‘At 2.10 p.m. Sartre was due to speak in Bir-Hakeim square. The Maoists had announced him by leaflet that morning when the shift came out. The unusual time and place was based on the estimations of the Maoists, who had succeeded throughout last year, especially during the campaign for free transport, in winning widespread sympathy among the workers of the morning shift, where there are a large number of North African workers.

‘The same morning a CP leaflet headed “Warning” set the tone ...


He is the man who took the initiative for a statement by intellectuals, greeting the Israeli-American aggression against the Arab peoples. That is why he has been declared unwelcome in all the Arab countries ...’

‘So that this warning should have full effect, by 2.00 p.m. there was an array of CGT militants, CP members, posted at the Zola gate to call on the workers: “Beware. It’s a provocation. The Bir-hakeim square is crawling with cops. Don’t go there, take the Yves-Kermen road, etc.” And the cordon of CP members gently guided the workers to the Yves-Kermen road. The detour was obviously intended to avoid the Bir-Hakeim square, where there was no sign of any cops, but where Sartre was explaining to between one and two hundred people the meaning of the Geismar trial and Maoists from the factory – sacked! or on the way to being so – were calling for “popular resistance”.’ [16]

But the key problem posed by the May events, that of the revolutionary party, still resists Sartre’s honest attempts to grapple with it:

‘The party, on the contrary, develops as an eniemble of institutions, and therefore as a closed, static system, which has a tendency to sclerosis. This is why the party is always behind in relation to the fused mass, even when it tries to guide that mass: this is so because it tries to weaken it, to subordinate it, and may even reject it and deny any solidarity with it ...

‘No doubt, we are dealing here with a contradiction which is inherent in the very function of the party ...

‘If the cultural apparatus of the Communist parties is practically null, the reason is not that they lack good intellectuals, but that the mode of existence of the parties paralyses their collective effort of thought.’ [17]

Sartre is still haunted by the spectre of the Stalinist party, and is trapped by the false alternatives of spontaneity and tight organisation. The traditions of Lenin and Gramsci remain buried. [18]


How then is Sartre to be judged? As a writer, a philosopher or a politician? If as a writer, then much of this article’s criticism is meaningless. One would scarcely blame Dostoievsky for wasting his time writing novels instead of preparing the ground for the building of the Bolshevik Party. Sartre has set other standards for himself, however. When Bertrand Russell declares support for the Vietnamese revolution on the basis of a consistent application of liberal humanism, then a Marxist may co-operate with him on these terms. But Sartre demands to be judged as a Marxist.

As such his contribution is useful, and in some ways unique. Compare Sartre to one of the best Marxist thinkers among his contemporaries, Lucien Goldmann. Goldmann, recognising an era of defeat, devoted himself to the development of Marxism on the interpretative level, to a concrete application of the dialectical method in his studies of literature and philosophy, in order to keep the ideas of Marxism alive for a better day.

Sartre, on the other hand, insists on Marxism as a theory of action even in a period of working-class passivity. He thus has no truck with the Stalinist excuse of ‘waiting until the workers are ready’ – a notable alibi in May 1968. But he does not avoid the risk of encouraging illusions in the possibility of individuals or groups (students, peasants or bureaucrats) acting on behalf of the working class.

If the May events of 1968 open up a new period of advance for the working class, they also mark the limit of Sartre’s Marxism, along with that of many of his contemporaries. A new Marxism is now possible – a Marxism that will take over the insights of Sartre, Lukacs, Goldmann, Marcuse and many others, but will weld them into a strategy of working class action. The new Marxism will put the working class at the centre of the picture. It will give central importance to the revolutionary party as the embodiment of the conscious class in action, and to the understanding of Russia as a regime based on the exploitation of the working class – two vital points at which Sartre’s analysis broke down.

So, in the last resort, Sartre must be regarded as a failure. Twenty-five years of dialogue with and influence on French Stalinism has left the party more conservative, more of a drag on the activity of the working class than ever. Sartre has left us some books that will be valuable reading for a long time to come, but he has established no political programme or organisation.

Those on the other hand who took, in the late forties or early fifties, the unrealistic choice, the decision to build independent revolutionary organisations, condemned themselves, in the eyes of pragmatism or reformism, to impotence, But in May 1968 the gamble paid its first dividend, and they have not spoken their last word yet. If they achieve victory in Sartre’s lifetime, he will be the first to acclaim it. But it will be their victory, not his.


1. Henri, in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins.

2. Also translated as Literature and Existentialism.

3. The correct translation of the title is The Respectful Prostitute; the mistranslation loses the whole point of the play.

4. This is the title of the English translation – it has also been translated under the literal translation of the French title, Dirty Hands.

5. See Situations, Hamish Hamilton, 1965.

6. Both published in English by Hamish Hamilton, 1969.

7. Also translated as Loser Wins.

8. Only the introductory section of the Critique is as yet translated: The Problem of Method, Methuen, 1963.

9. Cf. Socialist Register 1970 (Merlin), p.234. and The Israel-Arab Reader (Pelican) 1970) pp. 554, 557.

10. Critique de la Raison Dialectique, (Paris 1960), p.29.

11. The crude anti-humanism, of Stalinist-Maoist inspiration, in Althusser, etc., provides no adequate critique of this tendency.

12. The Israel-Arab Reader, pp. 551, 555.

13. L’Express, September 11th., 1958.

14. New Left Review 41.

15. Socialist Register 1970, p.239.

16. Lutte Ouvrière, October 27th, 1970.

17. Socialist Register 1970, pp.235, 236, 244.

18. For an exposition of these traditions, see Chris Harman, Party and Class, IS 35. It would be more difficult to point to an achievement in practice.

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Last updated: 6.3.2008