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Ian Birchall

Torn from History

(February 1980)

From Socialist Review, 17 February-15 March 1980: 2, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sartre’s Marxism
Mark Poster
Pluto, £6.95/£2.95

The Work of Sartre, Volume I: Search for Freedom
Istvan Meszaros
Harvester, £4.95

Poster’s Sartre’s Marxism is another step on Pluto Press’s sad pilgrimage to irrelevance. It is indeed a sorry stablemate to Duncan Hallas’s excellent Trotsky’s Marxism, which stresses that the unity of theory and practice is the very heart of Marxism. (Incidentally, by what error or calculation is Hallas’s book omitted from the list Also in this series on the cover of Poster’s book?).

A lasting socialist commitment must spring simultaneously from the head and the gut. Without theory the gut can be disoriented by change of tempo or bought off by reforms; but without the gut the head merely speaks words of ever increasing length into the void. It is this combination of head and gut that makes Sartre so exceptional among intellectuals in an age when theory is so easily divorced from practice.

Only a few months ago, when the young revolutionary Pierre Goldman was murdered by off-duty police, Sartre, blind and scarcely able to walk, joined the protesting demonstrators on the streets. It is Sartre’s undying activism, his never-satisfied sense of responsibility, that earns him the respect of Marxists, however sharply they may criticise his ideas.

There is not a breath of this in Poster’s antiseptic account, a great disappointment in view of his earlier and much better book, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser. Poster actually boasts that he will avoid the temptation to ‘historicise the theory’ – i.e. to locate the ideas within the practice that gave rise to them. Poster ignores – and indeed seems to be ignorant of – much of what is most interesting in Sartre’s career.

Thus he claims that Sartre’s thought before 1940 was ‘apolitical’ and that it was because of the Nazi occupation that Sartre ‘chose the left’. But Sartre’s pre-war collection, of short stories The Wall (grotesquely retitled Intimacy in English to catch the porn market) contains searing attacks on Franco and on French anti-semitism.

Poster, in fact, confines himself to an analysis of one of Sartre’s works, The Critique of Dialectical Reason. But if Sartre’s Marxism stand or falls by the Critique then it surely falls. The Critique is overlong, rambling, turgid and frequently incomprehensible. It was written in the 1957-60 period; Sartre was deeply depressed by the failure of his own strategy of influencing the French Communist Party and above all by the failure of the French left to respond to the Algerian struggle for national independence. Simone de Beauvoir has given us a vivid account of how the Critique was written:

‘To maintain this pace I could hear him crunching corydrame capsules, of which he managed to get through a tube a day. At the end of the afternoon he would be exhausted; all his powers of concentration would suddenly relax, his gestures would become vague, and quite often he would get his words all mixed up. We spent our evenings in my apartment; as soon as he drank a glass of whisky the alcohol would go straight to his head. “That’s enough”, I’d say to him; but for him it was not enough; against my will I would hand him a second glass; then he’d ask for a third: two years before he’d needed a great deal more; but now he lost control of his movements and his speech very quickly, and I would say again. “That’s enough”. Two or three times I flew into violent tempers, I smashed a glass on the tiled floor of the kitchen.’

The Critique may be a salutary warning against the dangers of mixing drink and drugs, but it is far from the substantial contribution to Marxist theory that Poster claims. Indeed, to understand why Sartre wrote it is necessary to see how it flows out of his earlier work, and in particular from two long polemical essays he wrote during the fifties.

The Communists and Peace (1952-54) was written at the height of the Cold War, when sections of the French bourgeoisie wanted to ban the Communist Party outright. Some leftists argued that since the CP was Stalinist and bureaucratic, its disappearance would be no loss to the French working class. To this Sartre responds that the existence of a class cannot be abstracted from the organisational forms it adopts, and that, whatever the weaknesses of the CP, an attack on the CP is an attack on the working class as such.

The Spectre of Stalin (1956-57) was a passionate response to Khruschev’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. For Sartre this posed another question: how could states which had established their economies on a socialist basis be guilty of the errors that led to the Hungarian rising and of the crime of crushing it? This must mean that the relation between the economic base and political superstructure is far more complex and tortuous than Marxists had hitherto supposed.

Now Socialist Review readers will have little difficulty in pointing to the gaps in Sartre’s argument – the need for an independent, non-Stalinist revolutionary party and the recognition that the Stalinist states were state capitalist. But the two essays are none the less valuable, for they point, with clarity and honesty, to the real dilemmas of the left in the bleak years of the fifties. Sartre’s solutions have been overtaken, but we can still learn from the questions he asks.

There is little of value in the Critique that had not already been developed, in a more concrete form, in the two earlier essays. By abstracting the Critique from the arguments that gave rise to it, Poster is making method an end in itself. Even if his account of Sartre’s method is correct, there is no indication as to what political consequences it would lead to. There are now so many books on Sartre that even a specialist cannot read them all; this is one we could have done without.

Meszaros’ book is a horse of a different colour. He begins by displaying, and communicating, a very obvious enthusiasm for Sartre that contrasts with Poster’s dessicated style. Moreover, he makes the very valid point that ‘it is Sartre’s lifework as a whole that predominates, and not particular elements of it.’ His references range far and wide through Sartre’s well-known and Iesser known writings, showing that fragmentary and polemical texts are often richer and more concrete than the turgid attempts at system-building.

Meszaros confronts Sartre above all as a philosopher, in terms of the preoccupations of his own earlier works on Marx and Lukacs. In itself, that is no bad thing, for those preoccupations are those of an activist Marxism, centered on the problem of human freedom. Meszaros brings out strongly, if at times obscurely and at too great length,’ the basic contradictions between the individualist .framework, iof Sartre’s thought and the Marxism he aspires to. Yet he shows too that this is not simply an incompatibility, but an ambiguity and a tension which have positive critical value.

Yet Meszaros too stands at too great a distance from history, and lets Sartre’s thought appear as a self-sufficient system rather than as a response to the dilemmas of a hectic and confused historical period. Political questions drift into the background, or are presented in a brief and misleading form. Thus he can write of the period from 1944 to 1946 as a ‘short interval of serene rejoicing over the shared victory over Fascism’; yet these were the very years when the French CP betrayed the possibility of revolution and entered the government as open strike-breakers. Sartre’s play Dirty Hands catches the cruel dilemmas of these years; there is little ‘serenity’ about it.

A second volume of Meszaros’ work, to deal with the Critique and Sartre’s theatre, is still to appear, so it is not yet possible to make a final judgment on his achievement. In the meantime it is as well to recall that Sartre is his own best populariser; his novels, plays, and a host of articles and interviews bring out the contradictions and ambiguities that his attempts at systematic philosophy could never resolve. Which is why the most valuable book on Sartre is The Writings of Sartre by M. Contat and M. Rybalka, which consists simply of a chronological list of Sartre’s writings, with ample quotation of the more obscure and ephemeral. Here Sartre in his own words tells us more about his failures and successes than any of his learned commentators.

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