Jean-Paul Sartre 1947

The Historical Process

Source: Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, Les Écrits de Sartre. Gallimard, Paris, 1970;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor, 2008;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2008.

As existentialism swept the world in the immediate post-war years, Sartre was subject to vicious attacks by both the French Communist Party and the world Communist movement. Among those who attacked him at various times were official philosophers like Roger Garaudy, Henri Lefebvre and George Lukacs. A certain D. Zaslavski wrote a vicious attack on Sartre in Pravda on January 23, 1947, which defined existentialism as follows: “From the French: existence. Teaches that any historical process is absurd and fortuitous, any morality a falsehood. It is the doctrine of spiritual emptiness. As far as it is concerned there are not, there cannot be, either laws or norms. There is no history, only ‘historification’. There is no morality, only a ‘lifestyle’. There are neither peoples nor societies, only personal interest and profit, by virtue of the principle: carpe diem.” As a way of ridiculing it, Sartre published the piece in Les Temps Modernes in May of that year, but he wrote a response to it that appeared in the Gazette de Lausanne on February 8, 1947.

“Existentialism is unaware of the historical process.”
(Pravda January 23, 1947)

I have expected an attack of this kind for some time. In my review, Les Temps Modernes, I had posed a few questions to Communist intellectuals and they weren’t able to answer. What is more, M. Ilya Ehrenburg, upon his return from America, severely criticized my books, and I had forced him to admit that he hadn’t read them, which he did with good grace and without being the least bit flustered. It was obviously necessary that an encyclical be issued to make things clear. It goes without saying that M. Zaslavski had no more read existentialist works than did M. Ehrenburg. Be he speaks of them from even higher and farther away. I am embarrassed to answer him: we answer someone, but M. Zaslavski is no one. Provisionally he is the editorialist of Pravda, and it is the “historical process” ( to use his words) that expresses itself though his mouth. Tomorrow, perhaps, the historical process will turn away from him and he’ll be a number in Siberia and everyone will have forgotten him. He will never have been a person; I regret this for his sake and mine. It remains for me then to address the “historical process” and to express my regrets to it that it chose so bad an interpreter. It could doubtless not find any others. The historical process always has reasons. But it would have been desirable that M. Zaslavski, who haughtily declares that “existentialism is the negation of all of philosophy,” prove, at least in his article, that he was himself a philosopher. Alas, in this hateful and stupid mass there is not a single sensible word. I will limit myself to pointing out the following errors:

  1. If M. Zaslavski were a philosopher and if he had read the books he speaks about he wouldn’t have treated as a “fatalism” a philosophy whose sole dogma is the affirmation of human freedom, and which never ceases repeating that man’s destiny is in his own hands. The Marxists have often enough protested and cried out because the historical dialectic is assimilated to fatalism. It is regrettable that M. Zaslavski, the chosen one of the “historical process,” has fallen into the same error concerning existentialism. By his pen words so change their meaning that he calls me a fatalist because I don’t believe that the communist revolution is fated.
  2. M. Zaslavski reproaches existentialism its “total absence of spirituality.” But if he knew the ABC’s of Marxism he would know that a materialist makes himself ridiculous by reproaching his adversaries for their lack of spirituality. There is, in fact, spirituality when we appeal to the spirit, a substance distinct from matter. But materialism recognizes only one principle, that of matter, and it is in principle hostile to any recourse to the spirit. It would never have occurred to me to consider Messrs. Thorez and Duclos spiritualists. I will henceforth strive to do so. If, though, M. Zaslavski had at least opened Being and Nothingness he would have seen there that each individual’s consciousness is irreducible to matter. But perhaps he knows this and he deplores our lack of spiritualism precisely because we aren’t materialists.
  3. I have written as often as possible that a socialist revolution was humanity’s sole hope. This is doubtless why M. Zaslavski declares that I am backed by the Two Hundred Families. I very much displeased a good number of Americans in writing a piece on the conditions of blacks in the United States; that is doubtless why he says I’m an agent of American propaganda. It is true that I lived for a longer time than M. Ehrenburg in the United States, and that I don’t share his foolish prejudices against that great country. But must one conclude that I want to make mine a “colony of American imperialism?” Is it absolutely necessary to insult America to preserve the good graces of the “historical process” and M. Zaslavski? One of my collaborators on Les Temps Modernes wrote that the “whole world is, in fact , the historical heritage of the United States.” M. Zaslavski concludes from this that we wish for US hegemony over the entire world. If he knew how to or wanted to read the whole article, he would have interpreted the sentence differently. My collaborator meant, in fact, that if there was to be an American culture the Americans had to take in and assimilate the historical traditions of all continents. In any event, what M. Zaslavski understood doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is what the “historical process” dictates to him. As for the wealthy American bourgeoisie who, it seems, “greeted in me the enemy of Marxism,” I can assure the editorialist of Pravda that it could care less about me and doesn’t even know my name. The talks I gave in America took place before intellectuals and students, and they dealt with French literature under the Occupation.
  4. M. Zaslavski accuses me of “denying any morality.” I recall the expression of Lenin: “I call moral any man who contributes to the communist revolution, and immoral any man who attempts to prevent it.” If M. Zaslavski understands the words moral and immoral in this sense, then it is true that I am not moral. I don’t belong to the Communist Party. But I believe in the existence of an autonomous morality. I believe that we have precise obligations, among them that, whatever the demands of the “historical process,” we speak the truth. And so, in the same way that M. Zaslavski accuses me of being a fatalist because I believe in freedom, and of lacking in spirituality because I am not a materialist, he accuses me of immorality because I am not a partisan of Machiavellianism and realism in politics. Pravda’s ex cathedra condemnation comes at the very moment that the Church placed my books on the Index. This is not by chance; I will be excused if I see in this simultaneous dual condemnation nothing but a precious encouragement. When we seek to have men confront their freedom it is natural that we find before us those who have an interest in hiding it from them.