Critique of Dialectical Reason. Jean-Paul Sartre, 1960

The Fused Group

The group — the equivalence of freedom as necessity and of
necessity as freedom — the scope and limits of any realist dialectic

1 The Genesis of Groups

As we have seen, the necessity of the group is not present a priori in a gathering. But we have also seen that through its serial unity (in so far as the negative unity of the series can, as abstract negation, oppose seriality) the gathering furnishes the elementary conditions of the possibility that its members should constitute a group. But this remains abstract. Obviously everything would be simpler in a transcendental, idealist dialectic: the movement of integration by which every organism contains and dominates its inorganic pluralities would be presented as transforming itself, at the level of social plurality, into an integration of individuals into an organic totality. Thus the group would function as a hyper-organism in relation to individual organisms. This organicist idealism is often to be seen re-emerging as a social model of conservative thought (under the Restoration, it was opposed to liberal atomism; after 1860, it tried to dissolve class formations into a national solidarity). But it would be a mistake to reduce the organicist illusion to the role of a reactionary theory. Indeed, it is obvious that the organic character of the group — its biological unity reveals itself as a particular moment of the investigation. As we approach the third stage of the dialectical investigation, we can describe the organic structure as above all the illusory, immediate appearance of the group as it produces itself in and against the practico-inert field.

In two remarkable works, Marc Bloch has shown how, in and even before the twelfth century, the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the serfs, to mention only these three classes — existed de facto if not de jure. In our terminology we would describe them as collectives. But the repeated efforts of rich bourgeois, as individuals, to integrate themselves into the noble class caused this class to close up: it moved from a de facto statute to a de jure one. Through a common undertaking, it imposed draconian conditions on anyone wishing to enter knighthood, with the result that this mediating institution between the generations became a selective organ. But this also conditioned the class consciousness of the serfs. Prior to the juridical unification of the nobility, even. serf had regarded his situation as an individual destiny, and lived it as an ensemble of human relations with a family of landowners, in other words, as an accident. But by positing itself for itself, the nobility ipso facto constituted serfdom as a juridical institution and showed the serfs their interchangeability, their common impotence and their common interests. This revelation was one of the factors of peasant revolts in later centuries.

The point of this example is simply to show how, in the movement of History, an exploiting class, by tightening its bonds against an enemy and by becoming aware of itself as a unity of individuals in solidarity, shows the exploited classes their material being as a collective and as a point of departure for a constant effort to establish lived bonds of solidarity between its members. There is nothing surprising about this: in this inert quasi-totality, constantly swept by great movements of counter-finality, the historical collectivity, the dialectical law, is at work: the constitution of a group (on the basis, of course, of real, material conditions) as an ensemble of solidarities has the dialectical consequence of making it the negation of the rest of the social field, and, as a result, of occasioning, in this field in so far as it is defined as non-grouped, the conditions for an antagonistic grouping (on the basis of scarcity and in divided social systems).

But the most important point here is that the non-grouped, on the outside, behave towards the group by positing it through their very praxis as an organic totality. Thus every new collective organisation can find its archetype in any other older one, because praxis as the unification of the practical field objectively tightens the bonds of the object group. It is striking that our most elementary patterns of behaviour relate to external collectives as if they were organisms. The structure of scandal, for example, is, for everyone, that of a collective taken as a totality: in a theatre, everyone, in confronting each speech of a scene which lie finds outrageous, is in fact conditioned by the serial reaction of his neighbours. Scandal is the Other as the formula of a series. But as soon as the first manifestations of scandal have occurred (that is to say, the first acts of someone acting for the Others in so far as he is Other than himself), they create the living unity of the audience against the author, simply because the first protester, through his unity as an individual, realises this unity for everyone in transcendence (la transcendance). Moreover, it will remain a profound contradiction in everyone, because this unity is that of all the Others (including himself) as Others and by an Other: the protester was not revealing or expressing popular opinion; rather, he was expressing, in the objective unity of a direct action (shouts, insults, etc.), what still existed for everyone only as the opinion of the Others, that is to say, as their shifting, serial unity. But once the scandal has been reported and discussed, it becomes, in the eyes of those who did not witness it, a synthetic event which gave the audience which saw the play that night a temporary unity as an organism. Everything becomes clear if we situate the non-grouped who discover themselves to be a collective through their impotence in relation to the group which they reveal. To the extent that, through the unity of its praxis, the group determines them in their inorganic inertia, they conceive its ends and its unity through the free unifying unity of their own individual praxis and on the model of the free synthesis which is fundamentally the practical temporalisation of the organism. Indeed, in the practical field, all exterior multiplicity becomes, for every agent, the object of a unifying synthesis (and, as we have already seen, the result of this synthesis is that the serial structure of gatherings is concealed). But the group which I unify in the practical field produces itself, as a group, as already unified, that is to say, as structured by a unity which in principle eludes my unification and negates it (in so far as it is praxis relegating me to impotence). This free active unity which eludes me appears as the substance of a reality of which I myself, in my practical and perceptual field, have unified only its multiplicity as the pure materiality of appearance; or, to put it another way, I do not attribute inertia — which must constitute the real foundation of the group (as inertia which has been transcended and preserved) — to the active community; on the contrary, it is my praxis which, in its unificatory movement takes responsibility for it. And the common action, which eludes me, becomes the reality of this appearance, that is to say, the practical, synthetic substance, the totality controlling its parts, entelechy, life; or, at another level of perception and for other groups, a Gestalt. We shall encounter this naive organicism both as an immediate relation of the individual to the group and as an ideal of absolute integration. But we must reject organicism in every form. The relation of the group, as the determination of a collective and as a perpetual threat of relapsing into a collective, to its inertia as a multiplicity can never in any way be assimilated to the relation of the organism to the inorganic substances which compose it.

But if there is no dialectical process through which the moment of the anti-dialectic can become by itself a mediation between the multiple dialectics of the practical field and the constituted dialectic as common praxis, does the emergence of the group contain its own intelligibility? Following the same method as we have used so far, we shall now attempt to find in our investigation the characteristics and moments of a particular process of grouping from the point of view of the purely critical aim of determining). its rationality. In our investigation we shall therefore have to study successively the genesis of groups, and the structures of their praxis — in other words, the dialectical rationality of collective action — and, finally, the group as passion, that is to say, in so far as it struggles in itself against the practical inertia by which it is affected.


I will begin with two preliminary observations. First, I have claimed that the inert gathering with its structure of seriality is the basic type of sociality. But I have not meant this in a historical sense, and the term ‘fundamental’ here does not imply temporal priority. Who could claim that collectives come before groups? No one is in a position to advance any hypothesis on this subject; or rather — despite the data of prehistory and ethnography — no such hypothesis has any meaning. Besides, the constant metamorphosis of gatherings into groups and of groups into gatherings would make it quite impossible to know a priori whether a particular gathering was a primary historical reality or whether it was the remains of a group which had been reabsorbed by the field of passivity: in either case, only the study of earlier structures and conditions can answer the question — if anything can. Our reason for positing the logical anteriority of collectives is simply that according to what History teaches us, groups constitute themselves as determinations and negations of collectives. In other words, they transcend and preserve them. Collectives, on the other hand, even when they result from the disintegration of active groups, preserve nothing of themselves as collectives, except for dead, ossified structures which scarcely conceal the flight of seriality. Similarly, the group, whatever it may be, contains in itself its reasons for relapsing into the inert being of the gathering: thus the disintegration of a group, as we shall see, has an a priori intelligibility. But the collective — as such and apart from the action of the factors we are about to study — contains at most the mere possibility of a synthetic union of its members. Lastly, regardless of pre-history, the important thing here, in a history conditioned by class struggle, is to explain the transition of oppressed classes from the state of being collectives to revolutionary group praxis. This is particularly important because such a transition has really occurred in each case.

But having mentioned class relations, I will make a second observation: that it would be premature to regard these classes as also being groups. In order to determine the conditions of their intelligibility, I shall, as with collectives, take and discuss ephemeral, superficial groups, which form and disintegrate rapidly, and approach the basic groups of society progressively.

The upheaval which destroys the collective by the flash of a common praxis obviously originates in a synthetic, and therefore material, transformation, which occurs in the context of scarcity and of existing structures. For organisms whose risks and practical movement, as well as their suffering, reside in need, the driving-force is either danger, at every level of materiality (whether it be hunger, or the bankruptcy whose meaning is hunger, etc.), or transformations of instrumentality (the exigencies and scarcity of the tool replacing the scarcity of the immediate object of need; or the modifications of the tool, seen in their ascending signification, as necessary modifications of the collective). In other words, without the original tension of need as a relation of interiority with Nature, there would be no change; and, conversely, there is no common praxis at any level whose regressive or descending signification is not directly or indirectly related to this original tension. It must therefore be understood at the outset that the origin of any restructuration of a collective into a group is a complex event which takes place simultaneously at every level of materiality, but is transcended into organising praxis at the level of serial unity.

But however universal the event may be, it cannot be lived as its own transcendence towards the unity of all, unless its universality is objective for everyone, or unless it creates in everyone a structure of unifying objectivity. Up to this point, in fact — in the dimension of the collective — the real has defined itself by its impossibility. Indeed, what is called the meaning of realities is precisely the meaning of that which, in principle, is forbidden. The transformation therefore occurs when impossibility itself becomes impossible, or when the synthetic event reveals that the impossibility of change is an impossibility of life.

[Obviously it is not under a threat of mortal danger that anglers form their association or old ladies set up a system of swapping books: but these groups, which in any case respond to some very real exigencies and whose objective meaning relates to the total situation, are superstructures, or, in other words, groups which are constituted in the general, permanent regroupment activity of collectives (class structures, class against class, national and international organisations, etc.). From the moment that the stage of the, dialectical regroupment of dialectics has been reached, totalising activity itself becomes a factor, a milieu and a reason for secondary groups. They are its living determination and therefore its negation; but, at the same time, they contain it entirely within themselves, and their dialectical conflicts take place through it and by it. In this way, as we saw in The Problem of Method, it is possible to study them either horizontally (and empirically) in so far as they determine themselves in a milieu in which the group structure is already objectively given, or vertically in so far as each of them in its concrete richness expresses the whole of human materiality — and the whole historical process. Thus I need only concern myself here with the fundamental fact of grouping as the conquest or reconquest of the collective, by praxis.]

The direct result of this is to make the impossibility, of change the very object which h has to be transcended if life is to continue. In other words, we have come to a vicious circle: the group constitutes itself on the basis of a need or common danger and defines itself by the common objective which determines its common praxis. Yet neither common need, nor common praxis, nor common objectives can define a community unless it makes itself into a community by feeling individual need as common need, and by projecting itself, in the internal unification of a common integration, towards objectives which it produces as common. Without famine, this group would not have constituted itself: but why does it define itself as common struggle against common need? Why is it that, as sometimes happens, individuals in a given case do not quarrel over food like dogs? That is the same as asking how a synthesis can take place when the power of synthetic unity is both everywhere (in all individuals as a free unification of the field) and nowhere (in that it would be a free transcendent (transcendante) unification of the plurality of individual unifications). Indeed, let us not forget that the common object, as the unity of the multiple outside itself, is above all the producer of serial unity and that it is on the basis of this double determination that the anti-dialectical structure of the collectivity, or alterity, constitutes itself.

But this last observation may help us. If the object really produces itself as the bond of alterity between the individuals of a collective, then the serial structure of multiplicity depends, basically, on the fundamental characteristics of the object itself and on its original relation with each and all. This is how the set of means of production, in so far as they are the property of Others, gives the proletariat an original structure of seriality because it produces itself as an indefinite ensemble of objects whose exigencies themselves reflect the demand of the bourgeois class as the seriality of the Other. Conversely, however, it is possible for the investigation to consider the common objects which constitute by themselves, and in the practico-inert field, an approximation to a totality (as the totalisation of the multiple by the Other through matter) and to try to discover whether they too must constitute the multiple in question as seriality.

2 The Storming of the Bastille

After 12 July 1789 the people of Paris were in a state of revolt. Their anger had deep causes, but as yet these had affected the people only in their common impotence. (Cold, hunger, etc., were all suffered either in resignation — serial behaviour falsely presenting itself as individual virtue or in unorganised outbursts, riots, etc.). On the basis of what exterior circumstances were groups to be constituted? In the first place (in temporal order) the existence of an institutional, practical group, the electors of Paris, in so far as they had constituted themselves in accordance with royal decrees and in so far as they were in permanent session, in spite of, or contrary to these decrees, designated the inert gathering of Parisians as possessing, in the dimension of collective praxis, a practical reality. The electoral assembly was the active unity, as the being-outside-itself-in-freedom, of the inert gathering.

But this totalisation was not enough: indeed representation consists in defining, by some procedure, an active group as a projection of the inert gathering in the inaccessible milieu of praxis. For example, in bourgeois democracies, elections are passive, serial processes. Each elector, of course, decides how to vote as Other and through Others; but instead of deciding in common and as a united praxis with the Others, he allows it to be defined inertly and in seriality by opinion. Thus an elected assembly represents the gathering as long as it has not met, as long as its members are the inert product of an inert alterity and as long as crude multiplicity, as a numerical relation between the parts, expresses the relations of impotence amongst collectives and power relations in so far as these forces are forces of inertia. But as soon as an assembly gets organised, as soon as it constitutes its hierarchy, and defines itself (by party alliances) as a definite group (characterised by the permanence of a majority, by a complex play around a shifting majority, by the complicity of all the parties against a single individual etc.), this real praxis (in which the passing of laws, votes of confidence, etc., now have only the formal aspect of the original election as an infinite alterity of isolations, but express numerically and symbolically the agreements, disagreements, alliances, etc., amongst the groups in the majority) presents itself both as the faithful representation of the gathering — which being organised, it cannot in any way be — and as its dialectical efficacity. But the very fact of penetrating the gathering with a false totalised unity [I am not considering the problem at the real historical level and there is no need at present to know whether the government is an organ of the dominant class. I am merely discussing its formal relation as a representing praxis with the ‘represented’ gathering.] ('Frenchmen, your government ... etc.’) relegates the gathering to its statute of impotence. France as a totality realises itself outside it through its government: as the free totalisation of the collective which is the nation, the government relieves individuals of the task of determining their inert sociality in a grouping. So in so far as class conflicts and social conflicts did not, through the struggles of new groups, set the gathering against the legislative body and the executive power, the existence of these bodies was necessarily a mystification which relegated the collective to inertia: powers were delegated through serial passivity, and the affirmation of our unity there, in the Council, condemned us in all cases to infinite alterity. In this sense, those ‘electors of Paris’ were not necessarily a factor of practical unification, indeed, they probably feared the violence of the people even more than that of the government. However, provided that circumstances indicate a unification elsewhere, they can become a representation, but this time as a unity which is to be reintegrated as a unifying praxis in the gathering itself and as a negation of impotence. The government constituted Paris as a totality from outside. As early as 8 July, Mirabeau had reported to the National Assembly (and his speech immediately became known to the Parisians) that 35,000 men were divided between Paris and Versailles, and that 20,000 more were expected. And Louis XVI answered the deputies thus: ‘I have to use my power to restore and maintain order in the capital.... These are my reasons for assembling troops around Paris.’ And on the morning of Sunday 12 July, the city was full of posters ‘by order of the king’ announcing that the concentration of troops around Paris was intended to protect the city against bandits. Through these notices the city was designated for and within itself. Thus the place, as the practico-inert tension and exis of the Parisian gathering, was constituted by an exterior praxis and organised as a totality. And this totality as an object of praxis (the city to be besieged, disturbances to be prevented) was by itself a determination of the practico-inert field; the city was both the place, in its totalised and totalising configuration (the threat of siege determining it as a container) and the population designated in the form of materiality sealed by the military action which produced it as a confined crowd. The rumours, the posters, the news (especially that of Necker’s departure) communicated their common designation to everyone: each was a particle of sealed materiality. At this level, the totality of encirclement can be described as being lived in seriality. It was what is known as enthusiasm: people were running in the streets, shouting, forming gatherings, and burning down the gates of the toll houses. The bond between individuals was, in its various real forms, that of alterity as the immediate discovery of oneself in the Other.

Imitation — which I have described elsewhere — is one manifestation of this alterity of quasi-reciprocity. This structure of alterity constitutes itself through the action of common fate as a totality [Destiny as a common danger to the working class (in its structure of seriality) is not totalising because the class is not the object of one organised, totalising undertaking: exploitation is a process which occurs both as the deliberate practice of a particular group and through the dispersal of group antagonisms.] (that is to say, as the practical objective of the royal armies [Furthermore, the government does not seem to have had any very precise plans. It did not really know either what it wanted or what lay in its power. But this is not the important point: the deployment of troops and the beginning of the encirclement bore their objective meaning in themselves, that is to say, they designated the Parisian population as the unique object of a systematic and synthetic extermination campaign. It is pointless to say that no one at court wanted there to be any killing: it became, of itself and in the relation between the general function of an army and this particular situation, an immediate possibility which no longer actually depended on the intentions of the leaders.] — in this case it is a totality of destruction, in so far as individuals were designated by their identical membership of the same city) on the basis of seriality as inert flight. By threatening to destroy seriality through the negative order of a massacre, the troops, as practical unities, provided the totality, which was experienced by everyone as a negation, or a possible negation, of seriality. This was how, through the coexistence of the two structures, the one being the possible and future negation of the other (and at the same time the negation of all in everyone), everyone continued to see himself in the Other, but saw himself there as himself, that is to say, in this case, as a totalisation in himself of the Parisian population, by the sabre blow or the rifle shot which would kill him. And this situation established what is sometimes, and improperly, called contagion or imitation, etc.: in this behaviour everyone sees his own future in the Other and, on that basis, discovers his present action in that of the Other; but, in these still inert movements, imitation is also self-discovery through doing one’s own action over there in the Other, and through doing the action of the Other here, in oneself, fleeing one’s own flight and that of the Other, [A person runs when he sees someone running: this is not because he learns what he must do: he discovers what he is actually doing. And, of course, he discovers it only by doing it. We encounter the same law in the group relation but with exactly the opposite meaning.] launching a single attack both through the Other and with one’s own fists, without either understanding or agreement (it is exactly the opposite of an understanding), but realising and living alterity on the basis of the synthetic unity of an organised, future totalisation of the gathering by an outside group.

This was followed by some incidents in Paris itself, at the barricades and in the Tuileries Gardens, between military detachments and imitation gatherings (rassemblements d'imitation). These resulted in a new wave of serial, defensive violence, and arsenals were looted. This revolutionary response to a constantly deteriorating situation has of course the historical significance of an organised common action. But that is just what it was not. It was a collective action: everyone was forced to arm himself by others’ attempts to find arms, and everyone tried to get there before the Others because, in the context of this new scarcity, everyone’s attempt to get a rifle became for the Others the risk of remaining unarmed. At the same time, this response was constituted by relations of imitation and contagion, everyone finding himself in the Other in the very way he followed in his footsteps. These violent, efficacious gatherings, however, were entirely inorganic. Certain unities were lost or rediscovered, but this had no effect on what one might — like Durkheim but in a quite different sense — call the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of their members. Besides, there was an imminent danger that they would fight among themselves (the collective breaking down into reciprocities of antagonism) over the possession of a rifle. If the meaning of this passive activity is revolutionary, this is mainly because, as a result of an exterior praxis, the unity of impotence (inertia) had, by sheer weight of numbers, transformed itself into a massive force. For this crowd, which within itself was still structured in alterity, found, in its very disorganisation, an irresistible mechanical force for destroying sporadic resistance at the arsenals.

But the other factor — which was soon to create the revolutionary praxis of a group — was that the individual act of arming oneself, in so far as it was in itself a complex process whose aim, for every individual, was the defence of his own life, but whose motive force was seriality, was reflected, both of itself and in its result, as a double signification of freedom. In so far as everyone wanted to defend himself against the dragoons — in other words, to the extent that the government was attempting a politics of force and that this attempt at organised practice determined the entire field as practice — both as what might help this policy and as what might oppose it — the result, in the field of praxis, was that the people of Paris armed themselves against the king. In other words, the political praxis of the government alienated the passive reactions of seriality to its own practical freedom: indeed, from the point of view of this praxis, the passive activity of the gathering was taken from it in its passivity and inert seriality reappeared on the other side of the process of alterity as a united group which had performed a concerted action. This applies not only to the army leaders, who were well aware of it, but also to the Parisian population, which re-interiorised this knowledge as a structure of unity. Here again, their unity was elsewhere, that is, it was both past and future. It was past in that the group had performed an action and that the collective had recognised this action with surprise as a moment of its own passive activity: it had been a group — and this group defined itself by a revolutionary action which made the process irreversible. And it was future in that the weapons themselves, in so far as they had been taken for the sake of opposing concerted action by soldiers, suggested in their very materiality the possibility of concerted resistance.

The uneasiness of the electors was to create institutional groups inside gatherings, as negative unities. They actually decided to reestablish a militia of 48,000 citizens to be provided by the various districts. The avowed aim was to avoid disturbances. In this new moment, the future militia appeared both as raised from the gathering and as designed to fight it, whereas most of the population had no fear of ‘disturbances’ and, quite rightly, saw no real danger except in the deployment of troops around the capital. In so far as the districts did seriously try to form militias, these groups in formation, unlike the representative groups, helped to unify the gatherings. ‘Representation’, in fact, presented itself as the gathering itself in the dimension of organised praxis and therefore, as we have seen, tended to maintain it in its inertia. The militia, on the other hand, was an organised body designed to bring about the practical negation of the gathering: it would prevent public assemblies and disarm the citizens. In this way, it helped the gathering to perceive its reality as an organised being. For it had to forcibly prevent the development of the organised being which armed itself yesterday and which would defend itself tomorrow. Or, to express it differently, these pre-fabricated groups were anti-groups which appeared to the gathering as having the task of keeping it in its structure of serial impotence. Through them, something was manifested as that which was negated, and had to be prevented and every member of the gathering, in so far as he was imperatively designated in his inertia, ['Any private person found with rifles, etc., shall take them to his own district without delay.’ ‘... Citizens are warned not to form assemblies.’ — Decree of the General Assembly, 13 July.] saw profound unity both as an absence beneath seriality and as a fundamental possibility. At the same time, the militia, as prefabricated groups, themselves represented, though negatively, a synthetic determination of the gathering. And the fact that they had been defined within the gathering externally, by institutional or semi-institutional organs, manifested itself — in so far as it was a negated negation — as what had to be destroyed by means of a unification produced internally by the gathering itself. The violent contradiction between the militia and the people, occurring within the people, produced the possibility of an internal unity as the negation of the external unity. In so far as the militia was still a seal applied to a multiplicity, it could contradict and dissolve itself only in a free organisation.

Freedom — as a simple positive determination of praxis organised on the basis of its real objectives (defence against the troops of the Prince de Lambesc) — was manifested as the necessity of dissolving necessity. On this basis, a dialectic established itself at the Hotel de Ville between the constituted authorities, which did not wish to hand out weapons,

and which equivocated and found pretexts, and the crowd, which was increasingly threatening, and which, through the behaviour of the electors, of the provost of merchants, etc., revealed itself as a unity-exis. When rags were found in the boxes of arms promised by Flesselles, the crowd felt that it had been tricked — in other words, it interiorised Flesselles’ actions and saw them, not in seriality, but in opposition to seriality as a sort of passive synthesis. The process of trickery, in fact, belongs in the context of an antagonistic relation of reciprocity. In tricking the crowd, [it appears that he had acted in good faith, but this is not very important. It is not that the crowd thought it was being duped: but that it was.] Flesselles gave a sort of personal unity to the flight into alterity; and this personal unity was a necessary characteristic of the anger which expressed and, for the gathering itself, revealed it. Everyone reacted in a new way: not as an individual, nor as an Other, but as an individual incarnation of the common person. There was nothing magical in this new reaction: it merely expressed the reinteriorisation of a reciprocity.

From this moment on, there is something which is neither group nor series, but what Malraux, in Days of Hope, called the Apocalypse that is to say, the dissolution of the series into a fused group. And this group, though still unstructured, that is to say, entirely amorphous, is characterised by being the direct opposite of alterity. In a serial relation, in fact, unity as the formula (Raison) of the series is always elsewhere, whereas in the Apocalypse, though seriality still exists at least as a process which is about to disappear, and although it always may reappear, synthetic unity is always here. Or, to put the same point in another way, throughout a city, at every moment, in each partial process, the part is entirely involved and the movement of the city is fulfilled and signified in it. ‘By evening,’ wrote Montjoye, ‘Paris was a new city. Regular cannon shots reminded the people to be on their guard. And added to the noise of the cannon there were bells sounding a continuous alarm. The sixty churches where the residents had gathered were overflowing with people. Everyone there was an orator.’

The city was a fused group.