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István Mészáros’ updated study of Sartre is a valuable exploration of the political implications of that great philosopher’s commitments and ideas

István Mészáros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (Monthly Review Press 2012), 380pp.

István Mészáros’ newly expanded critical study of Jean-Paul Sartre not only makes a powerful case that Sartre was one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, but also underlines his continuing importance as a thinker whose lifework is ‘manifestly representative of our time’ (p.141). In demonstrating Sartre’s strengths and integrity, Mészáros also reveals how his very failures are sources of illumination. Some of Sartre’s most ambitious works remained unfinished, and the reason lies in the contradictions at the core of the philosopher’s thinking, and also, as Mészáros points out, at the heart of late capitalist society.

There are several themes which run throughout the work, some of which relate to the philosophical premises of Sartre’s thinking, and others which reveal the political consequences of Sartre’s thinking. One of Mészáros’ contentions is that there remained, throughout all the key stages in Sartre’s work, certain continuities at the level of fundamental premises. These premises at once fuelled Sartre’s critical energy, but also became more problematic the more he identified himself as a Marxist and a revolutionary.

Sartre has often, particularly in recent years, been taken to task for his insufficient condemnation of Stalinist Russia. Given the context of the Cold War, and Sartre’s thoroughgoing opposition to his own state’s vicious colonial war in Algeria, the fatuous moralism of this charge should be clear. However the importance of Sartre as a philosopher and activist does not lie in the details of the particular positions he adopted at different points.

Neither are there singular principles to be extracted from his writings. Rather, Sartre’s value lies in his consistent and uncompromising stance against power and exploitation, and the ambition of his attempt at a total critique of existence in class society. As Mészáros puts it, in philosophical terms: ‘we are captivated by the process of nihilating objectification that produces the lifework, and not necessarily by particular results’ (p.27). Sartre’s position was that ‘freedom’ was an irreducible fact of individual existence, but the institutions of bourgeois capitalism seek effectively to eliminate that freedom by the reduction of individuals to atomised and alienated units of an objectified mass. To succumb to this process is to be ‘serialised’. In his revolt against alienation, or serialisation, and in his demand for an authentic freedom that capitalism cannot provide to the mass of people, Sartre subjected existing society to relentless critique with revolutionary ambition, that is, to a process of nihilation.

Sartre did not begin as a Marxist, or even as a political activist in any sense, but rather as a writer and existential philosopher. The 1930s and 40s drove him leftwards, and by the closing stages of his intellectual career, he made the monumental attempt in the Critique of Dialectical Reason to marry his existentialism with Marxism. Only the first volume of this appeared in his lifetime, and many have been quick to label it a failure, as a short-cut to dismissing Sartre and his commitment to the revolutionary left. Yet, the very problems of the Critique, and the persistent dilemmas that run through Sartre’s work, are themselves diagnostic of wider problems in capitalist society. It is in this sense that Sartre not only intervened significantly in his times, but reflected their contradictions also.

As always, it is where thinking starts from that is crucial; if you accept the premise, almost everything else a good philosopher has to say will necessarily follow. Sartre’s philosophical premise shows the same flaw as the generality of western thinking in the modern era; he starts from the point of view of the individual. In the consistency of this one intellectual move, the link between the intellectual sphere and the prevailing social order is revealed. Originally, nineteenth-century existentialism as a school of philosophy was typically conservative in nature. From Kierkegaard to Dostoyevsky, its individualist premise led it towards pessimism and the rejection of social change as a possibility. In the twentieth century, the German existentialist, Martin Heidegger was complicit (at the very least) with Nazism, and yet his work remained influential on the left.

You might be forgiven for thinking this to be an unpromising place to begin, however if Sartre built upon figures such as Heidegger, and the phenomenologist Husserl, he took existentialist philosophy in a critical direction. In Sartre’s early phenomenological work the individual is radically isolated, and human relations are characterised by inherent existential conflict. A hostile world lies at one end of a stark contradiction with the lone individual. These terms inform early novels, such as Nausea. The major philosophical works, Being and Nothingness and the Critique of Dialectical Reason, retain the central concern with conflict as an essential part of the unfolding of our existence, of our ontology in philosophical terms. In this existential confrontation lies the underlying fault line in Sartre’s philosophy that he never quite overcame. There is no mediation between the individual and the world; the two are held apart in an opposition that cannot be resolved.

All sorts of consequences flow from this antinomy, including an inability to see change in anything but catastrophic terms. This means both that Sartre was an intransigent rebel against the world as it is, but also that the dialectics of revolution frequently eluded him. Thus Mészáros quotes Sartre saying that ‘change isn’t even conceivable except in the form of a cataclysm. We live in an epoch of impossible revolutions’ (p.11). Here, arguably, Sartre captured the glaciation of politics in the depths of the Cold War, where any independent revolutionary agency was caught in the vice of the two superpowers. However, the clear lines that Sartre drew caused him to be ‘intransigent in an age dominated by evasion and subterfuge’ (p.22). He did not slip into any easy or compromising reformism, because his concern to resolve the antinomy of the individual and the whole meant that he would search the roots of problems to find an authentic totality. Half measures would not resolve the deep alienation of the individual in capitalist society, so the solution really had to be all-encompassing.

It is Sartre’s understanding of alienation which made his philosophical trajectory so significant, and which is the moral underpinning of his political engagement. Sartre perceived the alienation of the individual in relation to capitalism and the brutal hierarchies of class society, rather than, like Kierkegaard for example, in the individual’s divorce from God. For Sartre the alienated individual needed to be in rebellion against a society which denies authenticity to the self as a fully-realised human being. Moreover, Sartre perceived social change to be necessary and possible, rather than falling into a sense of ineluctable existential tragedy along Heideggerian lines. The wildly different political stances of the two philosophers follow from their different decisions on this point.

Sartre’s individualist premise is associated with the specific concept of freedom that encouraged him to the left rather than the right (pp.25-8). For Sartre, capitalist society objectifies and ‘serialises’ the individual, who is thus turned into an undifferentiated atom in the mass, rather than an authentic individual exercising a real, existential freedom. A reaction to this, however, has to be framed around a moral response. The emphasis ‘on the primacy and centrality of individual praxes vis-à-vis collective and institutional structures’ therefore ‘assigns a prominent place to the world of morality’ (p.28). This is problematic in that a successful attempt to change capitalist society requires truly collective action, which cannot be achieved through a purely moral call. As an example, Mészáros points out the failure of the post-war Rassemblement Démocratic Révolutionaire, which merely appealed to individual consciences rather than having a clear class base (p.80).

A philosophical solution that would reach beyond the individualist assumption and also satisfy Sartre’s intellectual parameters would always elude him, because he continued to insist on the ‘ontological solitude of the For-itself’ (p.194). That is to say that the conscious individual will always experience its own being in atomised and anarchic terms, so the ‘social individual’ needed for the revolutionary solution is precluded. Nonetheless, Sartre’s standpoint of the authentic individual provided him with the source of his greatest insights in a work like Being and Nothingness (p.208), as Mészáros argues, even though it is the source of all his philosophical, and arguably his practical political, problems.

Sartre wished to discover how his individual could realise freedom within a world which so clearly operated such terrible determinations over individual life. Yet his conception of the individual in relation to the universal lacked the mediations that would enable him to reach a satisfactory understanding of the relationship between freedom and determination. His concerns here required ‘the careful situation of every detail in relation to the complex totality in which they belong’ (p.23). His monumental study of the French novelist Flaubert ultimately failed precisely due to this totalising quest, since no detail could be lost without compromising both the particularity of the individual and the totality of understanding to which Sartre was straining. And yet, this, like other works, remains great through the ambitious process of analysis. It perhaps bears comparison to such monuments of modernism as Proust’s work (although Mészáros finds this still inadequate, p.26) or maybe Joyce’s Ulysses. The gigantic scale of many of his philosophical works (quite unlike the tautness of his plays) perhaps comes down to this inability to find a methodological filter which would satisfy his attempt to define the totality, without violating the unique authenticity of the individual.

It is interesting that Sartre was able to express some of his key philosophical ideas in his plays precisely by abstracting out of the particular and historical into the mythic. The play Huis Clos (No Exit), sees three individuals trapped together in a room, and ends with the famous quip, ‘Hell is other people’. This play was originally set in a bomb shelter, but in relocating to a mythical plane, the implied Hell, it achieves its effective universality (p.46). As a work however it seems to express the most pessimistic aspects of Sartre’s philosophy; the isolation of individuals is underlined by their close proximity, and their conflicts with each other are unavoidable. Similarly the play Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands), set within the French resistance, involves irresolvable moral dilemmas. It seems that, in contrast, the overwhelming detail of his larger works was born of his attempt to find a resolution of his philosophical problems, and a satisfying route out of alienation, while the plays and novels posed the original conundrums.

The concept of the social individual is where the absent dialectical mediation can be found; ‘true individuality is inconceivable without a community within which you relate yourself and define yourself’ (p.10). Unfortunately, Sartre drew his understanding of individual being not from a social-historical premise, but from philosophers such as Heidegger, whose ‘truncated ontology’, Mészáros notes, ‘cost Sartre dearly’ (p.37). Whereas for Marxism alienation and reification are rooted in the social-historical sphere (and are therefore open to being overcome), for existentialists like Heidegger these problems were a matter of the ‘human condition’ itself (p.126). This latter stance can only be taken, however, if the individual in competitive capitalist society is universalised into a non-historical absolute. The social-historical individual is thereby ruled out of consideration. The related conceptual problem in Sartre’s thinking is the lack of distinction between objectification and alienation. If objectification is the automatic product of any sort of human labour, and the two concepts are conflated, alienation becomes a permanent fact of human existence, and not a historical relation which can be overcome (pp.201-2).

That Sartre remained a figure on the revolutionary left is down, argues Mészáros, to his ‘radical redefinition of temporality’ (p.64). This phrase boils down to an awareness of the possibility of radical change; the present is not an eternal and fixed state. Lukács argued that ‘the bourgeoisie has lost its future’ as ‘its fundamental aims as a class are radically incompatible with historical development’ (pp.59-60). Bourgeois thought is stuck with a reified individual as its subject, and so despair is ultimately the only posture possible. Sartre perceived this about the literary work of Proust and William Faulkner, but claimed that in contrast his ‘characters have a future’ (p.65).

While Sartre does start with the individual, his conception of freedom means that his individuals must strive to overcome their alienated state. His enterprise is therefore to create a ‘socially orientated moral philosophy’ out of the revolt against the alienated condition (p.63). As a final result, since a radically different future is possible, this means that the past must be equally right here with us in the present and ‘open’ (p.68). This might sound strange, but it is quite meaningful on reflection. The struggles of the past, for example, will have a very different value and status if we are able to establish a socially just society with a truly human future, compared to a situation where the world lapses into a barbarism of ecological and social catastrophe. History really is alive and vital in Sartre’s understanding of our existence.

Mészáros argues that Sartre’s political philosophy involved more than just a moral appeal to individual consciences, but rather saw rebellion arising from the real existence of individuals. However the recurring problem in Sartre’s thinking returns here once more. This is the unbridgeable chasm between the objective and the subjective (p.105). On the one hand, there is the heavily determined ‘real’, and on the other the alienated consciousness which faces the real in the world as a threat and a barrier to its freedom (pp.106-8). There is no Marxian dialectic of labour in Sartre to bridge this awful antinomy. Where we labour in the world, this forms our social consciousness, even as conscious labour makes the world around us. We do experience the weight of determination acting upon us as individuals, but through politically conscious social labour, we can grasp the possibility of change and a different sort of social being. This is the dialectic that Sartre could not incorporate into his work.

For Sartre the failure to grasp the terrifying reality of our existence, and to draw appropriate moral lessons and political commitments, is explained as ‘bad faith’. This concept, Mészáros rightly notes, is asked to do too much in the absence of an understanding of social process, consciousness, and the contradictions within which people exist and think (p.104). As a result, Sartre oscillates between two extreme poles of determinism and subjectivity. This was the problem that he was never able to resolve in his work on The Critique of Dialectical Reason, and thus the second volume, which focused concretely on historical analysis, foundered on an inability to mediate between particular events and the totality.

This failure, however, should be put into the overall context of the philosophical tradition within which Sartre was confronting these problems. Comparable thinkers meanwhile either avoided them or collapsed into the kind of despair about human existence that Mészáros sees as diagnostic of capitalist society’s ‘descending phase’. Nor did much of Marxism, dominated as it was by Stalinist orthodoxy, help the issue during the central period of Sartre’s writing. In this sense Sartre did a good deal to hold the door open for the re-emergence of an independent and critical revolutionary left in the 1960s.

This is not to say that, despite the many commendable and determined positions Sartre took at many points in his life, notably against France’s imperialism in Algeria, there were not persistent problems with his political strategy which derived from his thinking. At many points, Sartre’s options were limited, and there is real truth in his paradox that, during the 1950s in France, it was ‘both necessary and impossible’ to work with the Stalinist Communist Party (p.227). On the one hand, Sartre acknowledged the essential role of organisation for the proletarian revolution, yet Sartre tended to dismiss the Leninist revolutionary party as such. He could not see how a disciplined organisation would not in the end become an alienating structure which ‘serialised’ individuals, and therefore become part of the problem for which revolution was needed to address (compare pp.227-8 and pp.250-1).

Similarly, he recognised how bourgeois democracy atomised individuals so that elections tend to reflect largely capitalist assumptions, but then made this observation one-sided by rejecting voting altogether (pp.250-2), in favour of some sort of Rousseau-inspired direct democracy. While the latter might perhaps point towards an ideal goal, in practice the vote is something worth using and keeping, despite its limitations. The unmediated oppositions in his thinking prevented Sartre from being able to produce the nuanced positions needed for a revolutionary, and gave his politics an ultra-leftist flavour at times.

Sartre’s emphasis on the role of consciousness in determining existence and his concern for an ethical totality in human life were both appealing in a world of mechanical determinism and reactionary cold war logic. Nonetheless his understanding of consciousness was never quite put into a truly dialectical relationship with the determinations of existing society, so that the subjective could only change the world through a series of absolute ‘negations’. The idea of conscious social labour, which can act upon objective conditions, and so change consciousness at the same time, is missing in Sartre. For him, consciousness must, and can, simply reject in its totality the realm of determination in order to find freedom. The basic position lends itself to voluntarism, and perhaps partly explains Sartre’s enthusiasm for Maoist tendencies in 1968, but be that as it may, it was important that Sartre was always searching for a reconciliation of his antinomies that would satisfy his existentialist premises.

That such a thinker and activist as Sartre failed to find the dialectical mediation he sought reflects less on his stature as a philosopher than it is testimony to the crucial role of social-philosophical assumptions. The individualist premise accepted by Sartre is common to almost all intellectuals, from the hack to the paragon, in bourgeois capitalist society. It is difficult to escape because it is simply the common sense that arises from individual experience in the society of this era. It is, in that sense, an existential reality.

Yet, no effective revolutionary opposition to the powers of capitalist society will emerge without overcoming that very basic element of common sense, both in thought and political practice. A mechanistic approach would find it easy to dismiss the complexities of such discussions as Mészáros’ work here, but philosophy is vital to Marxism and to the socialist movement broadly, as demonstrated by Sartre’s very failure. Without transcending the limiting premises of bourgeois thought, revolutionary practice is bound to be undermined, and serious philosophical work is therefore an integral part of the struggle. Finally, a certain amount of respect is due to Sartre, given that his thinking was born of a critique of alienation, and if he was unable to complete it, then, after all, that accomplishment will only be achieved by a collective revolutionary effort.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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