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Search for a Method by Jean-Paul Sartre
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Search for a Method

by Jean-Paul Sartre

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What was Existential Marxism?

Most people are aware that Western Marxism (Lukács, Gramsci, et al.) and the so-called 'Frankfurt School' (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, e.g.) significantly differ from the 'theories' and policies that emanated from the 'all-knowing' seers in the Soviet Union and Red China. But most people do not remember Existential Marxism; while those who do regard it merely as a type of Western Marxism. But that is not entirely correct. (Nor is it entirely wrong; after all, the best short definition of 'Western Marxism' is that it is the Marxism that takes philosophy seriously.) Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were often quite critical of both the USSR and and also some aspects of Western Marxism (Lukács, e.g.) in their various 'Marxist' works.

So, what is Existential Marxism? It is an open-ended philosophy that rejects both the 'utopianism' of the classless society (understood as some final state of human history, i.e., a 'final totalization') and at the same time rejects, avant la lettre, the nihilism of postmodernism. Sartre says, "if such a thing as a Truth can exist in anthropology, it must be a truth that has become, and it must make itself a totalization." He understands that "such a totalization is perpetually in process as History and historical Truth." No totalization, no state of affairs, is permanent; this means that both the dogmas of diamat and the marxisant superstitions regarding some utopian future are categorically rejected.

Dialectics is either a practical explanation of contemporary circumstances or it will be frozen in some totalization that eventually no longer applies. This last, both fortunately and unfortunately, has always turned out to be the history of really existing Marxism.

This book, "Search for a Method", in its first incarnation appeared as an essay that Sartre wrote for a Polish review on the situation of Existentialism in France. Later, it was reworked substantially for his famous journal "Les Temps Modernes" and the article was renamed "Existentialism and Marxism". This book is the latter unchanged. Sartre tells us that there is one question he is posing:

"Do we have the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology?"

Well, yes, we have Marxism, and (according to Sartre) within Marxism we have a "philosophy of freedom" (i.e., existentialism) as a sort of loyal opposition. Now, why doesn't existentialism (in this review I will only be interested in the existentialism of Sartre) just join Marxism? After all, Marxism is, according to Sartre, the 'philosophy of our time'. Why Existentialism? Because "Marxism stopped." It had ceased to be willing to learn. This is why existentialism had to rise and attempt to correct it. Not that Marxism and existentialism are merely opposites. Sartre points out that the founders of these two movements (i.e., Kierkegaard and Marx) both oppose to Hegel "the incommensurability of the real and knowledge." For Kierkegaard the 'real' is the individual subject; for Marx, it is social relations. But how did these two seemingly separate critiques come together in Existential Marxism? For Sartre personally, it "was the war which shattered the worn structures of our thought." Abstractly, the students of his generation had been groping their way towards Marxism and the working class. "We had repudiated pluralist realism only to have found it again among the fascists, and we discovered the world."

So, why not simply become Marxists? Again, because "Marxism stopped." What does that mean? That "there arose within it a veritable schism which rejected theory on the one side and praxis on the other." This was due to the situation of the USSR and the absence of a successful European Socialist Revolution. The USSR had to 'go it alone' as a socialist state, and today we know even better than Sartre that this was simply impossible. "The separation of theory and practice resulted in transforming the latter into an empiricism without principles; the former into a pure fixed knowledge. On the other hand, the economic planning imposed by a bureaucracy unwilling to recognize its mistakes became thereby a violence done to reality." The problem is that neither the Party, nor its theoreticians, could ever change their minds. "And I do not mean to speak only of Communists, but of all the others - fellow travelers, Trotskyites, and Trotsky sympathizers..." Sartre, after mentioning the revolt in Hungary, concludes this line of thought by saying that later, "there was news, a great deal of news; but I have not heard it said that even one Marxist changed his opinion." So we end up with ideal types, 'Soviet bureaucracy' and 'direct Democracy', each the negation of the other. They have become caricatures, ...and articles of faith.

But Marx does not do this. He always strives to appreciate "the process as a unique totality." He studies each event within history and political economy with both the ability and the willingness to learn from them. "In the work of Marx we never find entities. Totalities [...] are living; they furnish their own definitions within the framework of the research." In Marx, everything in the human social world is dialectically moving. This is why each historical situation must be analyzed in its own unique terms, which "is but the first moment in an effort at synthetic reconstruction." But,

"Marxist voluntarism, which likes to speak of analysis, has reduced this operation to a simple ceremony. There is no longer any question of studying facts within the general perspective of Marxism so as to enrich our understanding and to clarify action. Analysis consists solely in getting rid of detail, in forcing the signification of certain events, in denaturing facts or even in inventing a nature for them in order to discover it later underneath them, as their substance, as unchangeable, FETISHized 'synthetic notions.' The open concepts of Marxism have closed in. They are no longer keys, interpretive schemata; they are posited for themselves as an already totalized knowledge. To use Kantian terms - Marxism makes out of these particularized, FETISHized types, constitutive concepts of experience. The real content of these typical concepts is always past knowledge; but today's Marxist makes of it an eternal knowledge. His sole concern, at the moment of analysis, will be to 'place' these entities. The more he is convinced that they represent truth a priori, the less fussy he will be about truth."

Marxism became a Dogma. This means, above all, that past (i.e., temporary) knowledge has been reified into Eternal Knowledge by our Marxist savants. Before any analysis had began, this Marxism (that Sartre here criticizes) always 'knew' the result. It had become an atheistic faith with infallible texts and equally certain infallible methods. "The totalizing investigation has given way to a Scholasticism of the totality. The heuristic principle - 'to search for the whole in the parts' - has become the TERRORist practice of 'liquidating the particularity'."

Now, what does Sartre think Marxism should do? It should make use of 'bourgeois concepts' without ceasing to criticize them. "The real attainments of American Sociology cannot hide its theoretic uncertainty. Psychoanalysis, after a spectacular beginning, has stood still. It knows a great many details, but it lacks any firm foundation. Marxism possesses theoretical bases, it embraces all human activity; but it no longer knows anything. Its concepts are dictates; its goal is no longer to increase what it knows but to be itself constituted a priori as an absolute knowledge."

But isn't any alliance between Marxism and Existentialism but a pipe-dream? Don't the existentialists claim that each person is an unknowable unsurpassable individual? Perhaps some existentialists think like that; not Sartre (or, for that matter, Merleau-Ponty). While "Marxism has reabsorbed man into the idea, [...] existentialism seeks him everywhere where he is, at his work, in his home, in the street. We certainly do not claim -as Kierkegaard did- that this real man is unknowable. We say only that he is not known."

Regarding 'really-existing' Marxism Sartre says that "its shadow has obscured history; this is because it has ceased to live with history and because it attempts, through a bureaucratic conservatism, to reduce change to identity." A long footnote hanging off this last remark concludes by saying, "They construct an interpretation which serves as a skeleton key to everything - out of three ingredients: errors, the local-reaction-which-profits-from-popular-discontent [sic] and the exploitation-of-this-situation-by-world-imperialism [sic]. This interpretation can be applied as well or as badly to all insurrections, including the disturbances in Vendée or at Lyon in 1793, by merely putting 'aristocracy' in place of imperialism. In short, nothing new has happened. That is what had to be demonstrated." Again, 'really-existing' Marxism no longer believes that it has anything to learn.

For Sartre, Marxism could come to know Man; but today, "it is precisely the conflict between revolutionary action and the Scholastic justification of this action which prevents Communist man -in socialist countries as in bourgeois countries- from achieving any clear self-consciousness." Marxism was once "the most radical attempt to clarify the historical process in its totality." But "for the last twenty years, on the contrary, its shadow has obscured history..." Is Marxism now dying of 'old age'? No. According to our author, "[f]ar from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains therefore the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it." So long as these circumstances are with us (i.e., the Capitalist System) Marxism will be the 'philosophy of our time'.

But some might ask, doesn't the permanence of Capital, the 'permanence' of capitalist relations, prove either its 'truth' or, at the very least, its terrible necessity? Again, according to our author, no:
"For us, truth is something which becomes, it has and will have become. It is a totalization which is forever being totalized. Particular facts do not signify anything; they are neither true nor false so long as they are not related, through the mediation of various partial totalities, to the totalization in process." The facts of capitalist success, however impressive, do not prove its permanence. In fact, given the never-ending unfolding of a material dialectic, one suspects that there should be no permanence in human history. (Although there can, of course, be stability that endures for a surprisingly long while.)

After quoting Engels famous letter to Bernstein regarding 'economic determinism' Sartre says that "we do not conceive of economic conditions as the simple, static structure of an unchangeable society; it is the contradictions within them which form the driving force of history." For Sartre, nothing said above should be taken to mean he opposes Marxism. Far from it:
"To be more explicit, we support unreservedly that formulation in Capital by which Marx means to define his 'materialism': 'The mode of production of material life generally dominates the development of social, political, and intellectual life.' We cannot conceive of this conditioning in any form except that of a dialectical movement (contradictions, surpassing, totalizations)."

But when does the philosophy of freedom rise that Sartre believes will replace Marxism? "As soon as there will exist for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life, Marxism will have lived out its span; a philosophy of freedom will take its place. But we have no means, no intellectual instrument, no concrete experience which allows us to conceive of this freedom or of this philosophy." The process of human history is ceaseless. Everything in it is (however slowly) on its way to becoming something else.

I want to stop here. In the 'Annexe' to his "Critique of Dialectical Reason" Sartre said of the relation between this slim volume before us and the thousand plus pages of his 'Critique' that he feared "that this mountain of notes might seem to have brought forth a mouse..." This note of mine has been merely a review of the first chapter of this 'mouse'. I only wanted to show here that Marxism did not need to be only a dogma imposed upon the world through force. I also wanted to indicate that it was possible to be a Marxist and yet still be willing to learn from the world and the various 'bourgeois' (i.e., non-Marxist) disciplines that study our troubled world. At some point I would like to scale the 'mountain' (i.e., the "Critique of Dialectical Reason") with a much (much!) longer review...

But in closing, I again want to point out again that Marxism, for our author, is the philosophy of today; Sartre adds that tomorrow there will be a philosophy of freedom. Now, will that be the end of our dialectical adventures? No, of course not. The deepest problem (in my opinion) is that nature itself is fundamentally non-dialectical. It indeed changes, but it does not 'learn'. It has no Logos. Excluded from Reason forever, material nature can never dialectically grow. Yes, yes, of course nature can change, even evolve; but again, even this 'evolution' teaches it nothing. Thus the dialectical dance of human culture and inhuman nature must be ceaseless and therefore the 'philosophy of freedom' that, according to Sartre, will one day supplant Marxism will also eventually be overthrown. Why? - Because between the rationalizing artifacts of human culture (whether these be things or ideas or social relations) and the bottomless silence of nature there will (and indeed there must) always be contradictions. Thus every Totalization in human history is (and can only be) but a temporary state of affairs...

Sartre is certainly aware of this problem. The question before us is whether our philosophical understanding of Nature (understood ontologically, phenomenologically) and our philosophic understanding of Man (understood dialectically and existentially) can ever be brought together. In the great 'Critique', and this is to his credit, Sartre can be said to be pursuing both these lines of thought. In the Critique, ontologically and phenomenologically, Sartre can be said to be (in some sense) quite nearly a 'cyclical' thinker! Scarcity, the final and fundamental fact of human history, is never really overcome. It returns (in different forms to be sure) to threaten fragile human civilization forever and again. This is part of the reason why there can never be any utopia. But that is only half the story; historically (that is, existentially and dialectically) he is certain that virtually every situation humanity finds itself in can be improved. I too think this way...

Sartre also believes these two great lines of philosophical thought (i.e., the ontological and the dialectical) must somehow come together. In the long footnote that gobbles up the final pages of the first chapter of "Search for a Method" Sartre says that the "only theory of knowledge which can be valid today is one which is founded on that truth of microphysics: the experimenter is part of the experimental system." What does that mean? It means that "the revelation of a situation is effected in and through the praxis which changes it." Of course, according to Sartre, 'official' Marxism (and perhaps even Marx himself!) knows nothing of this:

"Yet the theory of knowledge continues to be the weak point in Marxism. When Marx writes: 'The materialist conception of the world signifies simply the conception of nature as it is without any foreign addition,' he makes himself into an objective observation and claims to contemplate nature as it is absolutely. Having stripped away all subjectivity and having assimilated himself into pure objective truth, he walks in a world of objects inhabited by object-men. By contrast, when Lenin speaks of our consciousness, he writes: 'Consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best an approximately accurate reflection'; and by a single stroke he removes from himself the right to write what he is writing. In both cases it is a matter of suppressing subjectivity: with Marx, we are placed beyond it; with Lenin, on this side of it."

Sartre regards both these understandings as pre-Marxist! He writes his great "Critique", in part, in order to overcome this. He wishes to show that human agency and subjectivity are real parts of our world.

"There are two ways to fall into idealism: The one consists of dissolving the real in subjectivity; the other in denying all real subjectivity in the interests of objectivity. The truth is that subjectivity is neither everything nor nothing; it represents a moment in the objective process (that in which externality is internalized), and this moment is perpetually eliminated only to be perpetually reborn."

Does Sartre overcome existential subjectivism in his 'Critique'? Can he bring phenomenology and dialectics together? Does he limn an epistemology that avoids the traps of subjectivity and objectivity? Of course, each reader must decide for himself. But, before you scale the 'mountain', I suggest that you have a look at Merleau-Ponty's "Adventures of the Dialectic". Here M-P criticizes the pre-'Critique' Sartre for falling back into subjectivism. Sartre's Critique is, in part, an answer to Merleau-Ponty. How successful that answer is would be the subject of another review. ( )
1 vote pomonomo2003 | Sep 25, 2011 |
One of my favourite books, for no obvious reason. ( )
  headisdead | Apr 22, 2006 |
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