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Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the…

Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem

by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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Merleau-Ponty's essay in response to Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon, so filed together
3 vote | Jwsmith20 | Jan 7, 2012 |
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "Humanism and Terror" was intended, in 1946, to be an answer from the intellectuals still associated with the 'official' Communists to Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon". Merleau-Ponty summarizes the book, addresses the challenge Koestler poses, and attempts to judge the USSR by the standards of "Marxist humanism" as he sees it. Nevertheless, the book is a very mixed bag.

The interesting thing about this book is that the preface, in which Merleau-Ponty does not address Koestler directly but instead deals with the trouble of Communism during the Stalinist period, the attempts to weigh means and ends, the desire for honesty vs the desire for pragmatism, the failure of people to face the dilemmas of history and the lack of seriousness on the part of liberal critics in this, and so on, is the most interesting part. This is all excellently written and clearly set out in unmistakable terms, at least for a Parisian philosopher.

The part of the book which discusses Koestler's thesis, however, is really poor. Merleau-Ponty ascribes to Koestler himself the views that Rubashov and his inquisitors share, namely a sort of Hegelian-mechanistic interpretation of History as the infallible guide of politics, and the risks and destructiveness this implies - but as is clear from an elementary reading of Koestler's book, he himself does not share this view at all, and precisely wrote the book to attack this viewpoint. It is really odd that someone with the philosophical and literary training of Merleau-Ponty does not see this.

In the subsequent discussion of Koestler's problematic itself, namely whether one can support communism but not communist policy, whether one can be a communist outside the Party, whether there can be such a thing as a democratic socialism, whether economic development is a prerequisite of such democratic socialism or not and what sacrifices are valid to achieve it, etc., Merleau-Ponty does not make this error as much. Yet here he makes a different error: especially in the discussion of the Moscow Trials, which take up the middle part of the book, he completely and uncritically adopts the Stalinist line. He believes every word in the 'confessions' of the accused to be actually intended and seriously meant by them (not writing a word about the torture applied before the Trials began), and he also uncritically adopts the Stalinist line that the suppression of all opposition was necessary to defend the USSR against foreign aggression. On the other hand, he clearly does not believe the actual charges themselves, for which there was blatantly no evidence whatever, as he freely admits. For Merleau-Ponty, the question is then reduced to why people like Bukharin and Trotsky would argue for the Party that 'had to' destroy them. An interesting dilemma, but an irrelevant one, since it is by no means necessary to adopt this assumption in the first place. Koestler's book is clearly superior to Merleau-Ponty's in this, since it makes no such assumption.

The last part of the book is the author's attempt to reconstitute the meaning of Marxism and its philosophy of history. Here, he does criticize the USSR quite strongly (for someone with sympathy for socialism in 1946), and his discussion of the merits and demerits of Trotsky's commentaries on this problem is quite good, if meanderingly written. There is still a lot of vague chatter about the dialectic and the proletariat in an abstract philosophical way, but it leads to several quite good points nonetheless, and advocates taking up a position that supports the Revolution of 1917 as well as communism in general, but without being uncritical towards the USSR or any specific form of Communist Parties and the like, and not binding oneself to having to defend it against better reason. He also engages the philosophical analysis undertaken by Koestler in "The Yogi and the Commissar", and undertakes some effective and well-considered critiques of Koestler's metaphysical views in it, while admitting Koestler's own critiques as useful and valid, as it should be.

Here Merleau-Ponty concludes with the famous statement: "Marxism is not a philosophy of history; it is _the_ philosophy of history, and to renounce it is to dig the grave of Reason in history. After that there remain only dreams and adventures."
That, at least, is and remains true.
2 vote McCaine | Jan 17, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807002771, Paperback)

First published in France In 1947, Merleau-Ponty's essay was in part a response to Arthur Koestler's novel, Darkness at Noon, and in a larger sense a contribution to the political and moral debates of a postwar world suddenly divided into two armed camps. For Merleau-Ponty, the basic question was: given the violence in Communism, is Communism still equal to its humanist intentions?

Starting with the assumption that a society is not a "temple of value-idols that figure on the front of its monuments or in its constitutional scrolls; the value of a society is the value It places upon man's relation to man," Merleau-ponty examines not only the Moscow trials of the late thirties but also Koestler's re-creation of them. And Merleau-Ponty makes it clear that the Moscow trials—and violence in general in the Communist world—can be understood only In the context of revolutionary violence. He demonstrates that it is pointless to begin an examination of Communist violence by asking whether Communism respects the rules of liberal thought; it is evident that Communism does not. The question that should be asked is whether the violence Communism exercises is revolutionary violence, capable of building humane relations among men.

At a time when many are addressing similar questions to societies both in the East and in the West, Merleau-Ponty's investigations and speculations are of prime importance; they stand as a major and provocative contribution to the argument surrounding the use of violence.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:00 -0400)

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