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The Renewed Relevance of Sartre's Existentialist Marxism


In the Boston Review, philosopher Ronald Aronson aims to revive the existentialist Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which seems like a relic from a bygone age. Aronson recounts how Sartre gradually came to embrace Marxism in the middle of his career, even as he sought to supplement it with existentialist ideas of individuality and freedom. Aronson then argues that Sartre’s existentialist Marxism, with its recognition of human agency within oppressive social structures, is more relevant today than ever. An excerpt:

It was Sartre’s discovery of political commitment, socialism, and Marxism that enabled him to move away from the twin impasses immortalized in his precepts “Hell is other people” (No Exit) and “Man is a useless passion” (Being and Nothingness). When he entered the world to stay as a political essayist, dramatist, and social philosopher—as well as an activist—it was in relation to Marxist movements, societies, and ideas. After the Liberation, talk of revolution, the existence of the Soviet Union, and the vitality of the massive French Communist Party (PCF) made it possible for many to believe that, in however distorted and ugly a manner, a better world was coming into being. Both politically and philosophically Sartre became preoccupied with Marxism, and he remained so for three-quarters of his productive life.

A glimpse of this burgeoning interest in Marxism can be found in Sartre’s French newspaper articles at the time of his visit to the United States in 1945. It was in these pieces, unknown in the United States until 2001 and never republished in French, that he first used Marxist categories to explain U.S. society and its working class. He stressed that U.S. workers were “not yet proletarians” because they were “imprisoned” by individualism and enjoyed “apparent equality.” A few months later came a rather abstract effort in “Materialism and Revolution” to offer existentialism as an alternative to Stalinist Marxism. This essay shows no reading of Marx and Engels—that would not come until its republication in 1949—but it does cite Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). Sartre’s aim was to replace the determinism of Soviet Marxism with the human impulse to transform and create—that is, with freedom—as the basis of revolution. Other signs of a growing attention to politics were apparent; this essay appeared around the same time of his call for writers’ political engagement—for a littérature engagée.

Image of Jean-Paul Sartre via the Times Literary Supplement.


What Sartre should have noticed in 1945 visiting the USA, compared to war-ravaged Europe, was that the place was untouched by Nazi bombing, booming economically and well-placed to “clean up”, now that the French and British Empires were on their creaky last legs. The French philosopher should also have noticed that the USA was drenched in anti-Soviet anti-communism, shortly to become the insane “Red Menace” scaremongering of the fascist-McCarthy period.
He should also have known, if he wasn’t wilfully ignorant, about the USA’s imperialist-colonialist record of savagery in Central America, South America and the Philippines, etc (shortly to be unleashed on Korea and Vietnam).
Instead, the middle-class intellectual’s mind was and is dominated by very middle-class notions of what “freedom” is - ie. the freedom to be permanently queasy about the dictatorship of the proletariat, and what that might mean for intellectuals who want to cynically scorn all working-class mistakes on the way to building socialism, and cynically underplay all the crimes and oppressiveness of the “democratic” capitalist system (which knows it has to butter up and featherbed the most prominent members of the intelligentsia to keep them sweetly anti-communist).
To be fair, Stalin and his Moscow leading circles were also confused. In their revisionist block-headed way, they were looking to continue war-time alliances with Washington and London, and wanted to believe there were such things as “good imperialist countries” (USA, Britain, France) and “bad ones” (Germany, Japan). It was a ludicrously un-Marxist concept, and, along with revisionism’s “permanent peaceful co-existence” strategy and promulgation of the “peaceful road to socialism” to the world’s CPs, this claptrap was sufficient to totally undermine the world communist movement post-war, then the USSR itself under Gorbachev, and is still letting reformist idiocy run riot today (as in “no to War” pacifism, and totally confused left-nationalism in Latin America today eg Maduro in Venezuela, the Brazilian Workers Party feebleness etc).
Rather than getting suckered into such tosh as “existentialist Marxism”, progressives who are alive to the warmongering sickness of capitalism, the turn to Mussolini-style bombast exhibited by Trump, the looming financial meltdown and the ghastly sucking-up to big business of the US Democrats and UK Labour party etc, ought to read Lenin’s explanations about imperialism, war, the foul class collaboration of petty-bourgeois “democrats” with imperialism, the need for the proletarian party to fight for the party-led proletarian dictatorship - and the unending hostility of fascist imperialism that would evoke.
How is the world looking today for intellectuals? How do you like the fact that Brazil’s neo-fascist president Jair Bolsonaro was voted in by huge numbers of the educated middle-class? What does it tell you about the dangers to the planet that he was voted in, just like Hitler was voted in? What do Bolsonaro’s “guns-up” gestures and talk about Brazil’s long-time military dictatorship “not killing enough people” tell the world?
What does Venezuela’s feebleness as oil-wealth dependent “leftwing nationalism” say about what REALLY has to be done to break away from imperialist control, subversion and counter-revolution?
What do the destruction of the Middle East by US imperialist bombing, killing millions, its permanent “war on terror”, Trump’s trade war threats and the West’s support for the Kiev government (whose most ardent supporters wave swastikas) say about where the world is heading?