Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Novack pro and contra Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre: Existential Odyssey
By George Novack


The most widely held philosophies of our time have been existentialism and Marxism. Jean-Paul Sartre, who died in Paris April 15 at the age of seventy-four, exemplified the dilemma of one of the most qualified intellectuals and writers of our time tossed between these two incompatible views of the world.

Along with Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, Sartre popularized the ideas and attitudes of existentialism among the post-World War II generation. Any observant visitor to the U.S. campuses during this period could testify to
the extent of his influence. He exercised this not
only through his novels, plays, and essays,
which were translated into many languages, but
also through the conduct of his life as a radical
French intellectual. Although in a characteristic
gesture he spurned the Nobel Prize for Literature
in 1964, because he did not want to be "transformed into an institution," he deserved the award more than many of its recipients because of the iconoclastic and humanistic temper of his writings and their impact upon the minds of literate people around the globe.

He represented the left atheistic current of the
existentialist outlook that was committed to the
support of progressive causes. His philosophy
cannot be dissociated from his politics nor his
politics from his philosophy. Their interaction is
clearly discernible in the evolution of his theoretical positions. These fall into two distinctively different phases.

Being and Nothingness

As a young professor and aspiring writer in the
1930s, he embarked on the quest for an absolute
freedom in a universe where everything is rela-
tive and materially conditioned. He yearned to be
exempt from all determination by objective real-
ity, natural or social. This hopeless enterprise
was embodied in a big book of 724 pages entitled
Being and Nothingness. This metaphysical disquisition brought him world fame but it is as obscure and labyrinthine as his novels, plays, and essays can be straightforward. It was a technical treatise, primarily addressed to fellow professional philosophers, that utilized the categories of Hegel's system filtered through the phenomenological school of the later German thinkers, Husser! and Heidegger, and molded by the traditions of Continental rationalism and idealism.

In this work Sartre set out to show that man is
a wholly free subject who by his very nature
resists every attempt to transform him into any-
thing objective. To provide an underpinning for
this conception of unlimited human liberty he
begins by splitting reality into two opposing and
irreconcilable parts.

One he calls being-for-itself; the other being-in-
itself. The first is exclusively human; it is the
pure consciousness of the individual, total nega-
tion, absolute freedom. Being-in-itself comprises
everything else; it is "dumb-packed together-
ness," rigid non-consciousness, materiality, and

Sartre does not explain how these two starkly
contradictory realms of being, the in-itself and
the for-itself, originated. The non-human and the
free subject are simply there, given facts. He
thus makes a metaphysical mystery out of the
natural and historical processes through which
the human emerged from the animal, consciousness from the preconscious, the subject out of
objective preconditions.

Sartre at no time accepted the theory of evolution. We are certain, he held, only of the existence
of human life but have no plausible proof of the
emergence of the organic from the inorganic.
This retrograde position not only defied the
conclusion of modern science that evolution is a
primordial and proven fact of nature but runs
counter to the Marxist view that the development
of nature and society constitute sequential stages
and integral parts of a unified historical process.
Sartre's philosophy was literary and academic
in inspiration and the spectacular achievements
of the physical sciences and mathematics had no
influence upon this thought. Existentialists as a
rule recoil from the effects of science, industry,
and technology as in themselves threats to the
authenticity of the inner self.

The mystification of human origins and the
unbridgeable dualism of the subject and the
object were required to establish the absolute
freedom of the individual. In the subsequent
pages Sartre expounds the rationale for the most
one-sided conception of individualism in contemporary philosophy.

According to this view, I may be hedged on all
sides by what Sartre calls "facticity." My place,
my past, my surroundings, my fellows, and my
death make up the situation into which I have
been flung. But all these facts are accidental and  incidental, not necessary and intrinsic elements
of my existence.

I do not have to accept them; I can reject and
refuse to adapt to them. I assert and forge my
authentic self in dissociating myself froth these
objective conditions and circumstances. Other
things and beings have their essence made for
them or imposed upon them. I alone have the
power of fashioning the character and career I
prefer. I can be a fully self-made person in a
world I never made.

Such unlimited freedom in which every individ-
ual is a law unto himself or herself entails
unlimited responsibility, not only for oneself but
the fate of humankind. Sartre even maintains
that every person then alive is co-responsible for
the Second World War they could not prevent.
(This left the imperialist warmakers off the
hook.) Tormented anguish inescapably arises
from the awareness that our choice may be
wrong and have dreadful, unforeseen, unpremed-
itated consequences. But since we cannot avoid
choosing at our peril in the dark, we must
valiantly take our stand and face the music.
Critics have pointed out the logical inconsis-
tencies in Sartre's idea of absolute freedom and
the ethics derived from its premises. Its unreal-
ism is obvious. He starts by excluding all concrete necessity from human action; he ends with
the categorical imperative to be free. Man is
"condemned to be free," even though his dearest
projects are foredoomed to fail and his ventures
and aspirations cannot find secure and enduring
realization because the "for-itself' can never
coincide with the "in-itself." But if I must be free,
then I have no real moral choice in the matter.
Total freedom thereby turns out to be its oppo-
site: total determination.

Sartre and the Communist Party

Nonetheless, the contradictions in which he
was entangled endowed this first edition of his
philosophy with an implicit dynamism that
impelled this ultra-individualist along the road
which held out an enlargement of freedom for
humankind, even if no lasting satisfaction was

That was only to be found in the revolutionary
objectives of socialism. Marxism is the scientific
theory and method of that proletarian movement. And so the thrust of his existentialist ethics, intermeshed with his situation as a radilcal petty bourgeois in crisis-torn France, pressed
him to come to closer grips with Marxism in
philosophy and politics.

Unlike friends such as the Communist Paul
Nizan, Sartre at first was unconcerned with the
class struggle. He despised the bourgeoisie in a
bohemian manner, not in their function as exploiters of the workers and oppressors of the
masses, but as philistines who did not appreciate
the life of the intellect or the creative arts. His
prewar political opinions were vaguely anarcho-

In the third volume of her autobiography,
Simone de Beauvoir relates: "In our youth we felt
close to the Communist party to the extent that
its negativism harmonized with our anarchism.
We looked forward to the defeat of capitalism but
not to the coming of a socialist society which, we
thought, would have deprived us of our liberty.
Thus on September 14, 1939 [following the Stalin-
Hitler Pact] Sartre wrote in a notebook: 'Here I
am cured of socialism if ever I needed to be cured
of it.'"

His wartime experience and participation in
the Resistance changed his mind. After release
from a prisoner-of-war camp, he helped organize
a small Resistance group of intellectuals baptized
"Socialism and Liberty," terms that no longer
seemed antithetical to him. He collaborated with
Communist fighters without joining the party. In
consonance with his philosophy he remained a
free-floating sympathizer of the left.

He had checkered relations with the CP in
which attraction alternated with repulsion. After
the Liberation (the end of the Nazi occupation of
France), while avowing that "the Communist
Party is the only revolutionary party," he did not
affiliate with it since he did not share its philosophy nor approve all its policies. In 1948, together with the ex-Trotskyists David Rousset and Gerard Rosenthal, he founded a short-lived independent socialist group, the Revolutionary Democratic Rally.

Despite his reservations about the CP, the
viciousness of the French troops in Indochina
and the official repressions of the Communists in
France induced him to engage in unrestrained
conciliation with the native Stalinists and the
Russian leaders in the early 1950s. This came to
an abrupt halt when Soviet tanks crushed the
Hungarian workers' revolt in 1956. He proclaimed that he would never resume relations with the CP leadership. "Every one of their statements, every one of their actions," he declared, "is the fulfillment of thirty years of lying and sclerosis." He never thereafter placed confidence in the Stalinists, despite illusions he entertained about several of their heads such as Togliatti and Mao Zedong.

Marxism versus Existentialism

Throughout these years Sartre, the unalloyed
existentialist, remained a professed adversary of
Marxism. In his 1947 essay on "Materialism and
Revolution," he did not spare a single one of its
fundamental principles. His indictment rejected
its claim to scientific truthfulness, its material-
ism, its rationalism, its determinism, its dialecti-
cal view of nature, its conception of object-subject
relations, and its derivation of social conscious-
ness from social-historical conditions.

Midway in his career Sartre stood forth as the
proponent of a pre-Marxian socialist humanism
framed in existentialist terms which he offered
as the predestined replacement for the false and
outmoded teachings of dialectical materialism.
Then, in a dramatic turnabout, Sartre announced in his second major treatise, The Critique
of Dialectical Reason, published in 1960, that
Marxism was "the ultimate philosophy of our
age.'' Frustrated in his previous effort to overthrow the theoretical foundations of scientific socialism by frontal attack, he now sought to undermine them by insisting that his brand of existentialism could supply the ingredients of individuality and subjectivity hitherto lacking in Marxism. He prepared to rescue contemporary Marxism from its bondage to the petrified and institutionalized version peddled by the opportunistic Soviet bureaucracy and its echoers. It is generally recognized that Sartre's unfinished attempt to remodel dialectical materialism according to existentialist specifications was a failure. Instead of supplementing Marxism with existentialist amendments, as he promised, he virtually liquidated Marxism into the method of existentialism. For example, he construed social evolution as a succession of freely made choices by the individual, not, as Marx does, as the lawful rise and fall of successive forms and levels of social organization determined by the unfolding of different degrees of humanity's productive powers in its collective struggle with nature for sustenance and development.

In both phases Sartre held fast to his root
assumption that the Self is Sovereign in all
domains of human endeavor. As Wilfred Desan
pointed out in The Marxism of Jean Paul Sartre:
"There is no room in the writings of Karl Marx for a self with such an amplitude.'' The extreme subjectivism of the existentialist creed cannot be
harmonized with dialectical materialism or
blended with it; the two philosophies and me-
thods stand at opposite poles.

The Sartre of the 1960s and 1970s had a
different slant on the roles of literature, philo-
sophy, and politics than the Sartre of earlier
days. When he published his first novel Nausea
and wrote his first brilliant plays, The Flies and
No Exit, he was an ambitious young author
elaborating the appropriate literary forms for the
imaginative projection of his feelings and atti-
tudes and the most vivid representation of his
ruling ideas. Moreover, he esteemed the written
word in both artistic production and philosophy,
not simply as his chosen vehicle of individual
expression, but as the most effective way for him
to recreate the world. This he fervently believed.
In Les Mots (The Words), intended as the first
volume of his autobiography and published
twenty years later when he had become a world-renowned personality, he renounced this notion
of the world-transforming function of literature.
Without repudiating his previous work or regretting his dedication to a literary vocation, he
declared that he had erroneously exalted literary
creation into a sacred thing with an absolute
value. This was the product of a personal neuro-
sis and the illusion of a middle-class intellectual.
Contemporary writing derives its authenticity
and importance, he said, from its capacity to deal
with the malaises of our time and the pressing
problems they pose to humanity.

Commitment to the Oppressed

It may seem strange that so celebrated a
proponent of a literature of involvement should
chastise himself for his failings in this respect.
Sartre explained the point of his self-criticism in
an interview printed in the Arpil 18, 1963, Le

We live in a world where two billion people go
hungry. The writer who remains unaware of this
reality or is indifferent to it; who does not
elucidate or tries to elude it, caters to the privi-
leged minority and even partakes of its exploita-
. tion. To be relevant, "to be able to address
everyone and be read by all, the writer must
align himself with the greatest number, the two
billion hungry people." Sartre did not minimize
the great difficulty in doing this. But he believed
that writers would remain crippled to the extent
that they fall short of attaining such universal-

Unlike the repentant Tolstoy in his old age,
Sartre did not call for a literature restricted to the
horizon of peasant folk nor urge a politicalized
literature in the prescribed mold of "socialist
realism" that served the aims of the Stalinist
state propaganda machine. He did not recommend any particular style of expression so long
as the writer was sensitive to the undernourishment, exploitation, oppression, threat of nuclear
annihilation, and alienation of human beings
emanating from capitalism.

Sartre called attention to a similar shift in his
philosophical perspectives. Being and Nothingness insisted on the irreducible and irremediable
split between the individual and the objective
world, the impossibility of the "for-itself' to fuse
into a living unity with the "in-itself," as the
source of the inevitable failure to realize our
freedom. He still believed that this metaphysical
evil was lodged in the very heart of reality and
human existence and could not be overcome.
While clinging to the end to this existentialist
interpretation of reality, Sartre came to look at
life in a new light. The immediate importance of
the gulf between man's freedom and his environ-
ment had lessened; the gnawi:p.g absurdity of the
universe and humanity's insuperable limitations
receded into the background. He now gave prior-
ity to the social wrongs which had to be combated and can be corrected.

"The universe remains dark," he said. "We are
sinister animals ... . But I've suddenly discov-
ered that alienation, the exploitation of man by
man, undernourishment, relegate metaphysical
evil to a secondary plane. Metaphysical evil is a
luxury; hunger is nothing but an evil."
This reversal of values was tied up with the
hardening of his revolutionism. "I am on the side
of those who think that things will go better
when the world will have changed. When I wrote
Nausea, I lacked a sense of reality. I have
changed since then. I have undergone a slow
apprenticeship to reality. I have seen infants die
of hunger. In the face of a dying infant, Nausea
does not carry any weight."

Before there can be either a universal morality
or . universal literature, man's conditions of life
would have to be radically altered and improved,
he declared. This liberation can be brought about
only through revolutionary action; While the
projection of unrestricted freedom outlined in
Being and Nothingness is not ruled out, it will
have to be postponed until everyone's material
needs are satisfied through the abolition of
capitalism and colonialism. Then a socialist
humanism can create the setting for a concrete
experience of genuine liberty and a correspond-
ing theoretical and artistic expression of this new

Sartre dismissed trust in absolutes of any sort.
There would be no more ultimate salvation in
revolutionary politics than in literature or philo-
sophy. In the last years he saw no hope in any
party in France. There were only "innumerable
tasks to be done, among which literature has no
privileged place."

Sartre's final credo, like his previous oscilla-
tions, registered the impact of the upheavals of
our time on an intellectual seismograph of the
utmost sensitivity. He progressed from a conception of literature and philosophic thought as self-sufficient activities to regarding them as means
of political commitment and social renovation.
The existentialist emotions and judgments that
elevated absurdity, ambiguity, and alienation to
metaphysical heights became subordinate to a
sense of urgency in coping with economic and
social ills.

Sartre's Odyssey

The spiritual and intellectual odyssey of Sartre
from Nausea to Les Mots; from Being and
Nothingness to the Critique of Dialectical Reason proceeded from speculative illusion and
mystification toward a firmer grasp of social
reality and a deeper understanding of "what is to
be done." Humankind is not so much freer by
definition; it must be made freer by revolutionary

In the last two decades of his. life Sartre
demonstrated on countless occasions that he
acted on his convictions. He occupied a place
comparable to that of Bertrand Russell in England and Noam Chomsky in the United States in
defending victims of persecution, defying the
imperialists, and resisting their state power. He
opposed the Gaullist regime and was a principal
figure in the International War Crimes Tribunal
in 1967 and 1968 which exposed the crimes of
U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

He actively supported the Algerian independence struggle at a time when the French Communist Party and Socialist Party leaders betrayed it
and his erstwhile associate Albert Camus stood
aloof from it. He was a staunch partisan of the
movements of the colonial peoples to throw off
imperialist domination and was one of the earli-
est among the reigning intellectuals to hail the
Fidelista victory in Cuba. He expected this fresh
revolution, not saddled with a Stalinist leader-
ship, to come forward with a new ideology
beyond Marxism. Instead, under the spur of
their anticapitalist battles, Castro and his asso-
ciates proclaimed allegiance to scientific social-
ism. Truly, Marxism was the "ultimate philosophy of our age!"

He vigorously protested the Kremlin's suppression of dissidence within its reach from Moscow
to Prague. After the French student demonstrations and general strike in 1968, he became more
and more captivated by a Maoist-spontaneism so
congenial to his anarchistic temperament. The
actions he undertook issued from a capricious
impressionism, not from any systematic analysis
of the given situation or disciplined working-
class course. He believed that only the pristine
impulse of revolt was creative and trustworthy
and it afterwards inevitably degenerated into
reactionary institutionalization. He confused the
Leninist form of organization of the proletarian
vanguard with Stalinism.

He could easily veer off course, as in the
reactionary backing he gave to Zionist Israel
against the Palestinian cause. One of his last
political acts was to join the intellectual cold
warrior Raymond Aron in demanding that the
French government boycott the Moscow Olympics to penalize the Soviets for their role in

His informal and permissive companionship
with Simone de Beauvoir for half a century
became a model of paired relationship that was
widely imitated by admiring younger men and
women. It was made easier by their planned

Apart from his · voluminous literary works,
Sartre's significance as a public figure consisted
in his bold confrontation with the excruciating
contradictions and social tensions of the age of
permanent revolution we are living through. The
fascination of his evolution lies in his passionate
and restless grappling with the issues these
present and the good and bad sides of his mode
of participation in the struggles for liberation.
The pathos of his career is that this eminerit
intellectual came so close and yet remained so far
from either the theoretical or practical solution of
the central social and political problems of his