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Sartre Review

Jean Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason volume one: Theory of Practical Ensembles (London: Verso, 2004) 836pp, £20
New Edition. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Introduction by Frederic Jameson

Liam O Ruairc • (Originally published in Weekly Worker 536, 8 July 2004)

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is probably the most famous public intellectual of the 20th century. However, his philosophical work has been out of fashion for over two decades. This is particularly true of his 1960 book Critique of the Dialectical Reason. Published at the height of destalinisation and the national liberation struggle in Algeria, the book was an attempt to develop an existential Marxism. While it was a major intellectual event in its time, few express interest for the book four decades later. With the centenary of Sartre’s birth approaching, Verso republished the book last month in a new revised edition, with a major original introduction by Frederic Jameson. While this will allow a new generation to rediscover this forgotten work, it is open to question whether this will be sufficient to give existential Marxism a new lease of life.

In the first volume of the Critique, Sartre attempts to specify philosophical principles for the intellegibility of history. The book offers a philosophical grounding for historical science, "a prolegomenon to any future anthropology" (153), in order "to determine the formal conditions of history" (743). The subject of history proper would be analysed in a second volume. From the outset Sartre creates a sharp dualism between natural sciences relegated to positivist reason and dialectical reason which solely applies to history and the human sciences (10). Therefore, for him "there is no such thing as intelligibility in the sciences of nature" (160). Such an opposition between analytical and dialectical reason is based on an uncritical acceptance of positivist definition of science and understanding of nature, which have been undermined since by philosophies of science like critical realism. For Sartre, Marxism must start its analysis of history from individuals and their actions. His aim is to demonstrate that History is a “totalisation without a totaliser”. “If we do not wish the dialectic to become a divine law again, a metaphysical fate, it must proceed from individuals and not from some kind of supra-individual ensemble.” (131) Sartre's basic question was how historical processes could be rationally intelligible if they were composed of a multiplicity of individual 'projects' clashing with each other. His aim was to explore how the "different practices which can be found an located at a given moment of the historical temporalisation finally appear as partially totalising and as connected and merged in their very oppositions and diversities by an intelligible totalisation from which there is no appeal." (754)

The categories requisite for a dialectical understanding of any history were to be employed by Sartre to trace the movement of history, in an ascent from the abstract to the concrete. Sartre’s categories are “elementary formal structures of any history”, referring to the invariant elements of the historical process which exist at a deeper level than the mode of production. Those categories are subject and object, human action and material things between which there is a dialectic. Intentional activity, whether individual or collective is called “Praxis” by Sartre. It involves a “project” and “totalisation”. The freedom of human subjects is limited by pervasive material “scarcity”. "Scarcity is the fundamental relation of our History and a contingent determination of our univocal relation to materiality." (202) Scarcity is both the catalyst of history and the fundamental relation in all societies. It is due to scarcity that human relations are antagonistic, that the human is transformed into anti-human, the subject into the object, human actors become like things:

“In pure reciprocity, that which is Other than me is also the same. But in reciprocity modified by scarcity, the same appears to us as anti-human in so far as this man appears as radically Other -that is to say, as threatening us with death.” (208)

Thus, "violence as a negative relation between one praxis and another characterises the immediate relation of all men" (225). Scarcity no longer becomes a historical phenomenon, but an ontological category. Sartre’s arguments is more akin to Hobbes than Marx. With scarcity, praxis becomes an inert reality. Sartre calls the “pratico-inert” when praxis becomes alienated and reified. Social relations under scarcity are “serial”, people see each other as objects. In series, such as a bus queue for example, individuals are united by an inert object. At the opposite pole, the “fused group” is opposed to institutions and its project is freedom. A “group in fusion” are people who are united in a common project, such as the crowds taking over the Bastille. But with the pressure of an environment dominated by scarcity, it has to organise, become an institution, which fatally leads to organisational inertia -seriality returns.

Sartre’s pessimistic conclusions are summed in the following sentences:

“Such ultimately, are the limits of praxis: born to dissolve series in the living synthesis of a community, it is blocked in its spatio-temporal development by the untranscendable statute of organic individuality and finds its being, outside itself , in the passive determinations of inorganic exteriority which it had wished to repress in itself. It is formed in opposition to alienation, in so far as alienation substitutes the practico-inert field for the free practical field of the individual; but it cannot escape alienation any more than the individual can, and it thereby relapses into serial passivity.” (635-636)

All we are left with are “infernal circularities” (161).

In the second volume, Sartre was to demonstrate the existence of “one human history with one truth and one intelligibility” (156). But Sartre had great problems showing how particular class struggles were moments of one totalisation. That is one of the reasons he never completed the project. The example he had selected in the second volume was Soviet history. Sartre was unable to explain how the multiple conflicts in Soviet society ultimately wrought any structural unity. As Perry Anderson once noted (1), in the absence of any extended explanatory principles, Sartre has to come to the conclusion that Soviet society was held together by the dictatorial force of Stalin, imposing a repressive unification of all conflicting praxes within it. Paradoxically, history thus becomes totalisation with a totaliser… This clearly proves that there are major problems with Sartre’s arguments in the Critique. (2)

If Sartre insists that everything is the product of the social activity of practical ensembles, the first question is whether there is only totalisation. Secondly, it is difficult to see how a multiplicity of individual acts can give birth to structures which have their own laws discontinuous from the acts which gave rise to them. The most obvious example is language, which cannot be described as a simple totalisation of all the speech-acts of linguistic agents. The subject who speaks never totalises linguistic laws by his own word. Language has its own intelligibility as a system. A tribe can speak a language for centuries and then be discovered by an anthropologist who can decipher its phonological laws which have been unknown to the totality of the subjects speaking the language. Thus social facts are not simply a totalisation, and have an intrinsic order of their own which is not deductible from the criss-crossing of individual totalisation.

There are thus major theoretical difficulties with Sartre’s attempt to construct an ordered set of social structures from a multiplicity of individual acts: if fundamental historical processes, the structure and evolution of societies are the involuntary resultant of a plurality of individuals and groups clashing together, what can explain their ordered nature instead of random chaos? Sartre must believe in some sort of pre-established harmony between them. It is not possible to generate structural unity at the level of intention. The laws of grammar or relations of production are not intentional objects, they are discontinuous from linguistic utterances or the political and historical actions of individuals. Sartre’s problematic conceptions of science, history, language or the unconscious are major obstacles for a revival of the Critique, obstacles that even Frederic Jameson’s major introduction to this new edition is unable to remove. Existential Marxism is not the unsurpassable horizon of our times…


(1) Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980), p.52
(2) Well pointed in Sartre’s interview “Itinerary of a Thought” in New Left Review (Issue 58 Nov-Dec 1969) on which the points raised above are based




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