Bernard E. Harcourt | Concluding Thoughts on Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In his discussion of Sartre’ s Critique of Dialectical Reason in Marxism and the Existentialists (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), Raymond Aron draws our attention to a passage, at the end of a note on page 349 of the French edition, where Sartre asks: “Will the disappearance of capitalist forms of alienation be synonymous with the abolition of all forms of alienation?”[1]

The question is important. Sartre himself does not answer it. He points instead to Jean Hyppolite—or rather to the fact that Hyppolite asked precisely this question in his studies on Marx and Hegel.[2] Aron, for his part, answers in the negative: “The answer,” Aron writes, “is not necessarily in the affirmative.”[3]

But it remains a critical question today. To rephrase it somewhat for our contemporary moment, the question would be whether, if we were able to overcome Western liberal-democratic advanced-capitalist forms of governing, we would thereby eliminate all forms of alienation?

It would be hard to imagine an affirmative answer. In part, the problem is that the category of “alienation” has become a signifier of all forms of oppression. So even if we resolve the problem of alienation narrowly defined—i.e. the sense of distance from the objects we produce, from the fruits of our labor, in capitalist modes of production—other forms of exploitation and inequality would likely arise. The question asks, in effect, whether a utopia is possible.

That was not Sartre’s project. On my reading, Sartre’s Critique does not imagine a utopia free of all forms of alienation or oppression, but rather it envisages a constant struggle of mobilization, of group-formation, of institution-creation and destitution, that backfires, that misfires at times, that requires new groups to fuse together. Aron characterizes this position pretty accurately, elsewhere, as follows:

In fact the life of men in society oscillates inevitably between the series and the group, between alienation and freedom; according to circumstances, the humanization of the relationships between individuals—the impulse toward reciprocity between the praxeis—calls for violence or can be reconciled with reformism.[4]

That seems like a fair reading of Sartre. And what it reflects is that the central element of Marxism that Sartre let go of, is precisely the historical determinism—and in that, I certainly agree. The existential Marxist philosophy that emerges—and which I tried to encapsulate in the introduction to Critique 10/13—does away with the linear idea of progress. Mark Poster, in his book Existential Marxism in Postwar France, develops this in terms of an open-ended system. Poster defines Sartre’s ultimate position in the following terms:

A non-Leninist Marxism that conceptualizes advanced industrial society in a way that points toward the possible elimination if its alienating structures; that looks to all the relations of daily life, not simply to relations of production, to make society intelligible; that picks up from existentialism the effort to capture human beings in the moment of their active creation of their world, in their subjectivity; and, finally, that rejects the attempt to have a closed theory complete within itself.[5]

This captures well Sartre’s struggle to reconcile existentialism and Marxism. And it is important to emphasize that it was not just an intellectual struggle, it was also a personal and physical struggle. As Poster notes, quoting Simone de Beauvoir, “In the Critique de la raison dialectique, Sartre wrote ‘against himself,’ becoming ill and driving himself almost to a heart attack. It was a dramatic moment in his life. Over fifty years old, he compelled himself to alter his most cherished positions in order to account for his own experience.”[6]

Success and Failure

As we know well, Aron did not believe that struggle paid off. Aron writes that, in the end, “I do not think that Sartre has achieved his aim of renewing Marxism which, in the hands of the Stalinists, congealed into a sterile dogmatism.”[7]

But the opinions on failure or success have varied over the ensuing decades—and continue to vary to this day.

For Thomas R. Flynn, author of Sartre and Marxist Existentialism (1984), the verdict was far more favorable. From the title of his book, you have a hint of his conclusion: notice, he writes of “Marxist Existentialism,” and not, like everyone else, of “Existential Marxism.” And so, on page 206, Flynn underscores that “the slope of [Sartre’s] thinking continues to incline toward the individual.”[8] But this does not doom the project, in Flynn’s view. It means, instead, that Sartre achieved something different: a social theory that aims toward “an end-goal, not an end-terminus, of history.”[9]

For James Lawler, author of The Existential Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1976), the effort was not successful. Simply put, Lawler writes, “existentialism is essentially anti-Marxist,” and the title of the book should have been “Anti-Sartre”:  “This work might be entitled ‘Anti-Sartre,’ were it not that such a title would be a presumptuous imitation of Engels’ great work against Dühring. In many respects, however, the structure of this study parallels that of Engels.”[10]

For Mark Poster, the author of Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser (1975), the verdict is far more positive. Poster in fact utilizes Sartre’s method to analyze the revolution of May ’68, which, he claims, “becomes intelligible through the lenses of existential Marxism.”[11] Or as he explains later, “It seems to me that it was the existential Marxists who were best able to discover and to explain those features in the events of May that were new to protest movements and that make May, 1968, so historically significant.”[12] Some of the pieces of what Poster finds productive:

  • A new locus of revolutionary action, no longer the party in a Leninist way, but now the group-in-fusion. “In short,” Poster writes, “the democratic group-in-fusion, not the elite Leninist party, was the proper revolutionary organization.”[13]
  • A new understanding of the resistances that prevent the proletarian dictatorship: this is the analysis of “institutions” and how they represent the “practico-inert” and then push the group back toward seriality.[14] Rather than just ideology, the resistances are collective action problems. This remains in the action theory, or social theory, domain, rather than retreating too much into epistemology.

And, as I note in the introduction, the debate over the success or failure of Sartre’s Existential Marxism rages on, with the new debate between, on the one hand Ronald Aronson and David Schweikart, and, on the other hand, Alfred Betschart.

As for myself, I would emphasize that Sartre’s style of writing, however masterful, did not facilitate matters. The fact that he generated so many neologisms and idiosyncratic terms that have fallen by the wayside, philosophically—the “practico-inerte,” for sure, but even “seriality” or the “group-in-fusion,” both terms for specialists only—suggest that his writings did not stick.

But oddly, he was right on the money when it comes to identifying the core of the problem—one that we still face today: how to infuse critical political economy with a theory of action.

It is that challenge that many have taken up by trying to analyze social movements through the lens of seriality. Lisa Guenther does this with the mobilization of the Pelican Bay SHU-Short Corridor Collective and the California hunger strikes in 2013, as I discuss in the introduction. Mark Poster did this with the student and worker uprisings of May 1968, emphasizing certain aspects of those actions:

  • The festive tone of 1968: “All the walls between people seemed to crumble in a flash, dissolving old inhibitions, defenses, and fears. Many people, not only students, but old and young, men and women, intellectuals and workers, the specialized and the unskilled, spoke simply about what shape the world should take, what should they do and be, what life should be like. There was thus a metaphysical quality to the talk: it seemed possible that reality could be changed.”[15]
  • “As in his description of 1789, the sudden comprehension by the students, and later by the workers, of mutuality through external threat was the spring of action during May.”[16]
  • “The lesson or May was that social transformation in advanced society must concentrate on the immediate creation of new relations of reciprocity rather than concentrate on overthrowing the enemy. Exemplary action embodying the new principles must be combined with negative unmasking of established oppressions.”[17]

Predicting the Past

In this respect, it is especially jarring to read Sartre write—in another passage that Aron highlights—about the inevitability of the Stalinist phase of communism. Here is Sartre:

Historical experience has undoubtedly shown that the initial phase of socialist society in course of construction, considered on the still abstract level of power, could only be an indissoluble aggregation of bureaucracy, terror, and the personality cult.[18]

This is, indeed, an odd passage in Sartre—and doubly odd for Aron to be pointing it out. One almost imagines, here, that there has been a reversal of roles. Aron, I would have surmised, would be far more likely to follow François Furet’s argument that revolutions inevitably devolve into terror. Not Sartre. So what is going on?

The answer is that, perhaps retrospectively, it is possible to use the method that Sartre sets forth to assess historical events and explain them—which then gives them logical necessity. In other words, it is possible to use Sartre’s tools, not to predict the future, but to predict the past.

This, I would argue, is a weakness in Sartre’s method—something that we would need to overcome. Sartre’s “regressive-progressive” method does a good job of explaining when groups-in-fusion have formed and how, and their eventual development into standing organizations or even institutions. But only with hindsight. Only in the rear-view mirror. This makes it hard to use his method as a program for action.

This is, to be honest, a fundamental weakness with most academic research. Whenever we ask ourselves how people might mobilize, we automatically begin to look back to historical case studies or search for quantitative correlations, but none of that really helps us in the present. We seek refuge in academia: a historical study of the French Revolution, or of the Russian Revolution, or even of Occupy Wall Street. But none of that helps in the next context of our present situation…

Sartre’s method, in the end, is terrific to predict the past, but less powerful at predicting the future or helping us shape it.

Opening New Vistas

But one thing that is clear is that Sartre opened a field of possibilities for younger generations—the generation of Étienne Balibar and his peers at the ENS, for instance. By claiming Marxism, Sartre opened new vistas. In the same way that Angela Davis opened new possibilities by embracing prison abolition, the radicality of Sartre’s position—at least at the time—is what made possible ventures like Reading Capital.

Sartre was in a position to do this. Renowned as one of the leading philosophers of France at the time, he had the cultural capital to blow open the field. And he did. A central contribution of Sartre’s Critique was precisely the bold position he took by embracing Marxism and trying to reconcile it with Existentialism. And a lesson for critical theorists today may be the need to be more bold in order to create a space for others and later generations to think, to critique, and to act.


[1] Raymond Aron, Marxism and the Existentialists (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 174 (quoting Sartre, CRDF, p. 349, « La disparition des formes capitalistes de l’aliénation doit-elle s’identifier avec la suppression de toutes les formes d’aliénation ? »).

[2] Sartre, CDRF, p. 349 n1.

[3] Aron, Marxism and the Existentialists, at p. 174.

[4] Aron, Marxism and the Existentialists, at p. 175.

[5] Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), at p. ix.

[6] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, p. 264.

[7] Aron, Marxism and the Existentialists, at p. 175.

[8] Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), at p. 206.

[9] Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism, at p. 207.

[10] James Lawler, The Existential Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner Publishing Co., 1976), at p. ix.

[11] Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), at p. 371.

[12] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, 387.

[13] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, 290.

[14] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, at p. 293.

[15] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, at p. 385.

[16] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, at p. 392.

[17] Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, at p. 395.

[18] Aron, Marxism and the Existentialists, at p. 173 (quoting Sartre, CRDF, at p. 630).