Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960)

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“I consider Marxism to be the unsurpassable philosophy of our time.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960)[1]

These now-famous words rocked the French intellectual scene in the late 1950s, sending ripples across generations of young philosophy students. As you will recall from Étienne Balibar’s opening remarks at Critique 5/13, those words are what motivated him and his student peers to enlist their philosophy tutor at the ENS, Louis Althusser, to study Marx’s Capital. Those words literally gave birth to Althusser et al.’s Reading Capital. They also powered later student and worker revolts—including the student revolutions of May ‘68 and the subsequent political uprisings of the 1970s.

Sartre’s generation had been cautioned, in alarming terms, never to invoke Marx. “Communist students were very careful not to appeal to Marxism or even to mention it in their examinations,” Sartre recounts; “had they done so, they would have failed.”[2] (I’ve heard similarly warnings from distinguished senior scholars to young doctoral students not to invoke Foucault). Sartre and his peers had few Marxist teachers and practically no knowledge of Hegel; as a result, as Sartre emphasized, “our generation, like the preceding ones and like that which followed, was wholly ignorant of historical materialism.”[3]

But all that would change in the 1950s when Sartre—the leading French philosopher at the time and the architect of the leading strand of French philosophy (existentialist phenomenology)—would declare, in such bold terms, on the very first page of his 755-page tome, Critique of Dialectical Reason, that Marxism represented the only possible horizon for human thought and action.

Those words gave rise as well to the central problematic of Sartre’s Critique and, more broadly, to his entire critical project after 1960: How to reconcile existentialism with Marxism? How to square the determinism of dialectical materialism with the openness of existentialism? How to resolve the contradiction between, on the one hand, a Marxist philosophy that identifies in the contradictions between modes of production and social relations the motor of human action and revolution, and, on the other hand, an existentialist philosophy that was grounded on a radical freedom to act.

The core tenet of existentialism, as you will recall, is that, at every single moment, the human being chooses, by their actions, who they are; and that, at that very moment, each one of us defines humanity.[4] To be sure, Sartre emphasized the situated nature of those choices; but within the constraints of the “situation,” Sartre privileged the degrees of freedom. He reiterated his radical philosophy of situated freedom in 1958 in Existentialism Is A Humanism practically at the very moment he wrote and published Search for a Method, his preface to Critique of Dialectical Reason. How could Sartre reconcile his full-throated embrace of Marxism with his ongoing allegiance to existentialism? The fundamental dilemma, Sartre observed, was encapsulated in Engels’s letter to Marx: “Men themselves make their history but in a given environment which conditions them.” If material history does in fact “condition” human beings, then how could we imagine any degrees of freedom? Or, as Sartre wrote right after quoting Engels: “How are we to understand that man makes History if at the same time it is History which makes him?”[5]

Sartre’s Existential Marxism

The answer, in a nutshell, is that in his Critique Sartre does away with the teleology that characterizes Marxist history, rejects the positivism that infuses scientific Marxism, and opposes all forms of mechanical dialectical thought.[6] To be sure, Sartre retains significant elements of Marxism: he maintains that human beings are shaped by their historical situation, and that the tension between economic modes of production and social relations is central to that historical situation. He retains a strong commitment to contradiction and conflict as what motivates human action. And he preserves in his historical analysis the fundamental Marxist categories of the bourgeoisie, working class, and proletariat. However, he infuses his analysis with a phenomenology and psychology of individual action that takes into account human needs, frustrations, and ambitions.

Needs. Motives. Events. Situation. Scarcity. Projects: These are the words that permeate Sartre’s style of existential Marxism. “Man defines himself by his project,” he declares deep into the Search for a Method—echoing his writings on existentialism.[7] “Need, negativity, surpassing, project, transcendence, form a synthetic totality in which each one of the moments designated contains all the others.”[8] The concept of “the project” is at the heart of Sartre’s philosophy: human beings form projects in response to their felt needs in a world marked by scarcity. Scarcity is central as well: “Exploiter and exploited are men in conflict in a system whose principal characteristic is scarcity.”[9] And their projects—although they may well be situated and even shaped by historical conditions—remain individual projects of resistance to oppression, of satisfying needs, of achieving forms of liberation. Sartre infuses his analyses of individual human action with psychoanalysis, demonstrating through the example of the young Gustave Flaubert the importance of focusing on childhood, parents, siblings—all of the Freudian elements.[10] Sartre also infuses his approach with cultural analysis, with symbolic analysis, and with a large dose of ambiguity.

Sartre’s main target, in effect, is Stalinized Marxism, French Communists (i.e. Marxists belonging to the PCF, the French Communist Party), mechanical Marxists, and sterile Marxists.[11] In his own words, he is struggling against the many “prejudices which sterilize Marxist intellectuals in the French Communist Party.”[12] So he enriches that Marxist thought with far more nuanced and diversified sets of significations. He seeks to deepen mechanistic Marxism with layers of more complex understanding, resulting in a far more individualized analysis of human projects as forms of resistance to the situations humans find themselves in. Sartre’s target may be somewhat of a straw man, represented best by Joseph Stalin and his essay Le Matérialism dialectique et Le Matérialisme historique.[13] But nevertheless, the result is that Sartre constantly tries to complexify dialectical reason, to enrich it with psychoanalysis and cultural analysis, and to introduce the human being (and not just groups, such as the working class or the proletariat) back into the analysis. This is captured well in certain passages of his preface where Sartre spells out his own vision of history:

Men make their history on the basis of real, prior conditions (among which we would include acquired characteristics, distortions imposed by the mode of work and of life, alienation, etc.), but it is the men who make it and not the prior conditions…. To be sure, these conditions exist, and it is they, they alone, which can furnish a direction and a material reality to the changes which are in preparation; but the movement of human praxis goes beyond them while conserving them.[14]

You will notice, of course, a remainder: going beyond while conserving. Sartre was never able to fully overcome the contradictions—which is reflected in the fact that he never finished his Critique of Dialectical Reason (Volume 2 was published uncompleted and posthumously in 1985) or his next and last project which evidently grew out of it (and is discussed throughout the Preface to the Critique), his study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot.

In the end, the idea that Marxism is the only horizon for contemporary philosophy means that still today we cannot get beyond or outside the economic conditions of advanced capitalism that shape the present moment. We cannot escape the tension between modes of production and social relations. We are shaped still today by these tensions and conflicts, and they dominate our actions. On that reality, Sartre offers an existentialist method that he calls “progressive-regressive” to incorporate both the moment of economic conditioning and the resistances and revolts, and complexities, psychoanalytic among others, that force us to reexamine how humans act and react to economic conditions, form projects to overcome the situations they confront, and accordingly shape history.

Sartre elaborates—and explains well, especially at pages 91, 92-93, 95-99 of Search for a Method, in part using an illustration[15]—that the historical materialism of Marx needs to be supplemented by a focus on human action in the face of adversity and in a world of scarcity. The analysis must focus not only on the way in which economic conditions shape the individual (this is the progressive moment of the method), but also the ways in which complex psychological and cultural forces affect the individual and lead them to act and to pursue a project (this is the regressive moment of the method). The dialectical tension, the back and forth, ultimately produces a surpassing of existing possibilities, a getting beyond the present towards a future. “It is by transcending the given toward the field of possibles and by realizing one possibility from among all the others,” Sartre writes, “that the individual objectifies himself and contributes to making History.”[16] Sartre posits his existential dialectic, as opposed to a mechanistic materialism or to a Hegelian idealism, as a way to “restore to the individual man his power to go beyond his situation by means of work and action.”[17]

Sartre ultimately calls his method the “progressive – regressive method.”[18] The progressive aspect is more infused with a traditional (non-dogmatic) Marxist approach; but he supplements this with a heuristic, in his words: “Our method is heuristic; it teaches us something new because it is at once both regressive and progressive.”[19] Together the two represent a back-and-forth, a movement that both builds on economic analysis, but also pushes back by raising more questions and focusing our attention to the psychological, the biographical, and the symbolic dimensions. Sartre retains, in this work as in his more directly existentialist writings, that human beings are the ones who impose meaning, who construct signs, and who are the “signifying being.”[20] As he writes, describing human beings, “he is signifying because he is a dialectical surpassing of all that is simply given.”[21]

It is that back-and-forth that has a dialectical dimension to it. “The movement of comprehension is simultaneously progressive (toward the objective result) and regressive (I go back toward the original condition).”[22] It complexifies and enriches, although, in the end, I would argue, it does not resolve or overcome the fundamental tension. In this sense, it bears a family resemblance to Adorno’s Negative Dialectic.

Sartre opened the Preface to the Critique by reducing the entire question of the search for a method to the question whether it is possible to imagine a historical, structural anthropology. In his short preface, he emphasized: “Finally, there is one question which I am posing—only one: Do we have today the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology?”[23] Sartre comes back to answer this question at the bitter end of his search for a method.[24] This is a confusing way to present his work, but it is of great importance to Sartre. The anthropological dimension, naturally, reflects the importance of the human being and human action at the heart of existential Marxism. The structural element reflects the importance of the political economic conditions. The historical dimension reflects the way in which the historical situation shapes human beings and their struggles, and is shaped by those struggles. But the expression, “structural, historical anthropology,” may confuse things more than clarify, especially in light of the structuralist writings of Lévi-Strauss and others that emerged at the same time.

Seriality and Groups-in-Fusion

In the Critique, Sartre then elaborates a phenomenological analysis of the evolution of human action into group activity and ultimately into history. Still today, the major contribution of his Critique remains his analysis of what he dubbed “seriality” and the “group-in-fusion”: the way in which human beings come together through concerted actions that gradually constitute a collective intervention. This reflects, again, his constant struggle to bridge the freedom of individual action with the conditions of historical development.

For a brilliant discussion and illustration of the potential of Sartre’s work, I recommend reading Lisa Guenther’s analysis of the California prison revolts of 2013 in the chapter, “A critical phenomenology of solidarity and resistance in the 2013 California prison hunger strikes,” of Body/Self/Other, especially pages 56 to 65. There, Guenther not only presents Sartre’s praxis theory and critique of dialectical reason in an elucidating way, but also offers a concrete illustration of how it might work by focusing on the individual-turned-collective action of men at the supermax facility at Pelican Bay.

Guenther’s analysis explicates well the four types of social groups that Sartre invented in his Critique, namely, “seriality, the group-in-fusion, the standing organization, and the institution.”[25] As Guenther explains:

Seriality is a loose collection of individuals brought together by a common situation or activity; Sartre’s example is of people waiting at a bus stop. The group-in-fusion emerges when the serial collective faces an external obstacle or threat; for example, if the bus fails to arrive, a group-in-fusion might coalesce to solve the problem. Once the external conflict is resolved, the group-in-fusion may dissolve back into seriality, or it may become a standing organization with a more stable structure that supports the collective agency of each member; for example, the bus riders may form an activist group to improve public transport in their city. A standing organization is often inaugurated through a pledge in which members vow to remain in solidarity with one another, even beyond the resolution of the problem that initially brought them together. But in the absence of an external threat, the standing organization may produce and exacerbate internal divisions among its members. It may begin policing its own boundaries, purging its own members, and adopting increasingly rigid and hierarchical structures to maintain its formal existence. In other words, the standing organization that supported the individual and collective agency of its members may become an institution that constrains and eventually undermines this agency.[26]

Guenther then gives Sartre’s praxis theory life by describing how the seven men who were in isolated confinement in the Pelican Bay Prison SHU came together to form the Short Corridor Collective—a group-in-fusion that eventually became a standing organization, but would not morph into an institution[27]—that ultimately led to the 2013 California prison hunger strikes. For anyone interested in thinking through the on-going potential of Sartre’s praxis theory from the Critique, I urge you to read Guenther’s chapter.

Sartre and Marxism

Some commentators argue that Sartre’s theorization of group formation, as well as the broader method of beginning from individuals, is inherently non-Marxist, or even anti-Marxist, insofar as it displaces the central actor of Marxian analysis, the working class. As Alfred Betschart recently wrote, “Whereas in Marxist theory, classes are the prime agents of history, they are reduced to what Sartre calls ‘series’ in the Critique. Classes do not act in Sartre’s eyes; at best they form milieus.”

Sartre’s relationship to Marxism, however, is not so black-or-white and does not reduce to anti- or pro-. Sartre is clearly writing against a certain style of Marxism, as noted earlier, a rigid, mechanistic Marxism that he associated with the French Communist Party. There are, however, enough other jabs at Marxism tout court that we must acknowledge a broader resistance to Marxist thinkers, surely university or academic Marxists and others. At the same time, there are famous passages where Sartre writes that existentialism is merely an ideological tweak that can serve to change Marxism, and that, if it succeeds, we will be left with Marxism and not existentialism. Search for a Method in fact ends on that note: “existentialism will no longer have any reason for being.”[28]  So we need to understand that Sartre maintains an ambivalent relation to Marxism with his own unique style of existential Marxism.

“Far from being exhausted,” Sartre declares, “Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.”[29] For Sartre, there is a dimension to Marxism that remains deeply compelling.

To be sure, for Sartre, current Marxism has become wooden. All the different sects of Marxists already have their rigid views, for instance, on the Hungarian uprising and repression before knowing or integrating any of the facts.[30] This leads to a certain kind of conservatism that has devastating effects on existing Marxists. But Sartre sees in the reborn existentialism of the post-war period—not in Kierkegaardian existentialism—a path forward to rejuvenate Marxism. That path forward requires a more open interpretive approach. From his existentialist perspective, Sartre declares, “everything remains to be done; we must find the method and constitute the science.”[31] By this, he intends to keep Marxism alive. What he objects to most, is the a priori, pre-fabricated aspect of much Marxist thought—the fact that it so often already presupposes certain concepts and schematas, or that it imposes an understanding on experience rather than allowing experiences to seek interpretation.[32] What he opposes more than anything is “apriorism.”[33] What he objects to is the idea of overlaying prefabricated, ready-made historical schemas over the complexity of real human action: “If one totalizes too quickly, if one transforms—without evidence—signification into intention, and result into an objective deliberately aimed at, then the real is lost.”[34]

Existentialism opens Marxism to alternative methods, such as the psychoanalytic method, which according to Sartre is a fruitful way to mediate between the “universal class and the individual.”[35] Psychoanalytic considerations about the family, for instance, provide a more flexible route to rethink problems of alienation, since, as Sartre suggests, notions of alienation and reification arise first in childhood and are projected onto the working lives of parents. Sartre’s point is that psychoanalytic thought can be a useful device to enliven and actualize Marxist analysis.

As with psychoanalysis, Sartre also argues for the inflection of Marxism with Western sociological insights and anthropological writings. He argues that dialectical materialism remains a mere carcass or skeleton “if it does not integrate into itself certain Western disciplines.”[36] (The Eurocentric and gendered overlay of much of Sartre’s writing is unapologetic.) For Sartre, it is essential to incorporate these Western disciplines into Marxism, which is what he develops in the third and final section of his preface. This is the only way, he argues, to save Marxism from itself.

Rethinking Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason Today

In an article in the Boston Review from November 2018, “The Philosophy of Our Time: Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential Marxism offers a radical philosophical foundation for today’s revitalized critiques of capitalism,” Ronald Aronson argues that Sartre’s effort to reconcile existentialism and Marxism, and his particular brand of existential Marxism, remain important today. “Far from being consigned to the ash heap of history,” Aronson writes, “the mid-century encounter between Marxism and existentialism remains vital today.”[37]

What Sartre’s particular brand of existential Marxism offers, Aronson argues, is a model to help better understand the key question of human agency under political and historical conditions that are beyond human control. Aronson sees value in existential Marxism especially today, given the newfound momentum of socialism in America—he points to Bernie Sanders and the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He argues that Marxism remains vibrant because, in the words of Sartre, the conditions that give rise to capitalism remain in place.

Aronson places the Sartrian dilemma front and center: in a country like the United States, where the value of individualism plays such an important role, radicals must confront head-on the tension that Sartre addressed. They must return to the exact Sartrian dilemma and analysis. Referring to the revival of socialism, Aronson writes: “If this revival of Marxism is to succeed, it will once again have to go to school with Sartre—partly because his emphasis on freedom resonates with a distinctively American political culture skeptical of collectivism, and partly because it helps us to understand why Marxism failed.”

And when they do, one thing they will find, Aronson argues, is a source of inspiration, a spark that can trigger revolutions. That spark is the element of freedom that Sartre tried to reintroduce into Marxism. Aronson spells this out in the following terms:

What we most stand to gain from existential Marxism today is a revitalized conception of freedom. As I describe in my book We: Reviving Social Hope, Sartre helps us to appreciate how individuals come together to create hope where there was none by acting collectively. Sartre insists that we can always choose, in each and every situation—and that even not to choose is a choice. It is in this sense that Sartre asserts that we are always responsible for ourselves, even as we are oppressed. As he learns from Marxism to appreciate the weighty burdens of history and class, Sartre never abandons this hallmark of his thought. Though he tempers it from abstract and total freedom to concrete and situated freedom after World War II, he insists that what distinguishes humans from stones is that we always make something of what is made of us.

It is important to understand that Aronson’s interpretation of existential Marxism fundamentally undoes Marx’s philosophy of history and dialectical materialism: the choice whether to accept capitalism or to revolt is ultimately ourfree choice—situated of course, situated in our contemporary political condition of neoliberalism and virtual democracy, but our choice nonetheless. In other words, we ultimately determine whether the march of history moves forward or backwards. It is precisely on this note that Aronson concludes:

It is understandable that radicals should be divided over this notion of freedom. After all, it asks that we take responsibility for situations we did not create, and then makes us responsible for what we do about them. This may be a hard lesson to swallow, but it serves as a forceful reminder of the undying possibility of active struggle. Resistance springs from the same power of self-determination as do submission and apathy, complicity and resignation. If the individual sometimes yields, complies, accepts much less than half a loaf, at other times she joins with others and breaks out into the open—redefining identities, recasting situations, creating revolutions. (My emphasis)

Alfred Betschart is not convinced and, in a recent response essay titled “Sartre Was Not A Marxist,” argues that the very notion of existential Marxism remains a contradiction in terms. Betschart emphasizes that Sartre himself later repudiated the effort to blend existentialism and Marxism, and ultimately affirmed that existentialism was a separate philosophy from Marxism.

It is important to emphasize, though, that even in those later repudiations, Sartre insisted that when he wrote the Critique, he considered it “to be Marxist.” “I was convinced of it,” Sartre stressed.[38] So the fact that Sartre would later distance himself from his project need not govern our reading of his Critique. If anything, it confirms the argument in The Illusion of Influence that critical theorists must eschew the totalizing concept of an œuvre and stay focused on the critical project: How can we, as critical theorists, deploy critical texts to further our political projects?

One way to do that with Sartre’s critical text is to focus precisely on the ways in which a theory of human action—a praxis theory—can supplement a political economic analysis of society or update it for contemporary times. David Schweikart does just that in a recent article “Sartre, Camus and a Marxism for the 21st Century,” in Sartre Studies International (2018), where he writes:

Sartre is, in fact, calling for … a Marxism without its dogmatism, and, above all, its determinism. […] I want to argue that Sartre is right. Marxism is the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because “we have not gone beyond the circumstances that engendered it,” (i.e., capitalism). Sartre is also right that a dogmatic Marxism is a dead philosophy. A living Marxism requires supplementation, not only by an existentialist ethic centered on human freedom, but by the theoretical and practical insights of the great transvaluationary movements of the post-war period: anticolonialism, anti-racism, feminism, anti-war activism, the struggles for gay rights and the rights of the “disabled” and for ecological sanity.[39]

Betschart calls this modified version of Marx “closer to what Marx called utopian socialism than to Marx’s own program of scientific socialism.”[40] And that may be true. But that does not necessarily undermine its importance. It is possible that Marx’s own program of scientific socialism had been outdated for decades, precisely because it paid insufficient attention to all the other forms of domination in society that we have come to recognize today—something we discussed at Critique 4/13 on Paolo Freire in Rio.

Regardless of how one comes out on these questions, surely the most remarkable contribution of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is its sustained consideration of how we might integrate, on the one hand, a materialist critical theory attuned to the historical condition of late capitalism with, on the other hand, a praxis theory of human action. That remains a commanding task. We invite you to think it through with us.

To help us explore this question and to reread Critique of Dialectical Reason in light of our present political circumstances, we are delighted to welcome two brilliant critical theorists, Noreen Khawaja and Jesús Velasco. Noreen Khawaja specializes in 19th and 20th century European intellectual history, and her research examines the relation between critique and reform. Her first book, on existentialism, The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre, was published with the University of Chicago Press in 2016. Jesús Velasco specializes in Medieval and Early Modern legal cultures across the Mediterranean Basin and Europe from the perspective of contemporary critical thought. He is the author most recently of Dead Voice: Law, Philosophy, and Fiction in the Iberian Middle Ages, just out with the University of Pennsylvania Press, which focuses on the concept of “dead voice,” the art of writing the law in the vernacular of its clients as well as in the language of legal professionals.

Welcome to Critique 10/13!


[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 9 (hereafter “CRDF”) (my translation) (« je considère le marxisme comme l’indépassable philosophie de notre temps »); see also Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), xxxiv (hereafter “SFAM”) (“I consider Marxism the one philosophy of our time which we cannot get beyond”).

[2] SFAM 17; CRDF, 22.

[3] SFAM, 17; CRDF, 22.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Existentialisme est un humanism (Paris: Nagel, 1958), 25.

[5] SFAM, 85.

[6] On positivism, see SFAM, 156.

[7] SFAM, 150.

[8] SFAM, 173.

[9] SFAM, 127.

[10] See e.g. SFAM, 105-107; 140-145.

[11] See e.g. SFAM, 125, 124, 103.

[12] SFAM, 103 n.6.

[13] Joseph Staline, Le Matérialism dialectique et Le Matérialisme historique (Paris: Éditions du Parti Communiste Français, 1944).

[14] SFAM, 87.

[15] At page 95, and then returning to this illustration at page 109, Sartre discusses the situation of an air force ground crew member in England, a man of color, who is prevented from becoming a pilot, and in revolt, takes a plane to cross the Channel.

[16] SFAM, 93.

[17] SFAM, 99.

[18] SFAM, 133.

[19] SFAM, 133.

[20] SFAM, 152.

[21] SFAM, 152.

[22] SFAM, 154.

[23] SFAM, xxxiv; CRDF, 9.

[24] SFAM, 168 to 169.

[25] Guenther, 58.

[26] Guenther, 58.

[27] Guenther, 60.

[28] SFAM, 181.

[29] SFAM, 30.

[30] SFAM, 29.

[31] SFAM, 35.

[32] SFAM, 37.

[33] SFAM, 42.

[34] SFAM, 45.

[35] SFAM, 62.

[36] SFAM, 83.

[37] Ronald Aronson, “The Philosophy of Our Time: Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential Marxism offers a radical philosophical foundation for today’s revitalized critiques of capitalism,” Boston Review, November 14, 2018.

[38] Sartre quoted in Alfred Betschart, “Sartre Was Not A Marxist,” Sartre Studies International, Vol 25, Issue 2 (2019): 77-91, at page 87.

[39] David Schweickart, “Sartre, Camus and a Marxism for the 21st Century,” in Sartre Studies International, Vol. 24, Issue 2 (2018): 1–24, at page 9.

[40] Betschart, 85.