Maximilian Ringleb | Existentialist Praxis Beyond Idealist Marxism, or: How can Sartre help us today?

By Maximilian Ringleb*

Two decades after the publication of his existentialist masterpiece Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre returned to contemporary philosophical thought with the publication of Critique of Dialectic Reason in 1960. Having previously proposed “the most radical view of human freedom … since the Epicureans,”[1] Sartre’s second major contribution to contemporary philosophy was an on-going project to find meaningful ways for the radically liberated individual to engage with society and the world.

For Sartre, to be meaningful, this praxis had to follow Marxist philosophy: “[w]e cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.”[2] Writing in the 1950s, Sartre traced the social structures governing his time back to Kantian and Hegelian thought. Due to the dominating reality of these structures for the last two centuries, Sartre believed that “Marxism is still very young,” as it expresses the original critique of a historical moment that is not yet overcome.[3] Comparing Marx’s and Kierkegaard’s critiques of Hegel, Sartre concludes that “Marx … was right, since he asserts with Kierkegaard the specificity of human existence and, along with Hegel, takes the concrete man in his objective reality.”[4] In other words, Sartre interpreted Marxist philosophy dialectically as the theoretical but not yet practical synthesis of Hegelian substantiality and Kierkegaardian existentialism, and therefore as the single horizon for meaningful contemporary praxis. However, in disregarding Schopenhauer as the third “post-Hegelian anti-philosophical break”[5] it becomes clear that Sartre’s famous proposition remains only an interpretation of history, and a rather doubtful one at that, as Bernard Harcourt noted in the discussion of Critique 10/13.

Sartre’s interpretation of Marx as the synthesis of Kierkegaard and Hegel, of existentialism and objective reality, sheds further light on his overarching project in Critique of Dialectical Reason. Rather than attempting to unite Marxism and existentialism as two previously isolated philosophies, Sartre aims to reclaim an existentialist Marxism that he sees first expressed in Marx himself. In the conclusion of his Search for a Method, Sartre reiterates unambiguously: “Marx’s own Marxism, while indicating the dialectical opposition between knowing and being, contained implicitly the demand for an existential foundation for the theory.”[6] In our discussion, Noreen Khawaja presented an illustrative methodological analogy of Sartre’s project as an attempt to unite dialectic thought and phenomenology. Indeed, one might argue that such an approach was first introduced by Hegel, which further supports the interpretation of Sartre’s project as a reclamation rather than an original claim.

To reintroduce Marx into Marxism or, in Sartre’s slightly confusing terminology, to (re-)establish Marxism as a structural-historical anthropology, he provides two main arguments. First, Sartre aims to identify the main flaws of contemporary Marxist traditions, particularly “Stalinized Marxism, French Communists…, mechanical Marxists, and sterile Marxists,”—all forms of what Lukács called a voluntarist idealism.[7] In regard to such idealist Marxisms, Sartre explicitly rejects their absolutization of the a priori, which leaves no room for indeterminateness on behalf of the particular and which goes so far as to—quite literally—”liquidate the particularity” on behalf of the whole. In Sartre’s own words: “Marxism possesses theoretical bases, it embraces all human activity; but it no longer knows anything. Its concepts are dictates; but its goal is no longer to increase what it knows but to be itself constituted a priori as an absolute Knowledge.”[8] Sartre’s rigorous diagnosis of the mechanistic flaws of contemporary Marxism presents probably one of the most profound attacks on the dominating traditions of idealist Marxism and is a decisive attempt to highlight human capacities to construct our own future: “[T]he field of possibilities is the goal toward which the agent surpasses his objective situation. And this field in turn depends strictly on the social, historical reality.”[9] By asserting the individual’s ability to surpass her structural conditions, Sartre emphasizes the relevance of subjective praxis as “a passage from objective to objective through internalization.”[10] For Marxism as a structural-historical anthropology, this means nothing less than the establishment of “a dimension of rational non-knowledge at the heart of knowledge”[11] or, in metaphorical terms, the revitalization of Marxism with an existentialist heart.[12]

In order to provide an argumentative basis for the legitimacy and correctness of his alternative, existentialist interpretation of Marxism, Sartre’s second line of argument traces existentialism back to Marx himself. Sartre could have simplified the matter by referring to the early texts of Marx—which are generally interpreted as humanist or existentialist; however, as he aimed to remove any legitimate basis for an idealist interpretation of Marx, Sartre tried to define Marx’s complete oeuvre as an existentialist project. Consequently, Sartre refers to the late Marx, with whom he “unreservedly” agrees that “[t]he mode of production of material life generally dominates the development of social, political, and intellectual life.”[13] He leaves it quite unclear, however, to what extent such a statement must be understood in an existentialist, non-mechanistic way; and thus he seems to be offering an interpretation of Marx’s thought rather than an unambiguous argument about it. In comparison, several Marxist theoreticians have presented more profound mechanistic interpretations of the late Marx and particularly of Capital. Lukács, for instance, seems right in observing “the primacy of existence over consciousness” in the previous quote from Marx. The gravest critique of Sartre’s and several other forms of humanist or historical interpretations of Capital, however, was probably presented by Althusser in his essay “Marxism Is Not a Historicism,” which was discussed in Critique 5/13.[14] Althusser, who was drawn to a closer study of Marx by Sartre’s Critique of Dialectic Reason, employs a Spinozian, mechanistic interpretation of Capital. These contradictory interpretations of Marx’s Capital prove that Sartre’s attempt to claim Marx’s complete oeuvre for existentialism “related precisely to his peculiar philosophical origins,” as Althusser put it, and were therefore ambiguously ideological rather than objective[15]: the unaffiliated reader can see the tensions between idealist and existentialist Marxism reflected in Marx’s own thinking.

Due to Sartre’s undifferentiated existentialist interpretation of Marx’s oeuvre, the subsequent and central project of Critique of Dialectic Reason—namely, to identify “the means [i.e. a method, the progressive-regressive method, as summarized in Professor Harcourt’s introductory remarks] to constitute a structural, historical anthropology”[16]—can never dislodge the fundamental ambiguity that characterizes Marx’s oeuvre itself. Sartre became conscious of this issue at the beginning of his chapter on the progressive-regressive method, admitting that “[i]f one wants to grant to Marxist thought its full complexity, one would have to say that man in a period of exploitation is at once both the product of his own product and a historical agent who can under no circumstances be taken as a product.” Sartre aims for a dialectical sublation of this contradiction through the movement of praxis, since it “goes beyond them [the real, prior conditions] while conserving them.”[17] However, since Sartre later admitted that he never found this sublation, his conception of existentialist Marxist praxis seems in its ambiguity almost indistinguishable from his existentialist definition of individual freedom in Being and Nothingness, which was similarly constrained by the situation.

As the contradictions between existentialism and Marxism—and therefore between the early and the late Marx himself—were never resolved in Sartre’s project, one might ask to what extent the reference to a Marxist political philosophy was even essential to the development of a meaningful praxis for existentialist metaphysics. Once the mechanistic determinism of Marxism was rejected and the conditioned or situated freedom of the personal project was accepted, this question became vital.[18] For Sartre, the answer was clear: Marxism was the horizon of contemporary praxis: as long as the world is governed by needs and scarcity, or, in Marx’s own terms, as long as society hasn’t transitioned from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, Marxism is the only philosophy that pushes our praxis toward the implementation of this realm of freedom.[19] The reality of this realm of freedom, however, is based on a short-sighted interpretation of Hegel’s master-slave-relationship that neglects the unsurpassable natural conditionality of consciousness in its relation to being.[20] Consequently, as the goal of Marxist praxis seems illusory, Sartre’s interpretation of Marxism as the only horizon of praxis is—as mentioned—only an interpretation.

Realistic existentialist praxis can and should therefore do without the guidance of idealistic Marxist principles (which does not include Marx’s early works). Sartre’s notion of seriality—a rather individualist, i.e. existentialist, rather than idealist Marxist idea of organization and praxis—might be the key to an effective existentialist praxis. Sartre shows how a common situation can serially connect individuals, create a group-in-fusion, and result in an effective surpassing of the situation. These groups can then form standing organizations that use the momentum to call for broader change, or they can dissolve again into forms of seriality. Guenther rightfully notes that “in the absence of an external threat, the standing organization may produce and exacerbate internal divisions among its members … [and] become an institution that constrains and eventually undermines … agency.”[21] As long as the formation of groups and standing organizations is connected to clearly defined goals, however, Sartre’s conception of existentialist praxis seems to provide an effective basis for change while providing a maximum sphere of freedom to the individual. Guenther’s analysis of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes—a remarkable success story of existentialist praxis—suggests that the most effective path to meaningful change might still be a form of non-violent resistance rather than idealist-dogmatic action. In a highly individualistic world, Sartre’s conception of seriality as a form of existentialist praxis might well provide the framework to overcome our dogmatic age and help establish a realistic, natural realm of freedom in which self-consciousness find itself in its proper relation to being.


* M.A. Global Thought, Columbia University 2020; B.S. Sustainable Management, Technische Universitaet Berlin 2019

[1] Hazel E. Barnes, “Introduction,” in Search for a Method, by Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), vii.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 30.

[3] Sartre, Search for a Method, 30.

[4] Sartre, Search for a Method, 14.

[5] Slavoj Zizek, “Is It Still Possible To Be A Hegelian Today?,” 2010, 13.

[6] Sartre, Search for a Method, 177.

[7] Bernard Harcourt, “Introduction to Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) – Critique 13/13,” accessed February 21, 2020,

[8] Sartre, Search for a Method, 28.

[9] Sartre, Search for a Method, 93.

[10] Sartre, Search for a Method, 97.

[11] Sartre, Search for a Method, 174.

[12] Sartre’s attempt to claim Marx for existentialism proves once more that the Critique of Dialectical Reason is a continuance of his previous existentialist thought, adding a social dimension to it. While it is true that existentialism would be taken up in Marxism according to Sartre’s theory, one should keep in mind that Sartre attempts to (re)establish existentialism as the true core of Marxism. In this regard, Flynn’s interpretation of Sartre’s theory as a Marxist existentialism seems not too far off. See Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism : The Test Case of Collective Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[13] Sartre, Search for a Method, 33-4.

[14] See Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, and David Fernbach, Reading Capital: The Complete Edition (London ; New York: Verso, the imprint of New Left Books, 2015), pp. 286-295.

[15] Althusser, Balibar, and Fernbach, Reading Capital, 287.

[16] Sartre, Search for a Method, xxxiv.

[17] Sartre, Search for a Method, 87. This idea reminds of the Balzacian concept of decision-making—to choose one while conserving the other—as exemplified in Père Goriot. I do not want to comment on the extent to which this conception can transcend the realm of fiction.

[18] Sartre, Search for a Method, 170.

[19] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 820.

[20] “For just as life is the natural location of consciousness, self-sufficiency without absolute negativity, death is the natural negation of this same consciousness, negation without self-sufficiency, which thus endures without the significance of the recognition which was demanded.” Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. Terry Pinkard and Michael Baur, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2018),, 112.

[21] Lisa Guenther, “A Critical Phenomenology of Solidarity and Resistance in the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes,” in Body/Self/Other: The Phenomenology of Social Encounters, ed. Luna Dolezal (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2017), 57.


Works Cited

Althusser, Louis, Étienne Balibar, and David Fernbach. Reading Capital: The Complete Edition. London ; New York: Verso, the imprint of New Left Books, 2015.

Barnes, Hazel E. “Introduction.” In Search for a Method, by Jean-Paul Sartre, vii–xxxi. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.

Flynn, Thomas R. Sartre and Marxist Existentialism : The Test Case of Collective Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Guenther, Lisa. “A Critical Phenomenology of Solidarity and Resistance in the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes.” In Body/Self/Other: The Phenomenology of Social Encounters, edited by Luna Dolezal, 47–73. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2017.

Harcourt, Bernard. “Introduction to Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) – Critique 13/13.” Accessed February 21, 2020.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Fredrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Edited by Terry Pinkard and Michael Baur. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. III. New York: International Publishers, 1977.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Search for a Method. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.

Schweikart, David. “Sartre, Camus and a Marxism for the 21st Century.” Sartre Studies International 24, no. 2 (December 1, 2018): 1–24.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Is It Still Possible To Be A Hegelian Today?,” 2010.