Bernard E. Harcourt | Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Engaged Philosopher

By Bernard E. Harcourt

We closed our last seminar, Revolution 2/13, on a provocative passage from the introduction to C.L.R. James’s book, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution. James is reflecting there on the form that his book had taken. The book, as you will recall, was an archive of his political interventions—a collection of his writings from different political moments, each of which representing a punctual and activist intervention at the time it was written. It included James’ manifesto/political history of the Ghana revolution written in 1958, during and right after independence from Britain in 1957. It included letters and speeches from the early 1960s documenting the impending crises—what James called the “anti-democratic tendencies” of Nkrumah.[1] It included, as well, James’ timely exploration of Lenin’s final writings, especially Lenin’s essay from 1923 on cooperation, which, James writes, “could have been written with contemporary (and future) Africa in mind.”[2] The whole was published years later, in 1977, at a time after James’ worries about the future of Africa had subsided with the advent of Julius Nyerere and the Arusha declaration on the African socialist idea of cooperation or “ujamaa.”[3] The entire historical trajectory had given James renewed hope. Seeing what was happening in Tanzania, James concluded in 1977: “I remain now, as I was then, more than ever convinced that once again something new had come out of Africa, pointing out the road not only for Africa and Africans but for all those seeking to lift ourselves from the parlous conditions of our collapsing century.”[4]

Reflecting on the unique form of his book, then—“One final word about the form the book has taken”—C.L.R. James tells his reader:

Beginning with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and reaching a completion in Sartre, modern philosophy expresses its modernity by assuming the form of a personal response to extreme situations, and is no less philosophical for that. I record here a sequence of political responses to an extreme political situation, the African situation, as it has developed during the last thirty years.[5]

Let me italicize the differential. Whereas modern Western philosophy takes the form of “a personal response to extreme situations,” C.L.R. James understands himself as producing a “political” response to “an extreme political situation.” And in citing Jean-Paul Sartre in 1977, it is important to emphasize that James is not just referring to the more self-referential existentialist writings of Sartre in Nausea (1938) or Being and Nothingness (1943), but also to the Sartre of the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) and the “Preface” to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961). James is referring not just to the existentialist philosopher Sartre of the 1940s, but to the engaged Marxist thinker Sartre who took to the streets, bullhorn in hand, to advance the cause of the people.

What did C.L.R. James have in mind, then, with the distinction between “a personal response to extreme situations” that represents a modern Western philosophical sensibility versus “political responses to an extreme political situation” that captures either or both the activism/writing of someone like Nkrumah or James himself? All of these forms are equally “philosophical,” James insisted—no less philosophical than the tradition of classical philosophy or of German idealism. Nevertheless, although of equal philosophical caliber, what is it that distinguishes Sartre, or Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard? What is it exactly that would differentiate the Sartre of preface to The Wretched of the Earth from the Nkrumah in James’ Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution?

The Engaged Philosopher

With Sartre, we come face-to-face with the “engaged” philosopher. The term “engagé ” is one that Sartre used ubiquitously to describe the proper way to act and think in contemporary society. In his presentation of Les Temps modernes—the literary and political review he founded with Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in 1945—Sartre called for an “engaged” literary form, a “littérature engagée.[6] Sartre urged, as well, an “engaged” existence—an “engaged” relationship to the world. He wrote, describing the responsibility of all women and men:

One must be engaged, one must take sides, abstention is a choice. […] Such is the person that we conceive: the total human being. Totally engaged and totally free.[7]

There is no choice not to choose, Sartre argued, nor not to be engaged. One is inevitably thrown into the world, placed in situation. Abstention is itself a choice. Through these concepts of the “engaged” person and “engaged” literature, Sartre advocated for a form of literary and political intervention aimed at changing the world. Writing was a form of praxis. As he wrote in What Is Literature?—a book-length treatment and defense of “engaged” literature—“A literature of praxis is coming into being in the age of the unfindable public.”[8] This new form of praxis necessarily accompanied the existential situation of the writer thrown in the world, who cannot avoid not being fully engaged, and who, as a result, must choose sides—and, for Sartre, the revolutionary side. “Literature is, in essence, the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution.”[9]

For Sartre, the writer is inevitably implicated. They must take sides: the writer is “dans le coup”—as Sartre emphasizes: “ ‘dans le coup’, quoi qu’il fasse, marqué, compromis, jusque dans la plus lointaine retraite. […] L’écrivain est en situation dans son époque: chaque parole a des retentissements. Chaque silence aussi.[10] No matter what, the writer is implicated. Their failure to call out repression makes them responsible for the oppression—Flaubert and Goncourt are themselves responsible for the repression of the Communards “because they did not write a single line to prevent it.”[11] And Sartre himself, no doubt, becomes equally responsible for the occupation and collaboration of the French with Nazi Germany. “The occupation taught us our own responsibility,” Sartre writes tellingly.[12]

To write with purpose, to transform society, that is what Sartre admires in the work of the Negritude movement—in the work, for instance of Aimé Césaire, who, Sartre notes in “Black Orpheus,” writes with conviction, “like a rocket,” to transform society. Sartre specifically qualifies Césaire’s poetry as an “engaged and even directed” form of writing—the emphasis is Sartre’s.[13] Césaire is the “engaged” writer because:

What Césaire destroys is not all culture but rather white culture; what he brings to light is not desire for everything but rather the revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed negro; what he touches in his very depths is not the spirit but a certain specific, concrete form of humanity. With this in mind, one can speak here about engaged and even directed automatic writing, not because there is any meditative intervention but because the words and images perpetually translate the same torrid obsession.[14]

And thus, the project of the engaged writer, of the engaged intellectual, or more simply, of the engaged person must be to transform society, to work toward a just society. Sartre concludes his presentation of Les Temps modernes:

In sum, our intention [with the new journal] is to partake in producing change in our society. […] We place ourselves on the side of those who want to change both the social condition of human beings and their self-conceptions. And so, regarding the political and social events that will take place, our journal will take a position in each and every case.[15] […]

Let me emphasize, we are not simply talking about contributing to progress in the area of pure knowledge, the long-term goal we have set for ourselves is a liberation.[16]

This idea of taking a political side in “each and every case,” and Sartre’s accompanying ambition of liberation, drew criticism from the younger generation of philosophers during the 1970s. Many derided this form of constant engagement, attributing it to the “universal intellectual” who, as opposed to the more targeted “specific intellectual,” always took a position (and typically the same Marxist or Maoist position) in all political controversies. Michel Foucault identified, by contrast, with the “specific” intellectual, someone who would weigh in more selectively, immerse himself in the details of the specific context of any particular political conflict (for instance, the Iranian revolution), and make more pointed and unexpected interventions. Incidentally, in his brilliant book, Libre parole, Étienne Balibar articulates a third model for the modern intellectual, an alternative model to the universal or specific, which he calls the “singular intellectual.” The singular intellectual, for Balibar, is a truth-teller who “engages historical singularities, in other words moments of actuality: an intellectual who is neither ‘universal,’ nor ‘specific,’ but situates himself beyond that metaphysical distinction in his way of living and of discourse. An intellectual who tries to say things about the present, about his rights and obligations, about the intolerable, and about the possibilities that may emerge.”[17]

But for all these different models of the “engaged,” “universal,” “specific,” or “singular” intellectual, the question remains: Is there a distinction between “a personal response to extreme situations” (the modern Western philosophical form, according to James) and “political responses to an extreme political situation”?

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci, surely, personifies the latter—although he also personifies the engaged philosopher. In his confinement in prison, Gramsci took positions on each and every question, aligned himself, took sides. He was, in the Sartrian sense, engagé to the hilt.

The Prison Notebooks—covering the period 1929-1935, first published in Italian in 1947, translated and published in English first as selections in 1971 and then completely in 1974—attest to Gramsci’s wide range of engagements, whether on the questions of passive revolution, Sorellism, Americanism, Fordism, industrial concentration, monopoly, crises of authority, materialism, and the other issues discussed in our selection of his prison writings.

What then is the exact difference between a text of an engaged philosopher, say Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, and the writings of a worldly or revolutionary philosopher such as Gramsci or Nkrumah, especially as depicted by C.L.R. James?

Let me, here, throw out some crude and tentative hypotheses:

First, even in his most engaged writings, Sartre nevertheless remains in the position of the translator of revolutionary thought. Whether in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, where Sartre is essentially trying to reconcile existentialism and Marxism, or in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth or for that matter in his foreword to the anthology on Negritude “Black Orpheus,” Sartre positions himself as the one making revolutionary thought accessible or palatable to a white Western audience. Sartre always takes position; but it feels as if he is outside the debate, taking a position on the debate, rather than driving the revolutionary praxis. Sartre’s essay “Black Orpheus” is a case on point. There, he explains or elucidates or opens a door for the white Western audience. In his preface to Fanon’s masterpiece as well. Sartre serves as the “white envelope”—to borrow an expression that was used to describe the white abolitionists who prefaced the narratives written by enslaved persons in the antebellum period.

This should not in any way diminish the radical nature of Sartre’s intervention in a text like “Black Orpheus,” which was published as early as 1948. No, the text itself is radical. It is a provocation. Just the way it opens: “When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? [That] you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground?”[18] That is a powerful and provocative start to a deeply engaged essay praising the political genius of the Negritude poets. It is also a deeply philosophical intervention on race and class, offering a Hegelian dialectical overcoming of the thesis of “white supremacy,” by means of the negativity and antithetical values of Negritude, toward a “synthesis or realization of the human being in a raceless society.”[19]

But however radical and theorized, Sartre’s essay is nevertheless a gloss—in the sense of the medieval gloss on all four corners of a text. It is not the revolutionary act, but its publicity. This is true as well of his preface to Fanon.

Second, in this sense, Sartre remains one step removed from the revolutionary praxis. He is operating at the derivative of the curve. He is urging engagement, rather than being fully immersed. Neither Nkrumah, nor Césaire, nor Fanon need to be telling others to be engaged, they simply are, through their own implication, through their identity and actions. By contrast, as evidenced for instance in his presentation of Les Temps modernes, Sartre is telling people to be engaged, persuading them that they have no choice but to choose sides. Worldly philosophers hardly need to be reminded of this. They do not need to be coaxed. They simply are.

Third, the differences may turn, ultimately, on the question of audience—a question we have broached a few times. Sartre is writing his presentation of Les Temps modernes, in large part, for a circle of Parisian literary figures. He is writing to those who will be judging him. A large segment of the audience for this first salvo is the Saint-Germain crowd—to be sure, a far more robust public sphere than in other countries, but nevertheless an elite audience of cultural critics and more established political actors.

These tentative hypotheses, then, raise the more fundamental question of what sparks a revolution, how it unfolds, and what contributes to the transformation of society. Drawing on Lenin’s notion of hegemony as political leadership, Gramsci famously developed the theory of cultural hegemony—which has become so relevant today on the Left as well as on the Right. (As we discussed at Praxis 4/13, the New Right appropriated Gramsci and now espouses a form of extreme-right cultural hegemonic warfare modeled on Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony.)

What’s important here is the way that cultural hegemony ambiguates the modern concept of revolution, as well as our definition of the “worldly” or “revolutionary” philosopher. If, with Gramsci, we adopt a strong position on the role of cultural production and hegemony, then it would be shortsighted to draw hard lines between the revolutionary text and its gloss—in fact, the gloss may be just as impactful as the text, or, better yet, the text will reach a broader audience by means of the gloss. These are, of course, fundamental questions that raise a number of related queries:

  • What does it mean to spark a revolution? Must it involve an armed uprising? Does it include radical shifts in worldview?
  • How is revolutionary praxis related to its cultural dissemination?
  • What demarcates the revolutionary text from its gloss—or the revolutionary philosopher from their publicist?
  • What then does it mean to be truly “engaged” as a philosopher?
  • And can one be “engaged” still at the university?

These are some of the questions that motivate our seminar with our dear friend and engaged philosopher, Étienne Balibar, who will join us from Paris.

Welcome to Revolution 3/13!


[1] C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (Westport: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1977), 9.

[2] C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (Westport: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1977), 11.

[3] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 24.

[4] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 24.

[5] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 23.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, Présentation des Temps Modernes, in Les Temps Modernes 1 (October 1945), *8.

[7] Sartre, Présentation, *7 (emphasis added).

[8] Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 290.

[9] Sartre, What is Literature?, 153.

[10] Sartre, Présentation, *2.

[11] Sartre, Présentation, *2 see also, Sartre, What Is Literature?, xvii (“as for Flaubert, who did not engage himself, it seems that he haunts me like remorse.”)

[12] Sartre, Présentation, *2.

[13] Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus, in The Massachusetts Review (1964-1965): 13-52, at 33.

[14] Sartre, Black Orpheus, 33.

[15] Sartre, Présentation, *3.

[16] Sartre, Présentation, *5-6.

[17] Étienne Balibar, “Dire, contredire: sur les formes de la parrêsia selon Foucault,” 81–120, in Étienne Balibar, Libre parole (Paris: Galilée, 2018), 112 ; see generally Bernard E. Harcourt, Critique & Praxis (Columbia, 2020), 26-28.

[18] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” 13.

[19] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” 49.