ga('send', 'pageview');
John Passant

Site menu:

April 2010
« Mar   May »



RSS Oz House



Subscribe to us

Get new blog posts delivered to your inbox.


Site search


Keep socialist blog En Passant going - donate now
If you want to keep a blog that makes the arguments every day against the ravages of capitalism going and keeps alive the flame of democracy and community, make a donation to help cover my costs. And of course keep reading the blog. To donate click here. Keep socialist blog En Passant going. More... (4)

Sprouting sh*t for almost nothing
You can prove my 2 ex-comrades wrong by donating to my blog En Passant at BSB: 062914 Account: 1067 5257, the Commonwealth Bank in Tuggeranong, ACT. More... (12)

My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)



Remembering Jean-Paul Sartre: philosopher and activist

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” Thus wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1938 novel Nausea, of which the revolutionary socialist Victor Serge said simply that it had “an appropriate title.”

Sartre, who died 30 years ago this month, went on to become the 20th century’s most prominent French philosopher and public intellectual. He built his fame on the kind of unremitting expressions of existential angst that arts students are apt to mistake as proof of what deep thinkers they are.

“It is absurd that we are born, it is absurd that we die”, Sartre wrote in his 1943 philosophical magnum-opus Being and Nothingness. “Hell is other people”, laments one of the characters in his 1944 play No Exit.

So what interest does a figure like Sartre hold for the socialists and the activists of today? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is quite a lot. 

Sartre was an immensely popular thinker among the radical French youth of the 1960s generation. In contrast to the kind of ornamental post-modernist intellectuals who occupy the commanding heights of the global knowledge industry today, and whose idea of activism is more likely to involve “deconstructing” a leaflet for a rally than actually attending one, Sartre’s life and work was characterised by a deep and passionate commitment to change.

Sartre lived through some of the most significant events in the history of the 20th century. Born in 1905, his first political memory was of the Russian revolution of 1917. He studied in Berlin from 1933 to 1934, in the years immediately following the ascension of Hitler and the Nazis to power. Between 1939 and 1945 he first served in the French army, was then captured by the Germans and held for nine months as a prisoner of war, and following his release in 1941 was a founding member of the underground resistance organisation “Socialism and Liberty”.

In the decades following the war he was a leading participant in the radical movements that culminated in the uprising of French students and workers in May 1968. And Sartre died in 1980, the year the Solidarnosc movement erupted through the seemingly impenetrable crust of Poland’s Stalinist bureaucracy, signalling the beginning of the end for the repressive regimes of the Eastern Bloc.

But Sartre’s political commitments were not merely a product of the times. Rather, they were grounded in a deep sense of alienation from the norms of mainstream (bourgeois) French society. Even in his early, more purely existentialist phase, Sartre’s works express some basic truths about capitalism that, while not explicitly political as stand-alone ideas, nevertheless can function as a kind of intellectual provocation, opening a path towards some potentially “dangerous” conclusions.

Two basic features stand-out from the overall existentialist vision. The first is the sense of disorientation and despair brought about by the lack of any fixed source of meaning for our lives. As Sartre put it in his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism”: “Doestoevsky once wrote: ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point.”

This is a condition that was analysed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto, where he discussed the need for the bourgeoisie to constantly revolutionise the means of production, and society as a whole, in the pursuit of ever increasing profit. With the development of capitalist society, “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

The second feature of Sartre’s existentialism is its emphasis on the isolation of the human subject in the face of the immense natural and man-made forces that make up the objective world. On the one side there is the individual human existence. On the other, there is the stultifying silence and indifference of things. In between there is a gaping chasm of “nothingness” – the source of our freedom, but also of the angst we feel as the bearer of a responsibility for a self that is ours and ours alone.

Once again, the echoes of Marx’s theory of alienation are unmistakeable. In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx described how, as a result of our capacity to labour being harnessed by a force that is alien to us and over which we have no control (i.e. capital), we feel increasingly disconnected from the people and things that comprise our world. As Friedrich Engels put it in The Condition of the Working Class in England, under conditions of capitalist production “the dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is carried out to its utmost extreme.”

Is it any wonder then, that in the context of the ascendancy of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, and the associated barbarity of the Second World War, existentialist novels such as Nausea and philosophical works like Being and Nothingness had such an immediate and dramatic impact?

But Sartre’s work did more than just express a sense of despair in the face of a seemingly meaningless and absurd existence, for it was also, as he saw it, a philosophy of action. His reasoning was as follows: humans are distinguished by the fact that, in contrast to inanimate objects, they have no pre-existing essence or purpose that determines how they should be. As Sartre himself puts it “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.” We are condemned, as it were, to be free, and we cannot evade the full force of the moral dilemmas we face in choosing how we want to live our lives.

In addition, according to Sartre, such freedom is not to be interpreted in purely selfish and egotistical terms. For our personal choice of how we exist cannot but imply an ethical ideal that, more or less consciously, we believe others should follow. As Sartre puts it, “one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing.”

But perhaps the most important step in Sartre’s account comes in answer to the question of whether, on the basis of his existentialist approach, it is possible to pass judgement on the actions of other human beings. According to Sartre we can, and this is because of the fundamental act of self-negation involved in seeking to advance one’s own interests at the cost of the freedom of others.

To act in a way that oppresses, exploits or generally restricts the freedom of another is (following the principle of imagining the consequences if everyone acted in the same way) to create, or rather to choose, a kind of society in which the same restrictions could easily be turned back onto oneself. The basic moral imperative implied by Sartre’s existentialism is therefore to seek to promote greater freedom for self and others in everything we do. As Sartre puts it “when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values.”

It is this last point that provided the philosophical starting-point for Sartre’s long political involvement with the radical left. For in the context of capitalist society there was certainly no shortage of violence, exploitation and oppression to oppose. 

Sartre’s participation, during the Second World War, in the resistance group “Socialism and Liberty” has already been mentioned. At the end of the war in 1945 he launched Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times) – a journal that aimed to provide a voice for the independent (including anti-Stalinist) left.

In 1948 Sartre joined with former Trotskyist David Rousset and various other activists from the social democratic, non-Communist and Trotskyist left to form the “Revolutionary Democratic Assembly”, whose founding statement declared that: “Between the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of Communism in its Stalinist form, we believe an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of freedom and human dignity by binding them to the struggle for social revolution.”

During this period Sartre came under increasing attack from the French Communist Party (PCF), who saw him as a threat to its hegemony, particularly in the ranks of intellectuals and students. In 1947, the prominent Communist writer and philosopher Roger Garaudy published a book about Sartre and others entitled Gravediggers of Literature. Sartre responded with characteristically sardonic wit, saying simply that “gravediggers are honest people, certainly unionised, perhaps Communists. I’d rather be a gravedigger than a lackey.”

However, in 1952, during a period when the PCF was suffering from increasing repression at the hands of the French government following mass demonstrations against NATO, Sartre announced his “agreement with the Communists on certain precise and limited subjects, reasoning from my principles and not from theirs.” 

Sartre has been heavily criticised for his brief period of allegiance to the PCF, which lasted only until 1956. And there is no doubt that he made himself complicit in various ways with the crimes committed by the Stalinists, particularly through the publication of a series of articles expressing a highly uncritical view of Soviet society and making outright dishonest claims about the freedom of criticism permitted there.

But we should bear in mind the peculiar difficulties of the circumstances in which he was operating, as suggested by his 1947 observation that “the majority of the proletariat, strait-jacketed by a single party, encircled by propaganda which isolates it, forms a closed society without doors or windows. There is only one way of access, a very narrow one, the Communist Party.” And while this doesn’t excuse Sartre’s actions during this period, it at least gives some sense of the complexities of his motivations.

Sartre’s final move away from the PCF began in 1955, when Les Temps Modernes committed itself to opposition to the French Government’s war in Algeria, at a time when the only active campaigning on this issue was by a handful of anarchists and Trotskyists. In contrast, in 1956 the PCF voted in favour of ‘special powers’ for the Government to deal with the situation. Following the Russian invasion of Hungary Sartre made a decisive break, denouncing the intervention and declaring that socialism “is not brought at bayonet point” (later, following the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Sartre went so far as to speak of “Soviet imperialism”). 

It was Sartre’s role in supporting national liberation movements in Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere that really cemented his position as an icon for the “new left” that emerged in Europe during this time. He made many statements against the brutality of colonial oppression and in support of resistance, with the most compelling example being his 1961 preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Commenting on the sanctimonious denunciations of the violence of the oppressed, Sartre wrote: 

“it is not their violence, it is ours, which turns back on itself and rends them… It is the moment of the boomerang, it is the third phase of violence; it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realise any more than we did the other times that it’s we that have launched it. We have sown the wind: he [the peasant fighter] is the whirlwind… If violence began this very evening and if exploitation and oppression had never existed on the earth, perhaps the slogans of non-violence might end the quarrel.”

In other words, as Sartre saw it, the violence of the Algerian, Vietnamese and other national liberation movements was a clear cut case of the chickens coming home to roost.

So Sartre’s legacy as a political activist is, despite a number of significant missteps, overwhelmingly positive. He is a figure that, contrary to the arguments of some recent critics, who would like to dismiss him as straightforward apologist for Stalinism, can and should be claimed for the socialist left.

However, with regards to his philosophical legacy, the picture is somewhat less clear. As Sartre saw it, the basic principles of existentialism, rather than being counter-posed to Marxism, provided fresh insights into the human condition that could be used to enrich and extend it. In particular, following his break from the Communist Party in 1956, he came to see his role as one of rejuvenating the libertarian and critical spirit of Marxism, which had been crushed under the weight of Stalinist totalitarianism. Thus in a 1975 article, Sartre recalled that “writing The Critique of Dialectical Reason represented for me a way of settling accounts with my own thought outside of the Communist Party’s sphere of influence over thought. I felt that true Marxism had been completely twisted and falsified by the Communists.”

Sartre seems to have had a limited success on this score. As British socialist Ian Birchall, who as an activist of the 1960s generation was strongly influenced by Sartre’s work, has written “certainly in the period after 1956… Sartre made an important contribution to the rebirth of Marxism as a critical and radical method of thought rather than a sterile dogmatism.”

However, the extent to which Sartre succeeded in his endeavour to reconcile existentialism with Marxism is questionable. The Critique of Dialectical Reason is a long and difficult book and to provide a thorough analysis of its merit as an (avowed) work of existential-Marxism goes well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that Sartre’s focus on the individual subject, even when seen in the context of a pre-existing world of people, things and relations, seems to lend itself to an abstract and undialectical approach to politics that goes against the basic tenor of Marxism. After all, in contrast to existentialism, the starting point for Marx was neither the existence nor essence of the individual human being, but rather the “ensemble of social relations” that comprise society as a whole.

One might conjecture that Sartre’s focus on individual choice and action was, in the absence of a clear understanding of the broader dynamics of capitalist society, a significant contributing factor to his sometimes quite dramatic political errors of judgement.

Nevertheless, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective on this. For while Sartre’s engagement with politics was a little hit-and-miss, at the very least his philosophy drove him to take a stand against the injustices of capitalist society, in the process exposing himself to criticism of all those lackeys, of both pseudo-left and rightist varieties, who would rather apologise for them. As Raya Dunayevskaya has commented:

“whether one viewed Sartre’s Existentialism as the only true philosophy of freedom or considered it the false consciousness which disoriented a whole generation of revolutionaries, one thing no one doubted: Sartrean Existentialism was not enclosed in an ivory tower, and by its identification of Freedom with Revolution it maintained its hold on the youth.”

And this, finally, is much more than can be said about the post-modernist windbags who dominate the academic world today. 

This article, by Simon Olley, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Pingback from Tweets that mention En Passant » Remembering Jean-Paul Sartre: philosopher and activist —
Time April 20, 2010 at 9:51 pm

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Passant. John Passant said: En Passant » Remembering Jean-Paul Sartre: philosopher and activist […]

Comment from Marco
Time April 21, 2010 at 8:51 pm

A very thought-provoking article. Thanks for that John.

If you look at my website, I define myself as a non-orthodox Marxist.

To a large extent, I find strong nihilist tones in my thought. But I cannot deny a strong existentialist influence.

Thanks again.

Comment from PAUL WALTER
Time May 1, 2010 at 3:43 am

Yes, an article that comes of the detachment of hindsight.
Ee’d all do it differently if we had our times over again.
The comments describing the thralldom of the French working classes, circa late 1940’s, has an uncomfortable resonance with Australian politics now.
as Barthes said a little later, in “Mythologies”, “the system always obscures itself”.