Jean-Paul Sartre and the New Radicals

MARXISM AND EXISTENTIALISM, Walter Odajnyk. Anchor, (New York, 1965). $.95.

A friend, call him Walter, who came to Harvard the same time I did, lived the Cambridge existential life for two years. He did not rationalize his behavior by belief in God or in social responsibility, but was kinder and warmer than some who do. He was an English major, interested above all in becoming a writer. He had no use for politics and was outraged by the atrocities of international affairs when he discovered them, very occasionally, in a newspaper. One day I learned, to my surprise, that he had joined the May Second Movement. We met for coffee, and he talked for a time about the hopelessness of the American world position. He asked if my views about Vietnam had changed. At the end, be shook his head. "Man," he said. "Like you have just the remotest possibility of salvation."

I do not condemn Walter for giving up his apolitical life and joining the May Second Movement. I think he is hopelessly wrong about world affairs, but I do not think his naivete about politics disqualifies him from speaking about them.

There are others in the May Second Movement, and many others in SDS or SNCC, who know as much about politics as any student at Harvard, so I have no intention of advancing the exasperating claim to Walter that those who really know agree. What interests me about Walter is that he, like many students at Harvard, has moved from a completely apolitical position into the radical organizations. In Walter's case, it was a move from existentialism into a Marxist camp (or at least a Marxist suburb).

Has Walter considered whether this move may mean a change in the principles on which he acts? I doubt it. Again it is typical of the new radicals that they do not spend much time worrying about their philosophical principles or historical lineage. Yet at some future point, when the activism of the movement has either died or been turned over to younger people, the elders will begin to think about their position. Then perhaps Walter will notice what some of the more bookish radicals have undoubtedly noticed already: the incredible parallels between the current radical situation and the experience of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Psychological Compatibility


Few student radicals seem to perceive any conflict between their underlying existential philosophies and their Marxist sympathies. There is certainly a strong psychological link between the two. Anyone drawn to the uncompromising individualism of existentialism with its rejection of a priori moral authority is likely to have an opposing urge to commit himself entirely to authority. That is a commonplace in psychology, but it is often forgotten by those who notice the intellectual inconsistency between the two positions. Sartre easily fits the existentialist-Marxist pattern of deep ambivalence to authority, if the childhood he describes in The Words is any indication. But before he became a Marxist he had already expressed, in his novels, plays, and essays, an important existentialist philosophy. When he became disillusioned with Western capitalist society, instead of abandonning existentialism he tried to bring it along with him. As Walter Odajnyk describes it in Marxism and Existentialism:

Jean-Paul Sartre, the most thorough Existentialist critic of Marxism, oddly enough has taken it upon himself to serve as mediator between these two fundamentally opposed philosophies This role appears to have developed from the fact that Sartre is a man of action as well as a theoretician. He maintains a philosophical premise which states there is no reality except in action and that a man is only what his life is. Philosophically he believes that Existentialism provides a true intrepretation of man and reality. But practically he concedes that Existentialism has no effective social theory and therefore can have little direct influence upon social and political phenomena. Yet Sartre as an existential man of action frequently takes direct part in social and political events. There is, however, no philosophical or logical reason why as an Existentialist he should favor the working class, or why he should be interested in acting in politics at all. A man may fulfill the requirement of defining himself in action and in life without necessarily acting politically... The important thing is that Sartre as an Existentialist has accepted the belief in the cause of socialism and has made an attempt at reconciling the most dominant philosophy of socialism with his own philosophy, yet always on the basis that such a reconciliation would aid the working class and the success of socialism.

This reconciliation of a humanistic individualism with the forces of revolutionary socialism would also seem to be a pretty good description of what, without articulating it, many young radicals are trying to accomplish.

The Theoretical Formulation

Sartre's theoretical formulation of the reconciliation is expounded in two works, one of which serves as an introduction to the other in the French edition, Critique de la Raison Dialectique and the introductory Question de Methode. As is the case with Raymond Aron, American publishers have adopted the infuriating habit of translating all but the most important of a man's work first, so that Aron's Guerre et Paix entre Les Nations and Sartre's Critique have still not appeared. A series of selections from the Critique are translated in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. It is alternately almost entirely unintelligible and utterly lucid. Speaking of alientation, Sartre will describe beautifully the working day of a factory girl and the alien external rhythm that her machince forces upon her.

With respect to this rhythm, which was so alien to the girl's vital personal rhythms that during the first few days it seemed unendurable: she wanted to adapt herself to it, she made an effort, followed her friend's advice, Invented a personal relation of interiority valid for herself alone ... To do this, is it entirely obvious that she gave herself to the machine ... Ultimately, the total adaptation to semi-automatism is the destruction of the girl's organic rhythms, and the interiorization of a rhythm which is absolutely other.

On the other hand, he is often incomprehensible:

But, since it is inadmissible that the totalizing knowledge arrive at the ontological totalization as a new totalization of the latter, the dialectical knowledge must be a moment of totalization or, if you prefer, the totalization must include its reflective totalization within itself, as an indispensable structure and as a totalizing process within the process as a whole.

After a great deal of meditation, it is possible to understand what Sartre means, and then it generally becomes apparent that he could have said it far more clearly. Desan says in The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre, "Sartre's book is badly constructed; indeed, it is uselessly obscure and interminable. Our author is definitely at the point where he can afford to be non-conformist to the extreme, leaving just enough intelligibility so that the conformist might attempt the struggle to understand him."

The two publications by Desan and Odajnyk are clear and extraordinary studies of Sartre's views on Marxism. Desan, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown, has written what is largely a guide to understanding the Critique. Odajnyk instead compares the "systems" of Marxism and existentialism and deals with the weaknesses in each.