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July 1974: The Merits and Limitations of Sartre's 'Materialism and Revolution' Printer Friendly Version

The Merits and Limitations of Sartre's
'Materialism and Revolution'

James Herod, July 1974

Both idealism and materialism cause the real to disappear in like manner, the one because it eliminates the object, the other because it eliminates subjectivity. – Jean-Paul Sartre

  The great merit of this essay lies in Sartre's powerful attack on the politics of idealism and materialism, on dualism. It's limitation is that Sartre ultimately fails to carry the day, because he has himself not fully escaped the dualistic framework. This failure is remarkable in a sense because Sartre comes so close. Many of the essential elements of a nondualistic (dialectical) politics are brilliantly present in the essay, especially his claim that humans create their own social world through goal-oriented labor. Nevertheless, at key points Sartre's attack breaks down and he lapses into the same polarity he is trying to overthrow. Herein lies the tragedy not only of Sartre but of the twentieth century proletarian revolution.

  Nor is this merely a failure of the Sartre of 1946. The same limitation which denies success to this essay continues to plague Sartre to this very day. As late as 1969, in his interesting interview with Rossanda, Sartre can be found confessing to the same failure of vision which undermines the work of 1946. He and Rossanda are discussing the party and its relationship to the masses and to the revolution in general. Sartre notes how the party tends to ossify, to become institutionalized and turn into the very thing it originally set out to defeat. Then he says, ``While I recognize the need of an organization, I must confess that I don't see how the problems which confront any stabilized structure could be resolved.'' (2)

  This unsolved riddle, this gap in the imagination, to which Sartre admits in 1969, also makes an appearance in ``Materialism and Revolution,'' although more subtly, and represents, I believe, the point of breakdown of his attack on dualism. It lies buried on page 233 in the phrase ``...prevents them from organizing spontaneously among themselves....'' Sartre is here complaining about the defects of materialism – ``this hasty and forced joining of elements of truth'' – and how materialism prevents revolutionaries ``from organizing spontaneously among themselves and from attaining true unity.'' Unfortunately, he nowhere explains what this organizing would look like or how it might be accomplished, and his phrase `true unity' already threatens such an undertaking, veering his discourse back into dualism, and even into materialism itself. Thus he nowhere articulates that form of human association which would embody the kind of freedom he is at such pains to defend. He nowhere describes the circumstances under which his mind would not have ``to relinquish its independence'' and yet where it would neither be ``free in an anarchist or individualist way.'' Sartre nowhere gives concrete form in imagination to that ``association of free and equal producers,'' to quote Marx, which would, if ever achieved, constitute communism, the transcendence of the duality, the realm of freedom.

  Nor has anyone else. Lukacs, one of the originators of the twentieth century attempt to restore the dialect at least back up to the level Marx brought it to, said toward the end of his life that ``The problem of socialist democracy is a real one, and it has not yet been solved.'' (3) This was in 1968. Dialectic can no more be separated from socialist democracy than can materialism/idealism be separated from elite/mass. Yet instead of spending the last years of his life trying to supply this missing ingredient of the proletarian revolution Lukacs wrote a thousand page ontology of labor.

  Similarly with Korsch and Gramsci, two other dialectical radicals. Korsch in the end leans more and more on social science, while Gramsci turns more and more to vanguard intellectuals and their party. Recent dialectical thinkers like Karel Kosik and Raymond Williams probably articulate a nondualistic outlook more consistently than did Lukacs, Gramsci, Korsch, or Sartre, but there is still no concrete embodiment of this in a theory of proletarian democracy, as there must be if the dream is ever to touch earth.

  The implications and results of Sartre's failure, the failure buried in the dark abstractness of ``organizing spontaneously among themselves,'' reverberate throughout the essay, ensnaring him in contradiction after contradiction. The numerous inconsistencies nevertheless add up to a pattern, to one thing: the tendency to slip into objectivism, and thus back into dualism. This manifests itself in a variety of ways: in Sartre's attempt, which is one of the main tasks Sartre sets for himself in the essay, to explain materialism, for example, or in his habit of assuming that when others disagree with him it is because they have deceived themselves and taken flight of the truth, or in his deterministic and authoritarian conception of `solidarity' and `true unity'.

  It is not hard to nail down the link between the void of the unspecified ``organizing spontaneously among themselves'' and the tendency to slip into objectivism. This can be done by looking closely at the following passage, which appears on page 253.

"And precisely because man is free, the triumph of socialism is not at all certain. It does not lie at the end of the road, like a boundary-mark; it is the scheme formulated by humanity. It will be what men make it; it is the outcome of the soberness with which the revolutionary envisages his action."

  This passage reveals both Sartre's strength and his weakness. It shows his awareness that socialism is a project, an end, to be achieved by goal-oriented human labor. At the same time, it shows that he fails to note that it is only the individual human being who possesses such goal-oriented labor, not society. A thing called `socialism' therefore will never triumph over anything, only concrete human beings will. Similarly, humanity cannot formulate a scheme, any scheme, ever. Only individual human beings can formulate schemes, not people in general. Sartre loses sight of this, both here and throughout the essay.

  This has two important consequences, both apparent in this short passage. He tends to assume that there is such a thing as Truth, first of all, and secondly that this will be embodied in the Revolutionary Philosopher. In this particular passage, for example, he presumes that there is a known or knowable condition – Socialism – and that the achievement of this condition will be the result of the Revolutionary. On the one hand, socialism (an objectivistic formulation) is the scheme of humanity (a totalitarian usage). On the other hand, this will be the ``outcome of the soberness with which the revolutionary envisages his actions'' (an elitist, individualistic, vanguard usage). It is significant that Sartre does not speak here of several revolutionaries, but only the single revolutionary. He thus jumps from abstract humanity to the lone revolutionary. If he had spoken about several revolutionaries instead of one he might have had to ask himself what happens when these revolutionaries disagree. Who decides what socialism is? How are we to choose among the many conflicting schemes put forward, not by humanity, but by real live men and women? Which actions among which self-proclaimed radicals are going to have the outcome of socialism? Who decides what the correct road to socialism is? These are questions Sartre never poses. Because he loses sight of the concrete labor of the many rambunctious human beings, and falls instead into the abstractions of `society' and `individual', he does not bother himself with how the disagreements among all these struggling persons might be resolved. This is why he never spells out what it might possibly mean for proletarians to ``organize spontaneously among themselves,'' but remains trapped instead in objectivism/subjectivism, in spite of his attack on it.

  Because Sartre forgets that only concrete individual human beings can scheme he also overlooks the truth that Truth is always a question of interpretation. Thus he slips into objectivism. He fails to build his case on an awareness that there is disagreement about everything. What is a myth to Sartre is the reality for Marxists. What is honest for the Marxists is a hoax for Sartre. The essay is studded with judgemental terms like this, all used objectivistically rather than dialectically: myth, ideology, rational, efficacious, truth, error, hoax, chicanery, self-deception, tricked. How are we to decide whether Sartre's reality is a hoax or Stalin's hoax is the reality? Sartre presupposes that there is indeed a way to do so, just like Stalin does. But how can we ever do anything other than add one more person's judgement to the debate? Instead of agreement and disagreement however Sartre sees Truth and Error, and instead of conflicting programs of concrete individual revolutionaries he sees Humanity on the one hand and the Revolutionary Philosopher on the other.

  Marx also unfortunately never expounded much on what he meant concretely by ``an association of free and equal producers,'' any more than Sartre has on ``organizing spontaneously among themselves.'' But Marx never makes the mistake Sartre does of talking as if humanity can formulate schemes. In fact, if any single thing can be said to characterize Marx's achievement it is the proper use (with a small p) of abstractions. Sartre apparently has never absorbed the insights on the relations between the concrete and the abstract which Marx recorded in his critique of Hegel of 1844 and in his introduction to the Grundrisse of 1857, to mention only two texts. It seems to me that this is what's behind Sartre's failure to refute dualism, even though he obviously has a good go of it. This is an astonishing fact in a way.

  Sartre's confusion is decisively expressed I think in his discussion of freedom and slavery. I will need to quote a long passage from it in order to be able to explain my disagreements with it.

  "Revolutionary man claims to be a contingent being, unjustifiable but free, wholly plunged into a society which oppresses him, but capable of transcending that society through his efforts to change it. Idealism deceives him in that it binds him with rights and values that are already given; it conceals from him his power to blaze his own path. But materialism, by robbing him of his freedom, also deceives him. Revolutionary philosophy should be a philosophy of transcendence.

  But the revolutionary himself mistrusts freedom – and that prior to any use of sophistry. And he is right. There have always been prophets to tell him he was free, and each time it was in order to fool him. Stoical freedom, Christian freedom, Bergsonian freedom, in hiding his chains from him have only reinforced them. All of these can be reduced to a certain inner freedom that man could retain in any situation. This inner freedom is a pure idealist hoax; care is taken never to present it as the necessary condition of the act. It is really pure enjoyment of itself. If Epictetus, in chains, does not rebel, it is because he feels free, because he enjoys his freedom.

  On that basis, one state is as good as another, the slave's situation is as good as the master's; why should anyone want to change it? This freedom is fundamentally reducible to a more or less clear affirmation of the autonomy of thought. But in conferring independence upon thought, this affirmation separates it from the situation – since truth is universal, one can think truth under any conditions. It also separates thought from action; since we are responsible only for intention, the act, in being realized, undergoes the pressure of the world's real forces which deform it and render it unrecognizable to its very author.

  What remain for the slave are abstract thoughts and empty intentions, under the name of metaphysical freedom. And, meanwhile, his master's orders and the necessity of living have involved him in crude and concrete actions, and oblige him to think in concrete terms about matter and instruments. In fact, the liberating element for the oppressed person is work. In this sense it is work that is revolutionary to begin with." (pages 236-237)

  These lines say so much, and they come so close: the cogent attack on idealism and materialism, the rejection of the separation of thought and action, the philosophy of transcendence, the rejection of the inner freedom, the recognition of the centrality of labor, the assertion that freedom is an inherent characteristic of the human species, the belief that an oppressive society can be transformed through human effort.

  Yet in spite of all this, the whole thing is written from an objectivistic perspective. Sartre takes an outside stance. How so? Sartre presupposes an objective definition of slavery. ``There have always been prophets to tell him he was free, and each time it was in order to fool him.'' From what standpoint could it ever be decided that someone was being fooled? Is this not a question of judgement? What if the persons involved believed they had it straight? Is this not a matter of the definition of reality that is asserted and imposed? ``Stoical freedom, Christian freedom, Bergsonian freedom, in hiding his chains from him, have only reinforced them.'' Are chains, even metal ones, objective facts which exist beyond dispute for all to see, or are they definitions like everything else? ``This inner freedom is a pure idealist hoax.'' Who says? ``If Epictetus in chains, does not rebel, it is because he feels free, because he enjoys his freedom'' (and Sartre of course is rejecting such an idea of freedom). If Epictetus does not consider himself a slave but Sartre does, then is it not merely a question of disagreement between Sartre and Epictetus about what Epictetus is? Is there a way to decide the issue and to determine who is Right? Obviously not, but Sartre apparently thinks otherwise.

  Since this is a very central point perhaps we should examine it further. Consider a society of masters and slaves but one in which the masters and slaves do not think of themselves as masters and slaves, if you know what I mean. In other words, those people whom some of us would now define as slaves do not so regard themselves. They are of course aware that they are bought and sold but they do not see anything wrong with this. For them it is completely unexceptional, a part of the natural order of things. In other words, they do not define slavery (being bought and sold, owned and ordered) as unjust. Slavery for them is not perceived as a condition of unfreedom. (Aristotle, we might recall, accepted slavery as a given.)

  We sometimes overlook the fact that we often impose our own definitions on other people and then take as the reality our own perceptions of the situation based on those definitions, when in fact the other people involved reject, or would reject if asked, our interpretations. This is particularly treacherous when the people with such conflicting opinions are separated by time, space, or context. It becomes very easy, across these gaps, to forget that what is at work here is a disagreement among real live people. A twentieth century person with a view of slavery as injustice and unfreedom, introduced into our hypothetical society of masters and slaves, would be just a common heretic, as would be any indigenous member of that society who began to agitate for the freedom of slaves. If no other slaves (or masters) adopted this perception of the situation, that slavery equals unfreedom, as their own, our agitator would remain a heretic. On the other hand, the idea of slavery as unfreedom might gain ground and become first a minority viewpoint and then perhaps a majority viewpoint or even an overwhelming consensus.

  This is not a farfetched illustration. In fact, the situation of the contemporary radical is more or less analogous to that of our hypothetical slave heretic who comes to feel that slavery is an unjust and unnecessary condition rather than a natural and inevitable one. The vast majority of people in the core capitalist countries do not see themselves as wage-slaves at all. Nor do they see their countries as capitalist. Instead they define themselves as citizens living in a democracy. The attempt on the part of revolutionaries to `radicalize' workers therefore boils down to an argument over the definition of the situation, and has nothing to do with converting workers to a Correct, in the sense of Objective, understanding. This is so because there is no outside way to determine what is radical and what is not. It's one word against another. Radical initiatives and strategies that presuppose an objective definition of radical are nothing more than proselytizing. It is no wonder then that there is no revolution to overthrow wage-slavery when most of the people involved do not even agree that wage-slavery exists.

  Consider now a society of anthropologists and natives. The anthropologists ask the natives who they are, what they are doing, and what it all means. And the natives tell them who they are, what they are doing, and what it all means, but the anthropologists do not believe the natives. Instead, they claim that the beliefs of the natives are myths, and they assert their own theories about who the natives are, what they are doing, and what it all means, which is their right of course since there is no necessary need to accept the opinions other people have of themselves. As it happens however the anthropologists are backed by powerful rulers in the capitalist countries, and they have the ears of these rulers, whereas the natives are excluded. The views of the anthropologists are thus eventually translated into policy and are then imposed on the natives. In justification of this power play it is argued that the interpretations of the anthropologists are objective and based on fact, while the views of the natives are mere myth.

  If however the anthropologists and the natives had been sitting on the same council where every person had one vote and where the anthropologists were in the minority, then the self-conceptions, definitions, and perceptions of the natives would have been turned into policy to shape the social and physical reality, rather than the views of the anthropologists. The question of whose beliefs are myths (ideology) is exposed as nonsensical as soon as everyone is included in the decision-making, since it is then one judgement against another, the views of the natives against those of the anthropologists. When everyone is voting together to establish policy there is precious little to be gained by explaining the origins of your opponents' views. Rather the whole focus shifts to trying to persuade them to change their minds, that is, to the arguments, to reason.

  Now take Sartre and the Marxists. It is sadly ironic that Sartre, who has been so outspoken against structuralism over the past two decades, is in this 1946 essay engaged in an exercise that is not all that far removed after all from Levi-Strauss' structural analyses of the myths of primitive peoples. Sartre, like Levi-Strauss, attempts an outside, objectivistic explanation of a myth, but his myth is the so-called materialist myth of the Marxists.

  This gets him into deep water. He simultaneously, and contradictorily, accepts the claims of the Marxists that they are revolutionary while denying the validity of their philosophy, materialism. ``The Communist Party is the only revolutionary party,'' says Sartre, and ``the only existing revolutionaries are Marxists who give their allegiance to materialism.'' Sartre would be better off to argue that Marxists and materialism are not revolutionary at all but counter-revolutionary, and advance instead his own view of what a genuinely revolutionary stance is. Instead Sartre claims that ``It is a fact that materialism is now the philosophy of the proletariat precisely in so far as the proletariat is revolutionary,'' and that ``materialism is indisputably the only myth that suits revolutionary requirements.''

  "This austere, false doctrine is the bearer of the purest and most ardent hopes; this theory which constitutes a radical denial of man's freedom has become the most radical instrument of his freedom."

  This is absurd, puzzling, and unnecessary. We need to remember however that in 1946 Sartre believed, like so many others, that the Russian revolution of 1917 was a proletarian revolution. This concession leads to all the agonizing, and it reveals a certain neglect, in spite of everything, of the enormous disagreements that have always raged over the meaning of the events of 1917. We need only recall Korsch, Pannekoek, or Martov to find three militant Marxists who denied that the Bolsheviks and Marxism-Leninism had anything to do, much, with proletarians and their struggle to overthrow wage-slavery.

  But beyond this it reveals that while Sartre claims for himself the ability to think, judge, and make up his own mind, he denies this capacity to proletarians, whose thoughts are merely myths reflecting the ``revolutionary requirements,'' that is, the objective historical conditions. The myth, according to Sartre, ``suited the oppressed masses for awhile,'' was ``useful and encouraging,'' and offered ``its services'' to the revolutionary. Thus rather than seeing materialism as a mistake in judgement Sartre tends to see it as a necessary stage which the proletarians (but not Sartre) must pass through in order to reach liberation. ``In other words,'' writes Sartre, ``the determinism of matter gives him his first picture of freedom.''

  Sartre once again exposes his dualism. He first of all splits the human world from nature, accepting a deterministic philosophy for the latter: ``Freedom is a structure of human action and appears only in commitment; determinism is the law of the world.'' Then he splits himself off from proletarians and includes the latter as part of nature: that's why he is trying to explain away their thoughts as myths. In addition therefore to pretending to stand outside history and outside nature, Sartre also takes a paternalistic attitude toward proletarians, by placing himself on the outside in relation to them. It is because of his outside stance, like any bourgeois anthropologist, that Sartre is interested in explaining the materialist myth of proletarians. If he were inside the revolution he would only be engaged in the polemical discourse to defeat materialism and in the effort to devise a winning strategy for dialectic. For the life of me I cannot see how a philosophy which is ``a radical denial of man's freedom'' can possibly ``become the most radical instrument for his liberation.'' This is nothing but doubletalk, pure and simple, resulting no doubt from Sartre's own double standards, the one set for himself and the other for proletarians, Marxists, and revolutionaries. A false philosophy is transformed magically into a revolutionary one only in that philosopher's head who is looking down on the human struggle from on high and watching it unfold according to laws known to the philosopher but not to the contestants themselves, like Levi-Strauss knows why natives think and behave as they do even if the natives don't, he says.

  In spite of all these limitations, I still believe that this is a powerful and important work. Its best part is Sartre's eloquent expression, over and over again, in many different contexts, of the insight that humans create their own social world.

"...any plan for changing the world reveals the world from the viewpoint of the change one wishes to bring about in it.

Thus it is by means of his thrust toward the future and from the point of view of the future that he realizes it.

...the individual turns back on this existence to judge it from the viewpoint of the future.

This means that man transcends the world toward a future state from which he can contemplate it. It is in changing the world that we can come to know it. Neither the detached consciousness that would soar over the universe without being able to get a standpoint on it, nor the material object which reflects a condition without understanding it can ever ``grasp'' the totality of existence in a synthesis, even a purely conceptual one.

What is needed is, in a word, a philosophical theory which shows that human reality is action and that action upon the universe is identical with the understanding of that universe as it is, or in other words, that action is the unmasking of reality, and at the same time, a modification of that reality."

  To me this is the main merit of the essay, especially given the way Sartre weaves this insight into his discussion of the centrality of human labor, and into an understanding of freedom and slavery, and cause and effect, as well as into his attack on materialism and idealism.

  The mystery and sadness is how Sartre can understand this so well but still end up impaled on those same twin horns of that obdurate duality which he so vigorously opposes.


(1) All quotes are from the English translation found in Literary and Philosophical Essays, pp. 198-256, Criterion Books, 1955.

(2) ``Masses, Spontaneity, Party,'' in Socialist Register 1970, p. 245.

(3) From an interview published in the New Left Review (early seventies).