Soviets versus Sartre: Translation

The following is an excerpt from the 1978 Soviet philosophy textbook, Contemporary Bourgeois Philosophy. Originally published in Russian, I plan to translate parts of it that I think are useful, likely including the sections on Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, Nietzsche, and others as I see fit. It’s worth noting that Sartre positioned himself as a humanist, whereas Louis Althusser criticized humanism as bourgeois individualism. This is not the entirety of the textbook’s analysis, simply what I found to be most substantive and interesting, as someone with little knowledge of Sartre’s works.

“Critical reworking” of the Marxist understanding of history is carried out by Sartre in two parallel directions: first, through the transition from sociological abstractions to anthropological specificities and, second, by solving the sociological problem of the interdependence of the individual and society, or, in Sartre’s terminology, individuals and their ensembles. The essence of this decision is that defining sociological categories, such as productive forces and relations of production, socio-economic formations, classes, etc., are pushed into the background, as sociological abstractions that make a « concrete » person. The single person in all his anthropological naturalness moves to the forefront. Individual traits of character and temperament, psychoanalytically examined layers of childhood experiences, biographical twists and turns – this is what Sartre considers to be the key to a specific anthropological approach to historical events. But the further Sartre goes along this path, the more he moves away from the socio-historical concreteness, approaching the psychophysiological and psychoanalytic abstraction of the notorious « human nature »! His “concrete person” is only capable of disorienting in concrete historical research, overshadowing the real driving forces and laws of social evolution. This “concrete man” marks a return, a movement back from Marxism to an idealistically reworked and psychoanalytically modernized Feuerbach anthropologism with its “living”, in flesh and blood, but socially naked, historically abstract “man in general”. Biological or psychoanalytic concreteness turns into a sterile sociological abstraction. Sartre falls into (which he himself condemns as the greatest sin) a reduction of the sociological to the anthropological. Parallel to this, an equally non-dialectical solution of the problem arises from the relationship of the whole and the parts in the sociological plane. In contrast to Marxism, for Sartre, the personality is sociological primary, the social ensemble is secondary. The dialectic of the structural formation of « practical ensembles » is reduced to the formation of social wholes from the relationship of individuals. Of course, society outside of the individual, constituting its personalities, is an abstraction. But in order to understand their interdependence, it is necessary to proceed from the structure of the social whole, moving from it to the being determined by it and the consciousness of the individual people who make it up, and not vice versa. Social philosophy based on the principle: « All historical dialectics rests on individual practice » is nondialectical because the whole is regarded in it as secondary, derivative, and also because social regularity in it loses its specific, qualitative irreducibility to other laws.

Sartre himself is not bothered that his concept of concreteness is steadily striving for an intuitive « philosophy of life » in the spirit of Dilthey. Adhering to the line of Dilthey, Sartre opposes explanation (intellection) to understanding (comprehension), which corresponds to Dilthey’s epistemological dichotomy “Erklaren” and « Verstehen. » Sartre directly says that the task of his dialectics is to introduce « understanding cognition, » to surpass conceptual thinking mediated by logical analysis. This reveals the « secret » of Sartre’s dialectics, which, according to him, is in contradiction with the « intellectualist idea of cognition. » Dialectics is thought not as an antipode of metaphysics, but as an antipode of rational, scientific, logical cognition, not as a synthesis mediated by logical analysis, but as a direct, intuitive syncretism. Ultimately, the entire Sartrean transformation of dialectics proceeds along the line of its irrationalist deformation, its transformation from a higher logic into a stronghold of alogism

According to Sartre, Marx and Kierkegaard are close to each other in criticizing the passive-contemplative nature of Hegel’s dialectics. But Sartre does not conclude that they are one! On the one hand, it is criticism from the standpoint of a rationally substantiated denomination, and on the other, criticism from the standpoint of irrational justification. Of the « paradoxical » world, Sartre understands that Kierkegaard, in contrast to Marx, proceeds from an irrationalist belief in the « incommensurability of reality and cognition, » but he assures us that his own anti-intellectualism is not a metaphysical successor to Kierkegaard’s irrationalism, but a new, anti-intellectualist form of dialectics that replaced it, as if « Kierkegaard’s original irrationalism has completely disappeared, giving way to anti-intellectualism. » For anti-intellectualism, like all irrationalism, it is unbearable that Marxism “repels, calling them irrational, those ideologies that want to separate being from cognition.” Sartre’s formula “science is not dialectical” leaves no doubt about the irrational nature of what he claims to be dialectics.

Sartre begins his last philosophical work with a high assessment of the role of Marxism in the development of public thought, rightly asserting that any anti-Marxism that rejects the historical acquisitions of Marxist thought is in fact nothing more than a hopeless attempt to revive the obsolete pre-Marxist ideas. Sartre would not be resigned to the claim that Marxism is outdated. On the contrary, all his criticism of Marxism, he builds on the fact that Marxism has not yet matured. « Far from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, it is almost in childhood, it has barely just begun to develop. » Sartre aims at overcoming the slow development of Marxism, bringing it out of stagnation, enriching it with new creative achievements. But what, in his opinion, needs to be done for this? Dissolving the « destructive connection » between the historical and dialectical materialism, discarding dialectical materialism! To the question « what prevents us from being solely Marxists, » Sartre answers: first of all, materialistic philosophy, with its scientific, objective, deterministic understanding of being, with its doctrine of the objective dialectic of the world. Then, historical materialism. “We,” writes Sartre, “are convinced that historical materialism gives the only valid explanation of history.” But in order to put historical materialism on its feet and move forward, one should combine it with an existentialist anthropology. In pursuit of this obviously unrealizable goal, Sartre expresses the aspirations of two lovers who are at a crossroads, caught in the exercise of the radical bourgeois intelligentsia.

Sartre’s sociological views, like his philosophical ideas, clearly differ from those of Marcel. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to recognize the commonality, the unity of their initial philosophical positions. For all the opposite of their direction, they nevertheless represented two wings of modern idealistic irrationalism. Sartre himself does not deny their philosophical commonality, their concordia discors. “There are,” he writes, “two kinds of existentialists. Some of them are Christians, to whom I would rank Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel …, and on the other hand, atheistic existentialists, among whom I include Heidegger, and then the French existentialists and myself. Both are united by the belief that existence precedes essence, or, if you like, that the starting point should be subjectivity.” It is this starting point that determines their general idealistic and irrationalist tendency.

The Critique of Dialectical Reason, however, according to Sartre, turned existentialism towards history, towards social practice. But for all the twists and turns that Sartre took in the evolution of both his philosophical and political views, which allows us to say that existentialism is a kind of philosophical “werewolf ”, Sartre is characterized by parking at the crossroads of two roads leading in different directions. Moreover, we are not talking about hesitation, not about thinking about which one to choose, but about a combination of the incompatible, about such a “unity of opposites,” which has nothing in common with genuine dialectics. The Critique of Dialectical Reason and the later autobiographical novel The Words are a vivid example of this. Asserting that historical materialism provides the only correct understanding of history, it immediately dissolves a drop of historical materialism in the streams of subjective idealist idealism. This is not eclecticism, but a kind of camouflage behind which an attempt is concealed “by monopolizing the problem of the creative activity of the individual” to existentially falsify Marxism.

Published in 1960, this extensive philosophical treatise has been designated Volume I. Seventeen years have passed since then, and the second volume, which we would have liked to analyze which way the French philosopher went from this camp, is not discussed here. Whether a new philosophical turn awaits us (and where) – we will not guess.

But in the meantime, Sartre’s political position has come to a head. He connected himself with the leftist rebellious student movement. However, to some extent the subjectivist ideas of the Critique of Dialectical Reason have already justified this turn theoretically. For all his psychological hostility to the capitalist social system and participation in the struggle against imperialism, militarism, racism and colonialism in the 50-60s, Sartre always reacted with hostility to the political program and practice of the Communist Party, unsuccessfully tried even during the Cold War years to organize special political groups, among the extremist « elite. » The student riot in 1968 in Paris prompted him to join the youth element of the « new left. » Flaunting his ultra-revolutionary and not stingy with all sorts of scandalous statements, he took up editing an anarchist magazine , declaring that « the co-communists are afraid of the revolution, » the « genuine » revolutionaries, having formed « free totalizing groups » are called upon to « break out of being. » (Recall that back in 1948, before trying to create the Revolutionary Democratic Union party, Sartre came out with a demagogic book that disorientated the revolutionary movement.) In the political practice of Sartre, such aspects of his existentialism as non-recognition of the laws of social development, deep-rooted individualism, an anarchist understanding of freedom and the search for a « third line » between Marxism and bourgeois philosophy, were criticized in the works of Marxist philosophers.


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