Obsolete Therefore Instructive

Humanism and Terror

by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, translated and with Notes by John O'Neill
Beacon Press, 189 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty; drawing by David Levine

The ambiguity of this book* is intentional and self-conscious. It is an ambiguity, however, which is not meant to lie in Merleau-Ponty’s own thinking but in History itself, which he is writing about. He traces this ambiguity in the history of communism. Not, it must be said, communism as we may now know it, or indeed as it was, but as Merleau-Ponty had observed it in 1946 and 1947, on the threshold of the cold war—before the coup in Prague, before the Berlin crisis and the Korean War, at a time when there was frequent talk in the West about preventive atomic war against the USSR.

Much of the book is directed to polemics against Koestler, Trotsky and traditional Western liberals. Merleau-Ponty attacked all of them by claiming that they ignored the ambiguity of human acts. Political life, he argues, is not so transparent as these writers would suggest. The results of our actions cannot really be predicted; any commitment involves risk; the effects of the most noble intentions may be to set back human progress. Still, we are judged by results, not merely by motives. No matter how good our conscience, we may still be guilty. There is, then, no clear way to combine the purely subjective and the strictly historical points of view.

So formulated, Merleau-Ponty’s abstract argument poses few problems and indeed it may sound banal until we remember that it was largely owing to his writings that the notion of the “ambiguity of history” became popular in the Forties and Fifties. However, the theory of the ambiguity of history may become ambiguous itself when applied to particular historical cases.

The case Merleau-Ponty uses throughout this book is a difficult one indeed: the Moscow trials (especially the trial of Bukharin) and communist terror in general. He accepts neither the “legality” of the trials nor the charges that the defendants were subjectively anticommunist. Instead he argues that, in view of the experience of the war, these trials—not unlike compulsory collectivization and other achievements of socialism—may be regarded as having been necessary in order to strengthen the socialist state against the Nazi enemy.

However, Merleau-Ponty argues, it was impossible to be certain of this in 1938: we can never foresee all consequences, never grasp the full meaning of our acts in the moment of carrying them out. But this uncertainty is an inevitable part of human destiny and cannot justify idleness or lack of commitment. We must take part in action, knowing that the historical significance of what we do does not depend entirely on our wishes and will emerge only when it is too late to do anything about it.

When he applies this argument to the Moscow trials, Merleau-Ponty seems to take for granted or as highly probable that 1) they were, in general, trials against the Communist political opposition 2) that this opposition, if it had…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.