Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

A few years ago Jean-Paul Sartre paid a brief visit to Cuba and had a conversation with Castro, in the course of which there occurred the following memorable exchange (reported by Sartre in the account he wrote of his trip, and now preserved for posterity by Mr. Wilfrid Desan in a new book on Sartre’s philosophy):

“Man’s need is his fundamental right over all others,” said Castro. “And if they ask you for the moon?” asked Sartre.

“…it would be because someone needed it,” was Castro’s reply.

Mr. Desan’s comment on this is, “Sartre had found a friend, one who understood that the one humanism that is possible is founded “neither on work nor on culture…but on need.” My own, somewhat more jaundiced, exegesis of the above passage is that Castro had sized Sartre up correctly as someone who would stick to generalities and avoid painful topics, such as the (temporary) suppression of liberty. The two men of course also have other points in common, notably their joint descent from Jacobinism. But that is another matter.

It has to be reported that much of Mr. Desan’s work is at the level of the passage just cited: verbose, rhetorical, and awestruck. This is a pity, for it is plain that he could have written a much better book had he allowed his critical sense more play. His own educational background is French, and his earlier work includes an interpretation of L’Etre et le Néant: that great, inflated, word-intoxicated essay in which Sartre—writing in Paris during the German Occupation—introduced his countrymen to the mysteries of German metaphysics. Mr. Desan knows enough about France, and about philosophy, to do justice to Sartre’s intellectual accomplishment, and if The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre is on the whole a disappointing book, the reason is not to be found in any lack of technical accomplishment on the author’s part. It is just that, like so many of his former countrymen (for I take it that Mr. Desan is now an American and writes in English), he has been unduly impressed by Sartre’s public status as the central figure of French intellectual life.

Of the importance attributed to Sartre’s role, even by his opponents, there can be no doubt. By near-unanimous consent he is the Callas of French literature: a star whose bravura performances make up for the frequent lack of an adequate libretto. “Sartre, c’est aussi la France,” De Gaulle is said to have remarked on an occasion when there was some talk of legal action against him for calling upon conscripts to refuse service in Algeria. These two great egotists concur in believing that, were it not for their presence. France would sink to the level of mediocrity so manifest elsewhere in contemporary Europe. As one who happens to share this view or something like it, I am nonetheless skeptical about the claims made for Sartre, by Mr. Desan and others, in the domain of philosophy properly so called. It may be the fault of my Central European upbringing, but I find it difficult to take Sartre seriously as an expositor of either Hegel or Husserl. In any case it is notorious—and Mr. Desan candidly makes the point—that both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty learned all they knew about Hegel from Alexandre Kojève’s celebrated lecture course at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes between 1933 and 1939: years notable in European history for other reasons as well. As Mr. Desan says quite rightly, it was only then that “the introduction to Hegel, and with this a genuine Marxist intellectualism” occurred in France. Previously Marx had been known only as an economist, and as for Hegel, the French academic world had only the vaguest notion of what he was about. Kojève’s lectures (published in book-form in 1947) were an eye-opener, the more so since they drew attention to those passages in the Phenomenology of Mind where Hegel, in his customary crabbed and hermetic fashion, recommended the French Revolution and Napoleon to his German contemporaries as the current manifestation of the World Spirit.

In recent years then the French intellectual elite has been in possession of a key to Hegel which, by a singularly fortunate coincidence, also made possible an interpretation of Marx at a level far above the crudities of the Leninist school. The post-war “discovery” of the young Marx, and his concern with “alienation,” could be popularized (by Sartre among others) on the basis of what he and others had previously learned from Kojève, who for his part was Hegelian enough to treat politics as unimportant: it was one of his favorite notions that the entire European civil war between Communists and Fascists was nothing but a squabble between left-wing and rightwing Hegelians.


Had Mr. Desan taken the trouble to pursue this theme, he could have written an interesting book. Unluckily for himself and for the reader, his aim is more modest: a critical exposition of Sartre’s views on Marxism, notably as formulated in the Critique de la Raison Dialectique (1960)—an enormous tome advertised as the first volume of Sartre’s projected opus magnum. In addition, the reader of Mr. Desan’s study will find him busily at work explaining and (as a rule) defending his subject’s views on related topics, though some minor parts of the canon—such as Sartre’s six-hundred-page investigation of Saint Genet’s posterior—are prudently ignored. Competent enough in its way, the book nonetheless strikes at least one reader as fundamentally unsatisfactory. The tone is too deferential, the difficulties are too systematically eluded, and above all the paradoxical nature of Sartre’s relationship to Communism (as distinct from Marxism) is not properly brought out.

For this last it would indeed be unfair to blame only Mr. Desan. Others too have been baffled by Sartre’s intellectual gyrations: from the despairing cynicism of Les Mains Sales (1948) to the frenzied fellow-traveling of Les Communistes et la Paix (1952), and onward via the rebuke to the Russians for interfering in Hungary (1956), to the championship of Castro (1961) and last autumn’s rejection of the Nobel Prize (in a manifesto which absurdly mingled perfectly sound arguments with disingenuous rubbish about Pasternak). Unlike Merleau-Ponty, who around 1950 decided once and for all to have done with Stalinism, Sartre has kept up a love-hate relationship both with Moscow and with the French Communist Party—seemingly undeterred by its one-sided character. For while he has largely absorbed the Communists’ style of reasoning, there is little evidence that he has had any reciprocal effect upon them. Indeed his latest Communist critic, M. Jacques Houbart, in a recently published tract (Un père dénaturé) bluntly denounces Sartre as a typical bourgeois intellectual in the tradition of that pillar of nineteenth-century liberalism, M. Guizot: hard words, considering the effort Sartre has made to turn himself from a Cartesian into a Marxist; yet not, I fear, entirely unjustified.

M. Houbart’s tract has come too late for Mr. Desan’s study. I am not sure what he would have made of it, but in all probability his comment would have been sorrowful rather than angry. For Mr. Desan shares with Sartre a desire to get beyond the current controversies in France, and in particular to get beyond the Communist version of Marxism. At the same time he is acute enough to perceive that Sartre himself has failed to accomplish this aim. As he puts it in his summing-up, Sartre has never really stopped being a Cartesian, which for practical purposes means that he has never stopped being an individualist. Now it is arguable that this does no harm (after all, Marx and Engels were a great deal more bourgeois than Sartre, and Marxism itself may be described as a creation of the bourgeois mind). The trouble is that one cannot extract the Marxian view of history from the Cartesian vision of the Self as sovereign. “Descartes did not beget Marx,” as Mr. Desan correctly puts it. But Descartes did beget Sartre (with a little help from Edmund Husserl) and in consequence Sartre’s followers have been saddled with a method which does not help them in their efforts to get beyond Marx. Let me hasten to add that this in no way excuses the nonsense talked by Stalinists (Georg Lukàcs among them) some years ago about existentialism being a “petit bourgeois” deviation. These tedious diatribes, which understandably aroused Sartre’s irritation, were as irrelevant as they were foolish (and have been quietly abandoned in recent years by the more civilized Communist spokesmen in France, now that Stalinist modes of procedure are no longer mandatory). The fact remains that, with the best will, one cannot use Sartre’s method, as developed in the Critique, for the purpose of saying anything very useful about history. Cartesianism apart, there is Sartre’s reliance on the phenomenological method developed by Husserl and his disciples. Now, to cut a long story short, phenomenology is really a species of Platonism. In Santayana’s phrase, it is “intuition of essence.” This may be useful to writers concerned with aesthetics, but it is of no earthly use in trying to make sense of historical processes; and this is the root cause of Sartre’s failure to develop a synthesis of the Cartesian and the Hegelian approach.

In a way this appears to be Mr. Desan’s own regretful conclusion. But before he reaches it, the conscientious reader has to make his way through some pretty arid stretches of interpretation. The Critique itself is largely unreadable, and Mr. Desan’s exposition, though commendably brief, is almost as abstract as the original. It is also, I regret to say, almost wholly uncritical. Mr. Desan has a few reservations about Sartre’s political record (though he is far too kind to him) but hardly any about the preposterous concepts developed at immense and wearisome length in the Critique: notably Sartre’s treatment of “scarcity,” his weird notions about human “serialization” (i.e., loss of personal identity), and his obsessive insistence upon the pervasive importance of “terror” as the real stuff of political organization. He seems not to have noticed that Sartre’s Hobbesian view of human nature is the correlative of his long-standing readiness to put up with totalitarianism in its Soviet form, or that his qualified apologies for Stalin are in harmony with his belief that “terrorism” is at the base of every political organization. It is true that Sartre has consistently championed colonial liberation movements, but he has done so while slurring the distinction between “violence” (which is indeed inseparable from any struggle) and “terror” (which is commonly applied by those in control of the State machine). In this fashion he has managed to be libertarian and “realpolitisch” at the same time—though never quite enough to satisfy the Stalinists and their successors. It is all very wearisome, and when one also considers that a Marxist analysis of the new dictatorial regimes currently abounding in the former colonies is quite beyond Sartre’s capacity, one must, I think, conclude that the political sociology lengthily expounded in the Critique has proved sterile. It is really no more than a complicated way of talking about phenomena with which historians and sociologists are perfectly familiar.


What then does Sartre’s critical examination of Marxism finally amount to? On the positive side, he has carried further the destruction of the simplified Marxist-Leninist ontology which serves the Communist movement as an ersatz religion. In this way he has compelled the more literate Communist theorists—M. Roger Garaudy is an interesting example—to bring their writings up to a more respectable level. Hence there is now in progress a perfectly genuine, and very interesting, three-cornered debate among Marxists, Catholics, and Existentialists in France. For this welcome change in the intellectual climate Sartre can take some credit, though much of it is due rather to the late Merleau-Ponty, who broke with Sartre in 1952 on the issue of Stalinism.

Negatively, Sartre has dazzled and confused an entire generation of intellectuals by a species of intellectual sleight-of-hand, by libertarian posturing in the service of totalitarianism, and by a combination of political fellow-traveling with respectable Cartesian metaphysics. He has thus made it possible for his followers to declare themselves in sympathy with “the revolution,” without being Communists. And he has done so in a country where no “revolution” was or is possible, and where the Communist party is becoming an anachronism.

This last point is central to an understanding of the effect Sartre’s bewildering dialectics have had an intelligentsia brought up on revolutionary rhetoric, in a society where these slogans are losing their power over men’s minds. Before Communism had become another bureaucracy, it was an eschatological movement, in a situation where eschatology was out of place. The net effect was to equip an entire generation of Frenchmen with a “false consciousness.” The early Christians awaited the coming of the Saviour, and what they got instead was the Church. The French intellectuals expected the coming of the Revolution, and got instead the Communist Party. This observation is not to be found in Sartre’s writings, but it is the kind of thing he might have said, and I hereby make his followers a free gift of it. Mr. Desan, in an otherwise learned and useful book, regrettably comes nowhere near making the point.

This Issue

January 28, 1965