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 freedom of action, would have considerably weakened the Soviet Union, and perhaps paralyzed it, in the face of the impending war with Germany 3) that, notwithstanding the system of terror and inequality, the Soviet Union is a socialist state of the working class.

Each of these premises is not merely controversial but extremely doubtful. Those of us who experienced the Nazi occupation in Europe had no doubt that the fight against Hitler—and, then, the support of the military effort of the Soviet Union—was the main task of Europe, one to which everything had to be subordinated. For Europeans living under Nazi violence, Hitlerism was the absolute, embodied evil, the antihuman beast, and to destroy it was an imperative that did not require philosophical choice or justification. In this sense, the Nazi occupation was a time of luxury, with no occasion for ambiguity or doubt. But to admit this implied neither that the USSR was a proletarian power nor that it was the vehicle of historical progress. The struggle of those who fought Nazism did not at all include support for the Soviet concentration camps. Many of the Russians themselves fought the Nazis hoping for a more humane order in which the system of mass terror would be abolished.

Today Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that the terror of the Thirties was a necessary condition for victory over Germany seems, simply, fantastic. Nor was evidence lacking at the time. To take one example, the former Soviet agent, Krywickyi, in a book published in 1939, attributed the purges not to the need for strengthening the USSR against Germany, but on the contrary to Stalin’s quest for an alliance with Germany at any price, a strategy requiring him to stifle all potential opposition before taking the decisive step. And Khrushchev, in his report of 1956, emphasized the enormous damage done by the mass purges to the Soviet defense effort when the war came. Krywickyi and Khrushchev may not be trustworthy witnesses but they are more reliable in such matters than any of the European intellectuals; and Khrushchev’s remarks conform perfectly with common sense.


But the point, certainly, is not to blame Merleau-Ponty for failing to anticipate in 1946 Khrushchev’s speech of 1956 and I would not stress his ignorance in matters of fact. What really matters is the way his ambiguous theory of the ambiguity of history permits him to argue that, since the meaning of behavior cannot be directly perceived, we may, at the moment when a hangman slaughters his victim, be uncertain which of them is wrong; for it may turn out later that the hangman had reason on his side.

The main issue in Merleau-Ponty’s book, then, is the philosophical justification of violence. But there are at least two factual considerations (not to mention moral ones) that undermine his argument. First, it is by no means obvious that the meaning of political acts does become clear after the passage of time. It may never be confirmed whether I am right or wrong, for example, when I do something so simple as investing in stocks. After six months it may seem I was “wrong” (I lost); yet another six months may show I was “right.” The assessment of political acts in retrospect has no evident superiority to their assessment at the moment when they are done, as we can see from the continuing doubts among historians over the meaning of Caesar’s conquests, the Crusades, and the regime of Ivan the Terrible.

Merleau-Ponty seems aware of this. He writes that “it remains open whether, historically, Thermidor and Bonaparte destroyed the revolution or rather in fact consolidated its results” (p. 74). Still, he does not notice the contradiction between this statement and his distinction between violence which is and is not historically justified. Violence, he argues, is justified if it leads to the abolition of violence and to an egalitarian humane society. But is there a clear historical example of such violence? A violent system of government may provoke a reaction which destroys it—but this is hardly evidence for its merit. The self-abolishing system of violence Merleau-Ponty refers to has never existed.

We can, if we accept arbitrary criteria of progress, argue that some systems of violence were historically “progressive” because, for example, they increased the productivity of labor (e.g., the “historical progressiveness” of slavery and of the primitive accumulation of capital in the Marxian schema). But Merleau-Ponty is claiming something different. He seems to believe that those who are actually victims of violence can, and even should, take the same attitude toward their destiny as the historian or philosopher who may reflect on the historical significance of this violence some years, or centuries, afterward.

This proposal runs counter to the simplest rules of moral behavior. And Merleau-Ponty, in his ambiguous way, sees this. He writes that those who collaborated with the Nazis were not merely guilty of a “mistake” in predicting the outcome of events. Nor were the heroes of the Resistance heroic because they were prescient in foreseeing the collapse of Hitler. On the contrary, he writes, they were heroes precisely because they took risks against the probable. Having said this, he persists, with astonishing inconsistency, in arguing that violence may well be justified by its (always uncertain) beneficial results for the future. But, if this were so, then those collaborators who believed that Nazism would, by some historical fatalism, bring about a revival of Europe, could have been condemned only after the war; while a decision to collaborate in 1940 would have been as ambiguous as one to resist. The sufficient reason for the struggle against Nazism remains, Merleau-Ponty notwithstanding, that it was a system of absolute violence.

My modest conclusion is that in the face of inevitable uncertainty about the “historical” meaning of our behavior, we simply cannot rely in politics upon the obscure sentence of the Last Judgments of Clio. When we evaluate situations in which we ourselves are taking part, and not the actions of Tiberius or Henry VIII or even Stalin, we never are in a dialogue with History, but only with John and Peter. We would do well instead to justify our decisions not by appeals to historical Reason but only by the simplest moral considerations.

Obviously, this does not mean that our choices themselves will be simple or unambiguous ones. The boundaries between justified and violent resistance to violence, on the one hand, and aggressive violence, on the other, may be blurred. It means only that we will be able to avoid monstrous options—that we can exclude the possibility that those who torture and organize concentration camps may have justifications, based on “historical Reason,” which are as valid as the claims of those who oppose them, or that there are no arguments for judging their conflict.


If the reasons for political behavior are based not on a philosophy of historical progress but on simple moral considerations, we will not, it must be said, have sufficient reasons for total political engagement or insurance against making great mistakes; but at least we can be sure that the means and ends of political activity are not contradictory. Briefly, if I do not consult the wisdom of historical Reason, then I will not expect that a world of brotherhood and freedom will emerge from mass terror, oppression, and lies. I will no longer quote the favorite proverbs of the hangman—that “one cannot make omelets without breaking eggs,” or that “history is not a bed of roses”—in order to justify (in a mysterious manner) all the crimes of police or military systems.

The philosophy of the ambiguity of history is, I believe, both justified and necessary, in so far as it may erode fanaticism and encourage skepticism about our own certainties. But Merleau-Ponty shows us that the same theory can be used to do just the opposite, that it may provide the basis for saying that “since no decision has clear significance at the time it is made, then one choice is as good as another.” This is not what Merleau-Ponty intended to say, but it is a possible application of his argument. So conceived, the theory of the ambiguity of history is antihuman, the perfect argument in support of Dostoevsky’s famous statement, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

It would be unfair, however, to attack Merleau-Ponty because the inconsistencies in his argument led him to ambiguities that he did not intend. His Preface and final chapter show that he had growing doubts whether the recent labor of History between Kamchatka and the Elbe had really brought the socialist utopia nearer. In fact, when it first appeared, Humanism and Terror was seen, as the Communist press of the period confirms, as an attempt to open up questions that were then closed among many on the left in France and to shake the prevailing faith of French Communists in the automatic benefits of socialist terror.

After twenty-three years this meaning has faded. If the book is read by those still naïve enough to believe in the universal efficacy of violence, it may reinforce childish beliefs that all political activities are equally based on violence; and that there is no “essential” difference between life in societies where the traditional protections of law still have validity, notwithstanding corruption and injustice, and those where extreme despotism prevails.

Merleau-Ponty writes that “communism does not invent violence but finds it already institutionalized.” Taken literally, this is so obvious that it means nothing. If we interpret it to mean that in all forms of social life violence is equally pervasive and inescapable, then Merleau-Ponty’s view would simply cancel any hope for changing the world—against his explicitly stated intention. That is why Merleau-Ponty is not only ambiguous about History but also about himself. He maintains that Koestler’s dilemma—the Yogi or the commissar—is not an inevitable one. He does not want to choose between the Yogi, who is interested only in internal perfection, and the commissar, for whom man is an object and all human affairs have no more than instrumental meaning. Merleau-Ponty assures us that other solutions are possible, and we must hope that they are. Unfortunately, he is not able to formulate them.

This Issue

September 3, 1970