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The Work of Sartre reviewed on Counterfire

The Work of Sartre by István Mészáros

"Not only makes a powerful case for him as one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, but also underlines how the problems and commitments that animated Sartre make him a vital figure of continuing importance."

—Dominic Alexander, Counterfire

The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History



István Mészáros’ updated study of Sartre is a valuable exploration of the political implications of that great philosopher’s commitments and ideas

István Mészáros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (Monthly Review Press 2012), 380pp.

István Mészáros’ newly expanded critical study of Jean-Paul Sartre not only makes a powerful case that Sartre was one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, but also underlines his continuing importance as a thinker whose lifework is ‘manifestly representative of our time’ (p.141). In demonstrating Sartre’s strengths and integrity, Mészáros also reveals how his very failures are sources of illumination. Some of Sartre’s most ambitious works remained unfinished, and the reason lies in the contradictions at the core of the philosopher’s thinking, and also, as Mészáros points out, at the heart of late capitalist society.

There are several themes which run throughout the work, some of which relate to the philosophical premises of Sartre’s thinking, and others which reveal the political consequences of Sartre’s thinking. One of Mészáros’ contentions is that there remained, throughout all the key stages in Sartre’s work, certain continuities at the level of fundamental premises. These premises at once fuelled Sartre’s critical energy, but also became more problematic the more he identified himself as a Marxist and a revolutionary.

Sartre has often, particularly in recent years, been taken to task for his insufficient condemnation of Stalinist Russia. Given the context of the Cold War, and Sartre’s thoroughgoing opposition to his own state’s vicious colonial war in Algeria, the fatuous moralism of this charge should be clear. However the importance of Sartre as a philosopher and activist does not lie in the details of the particular positions he adopted at different points.

Neither are there singular principles to be extracted from his writings. Rather, Sartre’s value lies in his consistent and uncompromising stance against power and exploitation, and the ambition of his attempt at a total critique of existence in class society. As Mészáros puts it, in philosophical terms: ‘we are captivated by the process of nihilating objectification that produces the lifework, and not necessarily by particular results’ (p.27). Sartre’s position was that ‘freedom’ was an irreducible fact of individual existence, but the institutions of bourgeois capitalism seek effectively to eliminate that freedom by the reduction of individuals to atomised and alienated units of an objectified mass. To succumb to this process is to be ‘serialised’. In his revolt against alienation, or serialisation, and in his demand for an authentic freedom that capitalism cannot provide to the mass of people, Sartre subjected existing society to relentless critique with revolutionary ambition, that is, to a process of nihilation.

Sartre did not begin as a Marxist, or even as a political activist in any sense, but rather as a writer and existential philosopher. The 1930s and 40s drove him leftwards, and by the closing stages of his intellectual career, he made the monumental attempt in the Critique of Dialectical Reason to marry his existentialism with Marxism. Only the first volume of this appeared in his lifetime, and many have been quick to label it a failure, as a short-cut to dismissing Sartre and his commitment to the revolutionary left. Yet, the very problems of the Critique, and the persistent dilemmas that run through Sartre’s work, are themselves diagnostic of wider problems in capitalist society. It is in this sense that Sartre not only intervened significantly in his times, but reflected their contradictions also.

As always, it is where thinking starts from that is crucial; if you accept the premise, almost everything else a good philosopher has to say will necessarily follow. Sartre’s philosophical premise shows the same flaw as the generality of western thinking in the modern era; he starts from the point of view of the individual. In the consistency of this one intellectual move, the link between the intellectual sphere and the prevailing social order is revealed. Originally, nineteenth-century existentialism as a school of philosophy was typically conservative in nature. From Kierkegaard to Dostoyevsky, its individualist premise led it towards pessimism and the rejection of social change as a possibility. In the twentieth century, the German existentialist, Martin Heidegger was complicit (at the very least) with Nazism, and yet his work remained influential on the left….

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