George Novack’s Understanding History Marxism Versus Existentialism
Existentialism and Marxism are the most widely discussed and widely held philosophies of our time. The first is dominant in Western Europe and gaining increasing popularity in the United States. The second is not only the official doctrine of all communist countries but, in one form or another, is accepted as a guide by many movements and parties throughout the world.
Over the past 20 years the proponents of these two schools of thought have engaged in continual debate with one another. The centre of this controversy has been France. There existentialism has found its most talented spokesmen in Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre and his associates, who have developed their positions in direct contact and contest with Marxism. They live on a continent where, unlike the United States, socialism has influenced public life for almost a century, and in a country where the Communist Party gets a quarter of the vote, is followed by most of the working class, and exerts heavy pressure upon radical intellectuals. These circumstances have compelled the so-called mandarins of the left to make clear their attitude toward Marxism at every stage in the evolution of their views.
The development of Sartre has been especially paradoxical. He worked out his original existentialist ideas under the sway of nonmaterialist thinkers such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as a deliberate challenge to Marxism. In Being and Nothingness (1943) and Materialism and Revolution (1947) Sartre presented his philosophy as an alternative to dialectical materialism. Then in the late 1950s he made a turnabout and embraced Marxism, at least in words—which for him, as he explains in the first volume of his recent autobiography, have had a reality greater than the objective world.
In his latest philosophical treatise, The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), the first section of which has been published in English as Search for a Method , he declares that existentialism has become a subordinate branch of Marxism which aspires to renew and enrich it. Thus the phenomenologist of existence who condemned dialectical materialism as false and a foe to human freedom in the 1940s now proposes to marry Marxism and existentialism.
To what extent, if any, can these philosophies be conjoined? Can a synthesis of the two be viable? This article intends to show that the contending world outlooks cannot be harmonised or integrated into one containing “the best features” of both. A legendary alchemist thought that by putting together fire and water he would concoct that most desirable of delights, “fire-water”. Actually, the one nullifies or extinguishes the other when they come into contact. It is the same with Marxism and existentialism. Their fundamental positions over a broad spectrum of problems extending from philosophy and sociology to morality and politics are so divergent that they cannot really be reconciled.
This piece can do no more than indicate the main lines of their disagreement on the most important issues. Let us first consider their opposing conceptions on the nature of reality and then on science, which is the highest expression of our endeavours to investigate and know the world.
Science And The Absurdity Of Reality
For existentialism the universe is irrational; for Marxism it is lawful. The propositions of existentialist metaphysics are set in a context of cataclysmic personal experience. They all flow from the agonising discovery that the world into which we are thrown has no sufficient or necessary reason for existence, no rational order. It is simply there and must be taken as we find it. Being is utterly contingent, totally without meaning, and superfluous.
Human existence as such is equally meaningless. “It is absurd that we were born, it is absurd that we die”, writes Sartre in Being and Nothingness . We do not know where we came from, why we are here, what we must do; or where we are going. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of the weakness of inertia and dies by chance”, says one of Sartre’s characters in Nausea .
If the world is devoid of meaning and impervious to rational inquiry, a philosophy of existence would seem a contradiction in terms. In contrast to religious mysticism, philosophy aims to illuminate reality by means of concepts, the tools of reasoning. How is it possible to explain an unconditionally absurd universe or even find a foothold for theory in it?
Soren Kierkegaard did contend that it was neither possible nor desirable to think systematically about the reality of life, which eluded the grasp of the abstracting intellect. Albert Camus rejected existentialist theorising on similar grounds. It is hopeless, he asserted, to try to give rational form to the irrational. The absurdity of existence must be lived through, suffered, defied; it cannot be satisfactorily explained.
However, the professional thinkers of this school do not choose to commit philosophical suicide. They have proceeded, each in their own way, to elaborate a philosophy of “being in an absurd world”. There is logic to their illogicality. If everything is hopelessly contradictory, why should the enterprise of philosophy be an exception? The human mission, they say, is to find out the meaning of meaninglessness—or at least give some meaning through our words and deeds to an otherwise inscrutable universe.
For dialectical materialism, reality has developed in a lawful manner and is rationally explicable. The rationality of nature and human history is bound up with matter in motion. The concatenation of cosmic events gives rise to cause-and-effect relations that determine the qualities and evolution of things. The physical preceded and produced the biological, the biological the social, and the social the psychological in a historical series of mutually conditioned stages. The aim of science is to disclose their essential linkages and formulate these into laws that can help pilot human activity.
The rationality, determinism, and causality of the universal process of material development do not exclude but embrace the objective existence and significance of absurdity, indeterminism, and accident.
However, these random features of reality are no more fundamental than regularity. They are not immutable and irremovable aspects of nature and history but relative phenomena which in the course of development can change to the extent of becoming their own opposites. Chance, for example, is the antithesis of necessity. Yet chance has its own laws, which are lodged in the occurrence of statistical regularities. Quantum mechanics and the life insurance business exemplify how individual accidents are convertible into aggregate necessities.
Exceptions are nothing but the least frequent alternatives, and when enough exceptions pile up they give rise to a new rule of operation which supersedes the formerly dominant one. The interplay of chance and necessity through the conversion of the exception into the rule can be seen in the economic development of society. Under tribal life, production for immediate personal consumption is the norm whereas production for exchange is a rare and casual event. Under capitalism, production for sale is the general law; production for one’s own use is uncommon. What was categorically necessary in the first economic system is fortuitous in the second. Moreover, in the transition from one economy to the other the bearers of chance and necessity have changed places, have become transformed into each other.
Social structures that are rational and necessary under certain historical circumstances become absurd and untenable at a further stage of economic development and are scrapped. Thus feudal relations, which corresponded to a given level of the powers of social production, became as anachronistic as Don Quixote and had to give way before the more dynamic forces and more rational forms of bourgeois society.
The existentialists go wrong, say the Marxists, in making an eternal absolute out of the occurrence of chance events and unruly phenomena. These are not unconditioned and unchangeable but relative and variable aspects of being.
As a result, of their conflicting conceptions of reality, the two philosophies have entirely different attitudes toward science. If the universe is irrational through and through, then science, which is the most sustained and comprehensive effort to render the relations and operations of reality intelligible and manageable, must be nonsensical and futile. The existentialists mistrust and downgrade the activities and results of science. They accuse the scientists of substituting conceptual and mathematical abstractions for the whole living person, proffering the hollow shell of rationality for its substance, neglecting what is most important in existence, and breeding an unbridled technology which, like Frankenstein’s monster, threatens to crush its creator.
Marxism, which holds fast to the rationality of the real, esteems scientific knowledge and inquiry as the fullest and finest expression of the exercise of reason. It believes that the discovery of physical and social laws can serve to explain both the regularities and irregularities of development, so that even the most extreme anomalies of nature, society, and the individual can be understood.
The Predominance Of Ambiguity
In the eyes of the existentialists, ambiguity presides over existence. It is easy to see why. Ambiguity is a state between chaos and order, darkness and light, ignorance and knowledge. If the universe is ruled by chance, everything is inevitably and ineradicably indeterminate. The absence of cause-and-effect relations endows reality with a duplicity and disorder which renders it hopelessly obscure.
This uncertainty is exceedingly acute in the individual. We are torn by warring elements within ourselves. This predicament is all the more difficult because we are trapped in a maze of conflicting possibilities. We must act in a fog where indistinct shapes move in no definite direction and toward no ascertainable destination. Since the given situation has no intrinsic structure, trends, or signs which make one alternative superior to another, the existentialist is entitled to pick whatever solution seems most appealing. What comes out is then a matter of chance or caprice.
“The essential form of spiritual life is marked by ambiguity”, observes Heidegger in An Introduction to Metaphysics . Simone de Beauvoir tells us that “from the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity”. She has attempted to found an ethics on the tragic ambivalence of the human being, who is tossed like a shuttlecock between pure externality and pure consciousness without ever being able to bring them into accord.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty likewise made ambiguity the leading principle of his social and political outlook. Human beings, he maintained, are thrust willy-nilly into situations where many conflicting forces are at work. These do not have any central line of development or indicate any particular outcome. We must arbitrarily select one of the multifarious possibilities and act upon it amidst uncertainty and confusion. Our option makes and throws light on our character but cannot remove either the inherent ambiguity of the situation or the risk of the undertaking. Everything in life is a gamble.
Merleau-Ponty objected to historical materialism because it did not give accident primacy over necessity in history. He applied his sweeping indeterminism to the outcome of the struggle for socialism: “The possibility remains of an immense compromise, of a decaying of history where the class struggle, powerful enough to destroy, would not be powerful enough to build and where the master-lines of history charted in the Communist Manifesto would be effaced.” This was the theoretical source of the scepticism which lay behind his reluctance to join the Communist Party, and which later led to his rejection of the Stalinised Soviet Union as in any respect socialist.
The personages in the works of existentialist writers exemplify the enigmatic duplicity of the human being. They do not have stable characters or predictable courses of conduct. They plunge into unexpected and uncalled-for actions which contravene their previous commitments. Their lives and motives are susceptible to multiple meanings and inconclusive interpretations—which the authors are not concerned to clarify, since misunderstanding must accompany the ambiguity of existence. The latest example of this is Edward Albee’s play Tiny Alice , whose symbolism and significances have puzzled not only the drama critics but the author and director as well.
The problem of ambiguity is very real; it arises from the contradictory content of things. While the universe has a determinate structure and a discernible order of evolution, its elements are so complex and changing that the forms of their development can assume highly equivocal and puzzling appearances. The question is whether these paradoxical manifestations must remain forever indecipherable and unsettled or whether the diverse and misleading forms can be correlated by scientific means into some lawful pattern which gets at the essence of things.
The existentialists refuse to concede that the outcome of a situation depends upon the relative weight of all the factors at work within it; they want to make the settlement depend entirely upon the will of the individual. This runs into conflict with their observation that the results of our activities are often at odds with our intentions, desires, and expectations. If this is so, what other underlying forces determine the outcome? The existentialists have no answer but accident. For them, arbitrariness remains the arbiter of all events.
The materialist dialectician takes up where the baffled existentialist leaves off, proceeding from the premise that what can become definite in reality can find clear-cut formulation in thought. No matter how hidden, complicated, and devious the contradictions encountered in reality may be, they can with time and effort be unravelled. The dialectical essence of all processes consists precisely in the unfolding of their internal oppositions, the gradual exposure and greater determination of their polar aspects, until they arrive at their breaking point and ultimate resolution. As the contending forces and tendencies within things are pushed to the extreme, they become more and more sharply outlined and less and less ambiguous. The struggle of opposites is brought to a conclusion and maximum clarification through the victory of one irreconcilable alternative over the other. This is the logical course and final outcome of all evolutionary processes.
Marxists do not regard ambiguity as an impenetrable and unalterable property of things or thoughts but as a provisional state which further development will overcome. Any unsettled situation can give way to greater determination. Reality and our understanding of it need not be forever ambiguous, any more than water must remain fluid under all circumstances.
Order and disorder are relative features of things. The greatest chaos has sources of order within it, behind it and ahead of it. The most crystallised form of order contains elementary traces of irregularity which can in time spread out, upsetting and overturning its symmetry and stability. Moreover, ambiguity can be as much of a challenge and an opportunity as an obstacle. It prods knowledge and practice forward. Science advances and action becomes more effective as humanity succeeds in displacing what is indeterminate and problematic with definite ideas about objectively determined things.
The existentialists make much of the ineradicable ambiguity of history. They emphasise that history does not move in a straight line or a uniform manner from one point to another; indeed some among them question whether humankind has progressed at all. Marxism does not deny that history is full of irregularities, relapses, stagnation, and oddities. Despite its zigzags, however, history has moved onward and upward from one stage to the next, from savagery to civilisation, for ascertainable reasons. It exhibits necessities as well as ironic contingencies, final settlements as well as unresolved issues. The French feudalists, the colonial Loyalists, the Southern slaveholders, the German Nazis, and the Russian capitalists can attest to that.
Individuals And Their Environment
For purposes of analysis, reality can be divided into two sectors: one public, the other private. There is the objective material world that exists around us, regardless of what anyone feels, thinks, or knows about it. Against this is the inner domain of personal experience, the world as it appears to each one of us, as we perceive, conceive, and react to it. Although these two dimensions of human existence are never actually disjoined, and although they roughly correspond with each other, they do not coincide in certain essential respects. They can therefore be considered separately and studied on their own account.
Existentialism and Marxism take irreconcilable views on the nature of the relationship between the objective and subjective sides of human life, on the status, the interconnection, and the relative importance of the public and private worlds.
Marxism says that nature is prior to and independent of humanity. Human existence, as a product and part of nature, is necessarily dependent upon it. Existentialism holds that the objective and subjective components of being do not exist apart from each other, and that in fact the subject makes the world what it is.
The contrast between the idealistic subjectivity of the existentialist thinkers and the materialist objectivity of Marxism can be seen in the following assertion of Heidegger in An Introduction to Metaphysics : “It is in words and language that things first come into being and are.” In accord with the conception that other aspects of reality acquire existence only to the extent that they enter human experience, Heidegger makes not simply the meaning but the very existence of things emanate from our verbal expression of them. To a materialist such human functions as speech and thought reflect the traits of things but do not create them. The external world exists regardless of our relations with it and apart from the uses we make of its elements.
The whole of existentialism revolves around the absolute primacy of the conscious subject over everything objective, whether it be physical or social. The truth and values of existence are to be sought exclusively within the experiences of the individual, in our self-discovery and self-creation of what we authentically are.
Marxism takes the reverse position. It gives existential priority, as any consistent materialism must, to nature over society and to society over any single person within it. Nature, society, and the individual coexist in the closest reciprocal relationship, which is characterised by the action of human beings in changing the world. In the process of subduing objective reality for their own ends they change themselves. The subjective comes out of the objective, is in constant interaction and unbreakable communion with it, and is ultimately controlled by it.
These opposing conceptions of the object-subject relationship are reflected in the conflict between the two philosophies on the nature of the individual and the individual’s connections with the surrounding world. The category of the isolated individual is central in existentialism. The true existence of a person, it asserts, is thwarted by things and other people. These external forces crush the personality and drag it down to their own impersonal and commonplace level.
The individual can attain genuine value only in contest with these external relationships. We must turn inward and explore the recesses of our being in order to arrive at our real selves and real freedom. Only at the bottom of the abyss where the naked spirit grapples with the fearful foreknowledge of death are both the senselessness and the significance of existence revealed to us.
Thus existentialism pictures the individual as essentially divorced from other humans, at loggerheads with an inert and hostile environment, and pitted against a coercive society. This desolation of the individual is the wellspring of inconsolable tragedy. Having cut off the individual from organic unity with the rest of reality, from the regular operation of natural processes and the play of historical forces, existentialism is thereafter unable to fit the subjective reactions and reflections of the personality to the environing conditions of life. Indeed, says Sartre, our attempts to make consciousness coincide with “facticity”, the world of things, are a futile business.
By a grim paradox, the solitary human mind is completely sovereign in shaping its real existence. With nothing but its own forces to lean on and its own judgment as a guide, it must confront and solve all the problems of life.
Existentialism is the most thoroughgoing philosophy of individualism in our time. “Be yourself at all costs!” is its first commandment. It champions the spontaneity of the individual menaced by the mass, the class, the state. It seeks to safeguard the dignity, rights, initiatives, even the vagaries of the autonomous personality against any oppressive authority, organised movement, or established institution.
With individual liberty as its watchword and supreme good, existentialism is a creed of nonconformism. “I came to regard it as my task to create difficulties everywhere”, wrote Kierkegaard in describing how he turned to an existentialist view of life. The existentialists are averse to routine, externally imposed ideas, or disciplined modes of behaviour, and whatever is uncongenial to the desires of the ego. All submission to projects not freely chosen is evidence of bad faith, says Sartre.
The targets of existentialism’s protest are as diversified as the interests and inclinations of its exponents. These have ranged from religious orthodoxies to philosophical systematising, from capitalist exploitation to Stalinist regimentation, from bourgeois morality to workers’ bureaucratism. Kierkegaard set about to disturb the peace of mind of the hypocritical Danish middle class. Nietzsche heralded the superman who was to rise above the herdlike crowd and transcend good and evil. The favoured heroes of Camus and Sartre are rebels and outsiders. Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre analyse writers such as the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet, whose ideas and lives have outrageously flouted the ordinary canons of moral conduct.
It must be said that the heresies of the existentialists do not always succeed in shedding completely the values of the society they rebel against. Kierkegaard assailed the sluggishness and self-deception of the smug citizens around him only to embrace the Christian God with more passionate intensity. And Sartre, who attacks stuffed shirts and stinkers for their egotism, clings to the concept of the totally free person beholden solely to himself as the pivot of his philosophy and moral theory.
Existentialism proclaims the urge of the individual to develop without hindrance. But its constitutional aversion to the organised action of mass movements determined by historically given circumstances renders it incapable of finding an effective solution of this problem for the bulk of humanity. That is why it is nonconformist rather than revolutionary.
Historical materialism takes an entirely different approach to the relationship between individual and environment. We are essentially social beings; we develop into individuals only in and through society. For Marxists, the isolated individual is an abstraction. All distinctive things about humans, from toolmaking, speech, and thought to the latest triumphs of art and technology, are products of our collective activity over the past million years or so.
Take away from the person all the socially conditioned and historically acquired attributes derived from the culture of the collectivity and little would be left but the biological animal. The specific nature of the individual is determined by the social content of the surrounding world. This shapes not only our relations with other people but our innermost emotions, imagination, and ideas.
Even the special kind of solitude felt by people today is an outgrowth of the social system. One of the major contradictions of capitalism is that it has brought humans into the closest “togetherness” while accentuating conditions that pull them apart. Capitalism socialises the labour process and knits the whole world into a unit while separating people from one another through the divisive interests of private property and competition. Frederick Engels noted this when he described the crowds in the London streets in his first work, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 : “This isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere Ö The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each has a separate principle , the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.” The “barbarous indifference, hard egotism and nameless misery” which he observed over a century ago still strongly permeate our acquisitive society.
Like the existentialists, the socialist movement has made one of its chief aims and persistent concerns the defence and expansion of individuality—however much this has been violated in practice by bureaucratic powers speaking in the name of socialism. But Marxism differs from existentialism by denying that individualism as a philosophy can provide an adequate method of social change and political action. Since the social structure shapes and dominates the lives of individuals, it has to be transformed by the collective struggle of the working people in order to eliminate the conditions that repress individuality and create an environment suited to the unhampered cultivation of the capacities of each living human being.
Freedom, Necessity And Morality
According to its supporters, the supreme merit of existentialism is its capacity to explain and safeguard human freedom. It is superior to Marxism, they claim, because it does not subjugate human life to determinism, which robs us of free choice and moral responsibility for our deeds.
The problem of freedom and necessity arises from two apparently contradictory facts of life. Science teaches, and practice confirms, that nature and society have regularities which are expressed in laws. At the same time, people deliberately select between different lines of action. How can universal determinism coexist with freedom of choice?
The existentialists cut this Gordian knot by depriving determinism of any sway over human beings. What is nonhuman may be subject to objective causation but a person cannot be reduced to the status of a thing. To be human is to be totally free, that is to say, completely self-determined by successive acts of will. When external circumstances compel us to be or do anything against our will, we are not behaving like human beings but like automatons. It is only by detaching ourselves from the given situation that we can freely decide the character and course of our lives.
Marxism resolves the antithesis between scientific determinism and human choice in an altogether different manner. Humanity really becomes free by uncovering and understanding the laws of nature, society and thought. Our aims become effective to the extent that verified scientific knowledge enables us to control and change the world around us. The existentialist demand for absolute personal freedom does not correspond to anything real or realisable. People must act under the constraint of their conditions of life and cannot cast off their causal weight.
Human activity is an unequal synthesis of extrinsic determination and self-determination. People react consciously and vigorously to their environment and take initiatives to alter certain aspects of it. The measure of control exercised by the objective and subjective components of the causal process changes and develops in the course of time according to the growth of our mastery over nature and society. History has proceeded, by and large, toward greater freedom, toward a growth in our ability to decide and direct an increasing number of activities.
The existentialists regard determinism as an inveterate foe of human aims and aspirations. In reality, determinism can display either a hostile or friendly face to us, depending upon the given circumstances. Humans became free in this century to travel through the atmosphere for the first time and even to leave this planet. This was achieved by finding out the principles of aerodynamics and propulsion and then utilising them to construct the instruments to realise the aim of flight. In making aircraft we have succeeded in putting the determinism of the material world to work for us, rather than against us.
The same is true of social determinism. People have been enabled to enlarge their freedom not by ignoring and rejecting the determinants of history but by recognising them and acting in accord with their requirements. The American people acquired and extended their liberties by seeing the need for abolishing British domination and Southern slaveholding when national progress demanded such revolutionary deeds.
Far from being incompatible with freedom, as the existentialist thinks, natural and social necessities are the indispensable foundation of all the freedoms we have.
The existentialists, however, are more concerned about the narrower dilemmas of personal responsibility than with the broader problem of the interaction of freedom and necessity in social and historical evolution. Both existentialism and Marxism agree that our conduct has to be regulated and judged by relative human standards. We are accountable only to ourselves and for ourselves, and have no right to sanctify or justify our decisions by reference to any supernatural source.
What, then, is the basis of morality? Where do our standards of right and wrong come from? The ethics of existentialism is uncompromisingly libertarian. We create both ourselves and our morality through our utterly uncurbed choices. Authentic freedom manifests itself in the causeless selection among alternative possibilities and fulfils itself in the deliberate adoption of one’s own set of values.
The Marxist theory of morality does not rest upon an inborn capacity of the individual to make unconditioned and unmotivated choices but upon historical and social considerations. Its position can be summarised as follows: 1. Morality has an objective basis in the conditions, relations, needs, and development of society. Its rational character is derived from a correspondence with given historical realities and an understanding of specific social necessities. 2. Morality has a variable content and a relative character, depending upon changes, in social circumstances. 3. Under civilisation to date, morality inescapably takes on a class character. 4. There are no absolute standards of moral behaviour and judgment. Human acts are not good or had, praiseworthy or iniquitous, in themselves. All moral codes and conduct must be evaluated by reference to the prevailing conditions and the concrete social needs, class interests, and historical aims they serve.
The rival theories of morality are put to a test in cases which pose conflicting lines of action. The philosophical and literary works of the existentialists concentrate upon such “either-or” situations. To accept God or reject Him. To join one side rather than the other. To turn traitor or remain loyal to one’s comrades. To live or die.
Existentialism insists that there cannot be any sufficient and compelling grounds within the situation itself, the individual’s connections with it, or the person’s own character to warrant choosing one rather than the other of mutually exclusive alternatives. Humans, says Sartre, are the beings through whom nothingness enters the world. This power of negation is most forcefully expressed in our perfect liberty to do what we please in defiance of all external circumstances. The exercise of fully conscious, uninhibited preference distinguishes people from animals and one person from another. “By their choices shall ye know them.”
The historical materialists reply that, while we can make choices in situations permitting real alternatives—that is the crux of personal morality—these decisions are not made in a void. Making up one’s mind about the possibilities of a confusing or conflicting situation is only a part of the total process of moral action.
Voluntary acts are links in a chain of events beginning with objective circumstances and ending with objective consequences. The given situation, personal character, motivation, decision, action and results form a continuity of phases which are lawfully connected and feed back upon one another. The uniqueness of individual choice does not consist in its self-sufficiency or release from essential relations with other facts, but in contributing its special quality of approval or dissent, collaboration or resistance, to them.
The existentialists deny any causal ties between the psychological act of choice and the circumstances in which it takes place.
They sheer away the moment of personal decision from all that precedes and follows it, from the environing conditions, motivations, and consequences of human action. However, there is no empirical evidence that choice occurs apart from and unaffected by the totality of concurrent conditions; this is a purely metaphysical assumption.
In fact, the power of choice is far from unlimited. A multitude of social, historical, and biographical factors enter into the process of moral determination. The real opportunities open to the individual are restricted by natural and social history, by the forces operating in a particular situation and the trends of their development. These provide objective criteria which make it possible to ascertain beforehand whether one alternative is preferable to another, or, after the fact, whether one was better than another. Moreover, the individual is predisposed, though not predestined, by previous experiences and existing connections to take one path rather than another. Otherwise human behaviour would be completely unpredictable.
The highest good in the existentialist scale of values is personal sincerity, which is certified by devotion to a freely chosen object of faith. This psychological quality, which is considered the most powerful manifestation of freedom, is the sole principle of moral worth. The feelings of the autonomous individual determine what is right or wrong in any given case.
Marxists judge actions to be good or bad not according to the intentions or emotions of the agents, but by their correspondence with social and class needs and their service to historical aims. They are considered justified or unjustified to the extent that they help or hinder progress toward the goals of socialism. Good deeds must be judged by their consequences. They must actually lead to increasing our command over nature and to diminishing social evils.
The Destiny Of Humanity
The ambivalence of existentialism is most conspicuous in its view of human destiny. It is at the same time a philosophy of the utmost despair and of breathless effort to go beyond it. Existentialism swings back and forth between these extremes. At one end stand the principal characters in Waiting for Godot , a classic of the existentialist theatre. They wait and wait but nothing important happens, nothing changes, no one comes. Their expectations continuously disappointed, they are sunk in the futility of an empty existence which must go on without hope or help.
But most writers and thinkers of this school cannot remain in the unrelieved apathy and inertia dramatised by Samuel Beckett. His ending is their point of departure. After looking the worst in the face, they challenge the tragic absurdity of existence. Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between “bad” existentialism, which wallows in pure negativism, and “good” existentialism, which strives to project itself beyond despair. Camus regards the revolt against nihilism as the basis of everything worthwhile.
The mark of freedom, says Sartre, is conscious refusal to submit to any externally imposed condition of life. The authentic person will pass from total negation to self-affirmation in action, from nay-saying to yea-saying. Individuals forge genuine selves by bucking against the “practico-inert” around them and surpassing their given situation through involvement in a characteristic venture, a cause, a future.
The existentialists take many divergent paths out of the original abysmal human condition. The religious, such as Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, try to find a way to God. The unbelievers seek a solution, a transcendence, in this world. This quest has led the most radically inclined among them toward the revolutionary struggle of the working masses. As Julian Symons wittily put it, they would rather be “waiting for Lefty” than “waiting for Godot”.
Yet they cannot completely merge themselves with the aims of any movement because of their stand on the insurmountable ambiguity of everything. Existentialism remains fundamentally a creed of frustration in the midst of fulfilment. The most brilliant success turns into failure as coal into ashes. The hazardous leap from what is to what should be inevitably falls short of realisation. For Camus every act of rebellion against oppression is justified in itself but installs a new form of servitude. For Sartre the act of transcendence negates itself and in the very process of materialisation, trickles out and dies. It must be followed by a fresh exertion of creative revolt—which in turn will not reach its goal.
Thus we hunger but are never fully fed. We ask for nourishing bread and receive a stone. The most promising road forward winds up in a blind alley. Life is not only a gamble; it is in the end a cheat. We are swindled by the limitations of time, history, and death, which nullify our fondest hopes. “The sorrows of our proud and angry dust are from eternity and will not fail.” But human beings always will.
Sartre has epitomised this pessimism coiled in the heart of existentialism in the famous aphorism from Being and Nothingness : “Man is a useless passion.” So grim a humanism, in which every venture must turn out to be a lost cause, can stimulate spasmodic expenditures of energy in social struggle. But the expectation that defeat lurks in ambush spreads scepticism and cripples the steadfastness of the inwardly divided individual at every step.
The pessimistic irrationalism of the existentialists clashes head-on with the militant temper of Marxism, which feels sure of the victory of humanity over all obstacles. For the historical materialist, humanity is above all the creative producer that has succeeded through its own titanic efforts in elevating itself from animality to the atomic age—and is just on the threshold of its authentically human career.
This belief in the rationality of social evolution and in the necessity of the socialist revolution to usher in the next stage of human progress is the theoretical source of the optimism which suffuses scientific socialism. Marxism points to the historical achievements recorded in humanity’s rise over the past million years and incorporated in the accumulated knowledge, skills, and acquisitions of world culture as tangible proofs of the worth of human work and as a pledge of the future.
The indomitable struggles for a better life among the downtrodden, the “wretched of the earth”, the key role of the industrial workers in modern economy, the successes of the first experiments in nationalised property and planned economy even under extremely adverse conditions, give confidence to Marxists that the most difficult problems of our age are susceptible of solution through the methods of proletarian-peasant revolution and socialist reconstruction.
As in the past, many surprises, setbacks, disappointments, and detours will be encountered en route . These are part of the price exacted by the fact that we have to climb and sometimes crawl upward unaided by anything but our own collective efforts. Yet every great social and political revolution has added new stature and power to humankind despite the pains and even disenchantments attending it. The offspring of history have been worth the agonies of birth and the difficulties of their upbringing.
Alienation In Modern Society
Why do so many people nowadays feel that the major forces governing their lives are inimical and inscrutable and beyond their capacity to control or change? Where does this state of helplessness come from and what can be done to remove it? Their disagreements on the causes and cure of alienation in modern society constitute an impassable dividing line between the two philosophies.
Both existentialism and Marxism recognise that people have become dehumanised by the alienations they suffer in contemporary life. Alienation expresses the fact that the creations of the human mind and hand dominate their creators. The victims of this servitude become stripped of the qualities of self-determination and self-direction which raise them above the animal level.
For existentialism, human alienation has neither beginning nor end. It is not a historical phenomenon but a metaphysical fate. It is a primordial, indestructible feature of human existence, the quintessence of “human nature”. The free and conscious human being is irreconcilably estranged from the world into which we have been hurled. Although we can interject meaning, value, usefulness into it, this does not efface its alien and absurd nature.
Hostility is likewise built into the structure of interpersonal relations. The world whose meaning I create differs from that of others. This produces incessant friction between me and other people, who strive to impose their views on me, nullify my authentic existence, and divert me from my own needs and aims to serve their alien needs.
Finally, individuals are ill at ease with themselves. Our inner being is rendered unhappy by the perpetual tension of conflicting impulses and claims. The goals we set are unrealised or result in something other than we expected or desired.
Since all these sources of alienation are ineradicable, we can do no more than clear-sightedly confront and stoically bear up under this sombre state, trying to cope with it as best we can. All the diverse ways in which the existentialists seek to transcend their fate—religion, artistic creation, good works, liberalism, social revolution—are by their own admission only palliative and superficial. They make life tolerable and meaningful but do not and can not end alienation. Free people are obliged to try to overcome their alienation in ways most suitable to themselves—that is their glory. But their efforts prove unavailing—that is their melancholy destiny.
Alienation plays the same part in the existentialist metaphysics as Adam’s fall from grace in Christian theology. It is the equivalent of original sin. Just as Jehovah expelled the erring pair from paradise and condemned their descendants to sin and suffering on earth forever after, so through the fatality of our existence as humans we are eternally and ineluctably withdrawn from others and enclosed within ourselves. There is no release or redemption from such estrangement.
Instead of indicating any exit from the state of alienation, existentialism makes it the permanent foundation of human life, reproducing and justifying it in metaphysical terms.
Marxism gives a materialist and historical analysis of alienation. It is the product of our impotence before the forces of nature and society and our ignorance of the laws of their operation. It diminishes to the extent that our powers over nature and our own social relations, and our scientific knowledge of their processes of development, are amplified.
The idolatries of magic and religion by which people prostrate themselves before supernatural beings of their own imaginative manufacture are the most primitive forms of alienation. But the alienations peculiar to civilisation are based not upon subjection to nature, but upon subjection to others through the exploitation of labour.
This type of alienation originates in a highly developed division of labour and the cleavage of society into antagonistic classes. Bereft of the conditions of production, the masses of direct producers lose control over their lives, their liberties, and their means of development, which are at the mercy of hostile social forces. This is obvious under slavery, which was the first organised system of alienated labour. The alienation of labour is far more complex and refined under capitalism, where it attains ultimate expression.
The wage workers are subjected to uncontrollable external forces at every step of capitalist economy. Having none of the material prerequisites of production, they must go to work for their owners. Even before physically participating in production, they surrender their labour power to the entrepreneur in return for the payment of the prevailing wage. While at work, the conditions and duration of the job are determined by the capitalist and his foremen. As men and women on the assembly line can testify, workers become degraded into mere physical accessory factors of production. Instead of intelligently exercising their capacities, they are constrained to perform monotonous, repetitious tasks which strain their endurance. The plan, process, and aim of production all confront them as hostile and hurtful powers.
At the end of the industrial process the product does not belong to the workers who made it but to the capitalist who bought their labour power. It goes into the market to be sold. There the masses of commodities and money function like an untameable force which even the biggest groups of capitalists cannot control, as the fluctuations of the business cycle and periodic crises demonstrate.
On top of this, the competitiveness of capitalism pits the members of all classes against one another and generates unbridled egotism and self-seeking. The members of bourgeois society, whatever their status, are immersed in an atmosphere of rivalry rather than communal solidarity.
Thus the alienations within capitalism come from the contradictory relations of its mode of production and the class antagonisms and competitive conditions engendered by them. The divisions rooted in the economic foundations of capitalism branch out into all aspects of social life. They appear in the collisions of class interests and outlooks on a national and international scale, in the opposition of monopolist-dominated governments to the mass of the people, in the struggle of the creative artist against commercialism, in the contrast between metropolitan slums and ghettos and luxury apartments and hotels, in the subordination of science to militarism, and in myriad other ways. Its cruelest and sharpest large-scale expression today in the United States is the deep-going estrangement between the Black people and the whites.
These stigmata mangle human personalities, injure health, stamp out the chance of happiness. They produce many of the mental and emotional disturbances which make up the psychopathology of everyday life in the acquisitive society.
Can the alienations of modern humankind be overcome? The existentialists contend that they cannot. Marxism replies that these characteristics of a barbarous past and exploitative present can be removed by revolutionising outworn social structures. Now that we have achieved superiority over nature through science and technology, the next great step is to gain supremacy over the blind and anarchic forces in our lives. The sole agency that is strong enough and strategically placed to carry through this task of instituting conscious collective control over economic and political life is the alienated labour embodied in the industrial working class.
The material means for liberating humanity from the causes and consequences of alienation can be brought into existence only through the socialist revolution, which will concentrate economic, political, and cultural power in the hands of the toiling majority. Planned economy along socialist lines on an international scale can lead to such plenty that the circumstances permitting and even necessitating rule over the many by the few will be wiped out forever.
When all the compulsory inequalities in the conditions of life and in access to the means of self-development are done away with, then the manifestations of these material disparities in the estrangements of one section of society from another will die away. The equal and fraternal relations at the base of the future socialist culture will facilitate the formation of integrated personalities no longer at odds with each other or with themselves.
The Meaning Of Life And Death
The cleavage between the two outlooks comes to a sharp focus over the meaning of life and death. Humanism has traditionally upheld the supreme value of life on earth against the religious emphasis on death, resurrection, and immortality. For humanists, death was to be countered by making the sole span of existence allotted to mortal creatures as productive and joyous as possible.
Despite their disbelief in divinity, even the secular existentialists invert these values and reinstate the fact of death to the centrality it has had in Christian theology and church practice. Like a medieval meditation upon mortality, Karl Jaspers opines: “Philosophising means learning to die.” Camus insists in The Myth of Sisyphus that suicide—that is, what answer to give to the question: Is life worth living? —is the only philosophical issue.
Heidegger defines life as a being-for-death. “When you stand by the cradle of a newborn child., there is only one statement you can make of him with entire certainty”, he says. He must die.
According to existentialism, life acquires its deepest meaning not from its own aims and activities, but only when one awakens to the full implications of one’s doom. Most people try to shut out this awful awareness by cowardly evasion. The ordinary citizen becomes immersed in everyday activities and distracting pleasures, the artist in creative work, the philosopher in spinning cobwebs of thought. These are nothing but diversions and illusions so long as the individual refuses to confront the realisation of eventual annihilation with unflinching and complete consciousness.
Death is the foundation of morality and liberation because it compels each of us to decide whether life is worthwhile and what to do with it. Every act of moral choice is literally a life-and-death matter. All the freely created values of life are stacked up against the overwhelming prospect of death.
Heidegger declares that death is the only thing nobody else can do for me. If we embrace our finitude, our being-for-death, we internalise it and integrate it into the totality of our existence and thus give it meaning. To Sartre, on the other hand, death is a meaningless external fact, a limit that cannot be interiorised in the sum total of our lives. The consciousness of death does not make us human. It merely heightens our individuality by prodding us to decide in defiance of conventional values. “The choice that each of us has made of his life was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death”, he says.
For Heidegger death gives life all meaning; for Sartre it removes all meaning from life. These opposing evaluations show how difficult it is to extract a common position from the existentialists. But, despite the extreme variations in their answers to this problem, the terrifying shock of the recognition of death overshadows their reflections on the meaning and worth of life.
The Marxist approach is more in accord with the humanist mainstream. It is the first law of nature—as well as dialectical materialism—that everything has its day and then must perish. Nothing and no one is immune from this law. The processes of life and death emerged on this planet as the result of new biochemical reactions several billion years ago. Humankind is the highest product of this development.
Is life worth living? And if so, how should the inevitable approach and advent of death be met? Marxism replies to the first question with a ringing affirmative. No matter what the toil, turmoil, and pain of personal and social experience, life is the supreme value for humankind. Not life as it is but life as liberated humanity will make and remake it. The paramount practical-moral aim of socialism is to improve the quality of life without limit. By increasing humanity’s power over nature, and decreasing the power of one person over another, a boundless potential of happiness and creative achievement can be released from generation to generation.
The prospect of our own death and the death of others we love and admire often causes anguish and sorrow. Such grief is a normal sentiment among civilised people and is morbid only when it becomes obsessive. The dread of death is not the primal and central fact of human existence, an eternal attendant of the human condition, as the existential metaphysicians contend. It is a historically conditioned psychological reaction. Many primitive peoples do not experience it.
Excessive preoccupation with death belongs to the psychopathology of civilisation. The malfunctioning and disproportionate wearing out of our bodies, the multiple insecurities, disorders, stresses, sufferings, and alienations of a crisis-ridden, class-divided society make life difficult and burdensome. Paradoxically, for all their hysterical fear of death many people desperately welcome and even hasten the ending of a too hard life.
The socialist movement aspires to transform and eventually eradicate such attitudes and feelings by changing the conditions of life and labour for all. The remodelling of humanity must begin with the transformation of social relations from antagonism into cooperation, with its ever-enlarging possibilities of satisfying human desires. But it will not stop there. The scientists of the future, in teamwork with highly conscious individuals, will plan to reshape the physiological side of life and subordinate that to the control of reason and will. Biology and medicine will ease the processes of birth and postpone the incidence of death. The coming biological-social type of human will manifest a new psychology in which, among other things, people will no longer have reason to dread death. So long as it cannot be indefinitely put off or averted, the end of living will be greeted not as a frightful calamity, but as the ransom of time.
The existentialist displacement of the seat of value from life to death reflects both the ordeals of our age and a loss of vitality among sensitive souls who despair of triumphing over the dark and destructive forces of a sick social order. On the other hand, a lust for life, conscious participation in the collective struggle for a better world, and an indestructible confidence in the real possibilities of unbounded progress characterise the working class humanism projected by Marxism. It is intent on making life what it could and should be—a serene and splendid adventure for all members of the human family.
Can Existentialism And Marxism Be Reconciled?
Are existentialism and Marxism compatible? Are they opposites or affinities? Can they be synthesised into a coherent unit?
Most interpreters and adherents of existentialism, especially the theists among them, do not think the two are reconcilable. They reject Marxism totally because it fails to recognise what to them is the most meaningful aspect of being: the sovereign subjectivity and dignity of the individual. They maintain that materialist theory debases people to mere objects while socialist practice stamps out personal freedom.
Orthodox Marxists no less firmly insist that the contending philosophies have far too many principled differences to be welded into one.
In between stand a variegated group who agree with Sartre that the two can be fused into a single alloy that will reinforce both. In the United States the noted psychoanalytical sociologist Erich Fromm is the most ardent champion of the thesis that existentialism and Marxism are substantially identical. In Marx’s Concept of Man (1961), which presents Fromm’s concept of Marx, he asserts that Marx’s thinking is humanist existentialism. The doctrines appear alike to him since both protest against the alienation in modern society and seek ways to overcome it. “Marx’s philosophy”, he writes, “constitutes a spiritual existentialism in secular language and because of this spiritual quality is opposed to the materialistic practice and thinly disguised materialistic philosophy of our age. Marx’s aim, socialism, based on his theory of man, is essentially prophetic Messianism in the language of the 19th century.”
This transmutation of the materialist Marx into a precursor and preacher of existentialism is typical of radical humanists of very different backgrounds and beliefs; Fromm is their chief American representative They locate the “true” Marx in the early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 , which mark transitional stages of his development, instead of in the ripe conclusions of his mature thoughts. They contend that Marx has been misrepresented as a crude dialectical materialist by his orthodox disciples from Engels to Lenin—until the radical humanists revealed that he really was an ethical existentialist.
Fromm’s equation of dialectical materialism with existentialism is as ill-founded as his astonishing statement that “Marx’s atheism is the most advanced form of rational mysticism”. The atheistic Marx is no more a mystic than the Marx of scientific socialism is an existentialist.
Ever since socialism became a powerful movement and Marxism its dominant ideology, attempts have been made to disqualify the dialectical and materialist principles of its method in favour of a different theoretical basis. At various times and places Kantianism, ethical idealism, positivism, pragmatism and even Thomism have been nominated as replacements. None of these proposed supplements and substitutes (or their eclectic combinations) have proved convincing or viable. The Marxist system has such an integrated structure, from its philosophical and logical premises to its political economy and historical outlook, that it cannot easily be chopped up and recombined with other theories.
Sartrean existentialism is the latest and most popular candidate for the office of eking out the real or alleged deficiencies of Marxist thought. It is unlikely to be more successful than its predecessors.
The existentialists aver that the individual’s sincerest act and tragic responsibility is the necessity to choose between anguishing alternatives and take the consequences. Sartre shrinks from doing this in philosophy. The confrontation of existentialism with dialectical materialism is a genuine case of “either-or.” But Sartre wants to embrace both Kierkegaard and Marx without choosing between them.
“To the marriage of true minds, let us admit no impediment”, Shakespeare said. The trouble is that dialectical materialism and existentialism are contrary-minded and oriented along diametrically different lines. They clash at almost every point on the major issues of philosophy, sociology, morality, and politics. It is a pointless task to try to mate these opposites.
This has not—and will not—deter either radical-minded existentialists or socialist eclectics from trying to coalesce the one with the other. The controversy between the philosophers of existence and the dialectical materialists, as well as those who mix the two, has steadily expanded its area over the last two decades. It is still in full swing and far from concluded.
The first commandment of existentialism is, as has been said: “Be yourself!” This is not a bad maxim, and it ought to be applied as strictly to philosophies as to personalities. Let existentialism be what it really is—the ideological end product of liberalism and individualism—and not pretend to be something else. Let Marxism likewise be what it should be: that dialectical materialism which is the scientific expression and practical guide of the world socialist revolution of the working masses.
But let not the two be intermixed and confused. Their mismating can produce only stillborn offspring, whether in philosophy or in politics.
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