Up until fairly recently I believed that when Sartre became a Marxist he came to fully disregard his earlier existentialism. In fact I know that he once said that his earlier views were a “disgrace” (from a Marxist standpoint). However, many commenters do believe that Sartre never completely lost his existentialist vision and that he even attempted to fuse it with Marxism. Indeed this can be seen if you read Sartre himself. The problem is, as with most philosophers and with most of the subjects they cover, you can find passages in the late Sartre which do indeed cast aspersions on his own earlier existentialism. My argument is that this is fully understandable.
My initial hunch was that Marxism and existentialism (of the Sartrean - and of any - kind) are thoroughly at odds with each other. And in the end I still believed that to be the case.
Early Sartre and its Relation to Marxism
Facticity & Transcendence
One way in which early (in terms of the length of Sartre’s life, not really that early) Sartre is radically at odds with Marxism is in his notions of “facticity” and “transcendence”. More specifically (in terms of Marxist theory), Sartre did believe that one’s “facticity” - such as your given class, race, religion, nationality, etc. - could be “transcended”. To a Marxist, on the other hand, your class, and every other person’s class for that matter, is paramount. More recently, many Marxists -or at least the Trotskyists who have largely given up on the working class - now believe that one’s religion (say, Islam), or ethnicity, or even one’s nationality (as long as it’s not English, American or European), is just about everything.
The thing is that Marxists have always believed in Sartrean transcendence - even before Sartre was born. They believed that revolutionary Marxists, the “vanguard”, could indeed transcend their class (which was nearly always the bourgeoisie). Similarly today, they believe that (Marxist) whites can transcend their race and so on. And of course Trotskyists have always been able to transcend their various nationalities – they were/are all “internationalists”, remember?
Sartre, qua existentialist, also managed to do something which all Marxist have done – transcend their facticity (class, etc.). Most people can’t. For the existentialist Sartre, only existentialists could transcend their facticity. For the Marxist Sartre, and all other Marxists, only Marxists can transcend their facticity. No wonder, then, that Sartre effortlessly moved from being an existentialist transcender to being a Marxist transcender.
Facticity, apparently, doesn’t apply to existentialists and Marxists – it only applied to everyone else. In fact Marxists don’t believe that existentialists really transcended their own facticity (class, etc.) either. Sartre himself also came to believe that existentialists didn’t truly transcend their facticity.
Hell is Other People
The radical nature of Sartre’s break with his early existentialism is best shown by the well-known fact that he once said that “hell is other people”. Or at least a character said that in Sartre’s No Exit. But it wasn’t just an expression of a character in a play. Sartre also wrote that Heidegger was wrong to say that “the essence of the relations between consciousnesses” is his Mitsein (“being-with”). In fact, according to Sartre, the essence of the relations between consciousnesses “is conflict”.
Now a Marxist can easily say that “capitalist society” makes conflict between persons the norm. But Sartre, at this stage of his career, wasn’t making a Marxist point about “class conflict”, “alienation” or any kind of capitalism-caused interpersonal conflict. He was referring to a type of conflict that is common to all societies and cultures because it is of the nature of all “consciousnesses” when they come in to contact. This is an existentialist - and even phenomenological - point about consciousness (personhood?) itself – it’s not at all about a capitalist or any other specific type of society.
The Marxist Sartre
Sartre’s Critique of His Existentialism
Once Sartre embraced Marxism, it was entirely understandable that he would see his former existentialism, and even his phenomenology, as “idealistic and subjectivist”. This is an ironic choice of words. Existentialism can indeed be classed as “idealistic” – and “subjectivist” - in the strictly philosophical sense. However, in the everyday sense of that word, it is Marxism that is truly idealistic – as in ideals rather than ideas. And in order to accept the Marxist critique of existentialism as being “idealistic” and “subjectivist”, you need to be, well, a Marxist; otherwise it has no purchase. For the existentialist can happily say: ‘Yes, I am subjectivist. And? So what?’
In fact there is nothing to stop an existentialist, or any other non-Marxist, from being a “materialist” – just not a Marxist materialist. An acceptance of philosophical materialism does not go against all forms of existentialism (or indeed any). That is, a “subjectivist” can be a materialist; but not an idealist in the strict philosophical sense of that word.
It is counterintuitive, and I think wrong, that certain (many?) commentators have claimed that even when Sartre became a hard-core Marxist in the 1960s (perhaps a little before that), his Marxism was still subsidiary to his existentialism. I am prepared to accept that Sartrean existentialism can run in tandem with Sartrean Marxism, but not that existentialism can have the upper hand if you are also a Marxist. That just doesn’t seem possible at all – even without studying Sartre’s precise fusion (if there ever was one) of Marxism and existentialism.
Society Makes You Free
It is ironic that Sartre came to believe that only Marxist collectivism could fully bring about the authenticity and freedom of his earlier existentialist vision. (His actually words were that only a “socialism of abundance” could do that trick.) His point is well made. Or, rather, no doubt Marxists made the point to Sartre himself when he was a full existentialist. That point being that one cannot be free or authentic when you are poor and all your energy is expended on finding the next meal or on feeding your family. (Or, if you work in a factory, when you simply haven’t any time to be “authentic” or even “free”.) Not only that. What’s the point of authenticity or even existential (rather than political/social) freedom if you are in a literal prison or in the prison that is a factory?
However, it doesn’t follow that embracing Marxist collectivism or totalitarianism is the solution. Because people get so frustrated with poverty and “oppression” (especially younger people), they grab out at the first thing that promises a complete and absolute solution – and that solution is invariably Marxism; or, more correctly, a Marxist revolution. And Marxism, for an existentialist like Sartre, was arguably the worst thing that he could have grabbed as a solution… to every problem.
Sartre specifically set out, in his own words, to “reconquer man within Marxism”. That is, to discover the human within Marx. Interesting, many people did this in the 1960s onwards by focusing on Marx’s “early works” – the stuff before Das Capital. However, what Sartre himself embraced was the hard-core revolutionary and materialist stuff of the later Marx. These were the works which fired the Communists and the Trotskyists; rather than the early stuff which appealed to effete philosophers and suchlike.
In order to achieve this task of discovering the human in Marx (without relying on “early Marx”), Sartre needed to focus on something specifically Marxist and tie it to something specifically existentialist.
The existentialist Sartre, of course, focussed on such things as individual freedom, responsibility, autonomy and authenticity. Marx, on the other hand, focussed on, amongst many other things, “praxis”, “alienation”, impersonal social forces and economic/political “laws”.
Here’s the clever (?) fusion. Sartre now argues, as a Marxist and not as an existentialist, that it of the nature of society, or “social reality”, to enable - and even make possible - human responsibility and freedom. This clearly has a Hegelian tinge to it and, of course, Sartre, like all French philosophers of his time, imbibed Hegel from the womb.
Hegel said that the state makes you free. Sartre was now saying that society, instead, makes you free. (The jump from society making you free to the state making you free is an easy one; as 20th century history shows us.) This means that the “subjectivist” or “idealist” existentialist isn’t free even if he thinks he is free. Only society, or the state (Communist/Trotskyist or Nazi) can truly make you free. Thus we appear to be moving from existentialism to what must surely be, to many, its exact antithesis. Yet this is what Sartre attempted to do.
Sartre explicitly makes this fusion of Marxism and existentialism when he says that
“a man can always make something out of what is made of him” (1974).
Society makes man this and that. But a man, already made by society, can still nevertheless “make something” of what is made of him. However, as I’ve just stated, it is society itself which guarantees freedom and responsibility. So now we have the Sartrean:
Society makes you into something and then society again enables you to make something else of yourself.
Because Sartre has now adopted Marxism, it can’t be the case of an existential(ist) being making something of himself (who is an already made, by society, being); but of a social being making something of an already socialised being – not of a fully free existential(ist) being.
This seems to be the gist of Sartrean Marxism and it is still supposed to be, according to certain commentators, humanist/existentialist as well as Marxist.
Just a note on Sartre’s position, at least in philosophy, today.
It’s fair to say that Sartre-as-Marxist, rather than Sartre-as-existentialist (forget the possible fusion), appears not to be at home anymore. At least you would expect that many postmodernists, and, earlier, many post-structuralists, have been against Sartre’s (Marxist) historical “totalisations” and his Marxist/Hegelian belief in “organic wholes”.They have been.
Whereas existentialist Sartre can be seen as a proselytiser on behalf of “multiplicities” and “particularism” (both so much stressed by both post-structuralism and postmodernism), Marxism, on the other, is by nature an essentially totalising and Hegelian philosophy and politics. Having said all that, it’s often the case, it can be argued, that if you scrape various post-structuralists and postmodernists hard enough, you will find that they still work within a largely Marxist paradigm (or within an episteme, as Foucault described it). That is, they still talk about “liberation”, “oppression”, “consumerism”, “class”, the “capitalist media”, the “capitalist” this, that and the other, hatred of the Other (in Marxism, hatred of the working class and “oppressed”) and numerous other Marxist and quasi-Marxist “tropes” or soundbites.