Reading the transcript of Sartre’s Rome lecture—along with the discussion that followed it, recently published in Frenchfootnote1—confronts us with an alternative which, while undecidable, opens up multiple interpretations. For it is on the one hand the record of an event, the encounter between the Sartre of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, already involved in his work on Flaubert, and a number of important Italian Marxists, many of them members of the Italian Communist Party, at the Gramsci Institute in Rome in 1961. This is then an interaction of great historical interest: documenting Sartre’s approach to the Communist Party fully as much as his approach to Marxism itself—the Italian Party being a good deal more hospitable to such an exchange of views than the French one—and also testifying to the vitality and the variety of philosophical commitments of the Italian Marxism of this period.

But the text is also a philosophical statement, or series of statements, betraying the continuity between Being and Nothingness and the Critique, and the Hegelian affinities of the latter, but also shedding interesting light on Sartre’s position on subjectivity and his evident insistence on the non-subjectivist—and non-idealist—nature of his thinking. Meanwhile the debate that followed also elicited significant interventions by major Italian thinkers, from Enzo Paci and Cesare Luporini to Galvano Della Volpe and Lucio Colletti. Unsurprisingly, the exchanges often turn on very familiar themes in the history of Marxist polemics: most notably the distinction between historical and dialectical materialisms—or in other words, between a Kantian or Viconian position on what human knowledge can achieve and a materialist philosophy which affirms the dialectic of nature itself. Sartre will be both reserved and conciliatory on this matter, often seen as the fundamental sticking-point in any opposition between Western or non-Communist Marxism and the more ‘orthodox’ kind. He allows that some laws of nature may be discovered that are dialectical, but draws back from any affirmation of a single dialectic of Nature as such; and also politely asks whether the hotly contested word ‘reflexion’—Widerspiegelung, or the ‘reflexion theory of knowledge’—might not tactically be replaced by something less controversial like ‘adequation’.

There is then an inclusive engagement over the idea of contradiction (this will be a particularly significant issue in Colletti’s thought); a rather emphatic insistence on Sartre’s part on the lack of any ethical dimension or theory of value in Marxist philosophy; and a rather wilful diversion of the discussion into the area of art and aesthetics, in which Sartre offers the case of Madame Bovary as a fundamental exhibit of the way in which the significant work of art has dimensions which are simultaneously subjective and objective; while Della Volpe draws extended attention to the problems of poetic language as such. The ‘debate’ then amicably concludes with agreement on the need for a ‘critical Communism’—an expression Balibar will revive some thirty years later, with a small c and a quite different meaning.

It is a coincidence which reminds us that, whichever perspective we adopt in our approach to this text—as a historical event or a philosophical statement—we cannot but add a third one, namely our positions as readers some fifty years after the fact, in a situation in which both politics and philosophy have undergone radical transformations, and in which our reception of this debate must itself face an alternative: namely whether to read it relatively neutrally, for its interest as an event in the intellectual history of the past, or to interrogate it for its relevance in the current environment, where Marxist theory has returned to an emphasis on the more purely economic issues of crisis theory and the structure of a globalized late capitalism, while philosophy has either passed into a more post-individualist, linguistic or metaphysical problematic—with the work of a Deleuze or a Badiou, or even the Lacanians—or has returned to Kantian questions with a vengeance.

For all of these contemporary tendencies, Sartre has several red flags to wave. The very emphasis of the debate on subjectivity—at least according to its initial intentions and programme—will reawaken all the post-existential and Althusserian hostility to the various phenomenological conceptions of experience. The vocabulary of ‘totalization’ developed in the Critique of Dialectical Reason will arouse now perhaps ancient or dormant repudiations of notions of totality as such, despite the fact that Sartre’s term was meant to substitute a process and an activity for this inert and substantified noun; and without any particularly scandalized awareness of its continuing use, in only slightly modified form, in the Deleuzian trinity of territorialization, deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Finally, Sartre’s belated deployment of the term ‘freedom’ may well awaken more purely philosophical critiques of this notion, less as an exceedingly stringent account of the dilemmas of the for-itself, than as a well-nigh Kantian barrier to that collective ethics he here demands, but which never really overcame the abstraction of the categorical imperative, something of which his occasional use of the word ‘humanism’ also reminds us, in this post-Khrushchevian and post-Stalinist Marxist theoretical discussion.