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New Left Review 88, July-August 2014


In the spring of 1960 Jean-Paul Sartre published the first volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason, together with Questions de méthode, which had originated in an invitation from a Polish magazine in the aftermath of the political upheavals of 1956. The appearance of the Critique confirmed Sartre as the pre-eminent philosophical voice in French Marxism, though not in the estimate of its official guardian, the Communist Party, for whom he had been an unmentionable since his public condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In the Italian Party, by contrast, intellectual affairs were conducted with greater flexibility, and in the following year Sartre was invited to speak at the PCI’s Istituto Gramsci in Rome. The design of the occasion burnished the acknowledgement implicit in the proposal. Sartre’s lecture was the sole focus of an event spread over three days, with an audience including some of the most salient figures in the intellectual life of the Party and sympathizing circles beyond it: the irksome philosophers, Galvano Della Volpe and Lucio Colletti; Mario Alicata, the Party’s head of cultural policy; the mathematician Lombardo Radice; and Enzo Paci, founding editor of the journal Aut Aut and leading exponent of existentialism in Italy. To these, Sartre added a symbolic presence on his own account: Georg Lukács, whose summary rebuke and dismissal, just a moment in a chilly spotlight, is among the most memorable features of his performance—though not, on reflection, so surprising. Not long before, in his essay on method, Sartre had cited the mediocre polemic Existentialisme ou marxisme (1948) as an epitome of the kind of schematism and dogmatism he was pledged to overcome in his own work. By the time he came to prepare his Rome lecture, the crux of his differences with Lukács had been renewed in a vivid coincidence. 1960 was the year of the Critique but also of the French translation of History and Class Consciousness, the locus classicus of what Sartre rejected as a mistaken and deleterious approach to the question of subjectivity in history. In this patient, amply illustrated presentation, he sets out his alternative account, illuminating the nature of subjectivity as a process, contingent in its movement but always radically dependent on non-knowledge, in its ceaseless work of repetition and invention. The text we publish here is a slightly abridged translation of ‘La Conference de Rome, 1961: Marxisme et subjectiveté’, Les Temps Modernes, 560, March 1993, itself based on a transcript of Sartre’ s lecture, for which no script or other notes of his own survive, and prepared by Michel Kail. A companion piece by Fredric Jameson considers Sartre’s actuality a half-century later.

jean-paul sartre


The Rome Lecture, 1961

Our problem here is that of subjectivity in the context of Marxist philosophy. My aim is to establish with precision whether the principles and truths that constitute Marxism allow subjectivity to exist and have a function, or whether they reduce it to a set of facts that can be ignored in the dialectical study of human development. Taking Lukács as an example, I hope to convince you that an erroneous interpretation of certain undoubtedly ambiguous Marxist texts can give rise to what I would call an ‘idealist dialectics’, which in practice ignores the subject, and to show how such a position may be damaging for the development of Marxist studies. My topic is not subject and object, but rather subjectivity, or subjectivation, and objectivity or objectivation. The subject is a different, far more complex problem. When I speak of subjectivity, it is as a certain type of internal action, an interior system—système en intériorité—rather than the simple, immediate relationship of the subject to itself.

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