Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique de la Raison Dialectique appeared in France in 1960. It was entitled Volume i—‘A Theory of Practical Ensembles’. Its object was the abstract relationships between individuals, groups, series and collectives which Sartre called the ‘formal elements of any history’, in a world dominated by scarcity. It ended with a promise that Volume ii would proceed to a study of the concrete combinations of these elements that constituted the process of history itself. In the event, no second volume of the Critique was to appear. For long, it has been thought that Sartre in fact abandoned the project after writing at most a few fragments of it. The most reliable account of the incomplete work was to be found in Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka’s excellent study Les Écrits de Sartre (Paris 1970), which reported the existence of two chapters. To coincide with the appearance of the English edition of Volume i of the Critique, however, Sartre authorized the publication in nlr of a brief section from the—now somewhat legendary—manuscript of Volume ii. The text below is the excerpt selected by the Review.
To explain it, something must be said of the work from which it is taken. The manuscript of Volume ii of the Critique is much longer than most readers of Sartre have probably imagined—some 200,000 words or so, or a book of at least 500 pages. From internal evidence, it seems to have been written, not after the publication of Volume i, but prior to it—as a direct prolongation of the same work. (There are repeated references to 1958 as the political ‘present’ of the study). In style, however, it is far less technical than Volume i, containing many passages of great literary verve. These characteristically take the form of extended historical accounts, of a sort necessarily absent from the philosophical method of the first volume.
The theoretical framework of Volume ii, however, is a logical sequel to that of its predecessor. Its essential enquiry is stated at the outset of the book. The problem of the work is exactly that which was posed to Sartre in the nlr interview with him in 1969: ‘How can a multiplicity of individual acts give birth to social structures which have their own laws, discontinuous from the acts which for you formally constitute a historical dialectic? . . . Why should history not be an arbitrary chaos of inter-blocking projects, a sort of colossal traffic-jam?’ (nlr 58, pp. 58–9).
Sartre’s initial reply is that Marxism must be able to establish an intelligible unity of classes in conflict, without recourse to the mystification of a personified ‘society’ superior to them. If any ‘individuated totalization’ is what Sartre calls an ‘incarnation’ in Volume ii, an ‘enveloping totalization’ would be the historical process itself, if it were an intelligible unity. For historical materialism to be valid, Sartre argues, history must be such an enveloping totalization, not a detotalization, of particular struggles. Yet it is not possible, he avers, to proceed immediately to establish whether class conflicts constitute a genuine contradiction, specifying a totalization beyond them, without assuming the prior existence of national societies as unities (not mere collectives)—which precisely has to be demonstrated. He therefore starts his main investigation at a lower level of social complexity, by looking at examples of conflicts within an ‘organized group’—which in the terms of the Critique do constitute an active unity, in a way that ‘classes’ and ‘nations’ do not—to see if these evince the structure of a contradiction that particularizes a wider totalization beyond them.
These antagonisms typically produce what Sartre calls the phenomenon of an ‘anti-labour’, alien to each of the parties in conflict, yet the common result of their rival contentions. The historical instance that he selects is the ideological struggle within the Bolshevik Party between Stalin and Trotsky over the idea of ‘socialism in one country’. His analysis of this famous contest is the subject of the text printed below. At the end of it, he concludes that while the political conflict within the cpsu in the twenties does exhibit precisely a single dialectical intelligibility of two ‘epicentres of action’, the example remains a ‘privileged’ one, since the unity of the Bolshevik group preceded the scission between the two factions in it. It therefore does not yet demonstrate anything about the intelligibility of national societies—let alone wider international ensembles. It remains to be proved that history is not composed of unconnected totalizations. Sartre remarks that the most exacting test of Marxist theory here is that of bourgeois democracies—extremely complex societies riven (detotalized) by constant class struggles, with no monocentric sovereign power unifying them.
Before proceeding to these, he argues that it is preferable to study the simpler case of a dictatorial society, with a hyper-centralized sovereignty—the ussr in the epoch of Stalin. Thus, after analysing the conflict within the cpsu over socialism in one country, Sartre goes on to a lengthy account of the conflict between working class and bureaucracy in Russia after the Revolution—a struggle that did not occur in a unitary group with a common field (unlike the Party), but between administrators and masses, in which the former totalized the latter into manipulated and dispersed series, in a non-reciprocal praxis that was objectively one of oppression and coercion, yet was not that of an enemy class. He then goes on to study the conflicts between workers
Sartre’s long survey of successive political conflicts within Soviet society since the revolution contains many developments of notable historical flair and bravura. His account of the inter-linked fates of the Russian peasantry and proletariat in the epoch of collectivization, for example, is in some ways a striking anticipation of the famous description of the same processes in the third volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky. At the same time, Sartre’s reflections obviously remain at a philosophical rather than a historiographic level. The limitations of such a method are evident in the excerpt printed below. Sartre, in effect, makes a number of historical errors in it. The theory of ‘permanent revolution’ in the early Trotsky precisely did predict a socialist revolution in Russia, while the Bolshevik orthodoxy of which Stalin was an unexceptional representative denied the possibility—the very opposite of Sartre’s account. Revolutionaries in Western Europe were by no means so unanimous in opting for Trotsky in the twenties. The Fourth International was formed much later than Sartre suggests. Stalin’s policies in Germany receive no mention. These lapses reflect a lack of direct historical study and information of which Sartre himself was well aware. Written at great speed in a conjuncture of intense political emergency (the seizure of power in France by Gaullism, during the Algerian War), the manuscript never had the benefit of sustained secondary research.