AMarxist can approach the Critique de la Raison Dialectique, the most recent of Sartre’s works, in a number of ways. It would be possible to write a historico-critical essay on the complex dialectical relationship between Sartre and Marxism as a movement. Equally, it would be possible to write an essay on the history of philosophy which discussed Sartre’s place in contemporary thought, showing the internal logic which led a philosopher whose starting point was the ‘cogito’ of Husserl to move beyond this towards dialectical materialism, and studying the validity of this development and its compatibility with Marx’s method itself.footnote1 Finally, and best of all, it would be possible to do both at the same time—using the regressive-progressive method which Sartre himself recommends. In this case, one would start from Sartre’s work as the singular enterprise of an individual, and then proceed to situate it in the historical context which conditioned it, showing how Sartre grappled with the problems of his time in general and Marxism in particular. This would provide a critical reconstruction of his own particular way of surpassing his problems and of being surpassed by them.

So far, none of these three possible approaches has been attempted by Marxist scholars. Whether in France, in Italy or elsewhere, most of them have postulated from the outset that Sartre must be an idealist since he has not repudiated his early work and its phenomenological method. And some have tried to prove this postulate by taking issue with the Sartrean vocabulary. Let us, therefore, define the aim and method of Sartre’s work, before examining how it is related and what it adds to contemporary Marxist thought.

The aim of the Critique is to found dialectical materialism as a method and to define the sector of being to which it is applicable. It is not as such an attempt to apply it practically in a specific field of inquiry. Put another way, the structures, notions and categories which are brought into play in the Critique are not yet operational, but pertain to the critique of a method which has been applied empirically by Marxists with success, without becoming conscious of itself and its own possibilities.

The attempt to found dialectical materialism is indubitably related in all sorts of ways to the work of the later Husserl. Husserl said of science in his time: ‘It has become unable to account for itself.’ The judgment is valid a fortiori for the human sciences and for dialectical materialism. Scientific praxis, by failing to question its own status, and by claiming to put lived experience in parentheses, has become opaque to its own practitioners. Man absents himself from the science he produces and it sheds no light on him. The sciences which study man take him for their object, ignoring the fact that the object is itself the subject (as a man of science) inquiring into it. They thereby prevent themselves from ever giving an account of their own potentialities. Finally, just as the man of science cannot understand himself from the point of view of the sciences which study man, so Marxism has been unable to explain Marxists. In other words, Marxists become unable to explain themselves.

Husserl, writing in La Crise des Sciences Européennes, remarked: ‘We lack the real awareness by which the cognitive subject could account for itself—not only in its effective actions and innovations, but also in the dimensions whose meaning is obscure and sedimented, the underlying presuppositions of its instruments, notions, propositions and theories. Do not science and the scientific method today resemble a precision machine—a machine which is obviously rendering useful service, and which anyone can learn to manipulate correctly, without having the least idea of its basis and necessity? Thus scientific method, having developed into the progressive accomplishment of a job, is a technique which can be transmitted, but which does not thereby necessarily transmit its true meaning. Thereafter theoretical work can only dominate the infinity of its themes by an infinity of methods, and an infinity of methods only by meaninglessly technical thought and activity. It is for this reason that theory can only remain genuinely and pristinely meaningful if the man of science has developed the capacity to return to the original meaning of all his ideas and methods: to their basis in history . . .’. In order to provide a basis for the possibility of authentic knowledge, Husserl sought to rid scientific thought of objectivism—and the psychologism, epiphenomenism, dogmatism and scepticism which resulted from it—by restoring to it our original experience of the world as we live it. Sartre’s efforts to provide a basis for dialectical reason are close to those of Husserl, at least at first sight: the dialectic has no basis unless it first has experience of itself ‘as a double movement in knowledge and in being’.footnote2

Unless it is irrefutably confirmed in the unity of experience as deriving from individuals, as ‘the logic of action’, we can only speculate or make dogmatic assertions about the existence of a sector of dialectical intelligibility. The kind of dogmatism which asserts the a priori existence of a Dialectic of Nature and wishes to make human history into no more than a specific variant of natural history inevitably ends in scepticism. If human history is only one section of a much vaster and enveloping totalization and is ruled by the supposed finality of developments in nature, then its truth lies outside itself and there can be no authentic knowledge. As Kojève remarked, if Nature is creative in the same way as man, then truth or science in the true sense are only possible at the end of time. The upholders of the Dialectic of Nature imagine that they can get out of this difficulty by allowing to man the privileged faculty of understanding the total meaning of developments in nature, while remaining immanent within it. But this metaphysical postulate—also to be found in religious systems, where man is supposed capable of knowing God and his Purposes (necessarily impenetrable)—makes authentic knowledge dependent on a postulate and on the faith which one has in it. This is why transcendental materialism can only avoid scepticism by refusing to question its own method, out of sheer dogmatism. By making the meaning of human history depend on that of Natural History, human history is subjected to a dialectic outside itself, in a way which Marx seems to reject when he writes, in the 1844 Manuscripts, that ‘man is his own origin’.footnote3 Sartre continues: ‘If we do not want to make the dialectic into a divine law, a metaphysical destiny, then it must spring from individuals and not from some kind of supra-individual ensemble.’footnote4 In other words, the dialectic can have no basis unless the individual—not, of course, conceived as a monad, but grasped in the totality of his conditions and relations as a totalization in process of retotalizationfootnote—can experience it in terms of himself and his own praxis.footnote But why this ‘privileged’ position of the individual? The answer is quite simple and leads us back to Marx. It is that there is no certainty, no meaning, no comprehension except for somebody. For example, to establish if History has a dialectical intelligibility (or more simply if it is intelligible at all) there is no other way than to seek to understand it. But as to understand means for everyone ‘I understand’, this means to see if History can be reconstructed from a multiplicity of individual praxes, which as partial and conscious totalizations, are capable of understanding themselves. History is intelligible to dialectical knowledge if it can be understood as a totalization of totalizations. But the criterion of intelligibility cannot be that God, or Nature, or my father, or the leader claim to have understood: it is that I understand (and therefore that everyone can understand). The criterion of intelligibility is self-evidence.

Is this a privilege granted to the subject? Certainly, as the demand to understand—and particularly the demand to understand History, which is made ‘by individuals pursuing their own ends’ and which makes individuals and turns back on them as necessity insofar as others make it—is a demand of the ‘subject’ and not of the ‘object’. If I pose in advance that there is an intelligibility or a dialectic or a History, but that we cannot understand it, I find myself in the same kind of relation to it as the believer is with God—faith. More seriously, I deny in advance the possibility of communism—what Marx called in The German Ideology the possibility for ‘united individuals’ to ‘submit to their power’ and to ‘make impossible all that exists independently of them’, the possibility of their becoming the ‘subjects of History’ and of recognizing themselves in it as in the product of their own voluntary and conscious collaboration.