The article by André Gorz on Sartre’s contribution to Marxism elucidates one of the most fundamental problems of socialist theory in the 20th century, a problem summed up in a phrase of the final paragraph, ‘the question of the possibility of suppressing the inhuman in human history’. That Sartre’s own answer to this question seems to be ‘probably not’ may be pessimistic, but is not made for that reason less possibly correct, and as Gorz rightly points out, the refusal to face it on such dishonest grounds as the question of Sartre’s ‘idealism’, ‘nihilism’, etc, to ‘. . . . fear that the discoveries we might make will shatter the . . . depths of our own commitment,’ is indeed the negation of Marxism. Sartte’s work is of a quality that deserves the most serious consideration and criticism. If we disagree with this bold thinker it is necessary to fully engage his views, and if he is wrong to be able to say precisely and in great detail why this is so.
Having examined the various relationships and possibilities inherent in the social structures he is investigating and the manner in which they deal with human praxis ‘through the mediation of worked matter’, Sartre appears to conclude that ‘fused groups’ in which ‘each totalises all in the same way in which they totalize him’ can have no permanent endurance, due to ‘scarcity’ and to the demands imposed by the means of production. The ‘group’ will find itself compelled, in order to maintain its formal cohesion, to develop sub-groups, functionaries, co-ordinators with special superior skills, ‘series’, and thereby fall back into an alienated state. Sartre does not, admittedly, dismiss the possibility that this conclusion can be avoided, but he appears very doubtful, and certainly history in our own century adds empirical stiffening to his doubt.
I wish to propose, however, that such pessimism is less justified than Gorz appears to believe, that the evolution described is potentially less and less necessary or probable in the perspective of history, that the conclusions arrived at rest on inadequate treatment of certain facts of human existence, and lastly, on an illegitimate use of the concept of ‘scarcity’.
To begin with the concept of ‘scarcity’. It must be said that Sartre employs this word in a peculiar and surprising way, to cover not merely underdeveloped countries, where its application is obvious, but also the industrial regions, in terms of ‘time, men, primary resources, etc.’. This, though, leads to the position where any conceivable problem can always be defined as scarcity of something. Thus it provides no more than a pseudo-explanation, it
The question then becomes, ‘survival on what terms?’ and it is a very strong argument that serialization and hence alienation is inseparable from the society of large-scale production, metropoli, specialized skills and knowledge, and multiple functions, that in such circumstances it is impossible for social praxis to be transparent to individual praxis, and the unity of such society must needs be a ‘radical exteriority’.
Whether one accepts such an argument wilt depend, as Gorz says, on one’s estimations of ‘under what conditions there can be genuine “voluntary cooperation” and what one means by the term’. Certainly, internalized constraints make it impossible to act voluntarily and with enthusiasm on behalf of a social structure whose reason entirely escapes the acting individual and is incarnated in church, nation, leader, party, which for him is pure external necessity. The example quoted of Chinese volunteer labour illustrates the point very well. But this is not what is meant by ‘voluntary co-operation’ in the context of a humane society, what is implied is rather a full understanding of ‘the dialectical connections which unify his praxis with the praxes of others’ and a free choice and recognition of the place of his own praxis in the necessary relations of human co-operation. In other words, the characteristic relations of the ‘group’ not as a negativity standing opposed to social necessity, but as the common social condition.
Is it possible? This raises what I feel is the most significant weakness of Sartre’s position, his inadequate appreciation of the role and possibilities of technology in human life. His tendency is to see in technology only those trends which lead to the increasing alienation and subjugation of human consciousness, and never the promise it holds of freedom from natural and human necessity. It has become apparent that technology alone will not suffice for disalienation; it may be arguable that technology itself makes a solution of the problem impossible; but it is most patently obvious of all that without it there is no hope whatsoever. Yet unlike Marx, Sartre never emphasizes that man’s mastery of external nature is the absolutely necessary precondition to his mastery of his own. As he neglects the role of developing technique so he neglects the promise it offers, in conditions of rational control, of dissolving alienating structures.