The philosophy of our time


Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre meet with Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960. PHOTO/Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential Marxism offers a radical philosophical foundation for today’s revitalized critiques of capitalism.

Nearly forty years after his death in 1980, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is best remembered as the father of existentialism. We are most familiar with him as the theorist of freedom, authenticity, and bad faith in philosophical treatises such as Being and Nothingness (1943) and literary works such as Nausea (1938) and No Exit (1944). But eclipsed in this popular image is an appreciation of the staggering range of his dozens of volumes of published work, especially the fruit of his political activity from the end of World War II until his death—a period marked most notably by a rich and sustained engagement with Marxism.

Far from being consigned to the ash heap of history, the mid-century encounter between Marxism and existentialism remains vital today. As we seek political and philosophical bearings in this time of renewed calls for a socialist alternative to capitalism, postwar efforts to bring Marxism and existentialism together have much to teach us—not only because of the continuing importance of each mode of thought to political thinking and organizing, but also because their interaction in Sartre’s work deepens our understanding of how we exercise agency under conditions we do not control.

Existentialism’s Marxist Turn

The brilliant young Sartre began publishing in 1936 at age thirty-one. Over the next decade he would produce a stream of groundbreaking psychological, philosophical, and literary works and develop strong working relationships with other formidable young Parisian intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir (who would become his lifelong partner) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Initially he showed little theoretical interest in either activism or Marxism. Instead he was passionately attracted to U.S. films and fiction, and he took his theoretical bearings from the German phenomenological philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. His works of this time reveal a young thinker determined to find and forge his own way, to create his own unique approach to the world.

Sartre’s work deepens our understanding of how we exercise agency under conditions we do not control.

Sartre’s early existentialism—his emphasis on absurdity, freedom, and responsibility—sprang from an individualism that seemed to leave little room for social analysis, the importance of history, or collective action. It was not until the mid-1940s that Sartre began to find his social bearings thanks to two contrary influences: his new friend Albert Camus, and an encounter with Marxist ideas and language. Sartre reviewed Camus’s The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus soon after they were published in 1942, and he met Camus at the dress rehearsal of Sartre’s play The Flies in Paris in 1943. Shortly thereafter Camus became editor of Combat, the clandestine newspaper of one of the largest movements of the French Resistance. After the liberation of France in the summer of 1944, Camus did battle in his Combat editorials with the Communist Party’s Marxism. Much of Sartre’s postwar development took shape self-consciously against these critiques—until a dozen years later he shaped his own non-Communist existential Marxism.

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