A revival of Sartre?

The resurgence of interest in Sartre in the last year or so has come as a welcome development in todayʼs neoliberal and supposedly post-ideological political and intellectual climate. Sartreʼs trajectory, developing as it does from the existentialist quasi-idealism of Being and Nothingness to the Hegelian and Marxian derived preoccupations of Critique of Dialectical Reason and beyond, is not only a model of intellectual resistance to the more socially oppressive and mind-numbing effects of capitalism but intrinsically problematizes the whole question of the relationship of the individual subject to any notion of ideological system. Even during his notoriously apolitical prewar days – a period during which, for Sartre, ontological concerns more or less occupied the space that political ones normally inhabit – his anti-authoritarian and anti-establishmentarian impulses were already firmly in place.

During the 1940s, Sartreʼs idealist tendencies led him to consider his existentialist thought a philosophical alternative to any ethico-political position with a strongly defined ideological dimension (an assumption which he was later to reject in Questions of Method (1957), where he acknowledged that existentialism is itself an ideology). His open disputes with his French Stalinist contemporaries after the Liberation are well documented, although it should be remembered that his existentialism of this period stood in even firmer opposition to fascism and bourgeois ideology. His gradual movement towards Marxian thought in the late 1940s and, especially, the 1950s is also well known. But for many years now, and in France in particular, Sartreʼs thought has suffered critical neglect, thought to be passé in the light of post-structuralist and postmodernist developments. The gradual erosion and dissolution of the notion of the individual subject was often assumed to have definitively undermined Sartreʼs humanist position. However, recent reassessments of Sartreʼs work have reminded us of its crucial importance not only to the pre-1960s intellectual debate but also as a fascinating complement – and at times corrective – to some of the dominant theoretical tendencies of the last thirty years.

The contributions of Lévy and Scriven* are both motivated by a desire to re-evaluate and sum up what is of principal importance today in the Sartrean legacy by elucidating the heart of Sartreʼs intellectual project. For Lévy, this involves identifying the myriad interconnections between the thought of Sartre – in its philosophical and aesthetic dimensions – and that of his most significant predecessors and successors. Scriven, asserting that it is above all the synthesis of the political and the aesthetic which characterizes Sartreʼs work, sets out to do this by situating Sartreʼs political development and cultural output in the French sociopolitical context. The matter of which areas of Sartreʼs thought become the principal focus for particular Sartre scholars is often highly significant. These are two rather different books on Sartre in many ways. Even after a cursory reading, their differences of scope, critical style and intellectual tradition are apparent. Yet it is perhaps, in the final analysis, on the level of the political that it is most fruitful to relate Lévyʼs and Scrivenʼs accounts of Sartre to each other. Although Lévyʼs analyses do not centre primarily on Sartreʼs politics – indeed, there is a conspicuous absence of serious and detailed consideration of Sartre as a political thinker in Le Siècle de Sartre, the majority of Lévyʼs remarks on the matter rarely elevating themselves above the level of apparently ill-informed anti-communist diatribe – his book is nevertheless a A revival of Sartre?

Sam coombes

* Bernard-Henri Lévy, Le Siècle de Sartre, Grasset, Paris, 2000. 663 pp.; Michael Scriven, Jean-Paul Sartre: Politics and Culture in Postwar France, Macmillan, London, 1999, xv + 193 pp.highly political statement, indeed much more so than Scrivenʼs.

During the months following the publication of Le Siècle de Sartre, the French mediaʼs fascination with Lévyʼs project suggested a full-blown Sartrean renaissance. The initial barrage of images of Sartre on the covers of newspapers and magazines gave way to a steady stream of interviews with the mediafriendly Lévy, and to review articles devoted to his book. The tone of this journalistic reaction was by and large sympathetic to Lévy and to his account of Sartre. There was general agreement about both the intellectual ambitiousness of Le Siècle de Sartre and the value of Lévyʼs reopening of the debate. Where substantive criticisms were made, they were for the most part expressions of centrist or centre-right political positions. In particular, Lévy was admonished for not having been even more unforgiving of Sartreʼs oft-mentioned mistakes, or what Lévy terms ʻfogʼ (brume). One sensed that underlying these criticisms there was a deeply felt antipathy towards Sartre, which is an indication of the kind of passionate reactions he continues to inspire. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is to the critical responses of Franceʼs Sartre specialists that one must turn to find the most considered reflections on Lévyʼs work. Although the general feeling has been that Le Siècle de Sartre is a positive contribution to the field, Lévy was often thought to have failed to situate Sartreʼs errors sufficiently in their historical context1 and not to have accorded Sartreʼs later philosophy its full importance. [2] It is fair to say that these misgivings on the part of the Sartreans are the nearest thing that there has been in France to a Left critique of what Lévy has described as his ʻfirst “total” bookʼ. [3]

The good and the bad

Much of the first part of Le Siècle de Sartre is devoted to discussion of Sartreʼs relationship with the work of his most significant literary and philosophical predecessors. There is much of interest here, as Lévy takes a clear stand on sometimes contestable issues. He argues convincingly that Gide and Bergson were the preeminent intellectual figures not just for Sartre but for many of the most significant writers and philosophers of his day in France. Seen in a certain light, many of Sartreʼs positions can be understood as being formulated either with or against Gide, and his interest in the American novelists, and in Joyce and Céline, was motivated in part by the desire to escape Gidism. The young Sartre lacked an original literary style. His texts display, rather, his gift for imitation and pastiche and, Lévy argues – echoing Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence – in this Sartreʼs development is typical of the young writer who is both saturated in and at war with the work of his predecessors. Lévy also writes persuasively on Husserl and Nietzsche, charting the principal ways in which Sartreʼs thought was nourished by their philosophies. Yet it is above all to Sartreʼs blatant (and possibly wilful, Lévy suggests) misreadings of Heidegger that the originality of Being and Nothingness is owing. Notably, Sartre sent askew the orientation of the Heideggerian Dasein by taking the concept to mean ʻhuman realityʼ, or the ʻsubjectʼ, thereby infusing it with a form of humanism which ran contrary to the nature of Heideggerʼs project.

Lévy is particularly perceptive is his discussion of the salient details of Sartreʼs biography. Le Siècle de Sartre communicates a passionate desire to set the record straight in the light of the calumnious clichés about Sartre – and, in particular, his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir – which have been commonplaces of French public opinion for many a decade. Lévy makes no secret of his affection for his subject, and his writing style, which is not only discursive but almost conversational in many parts of the book, lends itself well to discussing the personal details of Sartreʼs life. He offers an intimate and convincing portrait of Sartre which sheds light on the reasons and motivations behind the production of the latterʼs monumental oeuvre, and on the various accompaniments to it with which it so often seemed to interact symbiotically: the carefree, irreverent young Sartre; his ambulant lifestyle; his relationships with women; his obsession with writing and consequent preoccupation with time and productivity; and yet his casualness with regard to his works once they were completed (albeit often in an ʻunfinishedʼ state). Lévyʼs text, peppered with references to his own meetings not just with (an aged) Sartre but also with other leading philosophers such as Althusser and Levinas, gives the impression (rather self-consciously in places) of being written by an insider, someone who feels a part of the lineage he is describing.

At the heart of Lévyʼs account, however, is his commitment to the idea of a division between the early and the later Sartre. There would be nothing particularly original in this were it not for the fact that Lévyʼs visceral aversion to the Sartre of the early 1950s to the early 1970s – principally because of the latterʼs pro-communist and eventually Maoist sympathies of this period – leads him to make a stark opposition between a ʻgoodʼ and a ʻbadʼ Sartre. Declaring his fidelity to post-structuralist and Althusserian thought, Lévy points approvingly to works like Being and Nothingness and Nausea, with their suggestions of a fractured or internally fissured individual subject, as precursors for the anti-humanist thought of these later tendencies. He contrasts these works with the noxious pro-communist humanism in which he claims Sartre subsequently became submerged.

Lévy mitigates the implausible starkness of his separation of the early and later Sartre with the argument that, in spite of the mistakes of the post-1950s, there always remained traces of the early anti-humanist. There was, therefore, continuity as well as separation. Yet this appears to be more a self-defensive move on Lévyʼs part than indicative of any genuine willingness to recognize the complexity of the thought of the later Sartre. It is apparent from Le Siècle de Sartre that Lévy has not overly troubled himself with the philosophical challenge posed by the nuances of Critique of Dialectical Reason, and he seems content, most of the time, with presenting the Sartre of the 1950s and 1960s reductively as a convert to communist ideology.

Yet, setting aside for the time being the matter of how Lévy reads communism and Marxist philosophy, it is far from certain that his separation of the early and the later Sartre along the lines of the humanism/anti-humanism opposition is a valid one. Referring enthusiastically to the famous passage in Nausea where Roquentin, exasperated by the Autodidact, lists scornfully all the different kinds of humanism he has known, Lévy concludes that existentialism, contrary to how Sartre was subsequently to describe it, is in fact ʻthe first manifestation of contemporary anti-humanismʼ. And Lévy sees Sartreʼs rejection of the Husserlian notion of the transcendental ego in The Transcendence of the Ego similarly as an expression of an anti-humanist position. Consciousness is condemned to project itself constantly outwards into the world of objects as opposed to being defined by some essential self, and is consequently without interiority or identity. Yet, what he omits to refer to is Roquentinʼs own conclusion on the matter of humanism: ʻI am not going to be fool enough to say that I am an “anti-humanist”. I am not a humanist, thatʼs all.ʼ

This difference of emphasis is highly significant.

Although the Sartre of the 1930s could not subscribe to humanist thought in any of the senses that Roquentin lists, and although he was indeed opposed to an essentialist conception of the subject, one senses that Lévyʼs keenness to link Sartreʼs thought of this period to that of the post-structuralists leads him to overstate the case. Sartreʼs rejection of the essentialist implications of the transcendental ego (for Sartre, only consciousness is transcendental, whereas the ego is transcendent) does not involve jettisoning the notion that there is an individual subject as such. As Lévy himself notes, in Being and Nothingness Sartre claims, in spite of his repeated tendency to emphasize consciousnessʼs capacity to rise above the constraints of facticity, that being is prior to consciousness and that it is to being that consciousnessʼs existence is owing. This means that although the individual subjectʼs outlook on the world (and Sartreʼs account in Being and Nothingness remains by and large faithful to the tendency of phenomenology to offer an interpretation of the relationship between the subject and the world based on the individualʼs subjective vision) need not entail an awareness of some antecedent essence, it is nevertheless not the case that consciousness is independent of being. The pour soi (consciousness) is free in the sense that the subjectʼs inability to seize what the en soi (being) is means that she is forced to make choices independently of it. She is free of any kind of apparent determination by her essence at those moments that she makes choices. But this does not mean that she, as a free consciousness, is in fact divorced from being. What Sartre is against is the idea that the individual subject should try to identify herself, as a free consciousness, with her being or ego because to do so involves an implicit attempt to suppress her fundamental freedom and the full responsibility for her actions which that freedom entails. The attempt to identify with being, for Sartre, amounts to an inauthentic mode of existence and it is this, above all, to which Roquentin is so staunchly opposed in Nausea, not humanism as such.

The kinds of humanists whom Roquentin lists and scorns belong in the same category as the bourgeois: that of individuals who live in bad faith because they will not recognize their capacity for free thought and self-determination: the bourgeois because they persist in playing out their roles as bourgeois, the humanists because they subordinate their free thought to an ideology and allow it to direct their thoughts. If the Sartre of the 1930s seems to be anti-humanist it is only in so far as he seeks to reject inauthentic humanism in order to lay the ground for an authentic form of it – that is, an authentic form of existence and ethical conduct. He would finally attempt to set this out in the Cahiers pour une morale, and he sketches it in Existentialism is a Humanism.

The main reason Lévy chooses to distinguish between the early and the later Sartre with reference to the humanism/anti-humanism question is his identification of the humanist position with communism. For Lévy, communism means totalitarianism, and the evils of totalitarianism are referred to with an almost obsessional regularity in Le Siècle de Sartre. Lévy cannot pardon Sartreʼs communist sympathies of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, given the importance of Lévyʼs views on postwar Left politics to his account as a whole, there is a conspicuous lack of discussion of the phenomenon. Lévy prefers to go along with postCold War liberal complacency and dismissiveness on the matter.

Looking behind his rhetoric, however, it is apparent that there are many confusions and inaccuracies in Lévyʼs understanding both of that politics and of Sartreʼs position in relation to it which point to either a surprising lack of knowledge or (more likely) to an immoderate dose of intellectual dishonesty. Lévyʼs readiness to present Marxist thought and political practice as a monolithic block is blatant. ʻStalin was in Lenin. Lenin was in Marxʼ, he informs us, clearly not wanting to bother us with unnecessary details or troublesome distinctions. Marxism, far from being a politically emancipatory philosophy, was nothing more than a bloody nightmare which is now thankfully over. Lévy expresses great surprise at the fact that Sartre, the chief proponent of ʻanti-humanistʼ existentialism, was attracted to Marxist philosophy and became a fellow-traveller of the Communist Party. The Sartre not just of the period 1952–56 but right through until the early 1970s, according to Lévy, became ʻpossessedʼ by an almost blind love for the USSR and other communist states. What is absent from Le Siècle de Sartre is any attempt to explain the complexities of the Cold War political situation and the reasons why Sartre chose to side with (although not join) the communists.

Lévy conveniently forgets that Sartre was antiStalinist and hostile to Stalinist Marxism and that, therefore, his communist sympathizing must have been motivated by reasons other than a sudden inexplicable affection for the Soviet bloc. In 1948, Sartre had taken a leading role in the RDR (Rassemblement Démocratique et Révolutionnaire), a political group which sought a third way in an increasingly ideologically dichotomous world. By the early 1950s, however, the polarities of Cold War politics were so entrenched that it was no longer plausible for politically committed intellectuals to avoid taking sides. In this regard, it is perhaps fair to criticize to some extent what Scriven calls Sartreʼs ʻunderlying synthesizing projectʼ – that is, his tendency to see the philosophical and the political (among other areas) as inextricably linked, which meant that he saw no viable option, as a left thinker, other than to side openly with communism in spite of the fact that the revelations about the camps had come out only a few years earlier. And yet, as Philippe Petit argues, [4] the confusion (in evidence in many parts of Le Siècle de Sartre) of Sartreʼs totalizing philosophical tendency with totalitarian thought needs to be resisted. There can be little doubt that, from the standpoint of the French and world political situation in the 1950s, Sartreʼs position was ultimately preferable to, even if more problematic than, that of Merleau-Ponty, the thinker with whom he can be most fairly compared, who essentially chose to abstain from participating in political debate. Moreover, what is nowhere present in Lévyʼs discussion is a recognition of the fact that Sartre felt drawn towards the French Communist Party because he realized that it was the only party and political force in France which represented the interests of the working class and hence of the vast majority of ordinary French people.

Sartre’s sickle

Lévy situates Sartre in the history of ideas, whereas Scriven by contrast chooses to focus on Sartre as a writer and political thinker in French society, seeking to elucidate ʻthe interconnected politico-cultural originality of Sartreʼs life and workʼ. Central to Scrivenʼs reading is the claim that Sartre was a transitional figure whose originality owed much to the tension between his commitment to active engagement in political debate and revolutionary politics under the Fourth Republic whilst continuing to employ the intellectual methods which he acquired under the Third Republic and the cultural forms characteristic of that period.

Scrivenʼs account of the postwar Sartre offers a much fairer appraisal of Sartreʼs politics than Lévyʼs remarks on the matter. His analyses of Sartreʼs relationship to the French Communist Party demonstrate a genuine awareness of the complexities and nuances of the situation and point to a greater willingness on Scrivenʼs part to think himself back into the polarized political debates of the period. Avoiding the temptation to provide a comprehensive account of Sartreʼs politics, Scriven has selected specific case-studies for critical scrutiny. He brings his specialist knowledge of Paul Nizan and the Communist Party5 to a discussion of Sartre and the Nizan affair. Pointing to the tension between the temperamental affinities and the diverging ideological tendencies of the two writers, Scrivenʼs text reveals an awareness of the complex relationship between the personal and the political. His account of Sartreʼs involvement with French Maoist politics in the post-1968 period is particularly illuminating. Scriven offers an interpretation of Sartreʼs relationship to the revolutionary press which challenges the now well-worn idea that he became submerged in a crude, ill-conceived leftist radicalism. Sartreʼs political writings of the period reveal that he made a distinction between arbitrary acts of terrorist violence, which were of no value to the revolutionary cause, and what Scriven describes as ʻorganic class violenceʼ, which were justifiable acts of retaliatory violence in response to the numerous forms of oppression effected and maintained by the ruling élite. And if Sartre became a staunch defender of and contributor to radical journals such as La Cause du Peuple and La Cause du Peuple–JʼAccuse, it was not long before he was making criticisms of their tendency towards facile ideological sloganizing and sectarianism.

If Jean-Paul Sartre: Politics and Culture in Postwar France has a weakness, it is not, on the whole, to be found in the reliability of Scrivenʼs account of Sartre but rather in its scope. Scriven situates Sartreʼs cultural output and political itinerary in the French sociopolitical context very capably but his analyses are not, for the most part, accompanied by an in-depth discussion of the underlying theoretical issues which are important to a detailed account of Sartre as a politico-cultural figure. Although Scriven is aware of the possibility that Sartreʼs cultural production, even in its non-explicitly political manifestations, might have political implications, he still tends to assume that Sartreʼs literary and critical writings should be seen in a political light essentially only when they convey an explicitly political message. This liberal assumption is challenged, surprisingly, by Lévy, who sees the work of the ʻanti-humanistʼ early Sartre as a powerful force against racism and fascism. Almost no consideration is given by Scriven to questions of political philosophy. There is very little analysis of the philosophical debate about political ideas among French leftist intellectuals or between Sartre and his critics in the Communist Party. Consequently, in places Scriven brushes over complex and contestable issues schematically, as, for example, when he states, without any further explanation, that Being and Nothingness ʻoffered an alternative philosophical system to Marxismʼ.

One word that is used surprisingly rarely by Lévy, given the nature of his account and his criticisms of Sartre, is ʻideologyʼ. He refers to humanism as an ideology and considers that Sartreʼs conversion to it was principally to blame for his numerous errors of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, Lévy unexpectedly – given his liberal political tendencies – refrains from pushing his argument one step further to argue that communism was a noxious phenomenon in part because it was an ideological form of politics. One suspects that he has refrained from voicing the typically liberal misgivings about the ideological nature of leftist thought and politics because he sees the problematic nature of the issue, not only with regard to Sartre, but with regard to his own discourse as well. Le Siècle de Sartre communicates an implicit awareness of the fact that in todayʼs neoliberal political climate its authorʼs anti-leftism might well be every bit as ideological in character as the ideological leftism he derides. Lévy thereby marks himself off from those liberals who assume that their critical discourse is value-neutral and typically non-ideological. It is his willingness to declare himself in the way that he does which gives Lévy a genuine force as a committed intellectual. Despite, or perhaps because of, its dismissive treatment of humanism, and of leftist thought and politics, Le Siècle de Sartre asserts loud and clear that ideology is still very much a part of contemporary critical discourse. However, for those on the Left this has never been in doubt, and it is the more pressing matter of the increasing and, in many ways, insidious political and cultural homogeneity, and yet at the same time merciless economic disparateness, of the world today which is preoccupying. Whether or not this is a matter that troubles Lévy is a moot point. What is clear, though, is his resistance to any theoretical or political position which would like to see something done about it.


1. ^ See, for example, Michel Contat, ʻSartre, “ce grand vivant”ʼ, Le Monde (des Livres), 21 January 2000, p.

VIII and Ingrid Galster, ʻJean-Paul au miroir de Bernard-Henri Lévyʼ, LʼHistoire 242, April 2000, p. 84.

2. ^ See Juliette Simont, ʻRéflexions sur: Le Siècle de Sartre de Bernard-Henri Lévyʼ, Les Temps modernes 608, March–May 2000, pp. 153–82.

3. ^ In Figaro Magazine, 8 April 2000, p. 18.

4. ^ Philippe Petit, La Cause de Sartre, PUF, Paris, 2000, p. 21.

5. ^ Michael Scriven, Paul Nizan: Communist Novelist, Macmillan, London, 1988.