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Discussion: Merleau-Ponty’s Rejection of Marxism


of the insignificant and useless knowledge
In sum radical philosophy’s attitude to both
so often produced. And some research has clearly
science and common sense is the same: where it
been dangerous, e.g. in biological warfare and
helps, use it; where it doesn ‘.t, criticize it;

where…;i.t gets in the way, remove it.

The result of this excursus is that radical
philosophy must define itself in terms of the task
12 On this problem see the references in note 8 and
of social liberation. It is part of the theoretical.

the following works: J. Habermas, Toward a
arm of that task. As such it cannot be neglected,
~ational Society and Knowledge and Human Interests
at least not until the theory is realised in prac'(Beacon, 1970 and 1971); H. Marcuse, Negations
tice. Moreover radicals can not be knownothings,
(Beacon, 1969),ch.6; The Political Philosophy of
since rationality is essential to their social
Bakunin (Free Press, 1953)., pp76-83; S. and H.

critique. The project of liberation arises within
Rose, ‘The Radicalisation of Science’ in the 1972
common human experience and practice, of course.

Socialist Register (Merlin, 1972), ppl05-33; T.

Ordinary and theoretical reflection on that experiFerguson, ‘The Political Economy of Knowledge’,
ence yields and articulates the criteria used in
Telos, no.15 (Spring, 1973), pp124-38; and the
criticizing other areas of life. The criteria
March 1972 issue of Liberation (New York) •.

radicai philosophy employs to criticize OLP as
13 On the ecological critique of the technical domideological cant, for example, are derived hence,
ination of nature and its connections with modat least in significant part. However, the fatalisern science see Wm. Leiss, The Domination of
tic common sense of oppression can only be the obNature (Braziller, 1973); Barry Commoner, The
ject of radical critique, never its source. The
Closi~g Circle (Knopf, 1971) and D. McKinley and
repressive eleme~ts in common sense and the sciences
P. Shepard, eds., The Subversi;e Science, Essays
inhibit their emancipatory potential and veil the
toward an Ecology of Man (Houghton-Mifflin, 1969)
ways in which they support domination.

part 5.

Me..leau-Ponly’s Polilics

A reply to Sonia Kruks·article ‘The Philosophy of


in the roles that the proletariat and the Party
play in history. He outlined three main interpretations of their inter-relationship which he
held were embodied in Lenin, Lukacs, and Trotsky.2
By concentrating on only two of Merleau-Ponty’s
According to Merleau-Ponty:

early works in her article, Sonia Kruks gives a
Lenin refused to recognize that the proletariat
rendering of his life-work that I do not agree with. could achieve a revolution on its own. By itself,
Only in the penultimate paragraph does it become
its consciousness was limited, and to anticipate a
apparent that in his later work he came to reject
spontaneous revolution would involve an indefinite
not only the ‘Communism of his time’ but Marxism
period of waiting. Lenin therefore asserted that
as well.

In the following brief note I offer an
the political initiative had to come from a strong
alternative reading; I give an account of his
centrally-organized, vanguard Party.

rejection of Marxism by referring, mainly, to
Lukacs had a notion of dual mediation: on the one
The Adventures of the Dialectic. Kruks writes that
hand, the Party mediates between the proletariat
Merleau-Ponty’s notion of a philosophy was of one
and history, and on the other, the proletariat mediwho examines things ‘in wonderment at the complexity ates between the Party and history. Lukacs hoped .

and coherence of the world’, but I want to ask: was
for an equal mediation in which the Party and the
his philosophy subversive? Does it bring the basic
proletariat together bring about proletarian concontradictions of capitalism to consciousness?

sciousne~s and lead·it to action •. This view howDoes his philosophy accelerate a development which
ever is in conflict with the Leninist view, in·
leads to a society without exploitation?l
which the Party is the final interpreter of history
for everyone. As is well know, Lukacs’ early work
It is often not generally known that Merleauwas repudiated by official communist circles and
Ponty’s rejection of Marxism reached its final form
by its author. Trotsky believed in the spontaneity
as early as 1955. His writing during this period
of the proletariat, with the Party playing only a
gives one the impression of an individual immersed
minor role. Such a belief in the proletariat,
in himself; the question he is continually asking
Merleau-Ponty thought, can only be based on some
is: was he a Marxist or not? Defensively, he wrote
notion of scientific predictability, or historical
that it did not make sense to ask whether one is a
determinism·- the notion that history is so deterMarxist or not, since even those who reject Marxism
mined that the proletariat will automatically come
do so only in terms of reasons which owe a lot to
to power.

Marx. He contended that the contradictions within
Merleau-Ponty was thus torn between Lenin’s elitist
communist regimes belonged to theoretical Marxism
view or some sort of historical determinism. He
as well. one of his main topics ;is.the relationdid not believe in the Leninist view because he felt
ship between theory and practice, as. exemplified
that the Party had betrayed the Revolution, and had
become the new ruling class. Nor could he be an
1 This is a brief extract from a forthcoming book
historical determinist as the proletariat had
dealing with the problems of theory and practice
failed to materialize in any universal form. As
in Marxism entitled: ‘Praxis. On Some Attempts to
early as 1948 he was acknowledging that the proleMake the World less Unacceptable’.

2 H. Merleau-Ponty, The Adventures of the Dialectic, tariat had forgotten its mission. In his last
Heinemann, 1974
statement on this question he declared that the


proletariat as a universal class no longer existed
in international politics (Signs, 1960). I suggest
that Merleau-Ponty took Marx’s notion of proletariat
too literally, that the proletariat need not be
the only historical agent, but can at different
times be substituted by the peasantry, students and
intellectuals, or the colonially ~loited.

Lukacs and Trotsky personified these dilemmas of
theory and practice for Merleau-Ponty, who inferred
that Lukacs gave too much weight to action and compromised the integrity of his thought, whilst
Trotsky, however, gave too much weight to thought
thus divorcing himself from historical action. Unwilling to accept the contradictions of theory and
practice, and wishing to remain pure, the conclusion that Merleau-Ponty draws is that ‘Revolutions
are true as movements and false as regimes,.3 This
difficulty he believed, is not only that of Bolshevism but that of every Marxist organisation. This
general pessimism, his disillusion with institutions
and the proletariat coincided with a renewal of
interest in Husserlian phenomenology, and his adoption of a ‘Weberian’ liberalism. His project was
now to find a basis for a philosophy into which
all the sciences of man could be integrated – to
outline ‘an ontology of finitude’ in which the
natural world and historical man are seen in their’

relations to one another.

Merleau-Ponty continued his critique of Marxism
by using Weber’s typology on authority to provide
a framework for his criticism. The descriptiop of
the ‘positive revolutionary regime’ which betrays
its aims parallels Weber’s account of the institutionalisation or bureaucratisation of leadership.

Merleau-Ponty’s despondency’ seems to extend to all
human institutions; he is haunted by the dilemma
that if one remains within an institution one never
knows when it has compromised away its potential
effectiveness. But if one cannot see in any institution an effective remnant of society’s best
hopes then one has no recourse but to abandon institutions. I would suggest that the problem
posed in this way is the dilemma of a ‘liberal’,
and that his ultimate choice to abandon all institutions is ‘not surprising’ considering his
divorce of theory from practice.

What Merleau-Monty found hopeful in Weber is his
believ in possibilities other than violence, in
spite of violence in political life. This he terms
‘heroic liberalism,.4 These and other questions,
such as the relationship between philosophy and
politics, are discussed in his later work. 5 His
inaugural lecture too is very revealing in this
respect: in it he makes a distinction between the
philosopher and the man of action and argues that
the philosopher’s task is to think critically just
as the task of the man of action is to choose. He
states that since it is virtually impossible for
one man to be all things the man of action and the
man of thought should be open to each other. The
philosopher is peculiarly fitted for the task of
criticism by the very fact that he is ‘at a distance’ from action for this enables him to ‘experienCE! more fully the ties of truth which bind him to’

the world and to history. ,6 Thus Merleau-Ponty came
to view the writer and especially the philosopher
as above the immediate battles of society – the
typical l~eral position.

It should-be noticed how Merleau-Ponty tends to
pose his ques’tions in such a dichotomous way that
they limit possibilities of action:

We begin with abstract alternatives: either
history is made spontaneously or else it is the
leaders who make it through cunning and strategy
– either one respects the freedom of the proletarians and the revolution is a chimera or else
one judges for them what they want and Revolu-


tion becomes Terror. 7
And consider: ‘the philosopher’s task is to think
critically, just as the task of the man of action
is to choose’. As he presents only ‘binary oppositions’ he does not allow alternatives that combine theory and practice in a revolutionary praxis
such as that of Gramsci, Luxemburg, or a Mao-Tse
Tung, nor does he consider that it is possible to
be both at different times of one’s life. With
institutions too there is little choice: they compromise their best intentions, and secondly, every
insti~ution ceases to be revolutionary once established.- Merleau-Ponty did not realize that these
dilemmas, mysteries are incapable of purely theoretic solution~but they are contradictions to be
resolved by practice. He was forgetful that ‘all
social life is essentially practical. All the mysteries which lead theory towards mysticism find
their rational solution in human practice and the
comprehension of this practice.,B
Though his writings are situated in the historical context of the France of his time, his political essays now seem curiously dated, like the Cold
War. Partly because of this he conflated Russian
communism (read, state capitalism) with Marxism. 9
Being particularly concerned with the necessity of
institutions being capable of, and internalizing,
self-criticism he suggested that, to prevent the
betrayal of a revolUtion, there had to be a means
of revolution against itself. Perhaps l-ie:t:leauPonty would not have been quite so disillusioned
about institutions had he been able to see, for
example, the attempts being made in China to institutionalize the ‘uninstitutionalizable’ – the
permanent revolution.

In this reading of Merleau-Ponty I have attempted
to show that he,placed too much weight on theory,
and thus divorced himself from political practice:

given that he did not fully grasp the notion that
in Marxism man’s actuality and his potentiality
change in the course of man’s historical development: given that this was the interpretation of
praxis that he chose, it was ironical that this
came to mean ‘the rejection of a notion of politics
which arises from the practice of life, and the
acceptance of the politics of philosophers which
no one practices,.10
3 ibid., p207
4 ibid., p25

5 M. Merleau-Ponty, Signs, Northwestern University
Press, 1964
6 M. Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, 1963
7 M. Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror
Press, Boston, 1969. It is useful to compare
Merleau-Ponty’s views in this book with those in
The Adventures of the Dialectic to see the extent
of his shift to an anti-Marxist position.

8 Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, Early writings,
Pelican, 1974, p423
9 ‘It seems a truism, yet it has been repeatedly
overlooked, that Marx’s political theory should
not be judged by Lenin’s or stalin’s policies
any more than Mill should be judged by Gladstone’s
performance.’ Avineri, The Social and Political

Thought of Karl Marx
10 M.Merleau-Ponty, Signs, op. cit.

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