When published, Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason appeared to be a major intellectual and political event, no less than a Kantian effort to found Marxism, with far-reaching theoretical and political consequences. Claude Levi-Strauss devoted a course to studying it, and debated Sartre's main points in The Savage Mind; Andre Gorz devoted a major article to explaining its importance and key concepts in New Left Review. Many analysts of the May, 1968 events in Paris claimed that they were anticipated by the Critique. But the book has had a very quiet 50th anniversary: it is now clear that the project has had little lasting effect beyond a narrow band of specialists. It has not entered the wider culture, has not been picked up beyond Sartre scholars except by one or two philosophically interested social scientists and feminist thinkers; and after the energy of 1968 wore off the Critique faded as well from the radar of political activists. This article asks and attempts to answer the perplexing question: Why? What became of the great promise of Sartre's project?
Not believing in God is, on the one hand, a very simple matter. As most Danes and Swedes know, it is increasingly possible to grow up in a wholly secular environment, where questions about sin, grace, and an afterlife never get posed, where well-being is taken for granted, where people feel protected and reassured not by churches but by societal institutions. But on the other hand, as Sartre said, “becoming an atheist is a long a difficult undertaking.” Becoming an atheist in a religious culture entails sorting through a series of profound issues. To think through what this means and how to live one’s entire life in a world without God requires addressing, as Sartre knew, life’s ultimate questions about “man and the universe.” It is, in short, one thing to live as if God does not exist, but quite another to provide secular answers to Kant’s three great philosophical questions: “What can I know?”, “What may I hope?”, “What should I do?” This is what my book, Living without God, sets out to do.
It might seem that Sartre's thought is no longer relevant in understanding and combating the maelstrom unleashed by triumphant neoliberalism. But we can still draw inspiration from Sartre's hatred of oppression and his project to understand how his most famous theme of individual self-determination and responsibility coexists with our social belonging and determination by historical forces larger than ourselves. Most important today is Sartre's understanding in Critique of Dialectical Reason of how isolated, serial individuals form into groups to resist oppression, and the ways in which these groups generate social understandings and collective power.
As the North American team of Sartre Studies International was preparing the following symposium on Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews, our British colleagues surprised us by publishing Shlomit Schuster’s “Revisiting Hope Now with Benny Lévy: A Note on the 1996 English Edition of Hope Now” in Sartre Studies International 4:1. Based on a 1996 interview with Lévy, the article functions in some sense as Lévy’s own review of “Sartre’s Last Words?” – my introduction to the English version of Hope Now.
A Reply to Alfred Betschart
Alfred Betschart has claimed that the project of existential Marxism is a contradiction in terms, but this argument, even when supported by many experts and quotes from Sartre’s 1975 interview, misses the point of my Boston Review article, “The Philosophy of Our Time.” I believe the important argument today is not about whether we can prove that Sartre ever became a full-fledged Marxist, but rather about the political and philosophical possibility, and importance today, of existentialist Marxism.
By what incredible foresight did the most significant intellectual quarrel of the twentieth century anticipate the major issue of the twenty-first? When Camus and Sartre parted ways in 1952, the main question dividing them was political violence—specifically, that of communism. And as they continued to jibe at each other during the next decade, especially during the war in Algeria, one of the major issues between them became terrorism. The 1957 and 1964 Nobel Laureates were divided sharply over which violence most urgently demanded to be addressed and attacked—the humiliations and oppressions, often masked, that Sartre described as systematically built into daily life under capitalism and colonialism, or the brutal and abstract calculus of murder seen by Camus as built into some of the movements that claimed to liberate people from capitalist and colonial oppression.
The Sartre-Camus conflict remains, fifty years later, philosophically unresolved. And I would argue—against today's conventional wisdom so persistently asserted by Tony Judt—it is also historically unresolved, despite today.
Ronald Aronson and Andrew Dobson
Sartre is left out of this commentary on Sartre. As students of Sartre, should we not ground ourselves in what Sartre actually said, in an appreciation of what he was up to, as well as in a willingness to engage the scholarship about his work? Given the richness both of Sartre’s writing and the interpretative literature, an article discussing Sartre’s notion of freedom and criticising his views on morality can fairly be taxed if it lacks these attentions. Of course Andrew Dobson is entitled to argue against Sartre, or against our various interpretations of Sartre, and to show why an anti-Sartrean ethical understanding such as his own is warranted. But what he gives us is misleading, because above all he ignores Sartre’s own evolving conception of freedom, and Sartre’s own changing purposes.
Ronald Aronson, Ronald E. Santoni and Robert Stone
I would like to shift the question. I don’t think the important question is what Sartre would say after September 11, but rather, “What should we say about Sartre after September 11?”
Jean-Paul Sartre and Ronald Aronson
In early 1945, with the war not yet over, Sartre travelled to the United States for the first time. He travelled with a group of correspondents who were invited in order to influence French public opinion favourably towards the United States.1 Sartre was sent by his friend Albert Camus to report back to Combat, the leading newspaper of the independent left. Once invited, he arranged also to report back to the conservative newspaper, Le Figaro. Simone de Beauvoir reports that learning of Camus’ invitation in late 1944 was one of the most exciting moments of Sartre’s life.