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Q. What about Marxism and Existentialism, Post-Modernism, etc?
A. Many people wonder whether the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre, existentialism, phenomenology, the "New Left", post-structuralism and post-modernism are somehow compatible with Marx's thinking. These trends represent a petit-bourgeois attempt to find interpretations of the world that are different to Marxism. That is their common denominator and raison d'Ítre. They proceed from entirely different premises and therefore cannot be made compatible with Marxism.
Marx started out with a study of the history of philosophy. In attempting to understand the development of philosophy and what it represented he came to the conclusion that the development of the means of production was ultimately the key to understanding the development of society. Does this mean that the causal relation between the development of the productive forces is direct and automatic? If that were the case, our task would be redundant because revolution would be unnecessary. The whole point is that the process is dialectical, involving a contradiction between the demands of economic development and the inevitable lag in human consciousness, ideas, theories, institutions, morality, etc. However, yes, in the final analysis, the development of the productive forces is decisive. Deny that and you will end in a mess.
These petit-bourgeois thinkers move in the opposite direction. They move away from the economic base and end up with "individualism". They refute the class approach to understanding society precisely because it comes into conflict with their own individualistic way of thinking. These ladies and gentlemen spend all their lives in aimless "theoretical" meanderings which never come close to the real movement of society and the working class. Shut up in their university hot-houses, they are free to indulge themselves in politics as a hobby.
The decay of capitalism also affects the field of ideology and culture. Philosophy in our time has entered into a phase of irreversible decline. In all the trends of modern Western philosophy, one looks in vain for a single idea that has not been expressed long ago, and far better by others. Bourgeois philosophy has withered on the vine. It has nothing new or meaningful to say. For that very reason, it is justly subject to universal contempt, or, more accurately, indifference. Here again the baneful effects of the extreme division of labour make themselves felt with a vengeance. Isolated in their ivory towers, the academics pass their lives writing obscure theses which are read, and sometimes answered, by other academics. Few people understand what they write. Fewer still even care!
Let us take Existentialism. This is one of the emptiest of the modern bourgeois "philosophies" (it goes against the grain to dignify it with the name). Existentialism has its roots in the irrationalist trend of 19th century philosophy, typified by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. It has assumed the most varied forms and political colouring. There was a religious trend (Marcel, Jaspers, Berdyayev and Buber) and an atheistic trend (Heidigger, Sartre, Camus). But its most common feature is extreme subjectivism, reflected in its preferred vocabulary: its watchwords - "being-in-the-world", "dread", "care", "being towards death", and the like. It was already anticipated by Edmund Husserl, a German mathematician turned philosopher, whose "phenomenology" was a form of subjective idealism, based on the "individual, personal world, as directly experienced, with the ego at the centre".
Existentialism centres everything on the moment. All that you can achieve is in the moment in which you are living and anything before or after becomes irrelevant. It is an individualistic and extremely pessimistic view of the world, entirely at one with the psychology of the petty bourgeois intellectual. This is the very opposite of Marxism and inevitably leads you away from a class understanding. Thus it becomes irrelevant to study the past, to study overall processes. You must live for the moment and for yourself. This school of thought developed on the basis of the petit-bourgeois of the 1930s, ruined by the economic crisis and crushed between the working class and the big banks and monopolies. Politically and personally disoriented, and lacking any perspective, they had lost any hope in the future. One group of existentialists collaborated with the Nazis (Heidigger) while another for a time came within the orbit of Stalinism (Sartre). In neither case did they lose their essentially petty bourgeois idealist character.
With existentialism, we reach the complete dissolution of modern philosophy. It may be argued (probably correctly) that this world view reflects the irrationalism of the capitalist system in its period of senile decay. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that in every period of decline similar philosophical trends have emerged. They reflect the pessimism of the intellectual who, having a fairly comfortable life, is able to turn his back on society and seek salvation in the "dark night of the soul".
Jean-Paul Sartre made an attempt to unite existentialism with "Marxism" (actually, Stalinism) and met with predictable results. One cannot unite oil and water. Sartre's thought cannot be described as a coherent body of philosophical ideas. It is a disorderly mishmash of notions borrowed from different philosophers, particularly Descartes and Hegel. The end result is total incoherence, shot through with a pervading spirit of pessimism and nihilism. For Sartre, the fundamental philosophical experience is nausea, a feeling of disgust at the absurd and incomprehensible nature of being. Everything is resolved into nothingness. This is a caricature of Hegel, who certainly did not think that the world was incomprehensible. In Sartre's writings, Hegelian jargon is used in a way that makes even Hegel's most obscure passages seem models of clarity.
Jean-Paul Sartre represented the "left" wing of existentialism, as opposed to the openly fascist wing. That is to his credit. But he never broke with the mystical idealist basis of existentialism, dwelling on "Being and the threat of Nothingness", "Freedom of Choice", "Duty", and so on. A sense of impending doom, and a feeling of powerlessness and "dread" fill these writings, accompanied by an attempt to seek an alternative on an individual basis. This expressed a certain mood among section of the intellectuals after the first world war in Germany, and then in France. What it indicates is the profound crisis of liberalism, as a result of "the Great War", and the upheavals which followed in its wake. They saw the problems facing society, but could see no alternative.
Underlying all this is the feeling of impotence of the isolated intellectual, faced with a hostile and uncomprehending world. In other words, the usual outlook of the petty bourgeois intellectual. The attempt to escape from the wicked world into individualism is summed up in Sartre's celebrated (or notorious) phrase: "L'enfer, c'est les autres" ("Hell is other people"). How this outlook could ever be squared with the revolutionary optimism of dialectical materialism it is hard to imagine. But then, no-one could ever accuse Sartre of consistency. It is, of course, to his credit that he espoused progressive causes, like Vietnam and solidarized with the movement of the French workers and students in 1968. But from a philosophical and psychological point of view, the position of Sartre was completely foreign to Marxism.
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