Sartre & God (was Re: the mature Marx?)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Mon Dec 25 10:45:54 MST 2000

On Mon, 25 Dec 2000 10:34:44 -0600 Carrol Cox <cbcox at> writes:
> Yoshie Furuhashi wrote:
> > Sartre wrote in _Being and Nothingness_ (1942): "Man can will
> nothing
> > unless he has first understood that he must count no one but
> himself;
> > that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite
> > responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he
> > sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for
> > himself on this earth."
> "Infinite responsibilities": I haven't read enough of the Marxist
> Sartre
> to know to what extent he moved away from this. By itself it seems
> to be straight out of Heidegger. The "alone, abandoned" has a
> double thrust. On the one hand it is a repudiation of religion; on
> the other hand it is a total repudiation of the insistence on the
> priority
> of social relations that is fundamental to Marx, and would fit into
> _Paradise Lost_ or even _Mansfield Park_ more comfortably than
> into the _Grundrisse_ or _Capital_.

Its been some time since I last read *Being and Nothingness* but my
impression was that despite a few sympathetic references to Marx,
his portrayal of the human condition was one in which social relations
play little role except as a set of constraints on the free action of
the individual.  In other words, his view of human nature seemed
to have been one that was quite consistent with the premises
of classical liberalism.  In his later writings (i.e. *Critique of
Reason*), he attempted to modify his earlier depiction of human
nature to take into account social relations.  At the same time
though, he attempted to hang onto his earlier existentialist
conception of man with its emphasis on the irreducibility
of free will.  Sartre, now acknowledged that while people
possesed free will, their freedom was circumscribed by
the nature of the social relations in which they found themselves
to be embedded.  Thus he criticized capitalism as circumscribing
the freedom of workers.  However, many commentators have
doubted whether Sartre was ever to fully reconcile his
existentialist humanism with his commitment to Marxism.
Certainly, Althusser didn't think so.  I recall reading
somewhere of an account by Regis Debray of a debate
that took place between Sartre and Althusser at the
Ecole Normale in the early 1960s.  According to Debray,
Althusser delivered a good thrashing to Sartre.

>Both Milton and Austen see
> 'Man' as alone and abandoned *until* 'he' chooses freely to be
> himself (Heidegger) and on the basis of that choice aligns himself
> with God. And in both Austen and Milton "God" is a pretty near
> equivalent to Sartre's "Infinite responsibilities."
> If *this* was the "humanism" Althusser was attempting to
> repudiate, he was certainly on Marx's side in doing so.

While I think Althusser was quite right in wanting to repudiate
Sartrean humanism and other similar bourgeois humanisms
as being incompatible with Marxism, there still remains the
question of whether structuralism could offer an adequate
substitute.  In fact it seems rather doubtful to me whether
structuralism as understood by Althusser is up to the task
of providing a basis for understanding Marx's materialist
conception of history or even is up to the task for providing
the basis for a theory of history.

Jim F.

> Carrol

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