Questions: Black Nationalism/Marxism & Existentialism

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Mon May 22 07:38:06 MDT 2000

soil_ride wrote:

>  I noticed that there is a similiarity between your answer about Fred
> Hampton and that of Sartre's existentialism....(Sartre's
> existentialism because so far thats all i have read about
> existentialism thus far)..
> >Thirty years later whatr counts is not what he said or
> >what abstract theory he followed, but the theoretical implications
> (which
> >the living must draw) of his *actions*:  not to define others by what
> they say, but more on what they do.  For what they do will tell us
> what they are about regardless of what they say.

I'm no expert on existentialism or on Sartre, but it's fairly clear that

this ism was grounded in a radical individualism. (Being flippant, one
could say that existentialism was a fundamentalist Christianity minus
God.) And there is a radical difference between focusing on the
principles embodied in practice (that is, raising the practice to a
of theory) on the one hand (the method of historical materialism)
and on the other hand focusing on the moral judgment of individual
humans on the basis of what they "do" utterly separated from the
principles which are implicit or explicit in their action.

A short story I read some 50 years ago (I think by Sartre himself)
sticks in my memory and vividly exposes the individualist focus
on the moral judgment of individuals at the heart of existentialism.
A loyalist trapped behind enemy (Franco) lines in the Spanish
Civil War is hiding in the home of a local loyalist while others
are planning to help him escape. One of the others is captured
and threatened with execution unless he betrays his comrades
to the police. Flippantly, he says that the man they are searching
for is hiding in the local cemetery. He then awaits his execution
the next morning. Instead to his amazement he is freed. It
seems the fugitive, not wanting to endanger his friend, had
left the friend's home and was hiding in the cemetery. The
protagonist now feels that he is personally responsible for
the death of the fugitive. He is a traitor -- this is the existentialist

meaning of judging someone not by what they say but by
what they do. And of course it is a bunch of balderdash --
on two grounds: 1) Its radical individualism, its assumption that
humans come from nowhere and by the abstract choices they
make define what they are (wonderfully dramatized in Milton's
*Paradise Lost*), and 2) On its obsession with moral judgment
(also wonderfully dramatized in Milton). This is fundamentally
opposed to historical materialism.

We examine the Panthers' history not to arrive at moral judgments
of individual Panthers or at the Panthers as a collective but to
understand their the meaning of their social practice. I did not
separate Hampton's action from his thought in a Sartrean
fashion -- and I of course thought that his decision to focus
on a critique of the Weathermen was a core part of his *action*.
One cannot separate thought and action as Sartre (in his
existentialist phase) seems to have done. In the case of the
Panthers it is necessary to theorize some of their practice
after the fact because the heavy repression that fell on them
(and a serious lack of solidarity with them in large sections
of the white left) gave them no time as it were to theorize
explicitly their own practice.

The "theory" of the lumpen as a revolutionary core only appeared
in Panther rhetoric during the final downward spiral of the party.
It isn't worth fussing about. The Panthers were always willing,
even anxious, to cooperate with white leftists. On an extremely cold
day in January of 1970 two Panthers from Peoria (one of them
a brother of Mark Clark, the Panther murdered along with
Hampton) came over to Bloomington/Normal to help the local
SDS (RYM2) chapter in an anti-war forum. But they were
under incredibly heavy pressure from repression. My wife went
to Chicago once to bring two Panthers down here for a
conference. She was shocked by the extreme tension they
showed until the car passed out of Chicago and Cook County.
(Memories grow dim, and I can't rememer now whether this was
before or after the murder of Hampton and Clark.) It's hard for
most whites, including most white leftists, to imagine what that kind
of repression feels like.


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