Is Existentialism closer to Anarchism than Marxism?


EXCERPT: . . . Since the publication of Critique of Dialectical Reason in 1960, scholars have largely interpreted Sartre’s political philosophy as ‘existential Marxism’: a critical appropriation of Marxism. Sartre encouraged this reception by often professing his affinity with Marxism, even stating that existentialism was parasitic to Marxism, a point he later retracted. But commentators who emphasize the influence of Marx overlook the signs of Sartre’s skepticism. Far from being a supporter of the French Communist Party, he rejected outright the dogmatic Marxism of dialectical materialism underpinning its ideology.

While Marx’s influence is overemphasized, the role of anarchism deserves far more airtime than it currently gets. Sartre said it himself: “if one reads my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist”. Not only do Sartre’s anarchist undertakings underscore his political positions, from his earliest writings all the way through to the post-war period, they also provide a far more radical foundation for his ideas.

The clearest anarchist element in Sartre’s political thought is the pursuit of a society free from authoritarianism. In the early 1950s, Sartre began sketching out his vision for an ideal society, brought about by the overthrow of existing systems of oppression through revolutionary activity. In the Critique, Sartre argues that the authority-oppression paradigm is made possible by institutionalization, where groups become conditioned to eschew individual freedom, adopting serialities and their concomitant social impotence. Individual freedom is immobilized by this process but not vanquished; the potential to reform as a group-in-fusion and direct their praxis towards an ideal survives.

Sartre’s anarchist contemporaries condemned institutions which were based on coercion and authoritarianism. The state and centralized authority received the brunt of their scrutiny, with many believing that the state was illegitimate, had no right to exist, and its abolishment would eliminate many social evils. The same concerns can be seen today in the activities of the Occupy Movement, the Invisible Committee, and the Tarnac 9, all of which have come to be known as Insurrectionary Anarchism. Sartre’s account of group formation demonstrates that not only did he share such concerns about coercion and authority, he argued forcefully against the oppression of institutionalized authority long before contemporary anarchists took up the cause. Sartre’s revolutionary solution likewise entailed the eradication of the existing order.

Yet it is the degree of coercion that interested Sartre most. The philosopher’s critique of the state was that it attempted to convert human beings into automata, extending the machine metaphor to associate institutionalized bureaucracy with nefarious analytic reason. In his view, the practico-inert surrounds and conditions human existence through its seen and unseen apparatuses, representing a servitude to mechanical forces designed to quash individual freedom. (MORE - details)

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