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Sartre Against Stalinism, Or Was He?

The Psychedelic Bolsheviks wanted to know what the AMM thought of Ian Birchall's Sartre Against Stalinism, so here's a review by Ben Watson written for Radical Philosophy 129 in 2005.
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A review of Ian Birchall’s Sartre against Stalinism (Berghahn, 2004) originally published in Radical Philosophy 129 (Jan/Feb 2005)
bloody hell
As the adolescentʼs entrée into the world of ideas, existentialism has probably diminished a little since the Cureʼs 1978 ʻKilling an Arabʼ, but 2005 is the centenary of Sartreʼs birth, and the celebrations can be expected to raise his profile. In his introduction to the edition of Critique of Dialectical Reason issued by Verso last year, Fredric Jameson argued that globalization has conferred a relevance to Sartreʼs concept of universal history that even his postmodern detractors cannot ignore. Birchall is likewise hopeful that ʻa new generation of “anti-capitalists”ʼ will rediscover Sartre. Hence this book.

Birchall is one of the most dogged researchers in the field of twentieth-century French letters. He is also a long-standing member of the Socialist Workersʼ Party. He dedicates Sartre against Stalinism to the memory of Tony Cliff: activist, biographer of Trotsky and the SWPʼs founding theoretician. After studying government statistics in 1948, Cliff defined the society which emerged in the USSR after the defeat of the Left Opposition in 1929 as ʻstate capitalistʼ, a term previously restricted to Frankfurt School or anarchist (nonparty-building, non-Leninist) circles. Trotskyʼs own definition of the USSR as a degenerated workersʼ state demanded that it must always be ʻdefendedʼ. Defence easily becomes ʻapologyʼ: definitions of socialism which include labour camps, anti-Semitism and atom bombs make it hard to gain either sympathy or recruits.

By breaking with Trotskyist orthodoxy on Russia, Cliff gave activist party Marxism a new lease of life. Given Birchall’s politics, the aspect of Sartre which causes him grief is Sartre’s vacillating relationship to the French Communist Party (PCF): the ʻagainst Stalinismʼ of his title is deliberately tendentious. Sartre never really accepted Trotskyʼs account of a revolution betrayed, much less Cliffʼs state-capitalist analysis. On top of that, the PCF was one of the worldʼs most reactionary communist parties: in February 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, only Mao Zedong and Maurice Thorez, the leader of the PCF, hailed Stalin as a father of socialism; for seventeen years (until 1973) the PCF insisted that Khrushchevʼs 1956 apology for the crimes of Stalin was a forgery. In a year-by-year account, Birchall documents what he calls Sartreʼs ʻhesitation waltzʼ with the PCF. Sartreʼs ʻhard Stalinistʼ period, when he visited the Soviet Union and claimed it allowed freedom of speech (a barefaced lie), was restricted to the years 1952–56. It was a response to the Cold War and the peace movement. The rest of the time, Sartre was a fellow-traveller of the PCF, but frequently involved with initiatives which dismayed the leadership: organizing opposition to the Algerian War, defending Jean Genet and homosexuality, promoting feminism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre moved on from the existentialism which had made his name and engaged with Marxism. In 1960 he declared his ʻfundamental agreementʼ with historical materialism. But Marxism in the postwar period was hamstrung by Stalinism. When in 1952 Georg Lukács excoriated existentialismʼs obsession with despair and loneliness, he claimed that Russiaʼs atom bomb was proof of the onward march of enlightenment and reason. This was not going to convince anyone too young to have fought in the war, let alone a CND member. When the New Left rediscovered Marx and revolution in 1968, it did so by emphasizing precisely those aspects of life which the Stalinists deemed ʻpetty bourgeoisʼ and repugnant: sex, music, self-development, social experiment.

Birchall tells the tale of Sartreʼs political involvements with such fastidiousness – every assertion tied to a source by a footnote – that the atmosphere is peculiarly unFrench: English historical research meets Parisian posturing in a bizarre confrontation of opposites. French publications often eschew the apparatus of footnotes and index, but the notion of public debate and manifesto remains alive, defying grey academic knowledge-after-the-event (which is perhaps why French philosophers write primary texts and anglophone academics write commentaries on them). However, Birchall is himself urgently political, busting through academic propriety with declarations of political allegiance. He introduces considerations absent from the charmed circle of those citing Derrida and Deleuze like Biblical texts.

In 1934, before he had written a word on existentialism, Sartre read an article on Martin Heidegger by Colette Audry in LʼÉcole émancipé, a socialist weekly for teachers. She titled her essay ʻA Philosophy of German Fascismʼ (straight away highlighting an issue which the academic reception of Heidegger in the 1980s befogged). She was concerned to explain this strange new political development called Nazism.

As a Trotskyist, Audry was aware of the omissions of Stalinized Marxism: ʻthey leave to their opponents the monopoly of intellectual audacity in everything which goes beyond the scope of the purely economic and politicalʼ. As Birchall points out, Audry’s complaints provided Sartre with his postwar project. To achieve it, he resorted to the ethical and moral apparatus of existentialism, but also to a dialogue with the French
anti-Stalinist Left. Some of the political stands he took were worthy, but itʼs hard to see his philosophical endeavours as achieving much more than personal fame and theoretical confusion. Fredric Jameson expresses surprise that Sartreʼs Critique of Dialectical Reason is not more widely read. This may be because it is a turgid grotesque, a comedy of errors, in which a Cartesian unable to rid himself of the Christian metaphysical divide between spirit and matter repeatedly misunderstands what Marx said about humans as social, productive animals: a paranoid labyrinth which projects frustrations with the PCF to the level of anthropological truth. It aped the spread of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit by adopting Braudelʼs breathless guidebook prose, a manner which later re-emerged in the dubious rhizomatic sprawl of Gilles Deleuze.

By restricting himself to Sartreʼs politics and refusing to set sail on the dark waters of philosophy, Birchall weakens his case. What he defends in Sartreʼs philosophy, against the structuralists and postmodernists, is his insistence on ʻthe unitary subjectʼ and ʻfreedom of choiceʼ. Dear as these are to Christians and apologists for the market like Tony Blair, many readers of Marx believe Capital explodes these liberal concepts. As the pre-eminent philosophical celebrity of postwar Paris, Sartre did not establish anything resistant to later trends; he set the mould – incomprehension
of Marx and vilification of Engels as the guiding lights for a spectacular career. Structuralist and postmodernist attacks on Sartre were not devastating critique, but bids for the throne. Sartreʼs love–hate relationship with the PCF – ʻparty power as inevitably corrupting
ʼ – became a convenient tic for a purely academic Marxism, reproducing itself outside the conditions that gave it birth. Sartre was about as useful to the development of a genuinely Marxist philosophy and politics as Harold Pinter.

Birchall has a horror of ʻmereʼ ideas, exhibiting the Anglo-Saxon positivism which Trotsky attacked mercilessly in his later years. He keeps returning to the fact that the PCF won millions of votes and had masses of working-class members. It was a ʻrealʼ political force. To ignore it would be ultra-left. But was Sartreʼs vacillating attitude really so helpful? In May 1968, all the criticisms made by the Trotskyists (however tiny their
groupuscules) were proven true, when the PCF betrayed the biggest general strike in history and prevented a social revolution, handing back power to De Gaulle and the employers. Cliff learned from 1968: working in reformist parties like the Labour Party or the PCF is useless; revolutionaries need their own organization. If Birchall took his own political positivism seriously, he would be in the Labour Party, not the SWP.

In 1956, Pierre Naville issued a pamphlet titled LʼIntellectuel communiste. Passed over by Birchall, it questioned Sartreʼs self-description as an ʻintellectualʼ communist. It explained why revolutionary socialists find something vain and compromised about the stance
of the ʻintellectualʼ: “Do you imagine for a moment that Marx considered himself an ‘intellectual communist’?” asked Naville, “No, he considered himself a communist, which is something completely different. The intelligentsia swaps the right of every person to use their intelligence for affiliation to that celestial legion of the ʻintelligent classʼ. By thinking it thereby elevates and magnifies its role, thought actually mutilates itself, reducing its social role to that of a paid functionary.”

With Sartre as his lodestar, Birchall confuses the necessity of speculative thought with the circus of celebrity. Perhaps it gave an impetus to the movement against the war in Vietnam when Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre decided to oppose it, but translating one species of spectacular power into another hardly advances our understanding of either war or capitalism. This is ʻpoliticsʼ for those who do not read philosophy, alien to the egalitarian and self-emancipatory principles of Marxism proper. Stars harm collective discussion and deserve our opprobrium.

The ʻmasochismʼ of de Beauvoir and Sartre before the PCF was helped by the fact that they never joined. Alternately impressed by its size and power, but disappointed by its lack of principle, they regressed to the moral antinomies of the ʻproblem playsʼ of bourgeois drama: ʻAction involves wickedness … should I do it?ʼ However, as the Trotskyists tried to explain to de Beauvoir and Sartre throughout their lives, the reformist bureaucracy originates from the links between the labour movement and bourgeois society (this was how Ernest Mandel put it in 1953). The ʻpowerʼ of the PCF was its power to betray workersʼ attempts at control and make deals with management. Pondering the ethics of taking ʻactionʼ is a foolʼs game: their actions hurt us every day.

The historical record presented by Birchall shows Sartre again and again failing to understand the opposed dynamics of class power in capitalist society. How he keeps managing to find anything admirable in Sartreʼs obtuseness is really rather amazing. He even says that the confusions of Les Mains sales (1948), which casts a Trotsky-style martyr as a corrupt Stalinist who lied to his members (the opposite of Trotskyʼs practice), gives the play ʻits richness and strengthʼ. Birchallʼs Marxism appears to be so moralistic and formal, so lacking a dialectic of experiment, so absolutely certain of the task ahead, he needs to revert to liberal quandary to generate the unknown on which art relies. The possibility of acting artistically after reaching an understanding of class society and its manipulations (Brecht and Debord, Burroughs and Shepp, Jorn and Free Improvisation, Stewart Home and Punk) is nowhere on the map. Birchall doubtless adores Sartreʼs novels and plays, but nowhere explains why politically he should be deemed anything more than a pompous centrist: selfdramatizing, moralistic and confused. Nowhere does he point out that because both liberalism and Stalinism believed in the electoral spectacle rather than the revolutionary moment, they made a perfect, if abusive, couple. Sartre was a symptom of his times. Real Marxism was elsewhere.

However, Birchallʼs conclusion does make a good point. Sartreʼs wobbly orbit is only comprehensible if we acknowledge the pull of the ʻauthenticʼ revolutionary Left in France ʻhidden from history during the long night of Stalinist dominationʼ(as Birchall puts it): Colette Audry, Daniel Guérin, Victor Serge, Pierre Naville and the pioneers of Socialisme ou Barbarie. Sartre had a continuous dialogue with these activists, joining them occasionally in united fronts (especially during the Algerian War). However, what they said never seemed to stick. Sartre was the wealthy, wellconnected chump who so often hangs around revolutionary circles and understands nothing. Rather than detailing every sad twist and turn of Sartreʼs alternations between Stalinist realism and liberal moral panic, one wishes Birchall had spent more of his 240 pages expounding the views of these revolutionaries and telling their stories (especially that of Colette Audry, who emerges as the real brain). When, in the 1970s, succumbing to
postmodernismʼs critique of ʻtotalizationʼ (a term used so often in Critique of Dialectical Reason the effect is comic), Sartre declared he was no longer a Marxist and converted to Judaism, Birchallʼs special pleading has to go into overdrive.

Frantz Fanonʼs Black Skin, White Masks is usually interpreted as existentialismʼs gift to Black Power. Birchall, however, informs us that he also drew on Pierre Navilleʼs Psychologie, marxisme, materialisme in making the point that ʻindividual sexuality and dreams depend on the general conditions of civilization, especially class struggleʼ. This could give us the Marxist theory of the imagination that Colette Audry (and Walter Benjamin) wanted. Pierre Naville – surrealist, friend and biographer of Trotsky – has never found an English translator. The suppression of this genuine Marxism – speculative, creative, classbased, unrepressed, anti-authoritarian – ensures that all French criticism of Communism which surfaces in English arrives from anarchism and the Right. This lacuna explains the chronic idealism and self-defeating narcissism of so much anglophone continental philosophy.

So, whatever its illusions about the political effectiveness of bourgeois celebrity, if Birchallʼs scholarly work helps spread the word about Colette Audry and Pierre Naville, it will have served the Left well.

Ben Watson

One Comment

  • overacting waiter says:

    i suggest that the term ‘stalinism’ is flawed, and used to cover too much. ie Sartre supported Mao and the Cubans. you can call this ‘stalinist’ if you like, but that would not really be accurate. I suggest that the idea that there is an authentic ‘Trotskyist’ tradition is false. Sartre criticized Trotskyism for its idealism. Birchall’s book is good to draw attention to Sartre’s politics, and the ambiguities of Sartre’s politics reflected the very problems of his time, just as in our time, ie the left attitude to ISIL or fundamentalist Islam. there is no easy position till after the moment.

    Trotskyism is itself a flawed position and one that has nowhere led to any kind of victory.

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