Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existential Marxism Shows How We Can Make Our Own History

Jean-Paul Sartre was the world’s most renowned philosopher when he set out to renew Marxist theory in the 1950s. The result was a brilliant analysis of how human beings can overcome the weight of social structures to change the world for the better.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, 1946. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

Jean-Paul Sartre is often regarded as the quintessential committed twentieth-century intellectual, a writer and philosopher whose output evolved from a preoccupation with literary writing, aesthetics, and phenomenology in the 1930s to a conception of intellectual commitment in the postwar years that owed much to Marxist political philosophy.

Indeed, Sartre’s chief intellectual preoccupation in the 1950s, building on his famous affirmations of intellectual commitment of the immediate postwar years, was to “renovate” Marxism. In other words, he wanted to bring it up to date by reformulating it in an era — that of Stalinist dialectical materialism or diamat — in which he felt that it had lost its way. Communist politics, he insisted, was not based on a sound theoretical footing.

Sartre set himself the task of addressing a perennial problem in Marxist thought, and indeed any form of social theory that tries to make sense of the historical process. What is the relationship between human agency and the field of structural constraints in which it has to operate? If we are historically and socially conditioned beings, how can we act on our social context to bring about change?

One Sartre or Two?

Sartre’s ambition culminated in the appearance of the magisterial Critique of Dialectical Reason in 1960. This was a work that initially grew out of an invitation from the Polish journal Twórczość to address the question of the place of Marxism at that time. In response, Sartre had produced the text Questions of Method (1957), which was ultimately to be republished as the first part of the Critique three years later.

For many years, there has been a tendency in commentary on Sartre’s work to draw a more or less schematic line between his non-Marxist writings before France’s liberation from Nazi rule on the one hand and his later proto-Marxist and ultimately existentialist-Marxist worldview on the other. The former category included Sartre’s philosophical works like Being and Nothingness (1943) and The Psychology of the Imagination (1940) as well as his literary output in the form of numerous novels and plays.

There were two Sartres, so the reasoning went: a pre-political Sartre, interested in aesthetics and pure philosophy, followed by a politically committed Sartre, who ultimately left literature behind and supported the USSR during the Cold War whilst seeking to rejuvenate Marxist thought at a time when he believed it had run aground. Yet while no one would deny that there was an evolution in Sartre’s thinking over the course of his career in the direction of a more explicit and pronounced Marxist stance, there are several problems with this schematic view of his political and intellectual development.

Firstly, we can identify several clear antecedents to Sartre’s later Marxism even in his writings of the 1930s, with respect to ethics, the overlap between ethics and theories of ideology, and the critique of capitalist society. It is more convincing to interpret Sartre’s evolution in terms of continuity rather than rupture.

Secondly, although it is true that Sartre’s literary career was largely over by the late 1950s, he never lost interest in aesthetic issues. His later gargantuan work devoted to Gustave Flaubert, The Family Idiot (1970), testifies to this ongoing concern. Aesthetics in some form or another were ultimately always to remain a part of his worldview.

Thirdly and equally importantly, we should resist the temptation to see a politicized later Sartre as having been irrevocably cut off from an earlier aestheticist and philosophical Sartre. This converges rather too easily with the propensity of liberal intellectuals to depict committed writing as being incompatible with genuinely worthwhile literary and artistic production.

Committed Writing

It is true that Sartre himself had castigated the Zhdanovist aesthetics of the Stalinist era in his 1948 book What Is Literature? for being irreconcilable with quality literary writing. However he had nevertheless argued for another type of literary writing, a “literature of great circumstances,” which would place literature squarely in the real world and should contribute to the fight for socialism.

The fact that Sartre himself ultimately moved away from literary production in his own output was hence not, as many liberal commentators have too easily assumed, because it was simply not possible to be a great novelist or playwright and a Marxist thinker and political activist at the same time. The novels of Sartre’s close friend Paul Nizan in the 1930s had given the lie to that assumption.

Sartre’s own literary theory in What Is Literature? revealed numerous points of affinity with that expressed by Leon Trotsky in his 1925 work Literature and Revolution. It demonstrated that literature was vital and also that the activity of writing could play an important role in the political struggle for socialism.

The most accurate and credible readings of Sartre’s career are hence those which identify and chart the lines of continuity from the early period through to the later ones. Nevertheless, the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) does reveal a new and greater level of engagement with Marxist thinking in Sartre’s oeuvre.

In what follows, my focus will be on the salient features of the existentialist Marxist position which Sartre sets out in this work. I will consider how Sartre synthesizes his own existentialist predilections with Marxist historiography and highlight some of the key conceptual contributions that he makes in this work to Marxist philosophy.

Subject and Structure

A good place to start is with Sartre’s abiding interest in the relationship between individuals and historical processes of change. This is the centerpiece of Questions of Method and ultimately provides the principal overarching framework for the conceptual innovations contained in the Critique as a whole. This preoccupation had already been in evidence in Sartre’s earlier work such as his posthumously published war diaries, which had been written in 1939–40.

The existentialism to which Sartre owed his international fame from the mid-1940s is known for being centered on the individual. It is a subject-based philosophy that asserts the capacity of individuals as free consciousnesses to define their own identities and futures. Sartre’s early philosophical masterpiece Being and Nothingness (1943) includes very little consideration of social factors or historical determinants.

Sartre began working to rectify this omission straight after the Liberation in 1944. Questions of Method sets out his “mature” view in this area of reflection. The thematic overlap with Marxism is fairly self-evident. Marxist thought had long been associated not so much with individual subjects as with the evolution of the means of production, or the economic base of society, underpinning processes of historical change.

Sartre’s writings of the immediate postwar years attest to his awareness of the limitations of his existentialist worldview, at least in its philosophical formulation in Being and Nothingness. In fact, the interest in both history and certain social issues that is in evidence in Sartre’s war diaries as well as in his earlier novels and plays suggests that the specific philosophical format of Being and Nothingness was responsible to a significant extent for these limitations. “Pure” philosophy was traditionally assumed — as it still often is today in Anglophone philosophy departments — to have little or nothing to do with sociology, historiography, or political thought.

Under pressure from the French Communist intellectuals of the day, Sartre soon began to address the ethical dimension of subjective freedom in works like Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946). He fully acknowledged the thesis that social conditioning restricts the capacity of consciousness to make free choices in an introductory statement to the journal he helped establish in 1945, Les Temps modernes.

Before long, Sartre was presenting the imperative to accept both one’s subjective freedom and the ethical responsibility that it necessarily implies as an accompaniment to the political project to bring about a socialist society. In Questions of Method, he addressed the problem of accounting for the conditioning of individuals by history and society while retaining a residual belief in the possibility of free subjective thought and agency.


Sartre proposed what he called the “progressive-regressive method” and the “mediations” by which individual consciousnesses and the social matrix constantly interpenetrate and act upon each other. In Questions of Method, Sartre focused more on the “regressive” moment, which involves working back to the components and causal factors that have conditioned the individual subject. But he also took into account the “progressive” side of the equation, which interacts constantly with the “regressive” — that is, the capacity of free-thinking subjects to act meaningfully on their circumstances, despite the structural constraints that weigh upon them.

Sartre’s conviction that “we can always do something with what has been done with us” sums up his continuing defense of the existentialist belief in the possibility of world-altering subjective agency. However, it would be mistaken to conclude that this “progressive” aspect runs counter to Marxism, at least outside of the dogmatism of Soviet-sponsored diamat.

After all, Sartre’s catchphrase is clearly reminiscent of Marx’s oft-quoted dictum: “Man makes history, but in conditions which are not of his own making.” Indeed, Marx had previously subscribed to what Sartre formulates here as a (non-Hegelian) type of ongoing dialectical relationship between individuals in the existential present and historical precedent, while nevertheless reserving a certain type of neo-Hegelian dialectic for other theoretical purposes.

As for the “mediations,” individual subjects, whose activities Sartre designates throughout Critique of Dialectical Reason by the term “praxis,” mediate social realities — the “practico-inert,” in his terminology. Yet they are also mediated by those very same social realities.

There is in other words a constant back-and-forth, with the possibilities of human agency in the existential present articulated in relation to the social context and its historical determinants, while human agency in turn acts upon and modifies the social context. It is in this way that Sartre reconciles a somewhat qualified existentialism with Marxism.

New Concepts

As the Critique develops, Sartre introduces a number of new concepts as well as putting a new inflection on certain existing Marxist ones. Beyond the question of history and the subject, Sartre’s theory offers new perspectives on the nature of social reality under capitalism. As such, it undeniably constituted an original and valuable contribution to Marxist thought at the time of its publication.

One key axis of Sartre’s existentialist Marxism underpinning many of his concepts is a pervasive opposition between the “practico-inert,” which Sartre tends to associate with inertia, and “praxis,” which he associates with agency, freedom, and sometimes spontaneity. This thematic opposition is a descendent of his earlier juxtaposition of the facticity of the “in-itself” to the freedom of the “for-itself” (consciousness) in Being and Nothingness.

For Sartre, the practico-inert tends to imply the alienation of subjective freedom, whereas praxis is the moment at which agency — even agency that can lead to greater political emancipation or a socialist revolution — becomes possible. Any such agency begins at an individual level and can then extend to groups. Sartre gives the example of a spontaneously forming group in the streets of Paris at the time of the storming of the Bastille in 1789. This type of group, which Sartre calls the “group in fusion,” is a moment of unalienated, intersubjective solidarity.

However, Sartre believes that on many other occasions when individuals exist in groups, the relations between them and others around them are alienated ones. They find themselves ensnared in “serial praxis,” in which the other is an obstacle rather than an aid to their freedom. Sartre gives another example of people standing in a bus queue: the presence of others further up the queue implicitly pits my freedom against that of others, as opposed to encouraging relations of reciprocity and solidarity between us.

Sartre’s dialectic is not of the Hegelian sort, at least not that set out in G. W. F. Hegel’s Logic, which posited a quite strict relationship between contrary phenomena: thesis–antithesis–synthesis. Nor is it that of Marx’s work of the late 1850s and Capital, where Marx reintroduced a modified version of Hegelian dialectical thinking into his thought to better account for the ways in which different economic phenomena related to and interacted with each other under capitalism. Sartre’s dialectic involves the interrelating of praxis and the practico-inert, with each mediating the other constantly such that change in the existential present is always dependent on both.

Sartre and Marxism

As an updating of Marxism in the middle of the twentieth century, we might consider Sartre’s theory in the Critique to be deficient because it lacks the kind of empirical economic analysis that had preoccupied Marx while he was writing Capital. Sartre’s positing of scarcity as a key material factor in capitalist society is the closest he comes to hard economics in the Critique.

However, it is worth noting that the wider twentieth-century “Western Marxist” canon, from the early work of Georg Lukács to the output of the Frankfurt School, tended to be more philosophical in its Marxist theorizing instead of focusing on economics, so it would be unfair to reproach Sartre’s thought alone for this lacuna.

While some of Sartre’s contemporaries argued that his theory ultimately didn’t meet the criteria to be categorized as “Marxist,” I find this claim unconvincing. In his work The Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggested that Sartre’s Cartesian conception of the subject renders his thought incompatible with Marxism. However, Sartre’s subsumption of the subject in the concept of praxis in the Critique constitutes a significant point of ontological departure from the earlier, consciousness-based conception of the subject in Being and Nothingness.

Another critic, Lucien Goldmann, contended that Sartre’s failure in the Critique to accept the notion of a collective subject sets him apart from Marxism. This criticism is based on a rather reductive view of Marx’s thought itself regarding the possibility of subjective agency. It is also inaccurate, because we can identify both a collective subject in Sartre’s group and “a kind of subject-object in his series,” as Thomas Flynn noted in his 1984 book Sartre and Marxist Existentialism.

The Relevance of Sartre

Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason was one of the very last attempts by a European thinker to revamp Marxism in a major philosophical work — a work, moreover, that presented Marxism as the principal theoretical explanatory model of its era. In subsequent decades, many intellectuals, including those of the Left, announced that we were living in a “post-Marxist” age. Since the turn of the new millennium, however, Marxism has acquired fresh relevance in the face of soaring inequality and economic turbulence.

In eras when capitalism is undeniably in a state of profound crisis and mutation, political scientists and economists tend to turn their gaze back to Marxism, at least in part, as one of the major theoretical models to assist their understanding of the challenges being faced. While Sartre’s Marxism might not offer genuinely distinctive insights into the causes of today’s inequality that set him apart from the Marxist tradition as a whole, his stress on both individual and collective responsibility remain a hugely valuable addition to classical Marxist analysis and critique. So does his insistence that this ethical responsibility inevitably throws up inalienable possibilities for bringing about positive change.