Monday, December 25, 2017

Contemporary left antisemitism

Review of Contemporary left antisemitism by David Hirsh

Why Is This Country Different From all Other Countries? All The Rest Have The Right To Exist...

ByMarc Lichtmanon September 13, 2017

Verified Purchase

One of the definitions of “left” given by Merriam-Webster is “those professing views usually characterized by desire to reform or overthrow the established order especially in politics and usually advocating change in the name of the greater freedom or well-being of the common man.” This has some value, but today I think that “left” and “right” are best used in politics as relative terms, and even there the limitations are extreme, when both become characterized by conspiracy theories, which anti-Semitism has proved the most lasting and most effective of. And we see supposed antifascist (antifa) thugs, who are anti-working class, attack workers who simply voted for Trump. “Left” or “right” tends to become more abstract, and the party I support, the Socialist Workers Party (not to be confused with the British SWP—our sister organization in the UK is the Communist League) doesn’t define itself as part of the “left,” but as part of the working class.

David Hirsh is a member of the British Labour Party, and much of what he writes about is taken from debates and incidents in that party, which has seen the rise of anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. One can find much the same phenomena in US politics, although the anti-Semitism hasn’t gained as much mainstream acceptance. I don’t view the Labour Party as a workers’ party in any sense anymore, although a lot of workers still vote for it. To me it has become more like the Democratic Party in the US, which a lot of workers vote for too.

The Labour Party is full of anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Zionism. Hirsh analyses the crooked denials of anti-Semitism, like what he has labeled “the Livingstone formulation.” “In 2006 after Ken Livingstone has been accused of antisemitism, he responded with a counter-accusation that he was being accused in this way only to silence his criticism of Israel.” This swindle has proved quite popular, and is used widely to intimidate Jews and others who oppose their politics.

Hirsh introduces us to people like Gilad Alzmon, an Israeli Jew living in the UK who has disavowed his own Judaism in any sense, and who specifically thinks the supporters of Palestine should adopt anti-Jewish positions! And he has been welcomed by some of the British “left,” which is frightening.

Hirsch’s framework is essentially that of a bourgeois liberal, although one who still has a fondness for Marx. After quoting one person calling himself a “Marxist.” who is clearly an anti-Semite he writes: “Robert Fine and Philip Spencer trace the long history of how the so-called ‘Jewish Question’ has always in fact been an ‘anti-Semitism’; there has never been a Jewish problem which requires solving; rather the raising of the ‘Jewish problem’ has itself always constituted an antisemitism problem.”

But besides intentionally confusing the words “question” and “problem,” which sometimes but not always mean the same thing, our Merriam-Webster defines “question” as in part “a subject or aspect in dispute or open for discussion.” Marxists have a long history of using the term “question” in this way; the national question, the Jewish question, the woman question… And Hirsh himself cites Marx’s On the Jewish Question favorably, although there is a long history of “scholars” quoting it selectively to “prove” Marx’s alleged anti-Semitism. I don’t know anything about the people he quotes, but Hirsh is aware that there are conservative Jews who are trying to prove that anti-Semitism has always come from the “left” through the sleight of hand of pretending that fascism is a form of socialism. (For who financed the fascist movements in both Italy and Germany and the similarities and differences between fascism in these countries, see Fascism and Big Business, a well-researched comparative study). How these conservative Jews attempt to show Tsarism as a “left” movement is another “question.” Some of these are the same people who still claim any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, lending a helping hand to the Jew-haters described in this book.

Hirsh cites the quotation from August Bebel that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” which is the Marxist position, but he doesn’t discuss the rise of anti-Semitism (always there beneath the surface) in reference to the current world economic crisis, which the capitalists have no solution to. The best exposition of the Marxist position is The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation written by the Belgian Jewish Trotskyist Abram Leon who died in Auschwitz soon after its completion. Hirsh has read it, but doesn’t comment on it.

Some of today’s Jew-hatred is upfront, but much of it poses as a movement in solidarity with the Palestinians, particularly the movement known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. But BDS also attracts people who aren’t “leftists,” just anti-Semites looking for cover. It’s not just that BDS was formed in Britain, rather than Palestine, which Hirsh documents (one of these discussions he mentions is also available to watch on YouTube). But an international boycott in support of a national liberation movement that has been on the decline? At a time when Israel/Palestine is not the center of politics in the Mideast? When the Arab revolution has been about democratic rights, not about solidarity with Palestine? When Jews, as always, make a convenient scapegoat for the crisis of capitalism?

And where is the solidarity movement for the Kurds; the largest nationality in the world without a state, and currently playing a big role in world politics?

There are still people attracted to BDS who don’t hate Jews, but perhaps one has to add “yet.”

Unlike David Hirsh, I view the formation of Israel as being more akin to a colonial-settler state than a national liberation movement (see Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?), but as Rodinson suggests, countries don’t stay colonial-settler states forever, or one could make the same claim of the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, none of which are being boycotted. And not all colonial-settler states are alike; the charge of Israeli apartheid simply doesn’t mesh with the facts. And even settler-colonial states have a working class with different interests than the rulers. So, the Socialist Workers Party, which I used to belong to and remain a supporter of, used to have Israeli comrades, both in Israel and in the US. We never blamed the Jewish refugees for going to Palestine or anywhere else they could get to. We never called it “occupied Palestine.”

I don’t support the US government, but I call for a workers and farmers government, not for the destruction of the North American imperialist entity.

As Marxists, it is most fundamental to be able to distinguish between classes, and not blame the workers for what the rulers do. We didn’t blame German workers for Nazism (see The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Merit),Swimming Against the Tide: Trotskyists in German Occupied France, and Socialism on Trial: Testimony at Minneapolis Sedition Trial), so how could we blame Jewish workers and farmers for crimes of the Israeli government? Those of “the left” who live in racist, imperialist countries would do well to remember the words of a famous Jewish revolutionary: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

I used to call myself an “anti-Zionist Jew,” but today “Zionist” has become a code word for Jew, while at the same time, there is no longer a mass Zionist movement as there once was; what there is, is simply Israel. I used to call for a democratic secular Palestine (see Israel and the Arab Revolution), but today anything remotely suggesting that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist is seen as saying that the Jews don’t have the right to exist, at least not in Israel/Palestine.

“I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,” Fidel Castro told Jeffrey Goldberg (at the time a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine; now editor-in-chief), in a September 2010 interview. (Castro was no longer head of state at the time, but obviously still widely respected around the world). “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.”
In the interview, Goldberg wrote, Castro criticized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then-president of Iran, for denying the Holocaust and “explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the ‘unique’ history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.”

Cuba’s revolutionary government has strongly opposed Tel Aviv’s assaults and discrimination against Palestinians. But Castro responded, “Yes, without a doubt,” when Goldberg asked if he thought Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.

And this despite the fact that Israel (which actually has limited trade relations with Cuba), was the one country that consistently voted with the US against condemning the US embargo against Cuba!

Some of the pro-BDS “left” hates revolutionary Cuba, and much of the rest gives it lip service, but lumps it together with “radical” countries that haven’t had socialist revolutions. The problem isn’t “Marxists,” the problem is that most of those who use the term today have totally forgotten the central issue of social class. Engels wrote: “Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for liberation of the proletariat.”

Hirsh, who has read this interview with Castro, is right that the boycott was not the only factor in the end of apartheid in South Africa. But in place of “the end of the cold war,” he should put the victory of the combined Cuban, Angolan, and Namibian forces against the South African forces in Angola. (Cuba wasn’t a “proxy” for the Soviet Union; not even Henry Kissinger makes that claim today—see Piero Gleijeses' two books, Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom). But I suppose Hirsh would still see it a “totalitarian” state.

Hirsh frequently makes references to “totalitarians,” but the fundamental problem isn’t the large variety of ex-Stalinists floating around. Today in the US the threats to democratic rights are coming largely from liberals. It’s liberals who are blocking conservatives like Charles Murray from speaking at colleges, instead of debating them. It’s liberals who are demanding that art museums not display works they accuse of “cultural appropriation,” as if all art doesn’t involve cultural appropriation. It’s liberals who push “identity politics,” which leads to students saying things like “I can’t comment on that because I’m not black.” And for several weeks after the events in Charlottesville, most liberal newspapers didn’t criticize the antifa thugs. US liberals are hysterical, thinking that Trump is a fascist. Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, any more than everyone who supports Jeremy Corbyn hates Jews. While of course the Democratic Party, as representatives of US imperialism is still strongly pro-Israel, the Democratic Socialists of America, the most moderate group that calls itself “socialist,” and which is entrenched in the Democratic Party, has recently adopted BDS!

Many workers are supporting anyone who sounds “radical,” because of the economic crisis and the absence of major working class resistance through their unions, which is far more important than what happens in bourgeois elections.

The crisis of capitalism, including the fate of the Jews, will not be solved by middle class liberals or “leftists.” Many of them hate the working class far more than they hate bigotry (and they refuse to see being anti-working class as being a form of bigotry, because they’re convinced that workers really are stupid). Liberalism in the US today, and “the left” which trails behind it, is primarily characterized by its elitism. The goal of equality has been replaced by “diversity,” which means making sure their liberal bubbles are populated by every skin color, every sexual orientation, every gender(?). A good book on the direction the Democratic Party is going in and the significance of the last election is The Clintons' Anti-Working-Class Record (Why Washington fears working people?). As for an analysis of “the left,” I suggest Is Socialist Revolution in the Us Possible?: A Necessary Debate Among Working People.

Hirsh is correct to support democratic rights (they’re key for the working class to be able to organize!), but seems to forget the democratic right of self-determination, and is hostile to “anti-imperialism” simply because many “leftists” can’t tell the difference between a national liberation movement and a reactionary Islamist current. They also can’t tell the difference between defending an oppressed nation against imperialism and supporting its government. Or the difference between saying a country has the right to exist and giving its government political support. They view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” supporting reactionary figures like Putin and Assad. But imperialism is quite capable of reaching agreements with such figures, and then these “leftists” will simply find other reactionary leaders who may have a temporary disagreement with imperialism. Or perhaps they’ll support some imperialist countries against others when inter-imperialist conflict steps up?

But Lenin was clear on this: “we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are genuinely revolutionary.”

Hirsh talks about Isaac Deutscher’s writings on Israel and the Jews, and I definitely recommend The Non-Jewish Jew: And Other Essays (Radical Thinkers). George Novack’s review of the book in the Militant has been kept in print in pamphlet form since 1969: How Can The Jews Survive? A Socialist Answer to Zionism. Deutscher said he abandoned his anti-Zionism, but refused to call himself a Zionist. He uses as an analogy people jumping onto a raft from a burning or sinking ship and asks “But does it follow that the jumping should be made into a program…?

The chapter on Jewish anti-Zionism contains one really useful thing that I wish I had thought about more when I had holocaust survivors as coworkers: “…the frequently repeated idea that the Jews should know better after the Holocaust is mortifying. Auschwitz was not a positive learning experience.” But not grasping this was my personal failing, not reflected in my party’s political line.

Hirsh discusses people indicted for racist speech or actions. If these laws had existed we could be sure they would have been used against people like Malcolm X. The state is not neutral; they will continue to let the cops get away with racist actions, and will find a way to use the laws against people fighting for social change. In the U.S. these are usually “hate speech” laws, where language used against scabs or against capitalists can easily be defined as hate speech.

I like David Hirsh from what I’ve seen of him on Facebook, and in videos. We may not share too much more in common politically than a support for a Palestinian state and an opposition to BDS and all forms of anti-Semitism. As he has indicated, there are many with these points of view. But sometimes it appears that we’re not being heard, and that’s the value of this book.

From his comments on Facebook, I know that Hirsh dislikes the statement by Trotsky in 1940 that “Never was it so clear as it is today that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.” (see On the Jewish Question). But while Israel is currently a place where Jews in danger can emigrate to, it hasn’t ended the problem of anti-Semitism, nor can it. To me, the statement is as true today as it was then.

Note: I have a limit of ten links, and had to make some hard choices of relevant books.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Great post on BDS:

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign … Can you cherry pick?

Richard Seymour has written an article defending the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign entitled “Labour and BDS” ( claiming - against Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion - that ‘BDS is not a blanket boycott. You can agree or disagree with specific forms of targeting', he says. 'You can argue with Roger Waters. You can complain about academic boycotts.’ This statement in no way gets BDS off the hook. Of course, you can support BDS and also believe that Israel is a fascist state; you can support BDS and believe that the early Zionists supported Hitler; you can support BDS and be a Jew hater. More than a few BDS supporters believe in one or other of these things. Indeed, you can support BDS and believe in anything else you want. However, it defies logic to suggest that because some supporters dissent from some parts of the platform and policies of BDS, that this changes what BDS stands for.

It is completely disingenuous to assert that BDS does not advocate a “blanket boycott”. BDS does support a cultural boycott; it does support an academic boycott; it does call for a boycott of those engaged in what it terms “normalisation” (i.e. those organisations or individuals that strive to bring Israeli Jews and Palestinian/Arab without first denouncing Israel); it does argue for a consumer boycott of any and all goods produced in Israel and the settlements; and many other things. These are basic and fundamental planks of BDS and it is successes on this front that BDS publicises the most. It is also true, as he sloppily presents it, that BDS calls for a boycott of ‘Israeli institutions and corporations that are complicit in the forms of occupation, apartheid (sic) and settler-colonialism that oppress Palestinians.’ That is, it demands imperialist economic and financial sanctions against Israel, just like those imposed on Iran, Cuba, North Korea - and many other countries. Outrageous as that is, it is completely false to suggest that it is reduced to the latter. If Seymour, or anyone else, is uncomfortable with the cultural/academic/normalisation boycott and wants to avoid self-contradiction, it is incumbent on them to cease and desist from supporting BDS. It is still possible to refuse to buy Israeli avocados - because you want to do something (anything) to express opposition to Israel’s horrific treatment of Palestinians - without supporting BDS and its abhorrent attacks on free speech .

Continued on my blog:

Friday, December 15, 2017

USSR intervention in Afghanistan: How Marxists approached it

This statement is from the 26 December 1980 issue of The Militant.

Soviet Troops in Afghanistan: A Reassessment

The following statement was adopted November 26 by the Political Committee of the Socialist Workers Party.

A few days after the Kremlin sent tens of thousands of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, the Socialist Workers Party National Committee discussed this event and adopted a position on it as part of a report on the world political situation.

The central axis of this position was condemnation of the U.S. government's intervention in Afghanistan on the side of the landlord-backed guerrillas and the Carter administration's attempt to use the Afghanistan situation as an excuse to step up its militarization drive. The SWP launched a campaign to tell the truth about the scope and nature of Washington's involvement and its anti-working-class foreign policy. Along these lines, the SWP opposed the boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and economic sanctions against the Soviet Union. The SWP denounced greater military spending and more bases in the Indian Ocean. And, the SWP actively participated in the struggle against reinstituting draft registration.

Some radicals, including in the antidraft movement, adapted to the pressure of Washington's militarist propaganda. They argued that the Soviet Union bears partial, if not equal, blame as the imperialist powers for the threat of war in the world today. Members of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, for example, insisted that antidraft coalitions make condemnation of the USSR one of its principles. The radical weekly, Guardian, which immediately condemned the Soviet Union and called for withdrawal of Soviet troops, proclaimed that the main danger to world peace was "superpower contention." Their main concern was that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan jeopardized "detente between U.S. imperialism and Soviet hegemonism," which posed "an enormous danger to world peace and progress."

The SWP rejected all these arguments and explained how they only serve to add fuel to the imperialists' anticommunist campaign. The quenchless profit drive of imperialism, not the Soviet bureaucracy, is the source of the drive toward war. The party also explained why it is new victories in the world revolution, not class-collaborationist ideals like detente, that mark the road to peace. The responsibility of class-conscious workers in the imperialist countries is to concentrate their fire on the real warmakers and aggressors, the capitalist rulers in their own countries.

In the eleven months since Moscow sent its · troops into Afghanistan, the imperialists have not let up in their reactionary campaign. This was demonstrated most recently at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Madrid and in the United Nations General Assembly.

At the Madrid conference in November, the U.S. representatives hypocritically decried the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was pouring in more arms and "advisers" to prop up the repressive junta in El Salvador, and staging a mock invasion of the Middle East by its Rapid Deployment Force. By attempting to get international publicity for its attacks on Moscow, Washington hoped to take some heat off its record as the worst violator of human rights and self-determination both at home and abroad.

On November 20, Washington pushed another resolution through the United Nations General Assembly, much like the one adopted last January, demanding a pull out of "foreign troops" from Afghanistan. The vote was about the same as in January: 111 for, 22 against, 12 abstentions, with nine countries either absent or not voting. As in January, the representatives of the revolutionary governments in Cuba and Grenada voted against this imperialist-initiated measure, and the representative of the revolutionary government in Nicaragua abstained.

At a meeting on November 15-17, the SWP National Committee again discussed the events in Afghanistan and adopted the resolution "Upheaval in Afghanistan," which appears below. The central axis of the party's response to the moves of U.S. imperialism was reaffirmed. At the same time, the National Committee came to the conclusion that it· had been in error on a number of other aspects of the Afghan situation.

The initial report adopted by the January 5- 9 National Committee meeting had said, "The presence of Soviet troops, by barring the road to the counterrevolution, creates a new and more favorable situation. . . . if Soviet troops help the new regime score victories over the reactionaries, this takes pressure off the Afghan revolution and encourages and inspires the struggle for social revolution in that country."

This was wrong. The November resolution corrects this by looking at the Soviet intervention within the framework of the overall policies of the Kremlin and the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan [PDPA] regime. It says, " ... the Soviet bureaucracy's occupation, like all of its preceding actions to prop up this government, did not give an impulse to independent initiative by the city workers or by the peasants .... The Soviet troops were not greeted by the workers and peasants as reinforcements in the fight to advance their social and political goals. "To the contrary, the Kremlin's policy in Afghanistan has set back the revolutionary process opened in April 1978, and has had a dampening effect on the class struggle."

The January report also incorrectly stated that the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan "strengthens the hand of the antiimperialist fighters in Iran. And it even buys time for the revolutionary government in Nicaragua, halfway around the world. Needless to say, the impact will be great in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Turkey."

The correction in the November resolution says, "Moscow's role has also negatively affected the class struggle in Iran and Pakistan.

"The hopes of the masses in Pakistan, first kindled by the Afghan upheaval, have been dimmed as the social revolution has been blocked ....

"Instead of becoming a revolutionary example for the Iranian masses, the Kremlin-PDPA policies are grist for the mill of the clergy's anticommunism."

This error reflected a confusion of two quite different phenomena. The January report correctly recognized that the fact that Moscow thought it could get away with sending Soviet troops into a capitalist country was a result of the post-Vietnam War shift in the world relationship of forces against Washington and other imperialist powers. But that report incorrectly equated this result of the changing balance of forces with a factor, such as the Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions, that tipped the scales still further in favor of the world's toilers. The current resolution untangles this confusion, recognizing:

"In the context of the change in the world relationship of class forces to the detriment of imperialism, the Kremlin was more easily able to get away with the use of troops to attempt to stabilize a regime Washington sought to undermine, without any real fear of a direct military response by imperialism. But the Kremlin's counterrevolutionary policy in Afghanistan, including its use of troops, has had an adverse impact on this relationship of forces from the point of view of the oppressed and exploited of the world."

As part of the education campaign around Afghanistan conducted by the party, a pamphlet was published called "The Truth About Afghanistan" by Doug Jenness. It was based on the line adopted at the January meeting. The explanation for the Soviet intervention presented in this pamphlet is incorrect. "When the Kremlin sent Soviet troops into Afghanistan," the pamphlet argued, "it did not do so out of revolutionary motives, but as a defensive measure. It saw the U.S.- and Pakistani-backed guerrillas as a threat to the Soviet workers' state, which is their base of power and privileges."

The Soviet troops "were not sent to crush the Afghan revolution in the interests of detente or SALT II," the January report stated. "As much as the Soviet bureaucracy wants and presses ·for agreements like SALT II, it has interests that are more important; one of these is self-defense against direct imperialist moves to tighten the military encirclement of the Soviet Union."

The new resolution explains that defense of the Soviet workers state was not really at issue, nor was it a significant factor in the Kremlin's calculations.

The resolution states "that the dispatch of massive numbers of Soviet troops to Afghanistan was a consequence and continuation of the general policy the Kremlin had been carrying out since the PDPA government came to power. The failure of everything the Kremlin and the PDPA had done to establish a stable regime capable of governing the country left no other alternative, from the standpoint of their policy, to massively using Soviet troops as another attempt to accomplish this goal. This action signified the weak and worsening position the Kremlin found itself in after nearly two years of influencing, intervening in, and shoring up the PDPA government."

In correcting its initial evaluation of these important aspects of its position on Afghanistan, the SWP's National Committee had the benefit of ten months experience in carrying out its line-the central axis of which was against imperialism's moves-in the unions and the antidraft movement. It was also able to observe the consequences of the Soviet occupation both in Afghanistan and throughout the world, and to study more closely how other revolutionary currents, such as the Castro leadership, have assessed the situation there. In addition, the accumulation of new information from a growing number of sources (although obtaining accurate and timely information on Afghanistan remains a problem) about the results of the policies carried out by the Afghan regime and Soviet occupation forces facilitated a process of rethinking Its position.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Novack pro and contra Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre: Existential Odyssey
By George Novack


The most widely held philosophies of our time have been existentialism and Marxism. Jean-Paul Sartre, who died in Paris April 15 at the age of seventy-four, exemplified the dilemma of one of the most qualified intellectuals and writers of our time tossed between these two incompatible views of the world.

Along with Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, Sartre popularized the ideas and attitudes of existentialism among the post-World War II generation. Any observant visitor to the U.S. campuses during this period could testify to
the extent of his influence. He exercised this not
only through his novels, plays, and essays,
which were translated into many languages, but
also through the conduct of his life as a radical
French intellectual. Although in a characteristic
gesture he spurned the Nobel Prize for Literature
in 1964, because he did not want to be "transformed into an institution," he deserved the award more than many of its recipients because of the iconoclastic and humanistic temper of his writings and their impact upon the minds of literate people around the globe.

He represented the left atheistic current of the
existentialist outlook that was committed to the
support of progressive causes. His philosophy
cannot be dissociated from his politics nor his
politics from his philosophy. Their interaction is
clearly discernible in the evolution of his theoretical positions. These fall into two distinctively different phases.

Being and Nothingness

As a young professor and aspiring writer in the
1930s, he embarked on the quest for an absolute
freedom in a universe where everything is rela-
tive and materially conditioned. He yearned to be
exempt from all determination by objective real-
ity, natural or social. This hopeless enterprise
was embodied in a big book of 724 pages entitled
Being and Nothingness. This metaphysical disquisition brought him world fame but it is as obscure and labyrinthine as his novels, plays, and essays can be straightforward. It was a technical treatise, primarily addressed to fellow professional philosophers, that utilized the categories of Hegel's system filtered through the phenomenological school of the later German thinkers, Husser! and Heidegger, and molded by the traditions of Continental rationalism and idealism.

In this work Sartre set out to show that man is
a wholly free subject who by his very nature
resists every attempt to transform him into any-
thing objective. To provide an underpinning for
this conception of unlimited human liberty he
begins by splitting reality into two opposing and
irreconcilable parts.

One he calls being-for-itself; the other being-in-
itself. The first is exclusively human; it is the
pure consciousness of the individual, total nega-
tion, absolute freedom. Being-in-itself comprises
everything else; it is "dumb-packed together-
ness," rigid non-consciousness, materiality, and

Sartre does not explain how these two starkly
contradictory realms of being, the in-itself and
the for-itself, originated. The non-human and the
free subject are simply there, given facts. He
thus makes a metaphysical mystery out of the
natural and historical processes through which
the human emerged from the animal, consciousness from the preconscious, the subject out of
objective preconditions.

Sartre at no time accepted the theory of evolution. We are certain, he held, only of the existence
of human life but have no plausible proof of the
emergence of the organic from the inorganic.
This retrograde position not only defied the
conclusion of modern science that evolution is a
primordial and proven fact of nature but runs
counter to the Marxist view that the development
of nature and society constitute sequential stages
and integral parts of a unified historical process.
Sartre's philosophy was literary and academic
in inspiration and the spectacular achievements
of the physical sciences and mathematics had no
influence upon this thought. Existentialists as a
rule recoil from the effects of science, industry,
and technology as in themselves threats to the
authenticity of the inner self.

The mystification of human origins and the
unbridgeable dualism of the subject and the
object were required to establish the absolute
freedom of the individual. In the subsequent
pages Sartre expounds the rationale for the most
one-sided conception of individualism in contemporary philosophy.

According to this view, I may be hedged on all
sides by what Sartre calls "facticity." My place,
my past, my surroundings, my fellows, and my
death make up the situation into which I have
been flung. But all these facts are accidental and  incidental, not necessary and intrinsic elements
of my existence.

I do not have to accept them; I can reject and
refuse to adapt to them. I assert and forge my
authentic self in dissociating myself froth these
objective conditions and circumstances. Other
things and beings have their essence made for
them or imposed upon them. I alone have the
power of fashioning the character and career I
prefer. I can be a fully self-made person in a
world I never made.

Such unlimited freedom in which every individ-
ual is a law unto himself or herself entails
unlimited responsibility, not only for oneself but
the fate of humankind. Sartre even maintains
that every person then alive is co-responsible for
the Second World War they could not prevent.
(This left the imperialist warmakers off the
hook.) Tormented anguish inescapably arises
from the awareness that our choice may be
wrong and have dreadful, unforeseen, unpremed-
itated consequences. But since we cannot avoid
choosing at our peril in the dark, we must
valiantly take our stand and face the music.
Critics have pointed out the logical inconsis-
tencies in Sartre's idea of absolute freedom and
the ethics derived from its premises. Its unreal-
ism is obvious. He starts by excluding all concrete necessity from human action; he ends with
the categorical imperative to be free. Man is
"condemned to be free," even though his dearest
projects are foredoomed to fail and his ventures
and aspirations cannot find secure and enduring
realization because the "for-itself' can never
coincide with the "in-itself." But if I must be free,
then I have no real moral choice in the matter.
Total freedom thereby turns out to be its oppo-
site: total determination.

Sartre and the Communist Party

Nonetheless, the contradictions in which he
was entangled endowed this first edition of his
philosophy with an implicit dynamism that
impelled this ultra-individualist along the road
which held out an enlargement of freedom for
humankind, even if no lasting satisfaction was

That was only to be found in the revolutionary
objectives of socialism. Marxism is the scientific
theory and method of that proletarian movement. And so the thrust of his existentialist ethics, intermeshed with his situation as a radilcal petty bourgeois in crisis-torn France, pressed
him to come to closer grips with Marxism in
philosophy and politics.

Unlike friends such as the Communist Paul
Nizan, Sartre at first was unconcerned with the
class struggle. He despised the bourgeoisie in a
bohemian manner, not in their function as exploiters of the workers and oppressors of the
masses, but as philistines who did not appreciate
the life of the intellect or the creative arts. His
prewar political opinions were vaguely anarcho-

In the third volume of her autobiography,
Simone de Beauvoir relates: "In our youth we felt
close to the Communist party to the extent that
its negativism harmonized with our anarchism.
We looked forward to the defeat of capitalism but
not to the coming of a socialist society which, we
thought, would have deprived us of our liberty.
Thus on September 14, 1939 [following the Stalin-
Hitler Pact] Sartre wrote in a notebook: 'Here I
am cured of socialism if ever I needed to be cured
of it.'"

His wartime experience and participation in
the Resistance changed his mind. After release
from a prisoner-of-war camp, he helped organize
a small Resistance group of intellectuals baptized
"Socialism and Liberty," terms that no longer
seemed antithetical to him. He collaborated with
Communist fighters without joining the party. In
consonance with his philosophy he remained a
free-floating sympathizer of the left.

He had checkered relations with the CP in
which attraction alternated with repulsion. After
the Liberation (the end of the Nazi occupation of
France), while avowing that "the Communist
Party is the only revolutionary party," he did not
affiliate with it since he did not share its philosophy nor approve all its policies. In 1948, together with the ex-Trotskyists David Rousset and Gerard Rosenthal, he founded a short-lived independent socialist group, the Revolutionary Democratic Rally.

Despite his reservations about the CP, the
viciousness of the French troops in Indochina
and the official repressions of the Communists in
France induced him to engage in unrestrained
conciliation with the native Stalinists and the
Russian leaders in the early 1950s. This came to
an abrupt halt when Soviet tanks crushed the
Hungarian workers' revolt in 1956. He proclaimed that he would never resume relations with the CP leadership. "Every one of their statements, every one of their actions," he declared, "is the fulfillment of thirty years of lying and sclerosis." He never thereafter placed confidence in the Stalinists, despite illusions he entertained about several of their heads such as Togliatti and Mao Zedong.

Marxism versus Existentialism

Throughout these years Sartre, the unalloyed
existentialist, remained a professed adversary of
Marxism. In his 1947 essay on "Materialism and
Revolution," he did not spare a single one of its
fundamental principles. His indictment rejected
its claim to scientific truthfulness, its material-
ism, its rationalism, its determinism, its dialecti-
cal view of nature, its conception of object-subject
relations, and its derivation of social conscious-
ness from social-historical conditions.

Midway in his career Sartre stood forth as the
proponent of a pre-Marxian socialist humanism
framed in existentialist terms which he offered
as the predestined replacement for the false and
outmoded teachings of dialectical materialism.
Then, in a dramatic turnabout, Sartre announced in his second major treatise, The Critique
of Dialectical Reason, published in 1960, that
Marxism was "the ultimate philosophy of our
age.'' Frustrated in his previous effort to overthrow the theoretical foundations of scientific socialism by frontal attack, he now sought to undermine them by insisting that his brand of existentialism could supply the ingredients of individuality and subjectivity hitherto lacking in Marxism. He prepared to rescue contemporary Marxism from its bondage to the petrified and institutionalized version peddled by the opportunistic Soviet bureaucracy and its echoers. It is generally recognized that Sartre's unfinished attempt to remodel dialectical materialism according to existentialist specifications was a failure. Instead of supplementing Marxism with existentialist amendments, as he promised, he virtually liquidated Marxism into the method of existentialism. For example, he construed social evolution as a succession of freely made choices by the individual, not, as Marx does, as the lawful rise and fall of successive forms and levels of social organization determined by the unfolding of different degrees of humanity's productive powers in its collective struggle with nature for sustenance and development.

In both phases Sartre held fast to his root
assumption that the Self is Sovereign in all
domains of human endeavor. As Wilfred Desan
pointed out in The Marxism of Jean Paul Sartre:
"There is no room in the writings of Karl Marx for a self with such an amplitude.'' The extreme subjectivism of the existentialist creed cannot be
harmonized with dialectical materialism or
blended with it; the two philosophies and me-
thods stand at opposite poles.

The Sartre of the 1960s and 1970s had a
different slant on the roles of literature, philo-
sophy, and politics than the Sartre of earlier
days. When he published his first novel Nausea
and wrote his first brilliant plays, The Flies and
No Exit, he was an ambitious young author
elaborating the appropriate literary forms for the
imaginative projection of his feelings and atti-
tudes and the most vivid representation of his
ruling ideas. Moreover, he esteemed the written
word in both artistic production and philosophy,
not simply as his chosen vehicle of individual
expression, but as the most effective way for him
to recreate the world. This he fervently believed.
In Les Mots (The Words), intended as the first
volume of his autobiography and published
twenty years later when he had become a world-renowned personality, he renounced this notion
of the world-transforming function of literature.
Without repudiating his previous work or regretting his dedication to a literary vocation, he
declared that he had erroneously exalted literary
creation into a sacred thing with an absolute
value. This was the product of a personal neuro-
sis and the illusion of a middle-class intellectual.
Contemporary writing derives its authenticity
and importance, he said, from its capacity to deal
with the malaises of our time and the pressing
problems they pose to humanity.

Commitment to the Oppressed

It may seem strange that so celebrated a
proponent of a literature of involvement should
chastise himself for his failings in this respect.
Sartre explained the point of his self-criticism in
an interview printed in the Arpil 18, 1963, Le

We live in a world where two billion people go
hungry. The writer who remains unaware of this
reality or is indifferent to it; who does not
elucidate or tries to elude it, caters to the privi-
leged minority and even partakes of its exploita-
. tion. To be relevant, "to be able to address
everyone and be read by all, the writer must
align himself with the greatest number, the two
billion hungry people." Sartre did not minimize
the great difficulty in doing this. But he believed
that writers would remain crippled to the extent
that they fall short of attaining such universal-

Unlike the repentant Tolstoy in his old age,
Sartre did not call for a literature restricted to the
horizon of peasant folk nor urge a politicalized
literature in the prescribed mold of "socialist
realism" that served the aims of the Stalinist
state propaganda machine. He did not recommend any particular style of expression so long
as the writer was sensitive to the undernourishment, exploitation, oppression, threat of nuclear
annihilation, and alienation of human beings
emanating from capitalism.

Sartre called attention to a similar shift in his
philosophical perspectives. Being and Nothingness insisted on the irreducible and irremediable
split between the individual and the objective
world, the impossibility of the "for-itself' to fuse
into a living unity with the "in-itself," as the
source of the inevitable failure to realize our
freedom. He still believed that this metaphysical
evil was lodged in the very heart of reality and
human existence and could not be overcome.
While clinging to the end to this existentialist
interpretation of reality, Sartre came to look at
life in a new light. The immediate importance of
the gulf between man's freedom and his environ-
ment had lessened; the gnawi:p.g absurdity of the
universe and humanity's insuperable limitations
receded into the background. He now gave prior-
ity to the social wrongs which had to be combated and can be corrected.

"The universe remains dark," he said. "We are
sinister animals ... . But I've suddenly discov-
ered that alienation, the exploitation of man by
man, undernourishment, relegate metaphysical
evil to a secondary plane. Metaphysical evil is a
luxury; hunger is nothing but an evil."
This reversal of values was tied up with the
hardening of his revolutionism. "I am on the side
of those who think that things will go better
when the world will have changed. When I wrote
Nausea, I lacked a sense of reality. I have
changed since then. I have undergone a slow
apprenticeship to reality. I have seen infants die
of hunger. In the face of a dying infant, Nausea
does not carry any weight."

Before there can be either a universal morality
or . universal literature, man's conditions of life
would have to be radically altered and improved,
he declared. This liberation can be brought about
only through revolutionary action; While the
projection of unrestricted freedom outlined in
Being and Nothingness is not ruled out, it will
have to be postponed until everyone's material
needs are satisfied through the abolition of
capitalism and colonialism. Then a socialist
humanism can create the setting for a concrete
experience of genuine liberty and a correspond-
ing theoretical and artistic expression of this new

Sartre dismissed trust in absolutes of any sort.
There would be no more ultimate salvation in
revolutionary politics than in literature or philo-
sophy. In the last years he saw no hope in any
party in France. There were only "innumerable
tasks to be done, among which literature has no
privileged place."

Sartre's final credo, like his previous oscilla-
tions, registered the impact of the upheavals of
our time on an intellectual seismograph of the
utmost sensitivity. He progressed from a conception of literature and philosophic thought as self-sufficient activities to regarding them as means
of political commitment and social renovation.
The existentialist emotions and judgments that
elevated absurdity, ambiguity, and alienation to
metaphysical heights became subordinate to a
sense of urgency in coping with economic and
social ills.

Sartre's Odyssey

The spiritual and intellectual odyssey of Sartre
from Nausea to Les Mots; from Being and
Nothingness to the Critique of Dialectical Reason proceeded from speculative illusion and
mystification toward a firmer grasp of social
reality and a deeper understanding of "what is to
be done." Humankind is not so much freer by
definition; it must be made freer by revolutionary

In the last two decades of his. life Sartre
demonstrated on countless occasions that he
acted on his convictions. He occupied a place
comparable to that of Bertrand Russell in England and Noam Chomsky in the United States in
defending victims of persecution, defying the
imperialists, and resisting their state power. He
opposed the Gaullist regime and was a principal
figure in the International War Crimes Tribunal
in 1967 and 1968 which exposed the crimes of
U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

He actively supported the Algerian independence struggle at a time when the French Communist Party and Socialist Party leaders betrayed it
and his erstwhile associate Albert Camus stood
aloof from it. He was a staunch partisan of the
movements of the colonial peoples to throw off
imperialist domination and was one of the earli-
est among the reigning intellectuals to hail the
Fidelista victory in Cuba. He expected this fresh
revolution, not saddled with a Stalinist leader-
ship, to come forward with a new ideology
beyond Marxism. Instead, under the spur of
their anticapitalist battles, Castro and his asso-
ciates proclaimed allegiance to scientific social-
ism. Truly, Marxism was the "ultimate philosophy of our age!"

He vigorously protested the Kremlin's suppression of dissidence within its reach from Moscow
to Prague. After the French student demonstrations and general strike in 1968, he became more
and more captivated by a Maoist-spontaneism so
congenial to his anarchistic temperament. The
actions he undertook issued from a capricious
impressionism, not from any systematic analysis
of the given situation or disciplined working-
class course. He believed that only the pristine
impulse of revolt was creative and trustworthy
and it afterwards inevitably degenerated into
reactionary institutionalization. He confused the
Leninist form of organization of the proletarian
vanguard with Stalinism.

He could easily veer off course, as in the
reactionary backing he gave to Zionist Israel
against the Palestinian cause. One of his last
political acts was to join the intellectual cold
warrior Raymond Aron in demanding that the
French government boycott the Moscow Olympics to penalize the Soviets for their role in

His informal and permissive companionship
with Simone de Beauvoir for half a century
became a model of paired relationship that was
widely imitated by admiring younger men and
women. It was made easier by their planned

Apart from his · voluminous literary works,
Sartre's significance as a public figure consisted
in his bold confrontation with the excruciating
contradictions and social tensions of the age of
permanent revolution we are living through. The
fascination of his evolution lies in his passionate
and restless grappling with the issues these
present and the good and bad sides of his mode
of participation in the struggles for liberation.
The pathos of his career is that this eminerit
intellectual came so close and yet remained so far
from either the theoretical or practical solution of
the central social and political problems of his