Existentialism and Marxism

[P]olitical action is not the only form of action, revolution is not the only form of political action; submission to an alleged historical necessity may become the worst form of alienation. The fact that crimes may be forgotten by our grandchildren does not make them forgivable at the time they are committed.—Raymond Aron

Some of the best reading is random. Raymond Aron’s book, Marxism and the Existentialists (1965), is proof of that. I picked up the volume as a library discard, and while the title looked intriguing,  I had no idea where the author was going to go with his theme. As it turns out, Aron was a genuinely open-minded thinker. An early colleague of Jean-Paul Sartre, he broke ranks when the latter became an apologist for Marxism.

A point made by Paul Johnson in his study of Sartre in Intellectuals is that the father of existentialism was widely read by Third World terrorists who aspired to a semblance of trendy respectability by espousing the views of the modern French intelligentsia. Sartre’s doctrine was simpler than the socio-economic presumptions of Marx. But behind his ideological trappings was a brutal egotism. As Aron says, Sartre’s outlook is essentially nihilistic. There is no doubt, though, that the French novelist and popular lecturer was far more interesting than bureaucratic spokesmen for Communism. 

The paradoxical meeting point of the philosophies of extreme individualism (existentialism) and extreme collectivism (Marxism) was that one could achieve “meaning” in a seemingly meaningless universe through self-assertion. And there was no more powerful form of assertion than violence and political radicalism. Writing at a time when Communism still seemed “experimental,” and where leftists might hold out for some purer and better form of Communism, Aron wisely asserted that Marxism was doomed to fail. All Communist regimes are murderous, without exception. Hence his view that “the revolution was betrayed not through the fault of Stalin, or through the [supposed] weakness of men, but by its own inner contradiction.”

Despite occasional lapses into academic quibbling, Aron has a certain empirical common sense, as when he notes that in “the United States, the most capitalistic country today, the working class has the highest standard of living and the least desire for revolution. The only country where a revolution calling itself Marxist has succeeded is one where the objective conditions prescribed by Marxist doctrine were not given.” Though I do not agree with every aspect of the author’s outlook, he provides a generally lucid and revealing examination of Marxism, and of leftism in general.  I hope to comment on his writings in future posts.

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