For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

History and Human Existence From Marx to Merleau-Ponty

by Miller, James (1982)


The present essay provides an introduction to the treatment of human existence and individuality in Marxist thought. The work will be primarily concerned with two related topics: the evaluation by Marxists of individual emancipation and their assessment of subjective factors in social theory. By taking up these taking up these topics within a systematic and historical framework, I hope to generate some fresh light on several familiar issues. First, I pursue a reading of Marx focused on his treatment of subjectivity, individuation, and related methodological and practical matters; second, I apply this interpretation to analyzing the dispute between Marxist orthodoxy and heterodoxy over such matters as class consciousness and the philosophy of materialism; finally, I employ this historical context to clarify the significance of "existential Marxism," Maurice Merleau-Ponty's and Jean-Paul Sartre's contribution to Marxist thought.

Key Passage

Merleau-Ponty depicted history as a field of transindividual meanings, a symbolic system—a vast repository of frequently contradictory significations. These generalized meanings, which comprised traditions of discourse, defined our situation as human beings; although we conferred significance upon a personal history, our historical environment itself embodied a significance of its own. represented in customs, habits, and explicit moral prescriptions. The interplay of particular and general meanings marked the individual's engagement in a social world. Where Sartre had remarked that man was condemned to freedom, Merleau-Ponty argued that man was condemned to meaning.His emphasis on history as a symbolic system naturally aligned him with the antireductionist trend in Marxism. Repudiating a reduction of cultural to economic phenomena, or a reduction of history to a conflict of class interests, he found the essence of Marxism in its treatment of economic and cultural history as two indivisible moments of a single process. Similarly, labor, the central concept of Marxism, had to be viewed not merely as the production of riches, but also as "the activity by which man projects a human environment around himself and goes beyond the natural data of his life." The real subject of history was not man considered simply as a factor in production, but the whole man, man engaged in symbolic activities as well as manual labor, "man as creativity . . . trying to endow his life with form." Merleau-Ponty encountered such subjects during World War II in the French Resistance, which "offered the rare phenomenon of an historical action which remained personal." It was precisely this intersection of history with the personal that Merleau-Ponty fought to preserve within Marxism. (p.208)


Marx, Merleau-Ponty, Marxism, Existential Marxism, Sartre, Class, Class Consciousness, Social Theory, Emancipation, Individualism


On Merleau-Ponty

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