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

In the Phenomenology , he argued that "one phenomenon releases another, not by means of some objective efficient cause, like those which link together natural events, but by the meaning which it holds out."The proper avenue for approaching human behavior was therefore meaningful interpretation rather than causal explanation. But "in order to understand an action, its horizon must be restored—not merely the perspective of the actor, but the 'objective' context."While he consistently denied any purely economic causality, Merleau-Ponty also denied that economic factors were irrelevant to interpreting historical acts. Economics simply did not comprise some independent realm of activity, carried on apart from a wider historical context of human existence. Indeed, precisely because economic acts opened onto a broader social horizon, and the individual, as existing in a social world, was already engaged in this realm, economic institutions helped articulate the subject's situation as surely as political, cultural, and personal institutions. "An existential conception of history does not deprive economic situations of their power of motivation ."The Phenomenology of Perception elaborated the implications of "the existential modality of the social" for interpreting social relations. "What makes me a proletarian is not the economic system or society considered as systems of impersonal forces, but these institutions as I carry them within me and experience them; nor is it an intellectual operation devoid of motive, but my way of being in the world within this institutional framework." Where classical Marxism had spoken of objective interests, Merleau-Ponty talked of a shared situation. An individual's social situation was not constituted through a series of more or less explicit choices; nor was it thrust upon the individual as an inexorable fate. Rather, from the outset, subjects coexisted within a social setting, a coexistence traced out in cooperative tasks and familiar gestures as well as in shared concerns. The individual's existence "as a proletarian" was in the first instance lived through as a common style and content of existence, not necessarily an explicit convergence of interests. Although the individual's existence was informed by tacit social projects, for the most part his social environment remained preconscious and unreflected.Yet on the day an individual declared himself "a worker," this decision did not appear fortuitous, a radical upsurge of pure volition; on the contrary, "It is prepared by some molecular process, it matures in co-existence before bursting forth into words and being related to objective ends."An individual's social situation formed an ineluctable element in his meaningful comportment toward a world long before he explicitly assumed that situation. His free decision could affirm or repudiate his proletarian situation, but it could never annul it: the subject could never instantaneously become other. Similarly, to be a worker or a bourgeois was not only to be aware of being one or the other; more crucially, "it was to identify oneself as worker or bourgeois through an implicit or existential project which merges into our way of patterning the world and coexisting with other people."The privileged status of revolutionary situations resided in their ability to compel men to articulate decisions that would otherwise remain unspoken. "A revolutionary situation, or one of national danger, transforms those preconscious relationships with class and nation, hitherto merely lived through, into the definite taking of a stand; the tacit commitment becomes explicit."The proletariat here appeared as a social collectivity bonded together through shared aspirations and fears as much as a common relation to the means of producing economic wealth. A commonality of existential situation characterized individuals from the same class; as a consequence, a social class appeared generally as a quasiconscious, amorphous yet hardly arbitrary conjunction of subjects. Their common hopes, fears, desires, and interests only became fully realized when shared situations were articulated by an explicitly sociopolitical awareness and action.On this account, an individual who called himself a proletarian might take up a humanistic meaning of history as his own goal; still there were no factors compelling him to embrace such a universal meaning. The proletariat as a class lacked any necessary reason for embodying the essentialist claims made on its behalf by the Marx of 1843, the Lukács of 1923, and the Merleau-Ponty of 1947. Subjects and their history did not come packaged with an inherent rationalist interest, nor did they reflexively accede to a determinism of objective events. Stripped of such supports, social theory could merely invite each individual to make historical reason triumph over barbaric contingency. In this endeavor there could be no empirical certainties, just as there could be no metaphysical charter. The vision of the rational end of history in a communist society where each individual respected every other became one perspective among several. Its plausibility was directly linked with the prospects for its realization. (p.213)


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


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