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

This image of (inter)subjectivity represented an historical result. For Merleau-Ponty as for Marx, "The history which produced capitalism symbolizes the emergence of subjectivity."Consciousness, while in no way the constitutive support of the social world, did on this view become an ineliminable vessel of meaning; in this capacity, its importance for any social theory could scarcely be belittled. Similarly, as Merleau-Ponty's sketch of belonging to a social class in his Phenomenology suggested, the human subject, in its passions as well as conscious disposition, comprised a critical element in any radical strategy. His social philosophy implied a practical focus on the individual and his everyday concerns as the ultimate existential basis for any authentically emancipatory movement. Otherwise, the individual might find himself sacrificed to party directives, the victim of an ostensibly objective meaning of history escaping his grasp.Thus Merleau-Ponty, despite his advocacy of an essentialist notion of the proletariat in Humanism and Terror , held out the hope, in his philosphy of the human subject, of a new form of radical theory founded on an existential notion of class. According to the existential conception, a class was viewed as an institution comprised of concrete subjects who were only contingently related to the claims of a reasonable history, through the ongoing practical accomplishments of individuals within the class committed to social change. Here he provided a basis for restoring to radical theory a dimension it had been in danger of losing, even in his own Marxism—the dimension of real individuals as the premise of theory and practice, a dimension Marx himself had constantly reiterated.On this point, Merleau-Ponty's intentions rejoined those of Marx. Nevertheless, the image of subjectivity he proposed differed significantly from that offered by Marx. Although both considered subjectivity as intersubjectivity; although both grasped subjectivity as objective and, through action, objectifying; although both spoke of the individual's dependency in regard to social situations—despite all such similarities, Merleau-Ponty broke sharply with Marx's necessitarian formulations, his focus on interest and previous hit labor next hit as paradigms of human action, and his optimistic hopes for a rational outcome of history.Marx himself, thanks to his tacit expectations of the rationality and purposiveness of human action, both individual and collective, was able to merge that concrete conjunction of individuals called the proletariat with the image of a social force aiming rationally at the coherent outcome of history, the classless society of communism. In contrast, Merleau-Ponty, by consistently depriving Marxism of any guarantees, either rationalistic or deterministic, illuminated this relation between the concrete and rational, empirical and universal, "is" and "ought" as profoundly problematic. It seemed questionable whether the real subjects of history could ever embody the universal negativity—the proletariat in and for itself—required by the Marxist theory.When he pursued this line of thought, Merleau-Ponty suggested that the locus of political change had to become the individual, not conceived merely abstractly, as a potential participant in a universal history, but also concretely, as a person haunted by habitual concerns, inarticulate needs, and fears as well as hopes. The cultivation of these fallible subjects, 'involved [entrainées] but not manipulated," alone could bring to radical politics "the mark of truth."[63] If the vaunted dialectic of Marxism was to retain any liberating significance, it could only be through such contact with real individuals, only through the attempt, perpetually renewed, to elucidate a significance of history which enabled each individual to care enough about his common world to want to risk changing it with others: only on this condition could dialectic clarify historical processes. Otherwise, dialectic became an empty formal husk, invoked but unsubstantiated, an absolute without a human anchor. (p.227)


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


On Merleau-Ponty

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