Critique of Sartre’s Philosophy in relation of Marxism: Can they coincide?

Critique of Sartre’s Philosophy in relation of Marxism: Can they coincide?

It is clear that from the theoretical frameworks of the two guiding philosophies, that we cannot reconcile these two ideologies together

Existentialism, and Marxism are two of the most widely discussed philosophical guides today. While there have been attempts to marry the two philosophies – namely by Jean-Paul Sartre, who’s attempt had more in common with anarchism, than Marxism, politically – it is clear that these two philosophical frameworks, have significant dissimilarities. These disparities are especially clear in their perspectives on alienation, and freedom, and morality. While this paper focuses on Sartre’s philosophy, I will use the term ‘existentialism’ due to uses, and instances of other philosophical viewpoints in the same area – existentialism.


‘Existence precedes essence’ is a central theme to all existential philosophies. Sartre attempts to show that ‘essence’ – purpose or definition – is not inherent in our lives, it is a reaction of our experiences, and environment – and therefore defines our meaning of life.1 Sartre also presents the view that man is never compelled – that we always have a choice – whether they are held in a Prisoner of War camp, or have a gun held to their head – we have the choice to obey or rebel.2 This is key to Sartre’s want for individual responsibility to be inherent in our actions. In his play The Flies, Sartre writes; ‘Some men are born bespoken; a certain path has been assigned them’ – this is what Sartre labelled ‘bad-faith’. To understand Sartre’s beliefs on existence, and freedom3, one must understand the burdens on individual life he identified. These are ‘angoisse’ – ‘anguish’ -, ‘désespoir’ – ‘despair’ -, and ‘abandon’ – ‘abandonment’. Cognizance of the effects of our individual responsibilities, brings to the individual ‘angoisse’.4 Our individual actions affect, and influence mankind – creating examples for it. Sartre insists this is because we define out individual meaning of life5 – which concurrently affects our actions – our choices are our personal statements about the world around us, and how we should lead our lives.6 ‘Abandon’ is in regards to the atheistic tradition of Existentialism.7 The removal of god, or divine beings, inherently removes any moral structure from our world or existence, this means we make our own moral, and existential decisions.8 By ‘désespoir’ Sartre means acting without hope – the removal of our instinctual trust that ‘things will turn out for the best’.9 Sartre puts forward that we should only rely on the outcomes, and issues that our actions can affect.10 The key to existentialism is that it is an immaterial approach to our world.

Dialectical Materialism

One of the key ideas of Marxism is Dialectical Materialism. One of Hegel’s key academics, and followers, Marx takes Hegel’s original dialectics – commonly referred to as Dialectical Idealism (due to its focus on ideas, and the human mind)11 – and relates them to the material – the realm of production, and economic activity – thus creating Dialectical Materialism.12 Marx’s theory can be displayed as below:

To understand this diagram, look to Engel’s proposed Laws of Dialectical Materialism:
1. The Law of Negation
The Law of Negation presents that in our world, there are different contradictions which push against each other – the Thesis, and Anti-thesis, if you will. These contradictions negate each other, creating antagonisms within our reality – namely the class antagonism Marx and Engels were so particular about.13
2. The Law of Transformation
The Law of Transformation is a direct consequence of the Thesis, and Anti-thesis negating each other. This negation will continue, and grow to such a proportion, that one overthrows the other14 – usually combining elements of the two (Thesis, and Anti-thesis). Through the negation between the Thesis, and Anti-thesis, Synthesis is born15 – e.g. Post – Rev Russia.16
3. The Law of the Negation of the Negation
The Law of the Negation of the Negation, is when the Synthesis that has been created is negated by another force17 – creating another Thesis, and Anti-thesis.18 This – according to Engels – would continue until we reached a stateless, communist society.19
The key to Marxism, is it is a materialist approach, and view to our world.


Both Marxism and Existentialism argue that alienation in contemporary life dehumanises us. To quote George Novack:

Alienation expresses the fact that the creations of the human mind and hand dominate their creator. The victims of this servitude become stripped of the qualities of self-determination and self-direction which raise them above the animal level.20

In this passage Novack states that our own creations – such as gender, race, economic and societal systems etc. – remove ourselves of the individuality and free-will (biological or metaphysical) that distinguishes us from animals. Marxism presents a materialist elucidation. Alienation in a modern society (capitalism) takes the form of the division of labour – and as a result, class antagonism. As the labourers do not own the means of production, they inherently lose their autonomy. In earlier forms of alienated labour (slavery) this was evident, whereas refined systems of alienated labour (industrial capitalism) make it harder to perceive. The difference then? Capitalism, instead, presents illusory autonomy. As the working class do not own the means of production, they must sell their ‘labour-power’ to the ruling class in exchange for payment ("wage slavery"). The saying ‘why when I buy a pair of arms, must I get a human being?' presents the degradation of the working class, doomed to repeat continuously that cycle of labour, then having it extrapolated from them and then ‘clocking-out’ in order to survive. In the end, the labourer’s creation – the culmination of their effort – is not theirs, it is forfeited to the buyer of their labour. The worker is once again alienated from their work, and thus themselves, – as it is set on the market with various other commodities, for the working class to "buy back".
Ergo alienation under capitalism is a result of the division of labour, and class antagonism of the system, and can be seen – not just in our occupations – but also in our social, and family lives. The houses we live in – the food we buy – the wine we drink, these are all affected by the alienation, and class antagonism – between the bourgeois, and the proletariat – under capitalism.
Alienation in existentialism is metaphysically predetermined. From the beginning of our existence, human beings have been thrown into a world without any preordained meaning, and while we may try and give it such – we cannot eradicate the absurdity, and our estrangement from the universe. Like the class antagonism of Marxism, an animus is present in existentialism. As the meaning or value created by the individual is different from others, it is inherent that there will be individuals who attempt to foist their views onto others and - as proposed by Sartre - therefore ‘nullify my authentic existence’.21 This antagonism makes us individuals gauche, and despondent – an effect of our existential goals do not achieve a result, or the road pulls us onto the path undesired.
Marxian alienation can be removed – abolished – overthrown – by means of revolution, we can remove ourselves of the exploitative, barbarous chains of capitalism through the overhauling of the bourgeoisie, and their social and economic structures. Whereas, the immaterial existentialist alienation cannot be removed, it is an inherent part of our existence. While we can attribute meaning, and attempt to slit its throat, we are doomed to fail.

Freedom and Morality
Existentialist thought protects our individual freedom despite whatever critics of the school present. Existentialists crush the issue of determinism by removing any effect on the individual. Marxism presents the perspective that with our current, and increasing knowledge of the natural world around us – its laws and regularities – allow us to control, and change the universe we live in. Existentialism’s propositions of freedom throw away these regularities, and are therefore do not adhere to these scientific laws. It (existentialism) presents determinism as an enemy of the individual, yet leaves social, and scientific determinism out of the frame.
Social determinism – i.e. individuals having social rules foisted on them – is key in the changing of attitudes such as views on women, marriage/racial equality, drugs etc. which have expanded the freedom of the individual, and continue to do so immensely, whereas scientific determinism has allowed us to produce significant advancements in travel – e.g. airplanes, and spaceships -, and medicine – allowing us to predict terminal patients life spans, control illnesses from past observations etc. – to name a few. The existentialists fail to view determinism outside of the effect on the individual’s actions, thoughts etc. and in the process undermine advances we have made as a result of it.
Due to the emphasis of personal responsibility in existential writings, it is key that we observe what morality is for both schools of thought. Both existentialism, and Marxism believe that morality needs regulation, and judgement by human/societal standards. A Marxist perception of morality has a basis in the conditions, and needs of society, this objective basis in reality, therefore means that morality can change due to societal needs, development, and conditions, and in the modern society we currently live in, morality has a class basis. Marxist morality has no objective standards, and actions must be evaluated in regards to the needs, and aims (historical, and current) they benefit.
Existentialists deny any causality between the mental – biological – action of choice, and the circumstances surrounding it. The highest good for the existentialist is individual integrity. This is upheld as the single most manifestation of autonomous freedom, the feelings of the individual determine the morality of our choices – again, stripping away any pieces of determinism from our existence.
The moralities of the existentialist and the Marxist cannot coincide due to the existentialist’s stubborn quest for a complete removal of determinism from existence. It reduces morality to the emotions, and feelings of the individual by holding individual integrity to the highest degree, henceforth we can essentially moralise any actions in completely different, and contradictory ways. In contrast the Marxist morality, while changing due to the different forms of societies, pushes for actions that benefit the needs of society, and the historical, and current aims of bringing an equal classless society into being.

Can Marxism and Existentialism be reconciled?
While Sartre attempted to marry the two, Marxism and existentialism are incongruous for many reasons. Firstly, Marxism is a material viewpoint of existence, while existentialism is immaterial. Secondly, Alienation - in the Marxist sense - can be abolished through upheaval and change of economic, and social relations - i.e. revolution - whereas alienation - in the existentialist term of the word - is inherent in our existence, and Marxism, and existentialism have opposing views of morality. Thirdly, Marxists uphold moral actions in reference and evaluation with the class needs, and historical aims of that point in time, whereas existentialists uphold integrity to the highest value - allowing morality to be dictated by the individuals emotions, and feelings. It is clear that from the theoretical frameworks of the two guiding philosophies, that we cannot reconcile these two ideologies together.

  • 1. Sartre, Jean-Paul et al. Existentialism Is A Humanism =. Print.
  • 2. Flynn, Thomas. "Jean-Paul Sartre". N.p., 2004. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
  • 3. The author would like to state that on second review the term ‘Free-will’ is more suitable to explain Sartre’s philosophy. The term ‘freedom’ is more apt for a semi-determinist stance, taking account for sciences explaining facts in the world and determining certain actions in the natural world.
  • 4. Flynn, Thomas. "Jean-Paul Sartre". N.p., 2004. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
  • 5. ibid
  • 6. ibid
  • 7. ibid
  • 8. ibid
  • 9. ibid
  • 10. ibid
  • 11. "Dialectical Materialism". N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
  • 12. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: Modern Library, no date, first published 1906), p. 25.
  • 13. Dialectical Materialism". N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
  • 14. ibid
  • 15. ibid
  • 16. Though an extremely short one
  • 17. The Law of the Negation of the Negation. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
  • 18. ibid
  • 19. ibid
  • 20. Novacks, George. "Marxism Versus Existentialism". N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
  • 21. ibid

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Mar 26 2017 06:30


  • From the beginning of our existence, human beings have been thrown into a world without any preordained meaning, and while we may try and give it such – we cannot eradicate the absurdity, and our estrangement from the universe.

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