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 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.
Since the mid-sixties, questions of subjectivity and individuation have assumed a certain currency in radical circles, and not only from the standpoint of existential Marxism . In fact, the new left of the period presented demands not only for civil rights and a redistribution of wealth but also for a transformation of individual existence and a metamorphosis in everyday life. "People who talk," admonished one wall poster during the French student uprising in May of 1968, "about revolution and class struggle without any explicit reference to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love or what is positive about refusing coercion, have corpses in their mouth." The temper of this radicalism marked a departure: where once Communists had discussed electrification, five-year plans and the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, young students, in search of authenticity and a new openness
in human relations, now dwelled on eros emancipated, desire unleashed, existence transfigured.
Such departures had been anticipated by several leading neo-Marxian theorists of the postwar period: by Herbert Marcuse, with his discussion of surplus repression and one-dimensional man; by Henri Lefebvre, with his critique of everyday life; and by Jean-Paul Sartre, with his existential reconstruction of Marxism . What these theorists held in common was an heretical insistence on the human—the "subjective"—dimension of socialism. For Marcuse, this spelled an interest in Freud; for Lefebvre, an inventory of quotidian existence; for Sartre, a phenomenology of social institutions. Other Marxists, however, criticized these theorists for violating the aims of a scientific socialism. Thus Louis Althusser proclaimed in the late sixties that "the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology." Marxism , for the orthodox, was to be a purely objective discipline.
Since the turn of the century, Marxism has indeed been predominantly interpreted as an objective theoretical system, given to dissecting social facts and making empirical predictions. According to such orthodoxy, capitalism fosters, "with the inexorability of a law of nature," its own collapse. The capitalist mode of production gives rise to social relations rife with class antagonisms; this material infrastructure determines in turn the legal and political superstructure of any capitalist society. On all these levels, social conflict and economic contradictions lead inevitably to the demise of capitalism as a form of life. In the march toward communism, there may be detours, even temporary defeats; but the proletariat and its party may always claim this: History is on their side.
Given such putatively scientific claims on the part of orthodox Marxism , it might seem odd that a philosophical concept like subjectivity could find any adherents at all, especially within such a deterministic outlook. The very term "subjective" has often functioned as an insult in Marxist polemics. Not only does it suggest something less than the lucidly objective understanding all science covets; even worse, it smacks of an anachronistic world of philosophical disputation, where idealists discourse on the unreality of the material world.
losophy and in the problem of human existence as it informs social theory. Moreover, these heretics, from Georg Lukács to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, have often claimed the patronage of Karl Marx himself, and not without justice. Thanks to this subterranean stream of neo-Marxist thought, as well as to the new left that has made it fashionable, such philosophical issues as subjectivity and individuation have become alive again for radical theorists. Yet while a considerable literature has flourished around the question of Marx's relation to Hegel and philosophy, little attention has been devoted to the problem of the varying approaches to subjectivity within Marxism .
This problem would merit attention if only for the central role subjectivity assumes in the works of the existential Marxists. But the issue transcends intellectual history, as the purview of the new left suggests. Under the reign of advanced technology and its attendant imperatives for organization and control, such issues as autonomy, self-expression and individuation have assumed a renewed relevance for the critique of contemporary society. In a world that threatens to become literally inhuman, a philosophy of the human subject promises insight into the possibilities for a better form of life.
Similarly, the very currency of individualized variants on Marxism suggests a need to reevaluate Marxist views on individuation. For too long, Marx has been read as an apostle of the communitarian ethos pure and simple, a reading parodied by the contemporary advocates of a left-wing politics based in rural communes, as well as the coldwar critics of a communism cast as intrinsically totalitarian. Yet Marx himself highly valued the elaboration of human individuality as a progressive aspect of historical development.
This dispute, over whether or not Marx favored individuation as a paramount goal of social revolution, has clear ramifications for a radical politics. The treatment accorded subjectivity likewise affects the shape of radical strategy: if the human subject looms as a central element in understanding and shaping social reality, then the new left was not mistaken in addressing such issues as the quality of everyday life and the personal dimensions of any struggle against coercion, issues largely ignored in traditional left-wing organizing. The relation of the individual to social institutions becomes a focus of strategy and a source for a new vision of politics.
Unfortunately, the notions of individuation and subjectivity
remain far from self-evident in their bearing on the main body of Marxian theory. What, for example, is the relation of individuation to that inherently "social being" Marx in his early writings identified with the human essence? What is the role of purposive action in an economic and historical development characterized by Marx himself as "necessary"? What kind of subjects did Marx presume would institute communism? How does the category of subjectivity square with the requirements of a rigorous inquiry into society?
This study attempts to unravel some of these dilemmas. By tracing the continuities and contradictions of Marxian philosophy from Marx to Merleau-Ponty, I will try to examine critically the rise of a social theory premised on the interaction of active subjects and aiming at the socioeconomic emancipation of the individual. My point is primarily philosophical and exegetical: to establish the cogency of "existential Marxism " within the Marxist tradition, to analyze and evaluate its key categories, and, as a consequence, to elaborate, in a preliminary fashion, a number of interrelated issues, such as the importance of individuation as a critical concept, the place of reason and freedom in human existence, the role of human agency in history, and the methodologies appropriate to social inquiry. Similar questions have increasingly preoccupied contemporary social philosophers of varying persuasions; so it may be timely to amplify such concerns within the radical tradition itself.
What exactly is up for grabs in the Marxist debate over individuation and subjectivity? Although the Cartesian sense of subjectivity coincided with individual consciousness and the cogito , in German philosophy after Kant the term came to connote a universal faculty (in Kant, the transcendental ego as the condition of the unity of empirical perception). The Marxian concept of subjectivity, then, invokes the Kantian rather than Cartesian tradition. Following Kant, the Marxian notion stresses the universal as much as the particular, while following Hegel, it accentuates the objective elements of human agency and the development of self-consciousness through intersubjective communication.
As used in the present work, "subjectivity" will refer to those distinctively human and largely internal or conscious aspects of any process, be it perceiving, thinking, willing, or the happening of history; while objectivity, to oversimplify, will correlatively imply the primarily natural and largely external aspects of such processes. Subjectivity and objectivity appear here not as absolute opposites,
but rather as inherently related aspects of reality. For the Marxist, as Karel Kosik put it, "the essence of men is the unity of objectivity and subjectivity." Through the practical transformation of the world, the human subject objectifies itself, and the objective world becomes comprehensible to the mind. Thus, as Max Horkheimer has cautioned, "the subject-object relation is not accurately described by the picture of two fixed realities which are conceptually fully transparent and move towards each other. Rather, in what we call objective, subjective factors are at work; and in what we call subjective, objective factors are at work."
There is also a danger in treating the analytic distinction between subject and object as a kind of ontological chasm; for it may prove reasonable to assume that social institutions and conventional norms exhibit a distinctive ontological character, neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective. But given the Marxist usage, the notion of subjectivity, far from delimiting a monadic rationalism, in principle accommodates intersubjectivity, cooperation, and social existence; nor does adopting such an understanding of subjectivity at the foundation of social theory necessarily entail "methodological individualism"—the reduction of all social phenomena to the beliefs and behavior of individuals. The concept of subjectivity must therefore be distinguished from the concept of the individual, which is established precisely in distinction to the general and collective, even though the individual may embody social interests and elaborate capabilities that are universal.
By "individuation," on the other hand, I refer to the process whereby human beings become distinctive, autonomous, and selfconscious agents, each capable of purposefully reshaping the natural world and of independently evaluating moral claims. Individuation thus delimits a broader range of possibilities than "individualism," the term used by Tocqueville to describe "a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart . . . so that . . . he willingly leaves society at large to itself." Unlike individuation, of which it represents but one form, individualism connotes selfishness and egoism; it first arises in modern society, which "throws" the individual, in Tocqueville's words, "back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."
In opposition to this pejorative notion of individualism, which he
once equated with a "soulless materialism," Marx developed his own outlook on individuation from a variety of contemporary sources. From the Enlightenment, Marx took over the conviction that men freed from institutional and cultural fetters could be shown to share equally in universal human faculties and capabilities. But Marx critically modified this doctrine of the essential sameness of abstract individuals, by elaborating what Georg Simmel once called a "qualitative" notion of individuality. Within this qualitative understanding, developed by Goethe and Hegel as well as the romantics and existentialists, the individual is valued not for his universally human qualities but for his unique and incomparable personality; to borrow Simmel's description, this form of individuation "means that the single human being distinguishes himself from others; that his being and conduct—in form, content, or both—suit him alone; and that being different has a positive meaning and value for his life." Marx's concept of individuation distinctively combines aspects of the Enlightenment and qualitative notions, emphasizing the social and historical context of individuality, while criticizing the abstract and purely private forms of individuation characteristic of bourgeois society.
It should be stressed that the concepts of subjectivity and individuation are logically independent. Adhering to a social theory that emphasizes the role of subjectivity does not entail subscribing to individuation as a value of social development; nor does an esteem for individuation require a methodology that eschews a causal explanation of social facts. Nevertheless, a kind of conceptual affinity does link the notions of subjectivity and individuality held by many thinkers: the understanding of subjectivity may well help define those capacities to be unfettered and refined in the process of individuation, just as an interest in individuation may focus attention on questions of freedom and the methodological significance of subjective factors in historical explanation.
Ironically, little attention has been devoted to Marx's own views on either individuation or subjectivity, despite a wealth of references throughout his work to individual emancipation and to real individuals as the foundation of social theory. When Sartre and Merleau-Ponty came to restore the subjective dimension in Marxism , it was in large part these oversights they had in mind. Still, the goal of individuation and the notion of subjectivity have meant a lot of different
things to different Marxists. The present essay seeks to elaborate some of the issues at stake.
Since Marxist theory represents a coherent whole, the sense attributed to individuation and subjectivity affects the bearing of the entire theory. Marx's own outlook on man as a practical as well as rational animal engendered a certain optimism in regard to his hopes for communism: the development of man's practical need to transform the natural world, as evidenced in modern industry, could also become an enlightened impulse to reshape the social world of human relations. In both cases, individuals (through social classes) had creative roles to fulfill. By contrast, if subjectivity were merely the reflexive response to prior stimuli, its voluntary role in social action could be but minimal; dispassionate science might instead point out the path history inevitably would follow, dragging individuals, classes, and nations in tow.
The significance attributed to subjectivity thus influenced Marxism at several levels. For example, it helped determine the epistemology at the basis of the theory: did the mind passively reflect external sense-data, as the orthodox supposed; or did consciousness contribute to, as well as result from, the practical transformation of the world through purposive action, as Marx believed? The sense accorded subjectivity also affected the meaning of materialism: did it signify the reducibility of reality to the motions of physical matter, as Engels argued; or did materialism instead mark out the preeminent role of active human beings in shaping a real world, as Marx thought? Finally, the meaning attached to subjectivity affected the strategy appropriate to a Marxist politics: was communism to be imposed by the actions of a vanguard party, as Lenin counseled; or was communism to be the outcome of a pedagogical process of self-emancipation by enlightened proletarians, as Marx hoped? Similar issues were at stake in the value different Marxists attributed to individuality. Would communism emancipate a class, an advanced technology, or individual men and women? Would it merely mollify material want or also facilitate self-expression and individual autonomy? What, in short, were the aims of socialism?
Almost fifty years ago, Georg Lukács vindicated the Hegelian philosophical foundations of Marxism in History and Class Consciousness . In a sense, the current work critically reexamines those foundations, describes their erosion, and explores one of the philo-
sophical alternatives. For while Sartre and Merleau-Ponty loyally defend Marx and his commitment to individual emancipation, their existential version of Marxism implicitly challenges Marx's (and Hegel's) understanding of human existence, and the reason native to subjectivity in the faculties of labor and interest. In the process, both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have undermined, often unintentionally, the central subjective premises supporting Marx's optimistic outlook on individuation. Their elucidation of human existence calls into question the primacy of reason, the desirability of freedom, and the possibility of revolution—especially a true communist revolution, which enables oppressed individuals to emancipate themselves, rather than letting a new elite mythologize a proletariat whose members in fact remain dominated.
The work is divided into three parts: the first covers Marx, while the third treats Sartre and Merleau-Ponty; the second discusses in brief a number of relevant Marxian theorists, including Engels, Plekhanov, Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, Lukács, and Gramsci. In the later sections, I have largely limited my discussion to the "existential Marxists," both out of considerations of space and in an attempt to sharpen the argument. Many of the problems raised in these later sections, for example, naturally have their analogue in the psychoanalytic strain in Marxian thought (Reich, Fromm, Marcuse) and certainly in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin), which speaks powerfully to the possibility of individuation in the modern world. I nevertheless believe that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have framed the key philosophical issues. With the critique of their contributions we can at least make a start.
Throughout, the reader should bear in mind certain additional limitations. In the first place, the present study is necessarily onesided, since it is largely confined to exploring the way each thinker has articulated the issues surrounding subjectivity and individuation. My analysis is also rather narrowly conceptual; much of the social and political context has been omitted, in part because a number of historical studies in these areas are already available. Finally, I have decided to restrict citation to the works under discussion, with a few exceptions. In a field crowded with secondary sources, it is a constant temptation to articulate an interpretation by demolishing rival readings; at the risk of belaboring the obvious, I
have preferred to stake out my own position without fighting a war of footnotes. On the other hand, this essay would have been unthinkable without the large and growing volume of first-rate studies in Marxist philosophy: I have tried to document my debt to this secondary literature in the bibliography, which lists all books consulted.
The present work was written during a time of widespread social unrest within the United States. An era of decline for the American empire, it has also been a time marked by diminishing prospects for an independent left, as well as renewed fears of an epidemic barbarism. At a time when established socialist and communist regimes offer scant hope for a libertarian and radical reordering of society, politics, and everyday life, it has seemed appropriate to reconsider the issues of subjectivity and individuation within Marxism itself. While few explicitly practical perceptions are given expression in this essay, it would be dishonest to pretend they did not play a critical role in its conception and execution. My real reason for taking up the question of subjectivity with regard to Marxism (rather than some other social theory) lies in the irrevocable commitment of revolutionary Marxism to abolish all social orders in which human beings are oppressed and degraded. That commitment seems to me the proper place for contemporary social thought to begin—even if it ends by discarding the Marxian theory.