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10— Merleau-Ponty: The Ambiguity of History
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Terrorism and the Logic of History

However pregnant Merleau-Ponty's social philosophy might seem, the fact remains that his Marxism by and large elaborated different concerns. To grasp the difficulties in his position, we must return to the immediate postwar period, when he was struggling to develop an independent perspective as the political editor of Les Temps modernes , a journal he had helped found with Sartre. Although his postwar essays on politics acclaimed Marxism—at least the Marxism of Marx—as the core social philosophy of the twentieth century, Merleau-Ponty maintained a studied distance from the French Communist Party. The philosophical dilemmas in his Marxism first became clear in 1947, with the publication of Humanism and Terror . In this muddled little tract, he mixed elements of his phenomenology with a portrait of the proletariat as the vessel for a truth of history—a truth which, once established, might give us an absolute yardstick for judging historical acts.

As its title indicates, Humanism and Terror addressed itself to the problem of political violence; by what standards could violence and terrorism be judged? From the outset, Merleau-Ponty rejected any neo-Kantian moral philosophy that would evaluate acts on the basis of intentions rather than consequences. Moreover, he felt strongly that any absolute condemnation of violence was unrealistic; violence has ruled all societies to date, and violence in some circumstances might even form a necessary precondition of justice. The question was therefore not the condemnation or approval of violence, but rather a discrimination between "progressive" and "regressive" vio-


lence. According to Merleau-Ponty, progressive violence tended to cancel itself out, by aiming at a more humane social order, while the regressive type sustained an exploitative regime in power. Throughout the book, he called revolutionary and "Marxist" violence progressive, because it putatively had a "future of humanism."

The argument of Humanism and Terror concerned the Moscow Trials and Arthur Koestler's fictional account of them in Darkness at Noon . But the more general problematic of the book involved the evaluation of historical acts as just or unjust, progressive or regressive. Merleau-Ponty's position on these matters proved paradoxical, and was fraught with problems.

Basically, he argued that although the meaning of history necessarily remains ambiguous to its immediate participants, we must nevertheless judge acts on the presumption of a rational historical end, namely, communism. He derived this position by a kind of backward deduction. Accepting the view that any historical act can be meaningful only if history in the large exhibits a coherent meaning, Merleau-Ponty suggested that the justice or injustice of a political act had to be measured against its world-historical consequences, rather than in terms of a subjectively universal ethic or natural law. He further asserted that Marxism comprised the only valid philosophy of history for the twentieth century. The notion of communism as the coherent end of human prehistory, filtered through Husserl's concept of a rationally regulative historical telos , was thus erected as the ultimate standard for judging historical acts. This variant of Marxism "deciphers events, discovers in them a common meaning and thereby grasps a leading thread which, without dispensing us from fresh analysis at every stage, allows us to orient ourselves toward events. . . . It seeks . . . to offer men a perception of history which would continuously clarify the lines of force and vectors of the present."[35]

But a Marxism clear as to the basic drift of history would hardly imply a philosophy of ambiguity. Here Merleau-Ponty's philosophical arguments in the Phenomenology of Perception came into play. As he succinctly put it in Humanism and Terror , "There is no science of the future."[36] The meaning of history deciphered by Marxism remained provisional and uncertain. No univocal meaning could be guaranteed history, because (as the Phenomenology had already argued at some length) determinism in any predictive sense


was incompatible with the essence of human existence, the eventual object of history. Merleau-Ponty therefore affirmed that chaos remained as likely an historical outcome as humane relations among men (i. e., communism), and it was this doubt about the eventual outcome of history that rendered its contemporary meaning ambiguous. Marxism, stripped of a rationalist theology or deterministic support, became Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of ambiguity.

Another problem now arose. If no historical act could be definitively judged unless history evinced a coherent meaning, then the ambiguity of history might plausibly be taken as a signal that historical acts could not in fact be meaningfully judged, at least in any irrevocable sense.

But Merleau-Ponty argued nothing of the son. Instead, he contended that a modified Marxism supplied a more adequate provisional meaning of history than any other available standpoint. Because Marxism embraced the only "universal and human politics," its truth had to be avowed, even though this truth could not be proven. In this fashion, Merleau-Ponty provisionally justified revolutionary violence, since such violence aimed at creating a humanistic society where each man would recognize every other as a peer: a progressive end of history provided a rational standpoint for judging existent societies and historical acts.

The application to the Moscow Trials of this rather complicated train of argument resulted in a convoluted defense of terrorism, and specifically of the trials. Unfortunately, Merleau-Ponty's treatment of the trials as a paradigm of revolutionary violence relied on several problematic empirical premises: that Bukharin and his cohorts in fact formed a political opposition, intentionally or unintentionally, to the policies of the Soviet Union; that this "opposition" represented a genuine threat to the survival of the Soviet Union; and finally that the Soviet Union sustained the hope of socialism. This chain of contentions allowed Merleau-Ponty to argue that Bukharin's continuing political independence could reasonably be construed a threat to socialism, the progressive end of history.

He would eventually change his mind about several of these points, but they remained the backbone of his empirical argument in Humanism and Terror . Much confusion surrounded his cavalier attitude toward questions of fact. He at one point defended himself by pleading that "we have not examined whether in fact Bukharin


led an organizational opposition nor whether the execution of the old Bolsheviks was really indispensable to the order and the national defense of the U.S.S.R."—as if such empirical considerations were too mundane for his philosophical investigation.[37]

Throughout his discussion of the trials, Merleau-Ponty remained committed to his own interpretation of Marxism. He defended progressive violence, not because it was objectively necessary or somehow inescapable, but rather because the eventual meaning history assumed might in the long run show that such violence helped build a better society. He asserted that only his brand of Marxism, devoted to understanding "concrete subjectivity and concrete action" within an historical situation, could comprehend the real significance of the Moscow Trials:

Revolutionaries dominate the present the same way historians dominate the past. That is certainly the case with the Moscow Trials: the prosecutor and the accused speak in the name of universal history, as yet unfinished, because they believe they can reach it through the Marxist absolute of action which is indivisibly objective and subjective. The Moscow Trials only make sense between revolutionaries, that is to say between men who are convinced that they are making history and who consequently already see the present as past and see those who hesitate as traitors.[38]

Yet his argument, for all its involution, remained equivocal and inconsistent. Although he depicted a logic of history-in-process, he simultaneously defended, albeit with qualifications, the totalitarian arbitration of the Communist Party, and the desirability of a univocal interpretation of history. His discussion of the Moscow Trials only muddied the argument further. By the end, Merleau-Ponty had posed the question, not of the justice or necessity of the trials, but instead the more dubious question of whether their victims could be construed as dying for a revolution that might potentially realize a new humanity. In a backhanded way, he was in effect asserting that a liquidation of putative opposition elements (which he bizarrely styled a country's "unhappy consciousness") could be justified by a progressive future outcome of history. It was a position that Merleau-Ponty, as an intellectual "way above the crowd," could afford to take; yet it was a position that could hardly afford much solace for anyone actively trying to institute communism with-


out abandoning elementary standards of justice and proof—standards defensible in the here and now, without any reference to a possible moral utopia.[39]

As he became disillusioned with Marxism and communist politics, Merleau-Ponty came to abandon or revise many of the philosophical and empirical propositions he had defended in 1947. Despite his sympathetic interpretation of the Moscow Trials, the French Communist Party did not roll out the welcome mat. Not only did he still offer a heretical version of Marxism in their eyes, he also raised critical reservations about the fate of contemporary communism. His doubts centered on the role of the proletariat—and these doubts would only deepen, not dissolve.

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