Preferred Citation: Miller, James. History and Human Existence - From Marx to Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1979.

10— Merleau-Ponty: The Ambiguity of History

Adventures of the Proletariat

Merleau-Ponty's declining estimation of Marxism as a philosophy paralleled his declining estimation of Marxism as a movement. He came to question the proletariat's potential as an empirical force dedicated to radical social change. Yet the proletariat was the linchpin of his Marxism. It was the proletariat that unified subject and object, theory and practice, the ideal and real; it was the proletariat that embodied a universal meaning of history in potentia .

What seemed surprising, given Merleau-Ponty's characteristic skepticism toward idealist claims, was his continuing maintenance, with few philosophical qualms, of such an essentialist view of the proletariat, modeled on elements extracted from Lukács, Hegel, and Marx. Indeed, he came to doubt whether the empirical proletariat would ever uphold the lofty claims made in its name, as the presumptive bearer of humanity's rational future. In the period between his two major treatments of Marxist political problems, Humanism and Terror in 1947 and Adventure of the Dialectic in 1955, Merleau-Ponty revised his estimate of the empirical proletariat; ultimately, he felt that events had refuted the essentialist view.

Adventures of the Dialectic chronicled this disenchantment. Where in 1947 he had advocated a kind of critical adhesion to the Communist Party, in 1955 he denounced the obsolescence of Communist practice. The apparent cause for this newfound skepticism


lay in the Korean War. But his turnabout had significant implications for his broader understanding of Marxism. Increasingly, he refused to take Marxian philosophical categories at face value.

While Humanism and Terror had insisted that only some form of Marxism could properly comprehend revolutionary action, Merleau-Ponty now stated that materialist philosophy was incapable of analyzing the Soviet Union without reference to "occult qualities."[40] By tracing the decline of Marxian philosophical thought during the twentieth century, from its highwater mark in 1923 (in Lukács's History and Class Consciousness ) to its degeneration in Sartre's hands (in The Communists and Peace ), Adventures of the Dialectic attempted to confront squarely some of the difficulties facing Marx ism.

Although he had always denied Marxism the crutch of empirical determinism or rationalist necessity, in the immediate postwar period he had still believed that the proletariat might possibly fill the lofty role assigned it by the theory. By 1955, this hope had been replaced by distrust. It was not only the absence of militance among contemporary workers that bothered him; it was also the seemingly unavoidable degeneration of revolutionary fervor into bureaucratic torpor.

Merleau-Ponty felt that classical Marxism had rested on the "ferment of negation" being "materially" incarnated in an actual historical force. According to him, Marxism could only maintain its ultimate verity on this real historical basis, the proletariat conceived as Selbstaufhebung , a self-transcending being and the agent of universal history through meaningful negation. But he now argued that the party and proletariat necessarily navigated within the plenitude of a positive world; the proletariat could therefore never exist as pure philosophical negativity, but only as one positive institution among others. This circumstance in turn encouraged a set of fateful identifications: "The proletariat is the revolution, the Party is the proletariat, the heads are the Party . . . as being is being."[41] Even if a militant proletariat did exist, the chances for success at the task of negative transcendence toward a better society seemed dim: its negativity would surely be corrupted by bureaucratic institutionalization.

Merleau-Ponty thus came to hold that negativity only descended into history at privileged moments: for the most part, even revolu-


tionary policies were represented by mere functionaries, who could not help but corrupt the aims of the movement. What had once appeared to him as a process that might create humane relations among men now seemed more a vicious cycle of unsuccessful attempts to seize institutional power. While allowing that revolutions might remain true as movements, he now entertained no doubts that they were "false as regimes."[42]

It was a melancholy conclusion. From start to finish, Adventures of the Dialectic represented the work of a disappointed man—perhaps because Merleau-Ponty could never quite escape his nostalgia for the Hegelio-Marxist Absolute. As he wrote at the outset of Adventures in regard to Max Weber, "Demystification is also depoetization and disenchantment. We must keep the capitalistic refusal of the sacred as external, but renew within it the demands of the absolute that it has abolished. We have no grounds for affirming that this recovery will be made."[43]

Merleau-Ponty nevertheless continued to identify with what he called the Stimmung or mood of Marxism, its conviction of being on the threshhold of Absolute Truth. Yet he recognized that such a Marxian philosophy of history, which would grant history an ultimate tendency and coherent meaning, could no longer be realistically reconciled with empirical events. "There is less a sense of history than an elimination of nonsense."[44] In reaction, he moved away from Hegel, toward Machiavelli, the spokesman for politics as the creative mastery of fate. If history had no univocal sense or direction, then politics should be judged, not by some chimerical reference to ultimate historical meaning, but rather by the manifold immanent meanings traced by the political actors themselves.[45]

The tendency of Merleau-Ponty's argument obviously cast doubt on the substance of Marx's original enterprise. But he nonetheless upheld a chastened dialectic at the end of its "adventures." "Is the conclusion of these adventures then that the dialectic was a myth? But the illusion was only to precipitate in an historical fact—the birth and growth of the proletariat—the total signification of history, to think that history itself organized its own recovery, that proletarian power would be its own supression, negation of the negation. . . . What then is obsolete is not the dialectic, but the pretension of terminating it in an end of history or in a permanent revolution. . . . "[46]


10— Merleau-Ponty: The Ambiguity of History

Preferred Citation: Miller, James. History and Human Existence - From Marx to Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1979.