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

A Marxism without Guarantees?

The rejection of determinism as a tool of the human sciences lay at the heart of all of Merleau-Ponty's social thought, be it Marxian or phenomenological. In discussing culture, causal thinking remained insufficient, for it could never on principle account for creative meaning. Similarly, politics could not be construed as a chapter in some preordained history any more than it could be regarded as an exercise in pure morality; instead, Merleau-Ponty found in politics "an action which invents itself." A philosophically coherent Marxism would have to admit the absence of determinism and the importance of creative meaning, as well as the centrality of subjective factors—even though such a reformed Marxism might become a philosophy that "Marx undoubtedly would not have wished to recognize as his own."[47]

During the immediate postwar period, Merleau-Ponty had attempted to accommodate Marxism to his own thought, in the process producing several rather disingenuous restatements of the deterministic prejudices of orthodox Marxism. "For Marxism . . . the historical determination of effects by causes passes through human consciousness, with the result that men make their own history, although their doing so is neither disinterested nor lacking in motives. . . . Since human decision is motivated by the course of events, it will therefore seem—at least in retrospect—to be called forth by these events, so that no rupture or hiatus between effects and causes will ever be discernible in completed history."[48] Such a line of reasoning obviously blunted the cutting edge of his critique of determinism in the social sciences.

By 1955, he was taking a different tack. In Adventures of the Dialectic , he detected a fatal equivocation in Marx's own theory between determinism and a genuine dialectic steering clear of abstract alternatives such as idealism and materialism. Marx's concept of society as "second nature" most strikingly crystallized this equivocation by analogically justifying the treatment of social relations as natural data. Merleau-Ponty felt the practical consequences of such an objectivistic understanding could only prove onerous. If society was literally a second nature, men would be justified in governing it as they governed first nature: through technical domination. Technical action would replace meaningful comprehension; in Marxist


practice, the professional revolutionary would displace the self-conscious proletariat, and guiding historical development would become the prerogative of a party elite. The "milieu of the revolution" would less and less be "relations between men, and more and more 'things' with their immanent necessity."[49] Orthodox Marxism had already taken this turn.

It would be a mistake to pretend that Marx himself could emerge unscathed from an historical development clearly implicating his own theory. Merleau-Ponty therefore criticized Marx (somewhat inaccurately) for positing a dialectic of history executed behind humanity's back. This formulation illicitly attributed dialectic to things—relations of production, means of production—rather than men.

If the revolution is in things, how could one hesitate to brush aside by any means resistances which are only apparent? If the revolutionary function of the proletariat is engraved in the infrastructure of capital, the political action which expresses it is justified just as the Inquisition was justified by Providence. In presenting itself as the reflex of that-which-is, the historical process in itself, scientific socialism . . . grants itself the basis of an absolute knowledge at the same time as it authorizes itself to extract from history by violence a meaning which resides there, yet profoundly hidden. The melange of objectivism and extreme subjectivism, the one constantly sustaining the other, which defines Bolshevism already exists in Marx when he admits that the revolution is present before being recognized.[50]

Such an indictment called into question the very point of remaining a Marxist, of whatever persuasion. "There is not a great deal of sense in making a fresh start from Marx if his philosophy is implicated in this failure, as if this philosophy remained intact throughout the affair, by right bounding the interrogation and self-criticism of humanity."[51]

Nonetheless, Merleau-Ponty himself, in his description of "becoming a proletarian" in the Phenomenology of Perception , had hinted at the viability of a modest Marxism, freed from a deterministic dialectic of history. The elimination from Marxism of guarantees, whether factual or metaphysical, left the ultimate significance of history open. Such a Marxism could not claim before the fact to embody the essential meaning of history. Its prognostications would instead assume the status of negative propositions: "The world


economy cannot be organized and its internal contradictions cannot be overcome . . . as long as socialistic ownership of the instruments of production is not everywhere established . . . Marxism would remain a politics which is as justified as any other. It would even be the only universal and human politics. But it would not be able to take advantage of a pre-established harmony with the course of events."[52]

Philosophically, historical materialism would then become one heuristic scheme among others—the most potentially fruitful perhaps, but one that still had perpetually to prove its utility in actual contact with events. Far from reducing history to one of its sectors, which would determine in advance the path to be followed, a chastened historical materialism would merely claim that "there is a close connection between the person and his external world, between the subject and the object which determines the alienation of the subject in the object, and, if the movement can be reversed, will determine the reintegration of the world with man."[53]

A modest Marxism, suggested Merleau-Ponty, held out the hope, although it could not guarantee it, that truth, reason, and logic would prevail in the course of history. But if contemporary conditions contained scant (if any) indicators that actually pointed in this rational direction, if the proletariat seemed unable to fulfill the mission prescribed for it by the Marxian theory—then Marxism was reduced to a gamble, a vow, a wager. Such a philosophy of history could no longer assume a rationality immanent in history. Instead, history became an "adventure" in which reason could hardly be counted an inevitable component.[54]

Unfortunately, such a modest version did not accord with Marx's own Marxism: Marx had preserved the premise of immanent historical rationality precisely in his expectations for the proletariat; and orthodox Marxism had transformed this optimistic prognosis of the meaning of history into an absolute political criterion, now interpreted purely objectively. What the later Marx wanted from Hegel was "no longer dialectical inspiration but a rationalism to be used for the benefit of 'matter,' i.e., 'relations of production,' considered as an external self-given order and a totally positive force. . . . It becomes a question of annexing Hegel's logic to economics. . . . Action that will change the world is no longer undivided philosophical and technical praxis , an infrastructural movement and at


the same time an appeal to a total critique of the subject, but rather a purely technical action comparable to that of the engineer who constructs a bridge."[55] In his last political writings, Merleau-Ponty thus referred to Marxism as just another name for a "rationalistic politics." A Marxism stripped of rationalist as well as deterministic guarantees could not, he came to feel, justify the designation "Marxism" any longer.

While it might retain a relative heuristic value, Marxism could not therefore be considered true—"certainly no longer true in the sense it was believed to be true."[56] The options in Merleau-Ponty's eyes were simple. One either remained a dogmatic Marxist, owing allegiance to Communism as a movement, or one opted for a powerless, skeptical radicalism, without immediate political efficacy, but also without intellectual compromises. "It is clear that a revolutionary politics cannot be maintained without its pivot, that is, proletarian power. If there is no 'universal class' and exercise of power by that class, the revolutionary spirit becomes pure morality or moral radicalism again. Revolutionary politics was a doing, a realism, the birth of a force. The non-Communist left often retains only its negations. This phenomenon is a chapter in the great decline of the revolutionary idea. . . . Its principal hypothesis, that of a revolutionary class, is not confirmed by the actual course of events."[57]

At its inception, Merleau-Ponty's adherence to Marxism had depended on an essentialist view of history and the proletariat: the latter provisionally incarnated the teleological meaning of history. He came to criticize Marxism harshly because he felt that history could no longer sustain such a conception. Despite his attempts to formulate a Marxism without guarantees, his idiosyncratic fusion of Lukács's 1923 view of class and Husserl's later notion of the telos of history thus ultimately fueled a despair at ever realizing a rational historical philosophy. Disheartened and politically exhausted, Merleau-Ponty failed to entertain the possibility that the proletariat—and history—had been misunderstood in the essentialist conception from the outset.

Out of this impasse nonetheless emerged a call for a new left. Beyond disillusioned revolt, he proposed a revival of Machiavellian virtù , a "real spiritual strength" that might forge "a way between the will to please and defiance, between self-satisfied goodness and cruelty," in the name of "an historical undertaking all may adhere


to."[58] The judgment of historical action could no longer classify "men and societies according to their approximation to the canon of the classless society," for although such a canon is "what our social criticism demands, there is no force in history which is destined to produce it."

Merleau-Ponty now viewed history as a far more tentative venture, "not so much a movement toward an homogeneous or a classless society as the quest, through always atypical cultural devices, for a life which is not unliveable for the greatest number."[59] Such a course would hardly satisfy whoever still believed in secular salvation; still "unremitting virtù" might conquer whatever prospects for a better world remained open. "History never confesses, not even her lost illusions, but neither does she dream of them again."[60]

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.