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   Author  Topic: Austin Cline - -Existentialism, Marxism, and Communism  (Read 710 times)

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Austin Cline - -Existentialism, Marxism, and Communism
« on: 2005-04-05 15:17:24 »
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[Blunderov] I think this is a brilliant essay from Austin Cline (about.com). There are nuances that I believe will be of particular interest to both Virions and Transhumanists. I am particularly interested in the parralell  biological and existential "struggles".
Best Regards

Existentialism, Marxism, and Communism

In the minds of some there is a close association between existentialist philosophy and Marxist or communist politics. There is some justification for this because one of the most prominent existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, was also a Marxist. Nevertheless, there are a number of significant incompatibilities between existentialism and Marxism — incompatibilities which even Sartre had difficulty reconciling. Probably the most important difference between existentialism and Marxism lies in the issue of human freedom. Both philosophies rely heavily upon entirely different conceptions of human freedom and the relationship between human choices and the larger society. For existentialists, human freedom is regarded as radical and absolute. Existentialists generally deny that there is any fixed “human nature” which limits us in what we do and who we are.
Whatever happens to us, it is a consequence of our choices and we must take responsibility for that — there is no way we can transfer that responsibility to any other agency, human or otherwise. Marxists, on the other hand, regard human freedom as extremely limited in the context of socioeconomic conditions. Karl Marx taught that who we are and what we do are subject to social and economic forces — a type of determinism, in effect. This then allows people to “blame” things like class or capitalism for some of the “choices” they have made and the situation in which they find themselves.
Largely as a consequence of these different conceptions of human freedom, Marxists and existentialists typically have very different ideas about how people should be living their lives. On the one hand, Marxists have a utopian vision of where human society should be leading — once the repression of a class-based, capitalist society is ended, people will have more freedom and happiness. On the other hand, existentialists reject the idea that there can be a
“utopia” or that humans can live a completely fulfilled, satisfying life. Instead, they argue that the only real values in our lives are those which are produced in the context of striving and suffering. A utopia, if it could exist, would actually destroy human values and any meaning in human life.
How then are we to understand the connections between existentialism and Marxism? In fact Karl Marx was an important influence among French existentialists. Although they did not agree with his ideas about economic determinism, they did respond positively to his critiques about the ways in which socioeconomic structures were used to reduce the scope of human freedom and constrain people’s choices.
Jean-Paul Sartre did more than anyone to try and reconcile existentialism with Marxism and it is in his writing that we should look to understand more about how the two can interact. Sartre regarded Marxism as the dominant philosophy of the twentieth century and he wanted to locate existentialism within it. However, he was also very critical of how Marxism tends to treat society as an undifferentiated whole rather than dealing with people as individuals.
French existentialists believed, as did more traditional Marxists, that the elimination of capitalism and the exploitation of workers might result in a society where people would enjoy more social, political, and economic freedom to grow. They did not generally share the Marxist belief that people were actually constrained; instead, they thought that capitalism served to distract people from their actual freedom. Changing society would, then, allow people to recognize the freedom which they had all along and allow them to lead more authentic lives.

One of Jean-Paul Sartre's most important works was "Existentialism is a Humanism" — so are all existentialists humanists? Are all humanists also existentialists? Not necessarily — there is a close affinity between existentialism and humanism, but they aren't quite the same thing. Still, Sartre's point is a valid one and deserves to be considered.

The easiest way to do that is to quote Sartre himself:

“I have been reproached for suggesting that existentialism is a form of humanism: people have said to me, “But you have written in your Nausée that the humanists are wrong, you have even ridiculed a certain type of humanism, why do you now go back upon that?” In reality, the word humanism has two very different meanings.”

“One may understand by humanism a theory which upholds man as the end-in-itself and as the supreme value. Sponsored
Humanism in this sense appears, for instance, in Cocteau’s story Round the World in 80 Hours, in which one of the characters declares, because he is flying over mountains in an airplane, “Man is magnificent!” This signifies that although I, personally, have not built aeroplanes I have the benefit of those particular inventions and that I, personally, being a man, can consider myself responsible for, and honored by, achievements that are peculiar to some men. It is to assume that we can ascribe value to man according to the most distinguished deeds of certain men.”

“That kind of humanism is absurd, for only the dog or the horse would be in a position to pronounce a general judgment upon man and declare that he is magnificent, which they have never been such fools as to do - at least, not as far as I know. But neither is it admissible that a man should pronounce judgment upon Man. Existentialism dispenses with any judgment of this sort: an existentialist will never take man as the end, since man is still to be determined. And we have no right to believe that humanity is something to which we could set up a cult, after the manner of Auguste Comte. The cult of humanity ends in Comtian humanism, shut-in upon itself, and - this must be said - in Fascism. We do not want a humanism like that.”

“But there is another sense of the word, of which the fundamental meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other band, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence.”

“There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) - it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

We find that Sartre rejects any connection between humanism and existentialism if humanism means putting humanity on a pedestal and declaring that, because of the achievement of a few individuals, all human beings are thereby exalted. This is not to deny those achievements or even to deny that any individuals could achieve similar things — on the contrary, this is merely the insistence that no one is made better by anything other than their own actions.

The key, for existentialists, is the ability of people to make the proper choices in their lives. There is no single human nature which limits us in what we can do; according to Sartre, we are all radically free and capable of doing whatever they want. It is the affirmation of humanity’s freedom which, for Sartre, is the only appropriate humanism we should follow.

Existentialism and Darwinism
Initially, at least, there wouldn't appear to be any particular connection between Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and existentialist philosophy — but first impressions can be deceiving. As a matter of fact, there are important connections between the two. This is not to say that there is any sort of causal relationship because existentialism didn't inspire evolution and evolutionary theory didn't help produce existentialism. The relationship between the two is more a matter of spheres of concern and interest.

Evolutionary theory is, obviously enough, about life - and so is existentialism. Indeed, existentialists typically try to distinguish their work from that of other philosophers by emphasizing the fact that they are concerned first and foremost with how a person is to live in today's world.

More than that, however, existentialism is about the struggle to live. This, you may already know, is also the central theme of Darwin's works. Of course, for Darwin the "struggle to live" was a biological issue dealing with how members of different species compete for resources and strive to reproduce. Existentialists, however, have found the similarity between this biological matter and their own philosophical work to be very interesting. To a degree, it has provided a certain level of scientific backing to their insistence that the focus on how people live is of the utmost importance.

A further connection between Darwin's work and existentialism is the manner in which evolutionary theory contradicts certain traditional assumptions about the nature of life. In the past, people assumed that each species was created with a fixed nature. Each was assumed to behave in a fixed and immutable way because that was how God created them and how they had always been since the beginning of time.

Darwin rejected this, arguing in his evolutionary theory that species actually change over time. In the struggle to survive, only those species which are best adapted to their environments survive while the others die. Through the ages, this forces species to change both their physical and behavioral characeristics in order to become better adapted. Thus, there is no "fixed nature" aside, perhaps, from the principle of change and survival.

Obviously this is quite compatible with existentialist philosophy. Most existentialists have argued that we aren't born with a fixed human nature which forces us to act in certain ways and prevents us from acting in other ways. Instead, what we usually see as our "natures" is actually a product of our choices — sometimes even choices we don't realize we are making.

Thus, Darwinian evolution provides some scientific credibility in more than one way to the existentialist position that humans make themselves and remake themselves during their struggle to survive in their day-to-day lives. Not all existentialists are necessarily "staunch Darwinians," however. Although it would be a rare existentialist who rejected the truth of evolutionary theory, there are those who don't regard it as having any real bearing on their philosophy.

Existentialist Aesthetics
Aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty and taste, but few philosophical systems or trends take aesthetics quite as seriously as does existentialism. Aesthetics has traditionally been part of other philosophical pursuits like the investigation of epistemology or ethics. In existentialism, however, art is in some ways the very medium through which philosophy is expressed and communicated.

Because existentialism is treated as a "lived" philosophy that is understood and explored through how one lives their life rather than a "system" that must be studied from books, it is not unexpected that much existentialist thought can be found in literary form (novels, plays) rather than in the traditional philosophical treatises. Indeed, some of the most important examples of existentialist writing are literary rather than purely philosophical.

Heidegger argued that poetry is the highest, most expressive form of art, while Merleau-Ponty argued that painting holds that honor.

Ultimately, though, the forms of art most used by existentialists have been novels and plays. The most famous existentialists — Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus, and Gabriel Marcel — were playwrights and the first three were also novelists.

Sartre, for example, didn't simply write technical works for the consumption of trained philosophers. He was unusual in that he wrote philosophy both for philosophers and for lay people. Works aimed at the former were typically heavy and complex philosophical books while works aimed at the latter were plays or novels.

One common pursuit of existentialists has been journalism. The reason for this is not difficult to discern: a journalist is actively engaged with the world when they write. Indeed, a journalist can even make a difference in the world by reporting on injustices and encouraging action to remedy problems. Because existentialism is treated as a philosophy of living, any pursuit that engages one with life itself will be valued.

It is this "engaged freedom" that is the foundation of existentialist aesthetics. Words are not signs that are isolated from life. Words are images which communicate ideas, thoughts, and feelings. They are tools for exploring and explaining the world around us — not simply to understand it in the abstract, but to engage it concretely and, hopefully, to change it as well.

Sartre wrote in "What is Literature" that “The writer has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the object that has been thus laid bare." We, the readers, are made responsible for what is revealed to us in text. We may not be held responsible for an injustice we are unaware of, but once made aware of it in text we are faced with choosing to act or not to act. Either way, the writer makes us responsible for what happens next.

Thus, a work of art is a product of the artist's freedom which calls out for more freedom on the part of others. It is, moreover, a moral act which calls out for more morality. According to Sartre and other existentialists, good art is always political because it explores a moral issue, assumes a moral position, and demands that viewers or readers do likewise.

Arguably, the world itself is a work of art from the existentialist perspective. It is, after all, a product of human imagination and full of symbols communicating meaning. Unlike traditional works of art, however, the world is never "finished" or completed. It is forever a "work in progress," something which calls out for us to improve. Traditional art is supposed to get us to wake up and doing something in the world around us; seeing the world for what it is should also do the same.
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