Nearly forty years after his death in 1980, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is best remembered as the father of existentialism. We are most familiar with him as the theorist of freedom, authenticity, and bad faith in philosophical treatises such as Being and Nothingness (1943) and literary works such as Nausea (1938) and No Exit (1944). But eclipsed in this popular image is an appreciation of the staggering range of his dozens of volumes of published work, especially the fruit of his political activity from the end of World War II until his death—a period marked most notably by a rich and sustained engagement with Marxism.

Sartre’s work deepens our understanding of how we exercise agency under conditions we do not control.

Far from being consigned to the ash heap of history, the mid-century encounter between Marxism and existentialism remains vital today. As we seek political and philosophical bearings in this time of renewed calls for a socialist alternative to capitalism, postwar efforts to bring Marxism and existentialism together have much to teach us—not only because of the continuing importance of each mode of thought to political thinking and organizing, but also because their interaction in Sartre’s work deepens our understanding of how we exercise agency under conditions we do not control.

Existentialism’s Marxist Turn

The brilliant young Sartre began publishing in 1936 at age thirty-one. Over the next decade he would produce a stream of groundbreaking psychological, philosophical, and literary works and develop strong working relationships with other formidable young Parisian intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir (who would become his lifelong partner) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Initially he showed little theoretical interest in either activism or Marxism. Instead he was passionately attracted to U.S. films and fiction, and he took his theoretical bearings from the German phenomenological philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. His works of this time reveal a young thinker determined to find and forge his own way, to create his own unique approach to the world.

Sartre’s early existentialism—his emphasis on absurdity, freedom, and responsibility—sprang from an individualism that seemed to leave little room for social analysis, the importance of history, or collective action. It was not until the mid-1940s that Sartre began to find his social bearings thanks to two contrary influences: his new friend Albert Camus, and an encounter with Marxist ideas and language. Sartre reviewed Camus’s The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus soon after they were published in 1942, and he met Camus at the dress rehearsal of Sartre’s play The Flies in Paris in 1943. Shortly thereafter Camus became editor of Combat, the clandestine newspaper of one of the largest movements of the French Resistance. After the liberation of France in the summer of 1944, Camus did battle in his Combat editorials with the Communist Party’s Marxism. Much of Sartre’s postwar development took shape self-consciously against these critiques—until a dozen years later he shaped his own non-Communist existential Marxism.

It was Sartre’s discovery of political commitment, socialism, and Marxism that enabled him to move away from the twin impasses immortalized in his precepts “Hell is other people” (No Exit) and “Man is a useless passion” (Being and Nothingness). When he entered the world to stay as a political essayist, dramatist, and social philosopher—as well as an activist—it was in relation to Marxist movements, societies, and ideas. After the Liberation, talk of revolution, the existence of the Soviet Union, and the vitality of the massive French Communist Party (PCF) made it possible for many to believe that, in however distorted and ugly a manner, a better world was coming into being. Both politically and philosophically Sartre became preoccupied with Marxism, and he remained so for three-quarters of his productive life.

Until Marxism did justice to the individual, Sartre contended, existentialism would endure as a semi-autonomous body of thought.

A glimpse of this burgeoning interest in Marxism can be found in Sartre’s French newspaper articles at the time of his visit to the United States in 1945. It was in these pieces, unknown in the United States until 2001 and never republished in French, that he first used Marxist categories to explain U.S. society and its working class. He stressed that U.S. workers were “not yet proletarians” because they were “imprisoned” by individualism and enjoyed “apparent equality.” A few months later came a rather abstract effort in “Materialism and Revolution” to offer existentialism as an alternative to Stalinist Marxism. This essay shows no reading of Marx and Engels—that would not come until its republication in 1949—but it does cite Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). Sartre’s aim was to replace the determinism of Soviet Marxism with the human impulse to transform and create—that is, with freedom—as the basis of revolution. Other signs of a growing attention to politics were apparent; this essay appeared around the same time of his call for writers’ political engagement—for a littérature engagée.

More concrete efforts to dramatize the problems of revolutionary commitment came in the dramatic scenario In the Mesh (1946) and the play Dirty Hands (1948). These were the first years of Sartre’s political activism: in late 1947 he helped to found the short-lived leftist party Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (RDR), which advocated a third way between the ostensibly revolutionary Stalinists of the PCF and the reformist social democrats of the French Section of the Workers’ International. In this intense climate of leftist thought and politics, the journal Les Temps modernes took shape as France’s foremost independent and left-wing publishing venue, with Sartre as its editorial director and Merleau-Ponty as its political editor. Alongside Merleau-Ponty, whom he considered his political mentor, Sartre absorbed the language of Marxism and its ways of understanding history and society. The communists, meanwhile, went so far as to call existentialism “a sordid and frivolous philosophy for sick people.” During these years of growing political engagement Sartre also published two groundbreaking essays on oppression and resistance: Anti-Semite and Jew (1946) and Black Orpheus (1948).

Though Sartre took pains to distinguish existentialism from Stalinist Marxism, potential points of convergence between Marxist and existentialist thinking were already apparent in Being and Nothingness. After all, any reading of Marx would sooner or later have led Sartre to this famous sentence from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” The point was expressed more philosophically in the third of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (1845): “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.” These claims make clear that Marx understood human action as fundamentally self-determining, even if it takes place in circumstances often beyond our control. (The elements of orthodox Marxism that offended Sartre were thus rooted in its Stalinist distortion.)

Sartre’s interest in this relationship between human agency and historical determinism was highlighted in the title he gave to his multivolume collection of essays, Situations, the first volume of which appeared in 1947. Through the concept of “being-in-situation,” Being and Nothingness had explored at length our inescapable human freedom, rooted in the capacity of human consciousness to negate or transcend the “facticity” or givens within which we find ourselves. To say that we are always “in situation” is to attend to the way our actions are constrained by our historical and social reality, from our language, environment, and choices to our class, race, gender, and family upbringing. We are situated, Sartre thus argued—but we are never wholly determined. Freedom, for Sartre, has no meaning outside of concrete situations, however limiting or oppressive they may be. In seeking to understand the circumstances—the situations—of oppression, Sartre enters into ever-deeper contact with Marxist approaches to historical and social structures. The theory of situations had an enormous influence on the intellectual culture of the day; among other afterlives, it would find expression in the Situationist International, the organization of social revolutionaries that helped instigate the student uprisings in 1968.

On clear display during this period was Sartre’s lifelong intellectual independence: he everywhere disavowed dogmatism. True to his philosophical spirit, his political commitments shifted depending on the details of the situation. Though he had helped found the RDR in explicit opposition to the PCF, he later became a fellow traveler of the PCF as it came under siege during the Cold War, but when he did so he was careful to declare that his “agreement with the Communists” was “on certain precise and limited subjects, reasoning from my principles and not theirs.” Around the same time, he forcefully and publicly broke with Camus in 1952, who by then had become bitterly anti-Communist.

The Project of Existential Marxism

Sartre’s philosophical engagement with Marxism became more systematic in the late 1950s. He explicitly declared himself a Marxist in Search for a Method (1957), affirming that Marxism was the “philosophy of our time.” But he also asserted that in the hands of “today’s Marxists”—meaning the PCF—it had stopped developing. Marxism, Sartre argued, needed the kind of rethinking that existentialism could provide. To return to life Marxism had to replace its mechanical determinism with an understanding of what Sartre called human praxis:

Men make their history on the basis of real, prior conditions (among which we would include acquired characteristics, distortions imposed by the mode of work and of life, alienation, etc.), but it is the men who make it and not the prior conditions. Otherwise men would be merely the vehicles of inhuman forces which through them would govern the social world.

Until Marxism did justice to the individual, Sartre contended, existentialism would endure as a semiautonomous body of thought. Here Sartre came into his own as an independent authority on Marxism, spelling out key themes of a method for grasping both one’s social being and one’s individual self-determination. His early stress on freedom remains, but it is now explicitly understood as conditioned by history and society.

These themes were developed at greater length in Critique of Dialectical Reason, for which Search for a Method became the preface. The Critique began from individual praxis and sought to lay Marxism’s philosophical foundations as well as to understand why Marxism had become “frozen.” Volume one—The Theory of Practical Ensembles (1960)abstractly traces the origins of group struggle, describing the steps by which individuals band together to form a revolutionary movement. Whether this was meant to be an actual historical process, the general logic of any revolution, or the itinerary a successful Leninist party must follow was not clear, and Sartre would not live to finish the second volume, which was published posthumously only in 1985. His next major work, The Family Idiot, also combined Marxist and existentialist ideas, demonstrating how a specific individual could be understood through social determinations. In this multivolume biography, the first of which was published in 1971, Sartre showed how the novelist Gustave Flaubert internalized and then “re-exteriorized” social reality in a characteristically modernist, anti-popular withdrawal from the world. Like the Critique, it too would remain unfinished.

Sartre renounces the dream of a utopian transformation that might install once and for all the Kantian Kingdom of Ends.

Taken together, these works—Search for a Method, the Critique, the biography of Flaubert, and many of the essays of Situations—elaborate a theory of existential Marxism. The two -isms were equally important to Sartre. On the one hand, the infusion of existentialism was meant to counteract Marxism’s premature aging, its “sclerosis.” His goal was not to “reject Marxism in the name of a third path or of an idealist humanism, but to reconquer man within Marxism.” Yet true to his existentialist tenets, he insists on seeing human action as praxis—always self-determining, always in situation.

Removing eschatology from Marxist doctrine, Sartre rejects the sense that the riddle of history was about to be solved, that humanity was undergoing a transformation that would at last overcome alienation and realize the meaning of human history. In declaring that “dialectic is not a determinism,” he stressed the subjective dimension of history and renounced the dream of a utopian transformation that might install once and for all the Kantian Kingdom of Ends. There was no question, for Sartre, of adopting the one-way Marxist mechanism whereby “base” determines “superstructure.” Instead he insisted that history is made by human beings and that the future is always open, even if constrained. This stress was meant to correct the abstract and potentially authoritarian cast of Marxism by affirming that subjective action and agency matter as much as objective processes to be grasped by theory and science.

Sartre thus abandoned the Marxist sense of objectivity—inherited from Hegel—that history is composed of general trends working themselves out through human actors. Economic structures do not cause human actions but become interiorized and transcended by humans as they act: “What we call freedom is the irreducibility of the cultural order to the natural order.” Both politically and as a research project, existentialist Marxism now had a clear meaning: placed within social structures that shape and limit them, often oppressing and exploiting them, humans nevertheless signify, surpass, totalize, and transcend.

Philosophy of Our Time?

Sartre’s concern for the relations of free agency and conditioning speak the language of a bygone era. His arguments now appear to many as old-fashioned or even inscrutable, responding to pressures—both historical and intellectual—that have long since faded. With the decline and fall of Communism, the entire Marxist apparatus crumbled. Not only Sartre’s interlocutors, but his kind of interlocutors—the “dialectical materialist” establishment—have passed. Even Sartre himself began to move away from Marxism by the end of his life, partly because blindness prevented him from finishing his two great Marxist treatises, the Critique and The Family Idiot. He also broke with the PCF after it opposed the student uprisings in May 1968; he lost all faith in the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia later that year; and he developed a significant relationship with the anti-Marxist young Maoist revolutionaries who grew out of the student movement.

But as it turns out, the news of Marxism’s death was greatly exaggerated. Now that capitalism has ruled the world unchallenged for a generation, Marxist thinking has seen a popular renewal, increasingly liberated as it has become from the old specters of McCarthyism and the Cold War. It is Sartre who tells us why: “We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.” It is because we have not overthrown capitalism that Marxism endures—as both a philosophical orientation and a political aspiration.

This revival has taken the form not of working-class movements and parties but of revitalized ways of thinking critically about capitalism—its ongoing inequalities and crises. Little wonder that such critique has seen a resurgence after a decade of late-stage austerity capitalism following the Great Recession. Consciousness has been growing, especially among younger generations, that there must be an alternative to capitalism—and that, whatever the specifics, this alternative goes by the name of socialism. For the first time in decades, avowed socialists in the United States and United Kingdom have become a real political force, both locally and nationally. Bernie Sanders put the word “socialism” back into the discourse of national politics, and the Democratic Socialists of America has seen its rosters balloon from 7,000 to more than 50,000 since Donald Trump was elected. Less important than Marx’s specific analyses of the system’s operations is the fact that it is more and more being looked at holistically, structurally, and critically.

In this revival, whether or not a Marxist movement of the working class is in the offing is less important than the fact that the working class and everyone else­—as well as the environment—are in trouble under capitalism. Along with this feeling has come a growing appreciation of the basic insight of historical materialism that Sartre took as given: economic structures and priorities decisively influence both politics and culture, constraining—if not determining—what is possible. Even if Marxism is no longer the philosophy of our time, it is destined to remain a potent source of inspiration for anti-capitalist thinking and organizing.

If this revival of Marxism is to succeed, though, it will once again have to go to school with Sartre—partly because his emphasis on freedom resonates with a distinctively American political culture skeptical of collectivism, and partly because it helps us to understand why Marxism failed. Sartre explored that issue explicitly in the second, unfinished volume of the Critique—how the Bolshevik Revolution become the grave of revolutionary hope, creating one of the twentieth-century’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.

What we most stand to gain from existential Marxism today is a revitalized conception of freedom.

As many black intellectuals have understood, Sartre the existential Marxist is a vital source of self-understanding and inspiration. In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Sartre foregrounded the notion of counter-violence, exploring how the subjects of colonialism could overcome submission, reject complicity, find a voice, and engage in resistance. Stokely Carmichael drew on this Sartre in his famous “Black Power” address in 1966. Indeed, it was Sartre’s theory of freedom that undergirded his fierce partisanship on the side of the oppressed—from Jews in the Holocaust to black Africans under colonialism and French workers so marginalized and exploited that they joined the rigid and bureaucratic Communist Party. The other side of this defense of the oppressed was Sartre’s hatred of oppressors: the bourgeoisie in Nausea, white Southern aristocrats in the United States, French practitioners of torture in Algeria, Americans engaging in genocide in Vietnam, officials of the totalitarian Soviet machine.

What we most stand to gain from existential Marxism today is a revitalized conception of freedom. As I describe in my book We: Reviving Social Hope, Sartre helps us to appreciate how individuals come together to create hope where there was none by acting collectively. Sartre insists that we can always choose, in each and every situation—and that even not to choose is a choice. It is in this sense that Sartre asserts that we are always responsible for ourselves, even as we are oppressed. As he learns from Marxism to appreciate the weighty burdens of history and class, Sartre never abandons this hallmark of his thought. Though he tempers it from abstract and total freedom to concrete and situated freedom after World War II, he insists that what distinguishes humans from stones is that we always make something of what is made of us.

It is understandable that radicals should be divided over this notion of freedom. After all, it asks that we take responsibility for situations we did not create, and then makes us responsible for what we do about them. This may be a hard lesson to swallow, but it serves as a forceful reminder of the undying possibility of active struggle. Resistance springs from the same power of self-determination as do submission and apathy, complicity and resignation. If the individual sometimes yields, complies, accepts much less than half a loaf, at other times she joins with others and breaks out into the open—redefining identities, recasting situations, creating revolutions.

Independent and nonprofit, Boston Review relies on reader funding. To support work like this, please donate here.