I believe that one of the consistent misunderstandings of Sartre’s ‘Existential Marxism’ as laid out in CDR is that somehow Sartre was seeking to ‘existentialize’ Marxist theory. This thought is common among readers of CDR who, I believe, have read roughshod over this text and/or tried too hard to retrofit CDR into Sartre’s existentialist oeuvre. While Sartre clearly does intend to dialectically tether these two seemingly disparate tendencies together, he takes a unique course in doing so.
Rather than simply trying to utilize the early Marx and rather than simply trying to supplement what is commonly understood as Marxist analysis with his existentialist notions, what Sartre is doing is something much more grandiose. He is seeking to enrich what might be called a ‘Marxist paradigm’ with existentialist concerns. What this means is that Sartre is not seeking to ‘existentialize’ Marxism per se, but is rather working within a historico-philosophical paradigm that he describes as Marxist.
See, for Sartre there is a sharp distinction to be made between ‘philosophy’ and ‘ideology’. Whereas the former bears the characteristics of novelty and dominance, the latter is defined as working within the framework of philosophy. Philosophy is the schema in which ideology finds itself and to which ideology responds. By analogy, we could say that ideology is philosophy’s accident. As such, Sartre gives examples of a few ‘moments’ of philosophy: a ‘Descartes and Locke moment’, a ‘Kant and Hegel moment’, and a ‘Marx moment.’ The latter is the moment in which Sartre himself believed he resided (whether or not he was correct or whether we are still in the ‘Marx moment’ is a topic for another time…). Thus, any and all thinkers of a given period are unable to surpass this paradigm in which they find themselves – whether they realize this or not. This means that Kierkegaard, for Sartre, was not a philosopher, but an ideologist living in the moment of Hegel. And as an ideologist (a ‘good’ ideologist in Sartre’s mind), K was therefore necessarily only ever enriching the Hegelian paradigm. Likewise, Sartre saw himself and his contemporaries as living in, and enriching a Marxist paradigm (and I’m intentionally NOT using ‘Marxian’ to show a distinction between the work of Marx himself and the tradition of Marxist thought, as well as to highlight the even larger framework of the ‘Marxist moment’). This means that when Sartre talks about ‘Marxism’ embracing existentialism so that the former might ‘rediscover man in the social world’ he has in mind NOT Marxism as the tradition passed down through those concerned merely with Marxian ideas, as though he believed that Marx’s writings needed to be supplemented by a thorough reading of Being and Nothingness. Nor was he merely criticizing the Marxist thinkers of his day (the so called ‘economic determinists’). Rather, he meant that existentialism is crucial insofar as it would disrupt the dominant philosophical paradigm of the day, which he characterized as ‘Marxist.’ Now understanding what this ‘Marxist moment’ actually consisted of is a painstaking task that exceeds the grasp of a blog entry. But suffice it to say, in the least, that the ‘Marxist moment’ that Sartre had in mind was something much grander than just what is generally thought of when we use the label ‘Marxism’ – perhaps it is best described as an epoch… And as such, existentialism is not merely a supplement to Marx’s thought, nor was it intended by Sartre to be a response to Althusser (although this was a byproduct). Instead, it’s best to think of Sartre’s ‘Existential Marxism’ as an enriching of the dialectical moment in which he found himself; the situation in which he was determined to respond – the Marxist moment.
Therefore, when writers like Edouard Morot-Sir claim that ‘It is difficult to imagine the Marxist philosopher existentializing himself, and the reverse’ I can’t help but think there has been a serious oversight in the analysis. By bringing man into the social world, Sartre was NOT suggesting that the ‘Marxist’ existentialize himself. He was calling for an enriching thought that would flow in novel directions, emerging out of situations of exigence, situations that demanded new ways of thinking and living in the world.