The following comments by French philosophical luminary Jean-Paul Sartre were part of a 1969 interview included in the anthology entitled Between Marxism and Existentialism. While we normally do not highlight existential philosophy or existential philosophers, the following comments are noteworthy for the inclusion of Marxist methodology and prescient view with regards to the GPCR. As always, reposting is for educational purposes and does not imply agreement or endorsement. –Nikolai Brown
-There is another dimension of the ‘Critique [de la Raison Dialectique]’ which must be striking for any new reader of it today. The book in some respects appears an anticipation of two of the major historical events of recent years, the May Revolt I France and the Cultural Revolution in China. There are long analyses of the dialectical relationship between class, cadres, trade-unions and political party during factory occupations, taking 1936 as a model, which often seem to prefigure the trajectory of the French proletariat [sic] in May 1968. At the same time, there is a passage where you evoke the official parades in Tien An Minh Square in the Peking of the early sixties as a sort of pyramidal ‘mineralization of man,’ whereby a bureaucratic order manipulates dispersed series beneath it to confer on them a false semblance of groups. Do you then today interpret the Cultural Revolution as an attempt to reverse the deterioration of the Chinese Revolution into a set of bureaucratically institutionalized groups manipulating passive masses, by a sort of gigantic ‘apocalypse’ throughout China which recreates ‘fused groups’ such as once made the Long March and the People’s War- to use the language of the ‘Critique.’
[Sartre] I should say that I regard myself as very inadequately informed about the Cultural Revolution. The specific level of the phenomenon is that of ideology, culture and politics- in other words, superstructures which are the higher instances of any dialectical scale. But what happened at the level of infastructures in China which led to the initiation of this movement in the superstructures? There must have been determinate contradictions at the base of the Chinese socialist economy which produced the movement for a return to something like a perpetual fused group. It is possible that the origins of the Cultural Revolution are to be found in the conflicts over the Great Leap Forward, and the investment policies undertaken at the time: Japanese Marxists have long maintained this. But I nevertheless must confess that I have not succeeded in understand the causes of the phenomenon in it totality. The idea of a perpetual apocalypse is naturally very attractive- but I am convinced that it is not exactly this, and that the infastructural reasons for the Cultural Revolution must be sought.
-You do not think [the] Sino-Soviet conflict was a crucial determinant? Part of the Chinese leadership appears to have consciously been determined to avoid any reproduction of the present state of the USSR in China. Is it necessary to assume insurmountable contradictions within the Chinese economy to explain to Cultural Revolution?
I certainly do not think that the Cultural Revolution is in any way a mechanical reflect of the infastructural contradiction: but I think that to understand it total meaning one should be able to reconstruct the precise moment of the historical process and of the economy at which it exploded. It is perfectly clear, for instance, that Mao was virtually marginalized for a certain period of time and that he has now reassumed power. This change is undoubtedly linked to internal Chinese conflicts, which go back at least to the Great Leap Forward.
Equally striking are the contradictions of the Cultural Revolution. There is a central discordance between the unleashing of mass initiatives and the cult of the leader. On the one side, the is a perpetual maintenance of the fused group with unlimited personal initiative within it, with the possibility of writing anything in big-character posters, even ‘Chou En-lai to the gallows’ – which did in fact happen in Peking; on the other side there is the fetishization of the little red book, read aloud in waiting rooms, in airplanes, in railway stations, read before others who repeat it in chorus, read by taxi-drivers who stop their cab to read it to passengers- a hallucinating collective catcheism which resounds from one end of China to the other.
-Perhaps the paradox of a cultural revolution is that it is ultimately impossible in China, where it was invented, but is somewhat more possible in the advanced countries of the West?
I think that is correct. With one qualification: is a cultural revolution possible without making the revolution? French youth during May wanted a cultural revolution- what was missing for them to achieve one? The ability to make a real revolution. In other words, a revolution which is no way initially cultural, but is the seizure of power by violent class struggle. Which is not to say that the idea of cultural revolution in France is merely a mirage: on the contrary, it expressed a radical contestation of every established value of the university and society, a way of looking at them as if they had already perished. It is very important that this contestation be maintained.
-What were the main lessons of the May Revolt for you?
I have always been convinced that the origins of May lie in the Vietnamese Revolution. For the French students who unleashed the process of May, the Vietnamese war was not merely a question of taking the side of the National Liberation Front or the people of Vietnam against US imperialism. The fundamental impact of the war on European or US militants was its enlargement of the field of the possible. It had previously seemed impossible that the Vietnamese could resist successfully such an enormous military machine and win. Yet that is what they did and by doing so they completely changed the horizon of French students, among others; they now knew that there were possibilities that remained unknown. Not that everything was possible, but that one can only know something is impossible once it has been tried and failed. This was a profound discovery, rich in its eventual consequences and revolutionary in the West. [sic]
Today, over a year later, it is clear that to a certain extent, we discovered the impossible. In particular, as long as the French Communist Party is the largest conservative party in France, and as long as it has the confidence of the workers, it will be impossible to make the free revolution that was missed in May. Which only means that it is necessary to pursue the struggle, however protracted it may be, with the same persistence as the Vietnamese, who after all are continuing to fight and continuing to win.
-May was not a revolution: it did not destroy the bourgeois state. To make the revolution next time, organization will be necessary to coordinate and lead the struggle. What sort of political organization do you judge to be the appropriate instrument today?
It is obvious that anarchism leads nowhere, today as yesterday. The central question is whether in the end the only possible type of political organization is that which we know in the shape of the present CPs: hierarchical division between leadership and rank-and-file, communications and instructions proceeding from above downwards only, isolation of each cell from every other, vertical powers of dissolution and discipline, separation of workers and intellectuals? This pattern developed from a form of organization which was born in clandestinity in the time of the Tsars. What are the objective justifications of its existence in the West today? Its purpose here appears merely to ensure an authoritarian centralism which excluded any democratic practice. Of course, in a civil war situation, a militarized discipline is necessary. But does a proletarian party have to resemble the present-day Communist Parties? Is it not possible to conceive of a type of political organization where men [sic] are not barred and stifled? Such an organization would contain different currents, and would be capable of closing itself in moments of danger, to reopen thereafter.
It is always true, of course, that to fight something one must change oneself into it; in other words one must become its true opposite and not merely other that it. A revolutionary party must necessarily reproduce – up to a certain limit – the centralization and coercion of the bourgeois state which it is its mission to overthrow. However, the whole problem – the history of our country is there to prove it – is that once a party dialectically undergoes this ordeal, it may become arrested there. The result is then that it has enormous difficulty in ever escaping from the bureaucratic rut which it initially accepted to make revolution against a bureaucratic-military machine. From that moment on, only a cultural revolution against the new order can prevent the degradation of it. It is not a benevolent reform that is occurring in China today, it is the violent destruction of the whole system of privilege. Yet we know nothing of what the future will be in China. The danger of a bureaucratic deterioration will be powerfully present in any Western country, if we succeed in making the revolution: that is absolutely inevitable, since both external imperialist encirclement and the internal class struggle will continue to exist. The idea of an instant and total liberation is a utopia. We can already foresee some of the limits and constraints of a future revolution. But he who takes these as an excuse not to make the revolution and who fails to struggle for it now, is simply a counter-revolutionary…
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Between Marxism and Existentialism. Translated by John Mathews. Morrow Paperback Editions.1976. p 57-61