Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Lithuania (photo by Antanus Sutkus, 1965)

Individualism or class struggle?

René Gimpel examines the philosophical and political development of Jean-Paul Sartre, and his fraught relationship with the French Communist Party

Last year the North American Sartre Society held its annual meeting in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The conference theme was ‘Existentialism and Resistance’, motivated perhaps by the resurgence of rightwing politics around the world. Over three days, 60 papers were delivered dealing with World War II, ethics, racism, sexism and current American politics. The thread linking each presentation was the writings and political engagement of Jean-Paul Sartre and of his companion and intellectual peer: philosopher, feminist and author Simone de Beauvoir.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1906-80) was a French philosopher, author, playwright, script writer, literary critic, magazine and newspaper editor, and commentator. From World War II until the end of his life, he was a political agitator for multiple radical causes, a public intellectual. Having grown up in a conventional middle class family, Sartre became interested in philosophy as a student at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, attending the weekly seminars offered by Alexandre Kojiève.1 Following a posting to the French Institute in Berlin in 1933, Sartre studied Edmund Husserl, a leading exponent of phenomenology. Husserl and his student, Martin Heidegger, became significant influences over Sartre’s development.


Phenomenology was a branch of philosophy whose adherents considered it to be the foundation of all philosophies - a precursor to ethics, metaphysics or epistemology. It aimed to invert the tradition that philosophy looked to explain the world ‘out there’; instead, it cast all investigation in the living subject, who experiences the existing world as an intentional project pertaining to the self. Jean-Paul Sartre’s contribution was to frame phenomenology as existentialism - a philosophy for which he became the byword.

For Sartre, consciousness is neither a separate state of mind nor a part of the mind/body duality, which Descartes had championed. Being accompanies all phenomena as their existential dimension. Consciousness is ‘consciousness of’ - a plenitude in which the self is in an ‘always already thinking’ mode, enacting itself in the world. In Sartre, it is not the ‘I’ that is engaged with my body in an interaction with a ‘there’ out in the world, as these are considered loose and inaccurate explanations of what really occurs: instead, the self is glued to the existent as an ever-present reality. It (the self) is the existent in various modes of living it. Consciousness is embodied (in the world), and equally body is infused with consciousness (with cognition of the world).

A first principle is that existence precedes essence. Humans exist without any essence (or meaning) attached to them, because there is no god to provide such essence. Instead, humans must forge their own identity, their own destiny. They become the sum total of their acts, their decisions, their behaviour. This, precisely, is what characterises the human. In religion, a deity replaces humans as the holder of what it is to be human, because, for most monotheistic religions, God created the human, such that each person is the particular concept of a universal concept. The ‘essence’, human, precedes their existence, each individual being a representation of this universal essence.2

For existentialism, there is no meaningful description of humans as an abstract entity: they are no more than their projects, defined by their choice of action, by the decisions they make to realise themselves in the world. To the challenge that an individual did not succeed in their project to find the love of their life/the job of their dreams because circumstances were against them, the existentialist replies that such a person cannot define themselves through their lack of opportunities, say, but solely through what they did achieve. Whatever that was, that is what defines them. The genius of Einstein is not that he was the distillation of genius: instead it is measured in the totality of the theorems he left behind. In other words, Einstein is the sum total of his achievements, whatever they may be; and so are all humans. In realising themselves, humans realise the ‘who’ of their existence, which otherwise appears to them as meaningless.

The basis of Sartrean freedom is ontological: we are free because we are not a self (an ‘in itself’) but a ‘presence to self’ (the transcendence or ‘nihilation’ of our self). We are responsible for our world as the horizon of meaning in which we operate and thus for everything in it, insofar as their meaning and value are assigned by virtue of our life-orienting fundamental choice. Existentialism, as expounded by Sartre, was also perceived to be a pessimistic philosophy, because, in reducing the human being to an intentional ‘for itself’, permanently set against an ‘in itself’ of the material world, the Other, or other person, was always in the position of being also categorised as an ‘in itself’: that is, subject to each person’s attempt to reduce the other to the fixity of an ‘in itself’, while escaping a reciprocal attempt by the other to do likewise.3 Sartre was driven to give a talk, ‘Existentialism is a humanism’, to attempt a refutation of this charge of negativity.


Sartre was serving in the French army at the outbreak of World War II and was imprisoned, along with hundreds of thousands of others, after France’s defeat. He was released in 1941 and returned to occupied Paris, where he set about forming a resistance cell, along with Simone de Beauvoir and a handful of other intellectuals and academics. The group was grandly titled Socialisme et Liberté, but, apart from some hazardous distribution of leaflets on the Parisian metro, it achieved little and was soon wound up. Sartre approached the French Communist Party, wishing to join its network, but was rebuffed. For a while he took up a teaching post in a lycée and this appointment led to post-war controversy, when it was discovered, long after his death, that Sartre had replaced a teacher dismissed under Vichy laws for being Jewish.

European countries that suffered German occupation have had to wrestle with an historical problem, which the UK avoided: which citizens collaborated with the occupant, which ones resisted, and in each case, by how much? Given that there are still protagonists alive in both camps, the subject is a delicate one and not just for the small number of remaining participants. With the war ending, in country after country legal and extra-legal executions of known collaborators rose dramatically, though plenty managed to evade punishment: for example, Coco Chanel was heavily involved in collaboration and fled to Switzerland until the furore died down.

As might be expected, high-profile or public figures who had chosen the wrong camp, paid for their choice when the Nazis were defeated, whereas the real culprits - owners of capitalist enterprises which furnished the German war effort with their material needs - mostly managed to escape with little more than censure or confiscation of their assets. Louis Renault, the car manufacturer, had his firm nationalised as punishment for his war work for the German armed forces.

The vast majority of nationals in occupied Europe neither resisted nor collaborated. They adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude, kept their heads down and worked, as their countries’ economies - bled white by German expropriations and increasing war-related violence - made lives miserable. In Holland and for a time in France, the populations began to starve, while in war-torn Italy an epidemic of typhus threatened until treated by the Allies after Italy was liberated.

The question posed by the Sartre symposium was, did he or did he not collaborate? The consensus is that, despite producing a couple of plays and his first important philosophical work, all of which passed the German censor, Sartre could not be considered a collaborator. He published in Comaedia, a cultural journal authorised by the Germans; but he also wrote for clandestine resistance publications. During the occupation, all printing facilities of any kind, plus ink and paper, were severely restricted, if not forbidden; and permission to use them in any capacity depended on the authorities. Even to get their leaflets and tracts printed, Socialisme et Liberté had to beg sympathetic print workers. Such workers worried that gimlet-eyed German overseers and French collaborators would scrutinise the tracts looking for tell-tale typeset anomalies and compare them to the authorised newspapers and magazines emerging from those same presses. Getting caught printing such tracts or distributing them on the metro resulted in dispatch to a concentration camp or execution.


After the war, Sartre and de Beauvoir set up Les Temps Modernes - a journal of cultural and political critique, which is still published today. They and others wrote prolifically. Unlike his contemporaries at the journal, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus, Sartre was steadily moving to the radical left. He became embroiled in a series of political and cultural disputes. The most important concerned his relationship to the Parti Communiste Français (PCF).

The communists had emerged heroes of the resistance, even though the recognised head of the unified French resistance groups was general Charles de Gaulle, who operated from London throughout most of the war. French communists had borne the brunt of reprisals and executions exacted by the Nazis, but they finished the war with a solid cadre of highly trained fighters. This worried Churchill, Eisenhower and de Gaulle, because at the Tehran conference in 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed on their post-war spheres of influence. France and Italy, where communist partisans were particularly strong, were to be included in the Anglo-American sphere and not the Soviet one. De Gaulle understood that, unless he quickly established a government in liberated France, communists might be in a position to set one up themselves.

Sartre’s wartime experiences had radicalised him, but his outlook as the leading exponent of the new philosophy of existentialism, put him at odds with the communists.4 He attempted to set up a rival political party to theirs, without success. In part this was because Sartre held an ambiguous position - in favour of the working class and its historical representative, the PCF, while developing his own philosophy. French communists mistrusted existentialism not only for its reliance on individualism rather than class struggle, but also for its success among the young, including the young working class. During the war, the clandestine PCF had not had time to prepare many of its young recruits for the disciplined obedience it had come to expect. There was alarm at the attractions of a philosophy of freedom and Sartre was branded a counterrevolutionary.

The PCF, the most Stalinist in western Europe, denounced Heidegger because of his erstwhile allegiance to the Nazi Party. Sartre’s belief that people were condemned to a realm of total freedom, a necessary contingency, in which choices had to be constantly reviewed and assessed, led the PCF’s daily L’Humanité to pose the question, ‘What sort of person makes a decision each morning between communism and fascism?’

If the tenets of existentialism rested largely on the behaviour of the individual rather than the group and, though Sartre defended his views in Les Temps Modernes, in reality his politics were shifting. Sartre underscores the harsh facts of oppression and exploitation that were not erased by the upheaval of world war. Ours remains ‘a society based on violence.’ Accordingly, the author is responsible for addressing that violence with a counter-violence (for example, by a choice of topics to discuss) or sharing in it by remaining silent.

The France of Sartre and de Beauvoir was a violent place. For 23 years, from 1939 to 1962, France was almost permanently at war - the German occupation was followed by long colonial wars in Indochina, then Algeria and other Maghreb countries. Sartre was concerned to try to explain the roots of this violence. His preface to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth argues that the violence of the colonised is ‘our’ violence turned back against us.

Sartre now began to outflank the PCF in his defence of liberation movements - those against colonial France as well as other imperial nations. In November 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent, which posed a quandary for the PCF. It had elected members in the restored national assembly in Paris, as well as ministers in the first post-war government. While the PCF and L’Humanité had lauded Vietnamese resistance to Japanese occupation and to the pro-Axis collusion of the Vichy regime, the party considered that Vietnam should now re-enter the natural order of French colonies. By the spring of 1947, PCF members had quit their ministerial posts and this allowed them to shift position, though only to the extent of calling on the French to support ‘peace’ in Vietnam.

Sartre and other intellectuals had joined the peace movement, leading by example in their denunciation of France’s neo-colonial project. Docker members of the CGT, the largest and communist-controlled trade union federation, refused to load or unload weapons destined for Indochina. In 1954, French armed forces suffered a catastrophic defeat in Vietnam at Dien Ben Phu,5 which brought down the government. In the same year, the neophyte Algerian National Liberation Front (FNL) staged its first uprising against French colonial occupation.

From now on and for the most part, Sartre’s political engagement ran in parallel to those of the PCF, with important exceptions. Both backed the Cuban revolution, as well as other wars of national liberation. Sartre denounced the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which saw a slew of PCF members resign from the party - a not uncommon experience in European pro-Soviet parties of the period. The next crisis and political divergence between Sartre and the PCF arose over the question of Algeria. This period also marked an important shift in Sartre’s philosophical reassessment of his existentialism. Perhaps because he could not envisage any historical movement of liberation outside Marxism and because he considered a communist party to be the essential vehicle for political change, Sartre remained umbilically tied to the PCF, even if he never became a member.

Sartre and de Beauvoir travelled extensively in the Soviet Union, to the Soviet bloc countries and to the emerging nations of the ‘third world’. Sartre now rejected the existentialism he had developed in Being and nothingness and never completed the planned second volume.6 Where he had expounded his thesis that humans act out in a contingent world, consciously and therefore in either good or bad faith, Sartre now realised that political engagement would have to transcend individual commitment and recognise that the ‘group in action’, or ‘group in fusion’ was a more important concept to understand the reality of class struggle and revolution. He also wrote that the choice of action demanded of a French citizen could not be compared to the choices facing an oppressed, exploited peasant in a colonial country. Though Sartre had, by 1957, decisively broken with the Soviet Union and its official Marxism, he nonetheless declared Marxism “the philosophy of our time” and declared the need to resuscitate it from the moribund state that Soviet dogma had left it in - a need he attempted to answer in Critique of dialectical reason, published in 1960.

In the Critique another ontological form appears: the ‘mediating’ third that denotes the group member as such and yields a collective subject without reducing the respective agents to mere ciphers of some collective consciousness. In other words, Sartre accords an ontological primacy to individual praxis, while recognising its enrichment in group participation. He acknowledges that scarcity and existing social and historical conditions are preponderant factors in shaping action.

Inventing neologisms, Sartre repeatedly uses terms such as the ‘group in fusion’ for conscious class action; ‘totalisation’ for the activity of people maintaining a common practice without which, to use Sartre’s term, it would “erode” and fragment. Endlessly circling Marxism without being willing or able to abandon existentialism, what we have here is not alienation as the condition of an oppressed class, but an alienated human being and an alienated human species. Sartre sees the Stalinist apotheosis of the Russian Revolution as a Thermidorean moment - the moment that fails revolutionary movements, because the ‘group in fusion’ has evolved into an institutional ‘pratico-inert’, ossified human activity. It is sedimented in the form of routine, hierarchical, rule-governed, bureaucratic patterns of social activity.

After 835 pages, again Sartre ends his second magnum opus with a claim that the next volume would carry the argument further.

Algerian crisis

The 1954-62 Algerian conflict with France was to make of Sartre a prominent figure battling for Algeria. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Camus - a pied noir (Algerian-born French, as were Althusser and Derrida), who wanted reconciliation between Algerian Arabs and French settlers - Sartre gave unequivocal support to the Front de Libération National (FLN).

Henri Alleg, a French Algerian and member of the Algerian Communist Party, was arrested and tortured by the French army. Alleg wrote a book about that experience - La question, for which Sartre wrote the preface. After its publication in February 1958, the government banned it and seized it from bookstores. Sartre wrote about the incident in the weekly L’Express: that magazine too was seized. The publisher, Jérôme Lindon, mounted a petition to protest the censorship of the book, which Camus refused to sign.

Sartre ultimately paid a price for his involvement in the movement: his apartment was bombed twice by French paramilitaries in 1961 and 1962, as was the office of his magazine, Les Temps Modernes. As for the PCF, in 1955 it had complained against charges of disloyalty to the Algerians. In L’Humanité, it declared: “Have we not already shown that we support a policy of negotiation with the peoples of north Africa for the creation of a true ‘union française’?”

It would take years for the PCF to come round and offer unconditional support for Algerian Independence. Years in which 280,000 military and civilian deaths occurred, in which de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 with the help of the army, after a threatened military takeover - a return in which de Gaulle engineered a new, fifth republic with greatly enhanced presidential powers.7 De Gaulle had beguiled the army and French Algerians by proclaiming, “I understand you”, but they soon realised he intended something different: he was ready to negotiate with the FLN. When the military realised their error, a large number of them began plotting anew and created a ‘secret army’, the OAS, which attempted to assassinate the president and to rally French troops to a military dictatorship which would attempt to seize power in Paris.8

Throughout this tense and threatening period, the PCF remained unable to capitalise on what should have been considered a crisis of capitalism and its institutions. Instead of agitating for a radical, even revolutionary, overthrow of these institutions, it remained paralysed, trying to rally the masses to a defence of the spent fourth republic.

In a future article, I will discuss Sartre’s later political evolution, with special reference to the events of May 1968 and its fallout.


1. Graduates from the ‘Ecole Sup’, as it was known, include Louis Pasteur, Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Aimé Césaire, Emile Durkheim, Pierre Bourdieu and Thomas Picketty. Though not a graduate, the Irish Nobel laureate (and French wartime resistance hero), Samuel Beckett, taught at the school.

2. See D Alderson and R Spencer (eds) For humanism: explorations in theory and politics London 2017.

3. Ibid.

4. Even if, later on, Deleuze wrote: “In the disorder of the liberation, everything was rediscovered and everything was filtered through Sartre.”

5. Many of the soldiers in the regular French army and Foreign Legion on Vietnamese soil were volunteers and not conscripts. They exchanged prison, where they had been incarcerated for violent forms of collaboration with the Nazis, for the chance to fight against colonial populations, whom they were only too happy to see subjugated once again to French rule.

6. At the end of 600 pages, Sartre’s last sentence announces his intention to carry on the argument in a further volume, which never appeared.

7. These powers are being used to the full by Emmanuel Macron and, had Jean-Luc Mélanchon won the 2017 presidential election instead, he had vowed to abrogate presidential powers in a new, sixth republic.

8. The present writer’s father had been decorated personally by de Gaulle for wartime resistance activities, but had turned against the general when he assumed the presidency in 1958. However, after the OAS threatened its seizure of power in 1961, he informed my family that if need be he would rejoin de Gaulle in uniform.