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Jean-Paul Sartre

Happy Birthday: Critique of Dialectical Reason!

Originally published: Verso Books by Robert Boncardo (August 4, 2020)   | 

Celebrating its sixtieth birthday this year, and enjoying a new print run thanks to Verso Books, the first volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason remains an enigma. Sartre is incontestably one of the 20th century’s most famous thinkers. Yet the Critique is perhaps the biggest flop in all of modern French philosophy. While very few people might have actually read Being and Nothingness cover to cover, it at least has a place on a large number of readers’ bookshelves. By contrast, almost no-one owns a copy of Sartre’s Critique. Should anyone bother engaging with its eight-hundred pages of nearly impenetrable prose today? I think so. In fact, I believe that the Critique’s insights into self, society and struggle all remain to be discovered and digested, in a world where its lessons are more vital than ever. What follows is a brief tour of the book’s main landmarks, which will hopefully help more readers explore this unfamiliar continent of Sartrean thought.

Dialectical Materialism

What is the Critique about? In a word, Marxism. While Sartre famously argued that Marxism was the unsurpassable horizon of our time,[1] he also thought that its fundamental concepts remained obscure. To remedy this, in the Critique Sartre presents an account of self and society that is far more abstract than Marx’s, but which in his eyes helps illuminate many of the dynamics that Marxists are most concerned with, chief among them class struggle.

The best way into the Critique’s complex movement is through the paradox of its title. How can one critique—that is, limit—dialectical reason if dialectics is a logic of totality, indeed of the totality? Sartre’s opening gambit is to claim, against Engels and some later Marxists, that the nature studied by scientists isn’t remotely dialectical: only human action is (27-32, 83-88). In other words, the sole domain in which the category of totality has any meaning—totality being the fundamental concept of dialectics—is human existence. For Sartre, we are fundamentally future- or goal-oriented beings: we perform all of our acts in light of an end. Sartre’s innovation in the Critique is to claim that this is what makes human action dialectical: the aim of our activity is a totality, while the steps we take to achieve it are this totality’s parts (80-83). Dialectics, as a logic of part-whole relations, can thus be applied to human action. By contrast, the objects that scientists study aren’t dialectical at all. Take a compound like water, with its two elements hydrogen and oxygen. In a part-whole dialectic, parts exist only insofar as they are parts of, precisely, a whole. Yet the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up water obviously exist in abstraction from this compound, which is therefore not a whole but rather an aggregate. Finally, while human action is oriented towards the future, physical objects are moved by causes flowing from the past.

Naturally, Sartre recognises that we too are physical beings. Indeed, if we are to act on the world to fulfill our needs we must use our bodies as mechanical systems. Pursuing our ends dialectically means engaging with inert matter. Yet this leads to what Sartre considers an absolutely fundamental form of alienation, which he explains most powerfully in the Critique through the example of deforestation in early to mid-20th century China (161-163). Sartre notes that when an individual farmer cuts down trees, they are acting dialectically—that is, in light of an end, which is here the transformation of virgin forest into arable land. At the same time, their action is inscribed in inert matter, which is indifferent to the farmer’s future-oriented project and is subject to the reign efficient causality. At this level, the farmer’s activity loosens the soil, which eventually ends up in the river system. Over time, this soil collects at certain points, raising the water level and producing the floods that ultimately destroy the farmer’s crops. While for the farmer cutting down a tree was an entirely positive achievement, its inscription in inert matter meant that it produced an outcome that was the exact opposite of what he intended to achieve.

Worked Matter and Its Exigencies

Our engagement with inert matter isn’t always so negative, however. For instance, by creating tools—themselves physical objects—we can better manipulate our surrounding environment. Sartre calls any entity produced by human beings to achieve a certain end “worked matter” (71, 122-3, 152, 185-6). With worked matter, a peculiar inversion seems to occur: the physical object becomes like a human subject since it projects a possible future and summons the subject to bring it about. While the subject is active in creating the tool, they are now passive since they must do whatever worked matter demands: they must respond to what Sartre calls its “exigencies” (186-193). Sartre insists that worked matter not only produces the subject’s actions: it also motivates their thoughts. Sartre’s key example here is the anarcho-syndicalist ideology of workers in a late-19th century factory operating with a universal machine like a lathe (239-246). Since such a machine implies a division and hierarchy of labour—a single, highly-skilled worker operates the machine while a small army of unskilled workers supports them—it seems to produce two different humanities, one of which comes to appear as more worthy of respect than the other, and whose exploitation is therefore more egregious. This idea then feeds into workers’ militancy, with skilled workers taking on leadership roles and often showing contempt for their less skilled comrades. Far from reflecting the workers’ spontaneous ideas about humanity and politics, however, these ideas are in fact the machine’s ideas, which the workers interiorise in their engagement with worked matter’s exigencies.


So far Sartre’s concepts make explicit what he believes to be the foundations of Marx and Engels’ historical materialism, as they present it in a work like The German Ideology. Humans are creatures of need who persevere in their being by engaging with inert matter and transforming it into tools. In turn, these tools produce distinctions between people and the ideologies that justify them. Where Sartre takes a step beyond Marx in these early stages of the Critique is in his analysis of a second—but this time contingent—form of alienation, following the subject’s unavoidable entanglement with inert matter. This second form of alienation is scarcity. For some readers, the central place Sartre accords scarcity in the Critique makes him a de facto apologist for capitalism and the artificial species of scarcity it produces. Sartre plays a double game here. On the one hand, he recognises that scarcity is an historical product, and he takes care to map the convoluted dialectic of its various forms, which run from a scarcity of goods relative to human beings, to a scarcity of human beings relative to goods, and finally to one of the most perverse forms that scarcity takes in capitalism: a simultaneous scarcity of consumers in relation to certain goods, which consumers can’t afford, and a scarcity of available goods in relation to the population as a whole (125-152). This is the form that scarcity took during, say, the Great Famine in Ireland in the years 1845-1849. On the other hand, Sartre’s hypothesis—which, admittedly, he doesn’t make much effort to test in the Critique—is that all historical forms of scarcity, including capitalism’s, are products of collective responses to the first form of scarcity: a lack of goods relative to human beings (125-6). Readers will have to do their own research to verify or reject Sartre’s claim.

Where Sartre’s account of scarcity becomes more fruitful is in his analysis of the triple form of alienation it produces (129-132). First, scarcity means I am alienated from the world, which poses a risk to my existence insofar as it might refuse to provide the resources I need to survive. Second, scarcity means I am alienated from others, who become my enemies insofar as they could consume the resources I need. And third, scarcity means I am alienated from myself as well since in consuming an object of vital necessity I increase the unbearable pressure of scarcity: there is now one less good available. While my action usually serves to sustain my existence, in a milieu of scarcity it rebounds and puts me at an ever greater risk of death.

A New Social Ontology

Sartre’s analysis of scarcity brings the social dimension of his work in the Critique into focus for the first time. To fully appreciate his revision of Marxism, however, we must now to turn to the two wholly original concepts he develops in this book: “seriality” and the “group”. I mentioned above that Sartre refuses the idea that nature—or the universe as a whole—is dialectical, and argues instead that only human action is. Crucially, however, this doesn’t mean that society is dialectical; that it is a whole with various interlocking parts. On the contrary, Sartre’s claim is that society is in fact a complex web of relations between series and groups, neither of which are totalities. Indeed, Sartre’s argument is that it’s only by conceiving of society in this way that we can make sense of what Marxists mean by class struggle, as we will see further on.


Let’s begin with the concept of seriality. At the most general level, to act in seriality is to act as an abstract other would act in response to the impersonal exigency emitted by worked matter. When I respond to worked matter’s exigencies, I mould my body and manipulate my thoughts so that I become the ideal other who can best actualise the schema of thought or action that is potential in worked matter. Take Sartre’s famous example of waiting for a bus in Paris (254-265). In this example, it is the bus that sets the parameters for how people are to engage with it in pursuit of their individual ends. But what’s more important than the way worked matter abstracts from people’s particularity is the way it compels them to submit to it. In seriality, I not only do what the abstract other would do in response to worked matter’s exigencies: I do it because the other could and would do it in my place. If I fail to submit to worked matter, I simply lose my place in the series—in the queue to catch the bus. We can see here how seriality is very often linked to scarcity: if there aren’t enough seats for everyone, then there’s even more pressure to respond to the exigencies that the bus emits. Scarcity is not essential, however, to seriality’s coercive force. What is most fundamental is that in responding to some serial law, I know that an indefinite series of others can and will follow it, irrespective of what I do.

While Sartre’s bus stop example seems trivial, he shows that the same dynamics are at play in phenomena such as the labour market (311-313), crises of inflation (178-179, 289-294), and capitalist accumulation (743-749). Workers submit to the logic of the labour market because they know that if they don’t, others will. In inflation, if I fear that the buying power of my money is going to fall, then I either quickly raise my prices or stock essential goods, all before similarly-placed others do the same—even if these acts end up worsening the very inflation that I think I’m taking precautions against. Likewise, as a capitalist, there would be no point to accumulation unless I knew that other capitalists were accumulating too, and would do so irrespective of how I, as an individual, chose to behave.

What Sartre notices, uniquely, about each of these examples is that everyone in a series—in a bus queue, in a job market, in an economy—is equally impotent. Each individual submits because their individual resistance would be ineffective. Yet it is precisely this reciprocal impotence that gives the series its extraordinary coercive power. In seriality, human action takes on all of the features of inert matter: the behavior of one serialised individual is caused by another, equally inert individual, whose own action has been caused in the same way, and so on to infinity. Sartre’s claim that a series is infinite is not an idle one (275-276). While the pressure of scarcity shows that finitude is crucial to a series’ structure, the more important fact is that there cannot be a definite limit to the number of people who engage with the series. If Sartre sometimes calls this indefinite number an infinite one, it is because in tracking down the origin of seriality’s coercive power, one can only ever be lead from one individual to the next, endlessly: the force of the series always emanates from somewhere else. This is why Sartre believes that the category of totality is inadequate for understanding the capitalist process. Exploitation, and with it accumulation, can occur only because of seriality (744). Yet unlike a totality—where the whole’s power is present in each of its parts—in a series power is always elsewhere: it resides in none of the terms of the series.


The final feature of seriality to note is that while each individual in a series pursues their own end—which, if scarcity is involved, fundamentally conflicts with the ends of others—all together the series can appear as if it were pursuing a common aim. Sartre gives a disturbing example of such dynamics occurring during the Spanish gold crisis of the 16th and 17th centuries (165-178). With inflation spiraling out of control and employers cutting wages decade after decade, disease, famine and death began to spread throughout the working population. Yet the drop in the number of workers ultimately leads to an increase in wages, almost as if the workers had banded together to fight back against their employers. Sartre’s point here is that at no stage in this process were the individuals involved pursuing a common aim—neither the merchants who imported gold from the Americas to enrich themselves, and who then suffered an inflationary crisis, nor the workers who saw their wages first decline then suddenly spike. What caused this process was the fact of innumerable individuals acting in seriality and externalising their actions in inert matter—in gold and silver coins, in the fragile bodies of workers—which, like the soil tilled by the Chinese farmer, imbibed their actions before sending them back in an inverted form: a lethal, impersonal, yet directed force. It doesn’t take much to realise that the logic Sartre describes here—a logic he calls “counter-finality” (193-195)—is the exact same logic that presides over climate change.

The Group-in-Fusion

Fortunately for us all, however, seriality is only one half of Sartre’s account of society in the Critique. Indeed, if there were only seriality, there would be no class struggle in the Marxist sense. Halfway through the Critique, Sartre makes an abrupt shift and begins analysing what he calls the group and its various derivative forms: the “group-in-fusion”, the “pledged group”, the “organisation”, and the “institution”. Starting with his breathtaking narration of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Sartre shows how a series is suddenly transformed into the simplest group form: a group-in-fusion (351-363). Against any revolutionary romanticism, Sartre insists that when Parisians started to loot the city’s armories after hearing news that royalist troops were surrounding Paris, they did so initially in a serial panic. Rather than working together, Parisians saw each other as a risk to their individual survival: the scarcity of arms meant that those who succeeded in obtaining them had effectively taken them from others who hadn’t—individuals who now faced a more certain death. If Parisians were to resist the royalists troops as part of a common action, then a radical—indeed intrinsically improbable—mutation in their social relations would have to take place. First, one or many of them would have to offer a directive, such as taking the Bastille, which, if followed, would increase the collective’s chances of survival. The problem with such a directive, however, is that it is always a safer bet not to follow it. If I leave the series, then someone else will take my place; and if nothing comes of the proposed common action, then I will have missed my one shot at survival. In short, once a directive like taking the Bastille is issued, following it means making the hazardous wager that others will refuse the logic of seriality—and do so against, in a sense, their objective interests.

Once beyond this event-like moment, however, a group-in-fusion emerges as a common attempt to achieve a common aim: here, taking the Bastille. There are two key transformations that take place at this point (382-404). First, where in seriality the weight of numbers was the key factor in my impotence, in a group the presence of others expands my power: we become capable of things that were impossible for us in isolation. Second, while as a member of a series I could only ever align myself with the law, in a group I can use my initiative to respond to changing circumstances and suggest to the group a plan of action. As Sartre explains, in a group-in-fusion, each individual can occupy what he calls the position of the “quasi-sovereign” (579): the group’s momentary leader. Unlike in seriality, where power is always elsewhere, in a group the destiny of its action is decided in the here and now—in the power of each individual’s common action.

Does this mean that while a series is infinite, a group is a totality? No: the members of a group-in-fusion are never perfectly-integrated parts. Rather, as Sartre explains, they are better described as having a relation of simultaneous “transcendence” and “immanence” with respect to the group (374-382). When an individual issues a directive, they transcend the group momentarily since they manipulate it from the outside as if it were an instrument. And when the same individual follows a directive given by another quasi-sovereign, they shift from this relation of transcendence to one of immanence. What’s significant about this oscillation is that the momentary transcendence of a quasi-sovereign always risks turning into absolute transcendence—into the individual leaving the group. This can happen if no-one—or an insufficient number of people—follow their directive, or if their directive fails to correspond to the group’s immediate practical needs. It is also possible for an individual to leave the group by becoming absolutely immanent to it as well, since at this point they cannot return to the position of the quasi-sovereign, which is a condition of their membership. In sum, far from being parts of a whole, individuals have to perpetually win their integration into the group-in-fusion: membership is a task, not a mode of being.

The Pledged Group

This makes the group-in-fusion a particularly fragile construction. Once the immediate circumstances that brought it into existence have dissipated, it risks dispersal. If a group-in-fusion is to be anything more than an ephemeral phenomenon, it must first secure its permanence. This is the famous moment of the pledge (417-428). Sartre’s readers have often complained that his analysis of the pledge and of the threat of violence it implies is far too specific and extreme. Surely not all groups involve an explicit pledge, and surely betraying them doesn’t always lead to one’s death? Sartre’s point here is far more subtle. The pledge is nothing more than a name for the group developing its own internal form of power, and indeed sanction. In seriality, power is absolutely impersonal: it emanates from nowhere. In the pledged group—and precisely in order to fight against seriality’s impersonal violence—power also arises from the group.

The Organisation

The pledge gives the group-in-fusion the unity it needs in order to differentiate itself internally, and thus to move to the next stage of common action: the organisation (445-479). While the group-in-fusion has no structure, with individuals taking on tasks as best they can according to changing circumstances, in the organisation each individual is given a function. This division of labour implies a new conception of power: while in the pledged group power was the diffuse jurisdiction of everyone over everyone else, in the organisation power is structured as a complex network of rights and duties: I have a right to do my duty—that is, my function—and a right to demand that everyone else do theirs. We can see here that the individual undergoes a transformation in the organisation. While their function limits their individual initiative, it also enriches them, giving them new capacities for action and allowing them to specialise to the point of being able to see practical possibilities that are invisible to other, non-specialised individuals. Indeed, such specialisation is crucial to the organisation if it is to act effectively in the world. Yet it also points to the fact that the organisation is radically dependent on its individual members. In concrete action, the variety of exigencies is often so great, their urgency so imperious, and the skills required to effectively respond to them so specific that only an individual with the capacity to adapt to singular circumstances can take their measure. No more than the group-in-fusion, an organisation is not a totality, even if it is built on the apparently astringent powers of the pledge.

The Institution

After the group-in-fusion, the pledged group, and the organisation, each of which is a more complex formation than the previous one, Sartre analyses the final species of common action: the institution (583-599). For Sartre, an institution is always a degraded organisation. The key moment in this degradation is the new risk of secession that emerges in the organisation. As we have just seen, the common individual performs their function via the indispensable mediation of their individual initiative. However, this opens up the possibility of them betraying the organisation, or appropriating it for themselves, not for lack of performing their function but precisely because they perform it. In circumstances where the organisation is split, dispersed, or otherwise divided against itself, this structural dependence on individual initiative means that everyone comes to be seen as a possible traitor. In order to prove their loyalty, each common individual begins carrying out their function in as formulaic a way as possible. The organisation’s ability to respond to unique conditions through its members’ individual action is thereby drastically undermined. In fact, with its members becoming ever more inert, the organisation must find a new way of guaranteeing its practical homogeneity and efficacy. For Sartre, it is here—and here alone—that sovereignty emerges. According to Sartre, sovereignty appears when the mobile, circular movement of quasi-sovereignty becomes blocked. Explaining its genesis thus amounts to showing how one sub-group or individual can monopolise the position of the quasi-sovereign. This can never happen because of physical dominance alone: since the other subgroups will always be more numerous, one subgroup can become the unique sovereign only when the others have devolved to the state of inertia and impotence mentioned above. For this reason, it is impossible for sovereignty to ever be legitimate: it arises only when those subject to it cannot resist it. The figure of the sovereign is nevertheless the group’s final move to maintain its practical homogeneity. Every individual initiative must now pass through the sovereign, whose imprimatur alone can legitimate it, and whose bodily individuality seeks to covers over the institution’s dispersal. In a sense, sovereignty is Sartre’s final proof that no social form is ever a totality. On the contrary, the travails of the group as it shifts from a group-in-fusion, to a pledged group, to an organisation and then to an institution, shows that a totality is only ever what the group tries, but fails, to become.

Class and Class Struggle

We have finally reached a point where we can properly understand Sartre’s contribution to Marxism in the Critique. While he engenders each of these social forms sequentially in the book, Sartre conceives of society as an ever-shifting set of simultaneous relations between series, groups-in-fusion, pledged groups, organisations and institutions. A market, for instance, is never just a series: the very existence of state regulations shows that it is minimally a relation between a series and sovereign institution. A class is also always a set of relations between groups and series. The working class, for instance, can be understood as a series in the form of labour markets, as an institution in the form of unions, and as groups-in-fusion in the form of local struggles (678-710). What this conception of class reveals is that workers always have to fight on at least three fronts once: not only against the capitalist class, which is itself internally differentiated, but also internally against the working class itself as series and as institution. Thus, on the one hand, if a group-in-fusion emerges in a workplace, then one of its principle objectives must always be to mobilise the majority of workers who will still be sunk in seriality. After all, the easiest way to break a strike is to draw on the surplus population of serialised workers who are subject to the relentless pressure of scarcity. On the other hand, danger also lurks in the shape of the union—or party—as an institution. For as we know, an institution only exists by keeping its members impotent. If a group arises from its ranks, then this not only contests serial impotence, it also undermines the institution’s sovereign authority. This contradiction between the group and the institution can be alleviated somewhat when the institution steps in and helps the group mobilise other sectors of the workforce, thereby turning the initial group-in-fusion into a subgroup of a larger organisation. But the contradiction remains, since it is now unclear whether the subsequent directives that are issued come from the group or the institution. A crisis of legitimacy ensues, violent debate becomes inevitable. From the perspective of the institution, the emergence of a group might well be a danger to the movement as a whole, for if the group fails to mobilise enough serialised workers, it will be crushed. From the perspective of the group, however, if the institution is overly prudent and decides to demobilise the group, then the movement as a whole risks dying. In truth, what fundamentally determines this contradiction are the different judgements that the group and the institution make regarding the capacity for the series of workers to be mobilised. This is always the most decisive variable: either a critical mass of serialised workers cast off their shackles, or the series ends up swallowing the group.

By analysing class in terms of seriality and the group, Sartre teaches us that classes have multiples lines of fracture within them. If they struggle, it is only locally, momentarily, and always, in part, against themselves as seriality and as institution. Sartre also shows that the state of the class struggle between workers and capitalists is fundamentally determined by the degree to which each class has been able to overcome seriality and to assert its interests in the form of groups. Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Sartre’s analysis of worked matter, scarcity and seriality also demonstrates that there are social processes that emanate from no particular group or indeed class exclusively, but which everyone has to contend with. Climate change is, again, the most obvious and pressing example here. Yet what is perhaps most important about Sartre’s categories in the Critique is that they leave open a space, not only for chance, but indeed for genuine initiative in history. As we have seen, nothing guarantees that scarcity and seriality can be transcended. Yet their power is also never absolute. If emancipatory politics happens, then it only ever takes the form of a wager (705). Beyond its conceptual power, Sartre’s Critique is meant to give us the courage to make this wager in our own lives. The moment has therefore come to read the Critique again—or rather, for the first time.

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