Saturday, 10 September 2011

Critique of Dialectical Reason

At the height of the Algerian war, Jean-Paul Sartre embarked on a fundamental reappraisal of his philosophical and political thought. The result was the Critique of Dialectical Reason, an intellectual masterpiece of the twentieth century, now published as a two-volume set with a major new introduction by Fredric Jameson. In it, Sartre set out the basic categories for the renovated theory of history that he believed was necessary for post-war Marxism.

Sartre's formal aim was to establish the dialectical intelligibility of history itself, as what he called 'a totalisation without a totaliser'. But, at the same time, his substantive concern was the structure of class struggle and the fate of mass movements of popular revolt, from the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century to the Russian and Chinese revolutions in the twentieth: their ascent, stabilisation, petrification and decline, in a world still overwhelmingly dominated by scarcity.

The second volume of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason was drafted in 1958 and published in France in 1985, first appearing in English in 1991. As in Volume One, Sartre proceeds by moving from the simple to the complex: from individual combat (through a perceptive study of boxing) to the struggle of subgroups within an organized group form and, finally, to social struggle, with an extended analysis of the Bolshevik Revolution. The book concludes with a forceful reaffirmation of dialectical reason: of the dialectic as 'that which is truly irreducible in action'.