Structure and Subject in French Marxism: A Confrontation and its Pre‐History

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This paper takes a longer historical perspective upon the “crisis of Marxism” in France in the 1970s, particularly with regard to what Perry Anderson once identified as the central intellectual confrontation which led to this crisis, over the relationship between structure and subject in human history. In particular, it considers how the ideologically and theoretically opposed projects of Jean‐Paul Sartre and Claude Léi‐Strauss –which were positioned as, respectively, humanist and anti‐humanist, subjectivist and structuralist –were formed in response to a shared historical experience, that of the crise de l’esprit of the 1920s, during which time they were both students. The crise de l’esprit expressed a widespread rejection of the cultural conservatism of the French Third Republic and the intellectual doctrines which held prominence within it, most notably the sociology of Durkheim and the philosophy of Bergson. In the late twenties and early thirties writers such as Paul Nizan and Georges Politzer produced blistering polemics against an intellectual orthodoxy which they saw as culpable in the nationalism and inhumanity that had produced the catastrophe of World War One. This context produced the first significant form of Marxism as an intellectual approach in France, notably with the group that first formed around the journal Philosophies. Sartre and Lévi‐Strauss,beginning to develop their mature intellectual projects from the later 1930s, took up the challenge of producing new theoretical systems which would refuse the metaphysical residues of the existing French tradition, and would instead be rigorously concrete and rationalist. As Simon Clarke has argued, both Sartre and Léi‐Strauss sought a new form of rationalism by grounding their theoretical systems in the concrete individual. Whereas Sartre approaches the individual by way of a theory of consciousness which stresses consciousness’ placement in a concrete situation, Léi‐Strauss develops a theory of the unconscious as a generic form which organizes the practices of human individuals with regard to the social functionalism of the principle of reciprocity. Having traced the shared historical context of Sartre and Léi‐Strauss’ intellectual formation, and their shared project of overcoming metaphysics by grounding theory in the concrete individual, I consider how the polemical opposition that ensues between them, and more generally between so‐called ‘humanist’ and ‘anti‐humanist’ social theories –announced by Léi‐Strauss in La Pensée Sauvage (published 1962) – results from a shared set of presuppositions which produce certain shared limitations in their approaches to social theory. Fundamentally, both perspectives are limited by a failure to conceive of social formations as dynamic processes, and to conceive of the changes within and transitions between these formations historically. I therefore suggest in conclusion that an overcoming of the “crisis of Marxism,” which was closely tied to the intellectual defeat of a humanism and an historicism with which Sartre came to be associated, demands a renewal of Marx’s original inquiry into the meaning of the historical process.