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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 September 2010

Department of History, Drew University E-mail:
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This article reconsiders Sartre's seminal 1945 talk, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” and the stakes of the humanism debate in France by looking at the immediate political context that has been overlooked in previous discussions of the text. It analyses the political discussion of the term “humanism” during the French national elections of 1945 and the rumbling debate over Sartre's philosophy that culminated in his presentation to the Club Maintenant, just one week after France went to the polls. A consideration of this context helps explain both the rise, and later the decline, of existentialism in France, when, in the changing political climate, humanism lost its centrality, setting the stage for new antihumanist criticisms of Sartre's work.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 Sartre, J. P., Existentialism Is a Humanism, trans. Macomber, C. (New Haven, 2007), 62–3 (translation modified)Google Scholar.

2 See, for example, Solal, A. Cohen, Sartre: A Life (New York, 1987), 131Google Scholar; and Flynn, T., Sartre and Marxist Existentialism (Chicago, 1984)Google Scholar, who describes the writer of Existentialism Is a Humanism as “a newly politicised Sartre” (46).

3 The effects and demands of this context make sense of many of the difficulties that scholars have faced in interpreting Sartre's work, especially on the question whether his 1945 appeal to humanism marked a break from his early writings. See S. Coombes, “The Early Sartre and Ideology,” in Sartre Studies International (2003); R. Visker, “Was Existentialism Truly a Humanism?”, in Sartre Studies International (2007); and Henri-LÉVy, B., Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, trans. Brown, A. (Malden, MA, 2003), 165201Google Scholar.

4 Tripartisme refers to the period from 1945 to 1947 where the three main parties, PCF (Parti Communiste Français), MRP (Mouvement Républicain Populaire) and SFIO (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière) shared power. Neither D. Janicaud in his Heidegger en France (Paris, 2001) nor E. Kleinberg in Generation Existential (Cornell, 2006) discuss the situation, and M. Poster in his Existential Marxism in Post-war France (Princeton, 1975) ignores the specifics of the election. Even S. Bilemdjian's book-length treatment of the lecture, Premières Leçons sur l'existentialisme est un humanisme (Paris, 2000), completely ignores this political context.

5 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 47. See also the first choice he discusses in the paper: that between joining a Christian trade union or the Communist party, 24.

6 Scholars have given other explanations for Sartre's turn to humanism. Bilemdjian, seconded by Henri-Lévy, provides a personal reason, suggesting that it was a result of Sartre's incarceration at a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. There is a certain irony to this narrative, for it mirrors the one presented by the auto-didacte in Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea. Michael Kelly has shown greater historical sensitivity in his analysis of the boom in references to humanism in 1945. See Kelly, M., “Humanism and National Unity: The Ideological Reconstruction of France,” in Hewitt, N., ed., The Culture of Reconstruction (Basingstoke, 1989)Google Scholar. For Kelly, Sartre's turn to humanism reflects “the intense ideological pressure which whipped Existentialism willy-nilly into the Humanist camp.” But Kelly misses the debate over the meaning of humanism and the active political engagement that Sartre was undertaking.

7 These three parties had gained approximately a quarter of the vote each, but with the PCF just leading in terms of votes cast.

8 Hauriou, A., Le Socialisme humaniste: Vers une Doctrine de la Résistance (Algiers, 1944), 113–14Google Scholar.

9 Indomitus, Nous sommes les Rebelles (Paris, 1945), 106.

10 Blum speech, 13 Aug. 1945 at the Congrès Nationale Ordinaire responding to Camus in Combat, 23 Nov. 1944, cited in Quilliot, R., Le SFIO et l'exercice du pouvoir: 1944–1958 (Paris, 1972), 41Google Scholar. Blum, L., A l'Echelle humaine (Lausanne, 1945)Google Scholar.

11 P. Hervé, “Un Socialisme humaniste,” Esprit (Feb. 1945), 408–11, 409.

12 Hervé, P., La Libération trahie (Paris, 1945), 57 and 63Google Scholar.

13 Cited in Adereth, M., The French Communist Party: A Critical History (1928–1984) (Manchester, 1984), 126Google Scholar.

14 It must also be remembered that the Communist Party had enormous moral authority as the “parti des 75,000 fusillés,” when other parties were still coming to terms with at least limited collaboration.

15 See L'Humanité, 12 June 1945. The text included claims that the Parti Ouvrier Français would “prepare the way to a classless society, which will permit the full flowering of the human person . . . the liberation of men from the chains of capitalism.” The possible alliance was discussed at length on the pages of L'Humanité up until August, when it was rejected by the same SFIO conference where Blum pronounced his commitment to humanism. See L'Humanité, 16 Aug. 1945.

16 Garaudy, R. and Cogniot, G., Les Intellectuels et la renaissance française (Paris, 1945), 5Google Scholar. They also attacked Sartre for being the “poet of the nothing,” his theatre the “spectacle of the doubt and pessimism of decadent societies” (8).

17 See especially L'Humanité, 27 Sept. 1945, “L'Ecole de la Liberté,” by Marcel Cohen. Or their presenting the MRP as “la Machine à Ramasser les Pétainistes,” on 7–8 Oct. 1945.

18 Hervé, La Libération trahie, 62.

19 See M. Thorez's autobiography Le Fils du peuple (Paris, 1937), “Communism is a True Humanism,” vol. 14, 168, cited in Lewis, W., Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism (New York, 2005), 70Google Scholar.

20 See Lewis, Louis Althusser, chap. 4.

21 See the list of Marxist humanist texts in Poster, Existential Marxism, 50.

22 See Lewis, Louis Althusser, chap. 5 and especially 127–35.

23 J. P. Sartre “À propos de l'Existentialisme: Mise au Point,” Action, 29 Dec. 1944. In 1944, though Sartre was responding to Communist critics, he only directly addressed claims made by the collaborationist press: Alain Laubreaux, theatre critic from Je Suis Partout, and Albérès (the pseudonym of René Marill), from Echo des Étudiants. Sartre would seem to be referring to Laubreaux's two reviews of his plays in Je Suis Partout, on 21 June 1943 on Sartre's Les Mouches, and on 9 June 1944, on Huis Clos. Laubreaux's criticism was not, as Sartre argued, that he “works in the filth.” Rather Laubreaux argued that Sartre's plays were “boring” and “badly written.” Indeed he refused calls that Huis Clos should be banned. Its fault is its banality – true hell, Laubreaux suggested, was to sit in the theatre watching the play. The plays should be kept, he suggested, to show what happens when professors try to write.

24 Lefebvre, H., “‘Existentialisme’ et Marxisme: Réponse à une mise au point,” Action 8 (June 1945)Google Scholar.

25 It is also important that in Garaudy's attack on Sartre from December 1945, he too refrains from calling him an antihumanist. Rather the substance of the critique was Sartre's rejection of science, thus depriving man of the means to free himself. Indeed the Communist Georges Mounin even described French existentialism as “generally atheistic . . . resolutely turned towards a humanist ethics,” but that he preferred the higher rationalism of Marxism. G. Mounin, “Les Droits de l'homme,” Confluences (Aug. 1945), 632–3. Mounin's monthly column was another place where the term “humanism” was critically engaged.

26 See Quilliot, Le SFIO, 41. For a contemporary example, see Georges Jarlot, “A l'Echelle humaine,” Etudes (Nov. 1945), 229–33.

27 Esprit, 1 Oct. 1932, 5–51.

28 Maritain, J., Principes d'une politique humaniste (Paris, 1944)Google Scholar; and his 1943 entry “The Humanism of St. Thomas Aquinas,” in Runes, D., ed., Twentieth-Century Philosophy (New York, 1943), 293312Google Scholar, where he made the argument (295) that “St. Thomas is, if we may use a word in favour today, the most existential of the philosophers.” Attention should also be given to the Dominican review Humanisme et économie. See Kelly, “Humanism and National Unity.”

29 J. Daniélou, “La Vie intellectuelle en France; Communisme, existentialisme, christianisme,” Etudes (Sept. 1945), 241–54. See also J. Lieven, “Le Communisme a-t-il changé?”, in the same edition, 179–92.

30 See the abundant articles in Catholic journals such as Etudes, or Les Temps nouveaux, and La Vie intellectuelle all through 1945. See also the attempt to reclaim “humanist teaching” for Christianity, in Meylan, L., Les Humanités et la personne (Neuchâtel, 1944)Google Scholar.

31 A. de la Croix-Laval review, “Chefs d'oeuvre. Introduction à l'Humanisme,” Etudes (March 1945), 422–4.

32 Lubac, H. de, Le Drame de l'humanisme athée (Paris, 1945)Google Scholar. Lubac compared Marx, Feuerbach, Comte, and Nietzsche to Dostoyevski, who, by showing the absurdity of life, quashed any attempts to “found eternal life down here” (411). Against the deifying efforts of the humanists, Lubac left his readers with a sense of our limitation and the hope of eventual liberation. As Michael Kelly notes, though de Lubac did not want to promote Christian humanism himself, his work was appropriated by Christian humanists in 1945. See Kelly, M., The Cultural and Intellectual Rebuilding of France after the Second World War (New York, 2004), 149CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 De Lubac, Le Drame de l'humanisme athée, 10.

34 G. Marcel, “Le Drame de l'humanisme athée,” La Vie intellectuelle (Dec. 1945), 141–8. For the dominance of the atheistic view see J. Hyppolite, “Humanisme et hegelianisme,” in idem, Figures de la pensée philosophique, vol. 1 (Paris, 1971), 146–9. To see a more positive side to the relationship between Christian and secular humanism see Vignaux, P., “In France; Resistance and Humanism,” Journal of Educational Sociology 18/8 (1945), 454–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which sees the possibility of unity between atheistic humanism à la Camus and Sartre, and the religious humanism put forward by Maritain. For an assertion of Christian humanism see Henri-Hayem, E., Sartre contre l'homme (Annemass, 1947)Google Scholar; J. Huby, “Respect de l'homme,” Etudes (July 1945), 80–87; and Senne, R. le, Obstacle et valeur (Paris, 1934), 257–68Google Scholar.

35 J. Mercier, “Le Ver dans le fruit,” Etudes (Feb. 1945), 238–40.

36 Ibid. 240, 249.


37 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 35–8. The difficulties of this assimilation of existentialist philosophy and Communist politics set the stage both for Sartre's involvement in the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire from 1948 to 1950 and for his self-presentation as a fellow-traveller up until 1956. For a detailed analysis of Sartre's developing relationship with the PCF and non-aligned Marxists see Birchall, I., Sartre against Stalinism (New York, 2004)Google Scholar.

38 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 41.

39 ibid. 36–7.


40 ibid. 24.


41 ibid. 42.


42 ibid. 48–9.


43 See, for example, Heter, T. Storm, Sartre's Ethics of Engagement: Authenticity and Civic Virtue (New York, 2006, 148–50)Google Scholar; or Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism, which sees in the lecture a “rare glimpse of Sartre's thought in via from individualist to social categories” (33).

44 Mercier “Le Ver dans le fruit.” The title draws on Sartre's own description of Nothingness as a worm in the heart of being. Sartre's attack on Mercier may also have been personal. As de Beauvoir noted in her diary, in 1927, during a bout of depression, Mercier had attempted to convert her to Catholicism. It was unsuccessful, but it appears that afterwards there was little good feeling between the elder Catholic and her existentialist protégée.

45 le Senne, R., Introduction a la Philosophie, 2nd edn (Paris, 1939), 229–35Google Scholar.

46 Jean Wahl's relationship with the Christian existentialists is more problematic, and he preferred a secular Heidegger to a religious Kierkegaard, but his importance in introducing the thought of Kierkegaard and Jaspers into France places him in direct conversation with all the people we are talking about here.

47 E. Mounier, “Introduction aux existentialismes,” Esprit (April 1946).

48 Foulquié, P., L'Existentialisme (Paris, 1947)Google Scholar.

49 E. Mounier, note, Esprit (Dec. 1945), 960–63. See also E. Gilson, “Le Thomisme et les philosophies existentielles,” La Vie intellectuelle (June 1945), 144–55; and Daniélou, “La Vie intellectuelle en France.”

50 Hence Troisfontaine's title “le Choix de Sartre”; see also Mercier, “Le Ver dans la fruit,” 238.

51 Mercier “le ver dans la fruit,” 248, original emphasis. See also I. Lepp's review of L'Etre et le néant in Les Etudes philosophiques (Jan. 1946); or R. le Senne, “La Mission permanente et contemporaine du philosophe,” Etudes philosophiques (Jan. 1948), 1–16, where he described Sartre's philosophy as “negative existentialism.”

52 Marcel, G., “L'Existence et la liberté humaine,” in Les grands appels de l'homme contemporain (Paris, 1946) 148Google Scholar.

53 See Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 26, 34, 47.

54 Ibid., 20.


55 See Detmer, D., Sartre Explained (Chicago, 2008), 89Google Scholar, who notes the uncharacteristic centrality of atheism in the lecture.

56 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 22.

57 See also his claim that existentialism does not try to prove the nonexistence of God. Ibid., 53.

58 Ibid., 26.


59 For “athéisme purificateur” see Weil, S., La Pesanteur et la grâce (Paris, 1947)Google Scholar; and Borne, E., Le Problème du mal (Paris 1957)Google Scholar.

60 Beaufret, J., “Vers une Critique marxiste de l'existentialisme,” Revue Socialiste 2 (1946)Google Scholar, reprinted in idem, De l'Existentialisme à Heidegger (Paris, 1986), 149–54.

61 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 53–4.

62 Ibid. 51–2.


63 See also Merleau-Ponty, M., Humanisme et Terreur (Paris, 1947)Google Scholar.

64 See H. Denis, “Humanisme et matérialisme dans la pensée de Karl Marx,” La Pensée (Sept. 1947); A. Cornu, “L'Idée d'aliénation chez Hegel, Feuerbach et Karl Marx,” La Pensée (March 1948); H. Muhlestein, “Y'a-t-il encore un humanisme bourgeois?”, La Pensée (March 1948); or A. Bonnard, “Vers un Humanisme nouveau,” La Pensée (May 1948).

65 The term “humanism” had only a short vogue in the journal, and in late 1948 and 1949 it turned back to the more comfortable ground of mathematics, science, and the critique of psychoanalysis.

66 See Lewis, Louis Althusser, chap. 5. For developments on the political level see especially Jacques Duclos's speech at the 11th Congress of the PCF in June 1947.

67 H. Lefebvre, “Contribution à l'effort d'éclaircissement idéologique,” La Nouvelle critique (1949), 52.

68 R. Garaudy, “Jdanov est passé par là,” La Nouvelle critique (1949).

69 For this appraisal of Canguilhem, see Louis Althusser, “Textes sur la lutte idéologique,” in his archives at IMEC (Institut Mémoire de l'Édition Contemporaine), ALT2. A42–02.11 The place of Merleau-Ponty is more equivocal. Many looking back suggest that he was acceptable to party Communists in the 1950s. But Derrida asserts that the Marxists rejected him; see Kaplan, E., ed., The Althusserian Legacy (New York, 1993), 185Google Scholar. See also “Crise de la philosophie générale à l'Université de Paris . . . et ailleurs,” La Nouvelle critique (May 1950), 111–17. J. Desanti, “Merleau-Ponty et la décomposition de l'idéalisme,” La Nouvelle critique (June 1952); or F. Châtelet, “M. Merleau-Ponty lance la dernière mode de l'anti-communisme,” La Nouvelle critique (July 1955). For other Communists, like Lyotard, Merleau-Ponty was the acceptable face of phenomenology.

70 L. Althusser, “L'Enseignement de la philosophie,” Esprit (June 1954).

71 See T. Thao, “Existentialisme et materialisme dialectique,” Revue de métaphysique et de morale (July 1949); and idem, Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism, trans. D. Herman and D. Morano (Boston, 1986). The political transformation of this form of phenomenology, from the Gaullism of Cavaillès to the Communism of his 1950s followers, can only be understood within the context of the rise and fall of the humanist paradigm. To see the transformation, compare Thao's “Existentialisme et materialisme dialectique” with his earlier humanist-inflected article “Marxisme et phénoménologie,” La Revue internationale (Jan. 1946).

72 Lyotard, J., Phenomenology, trans. Beakley, B. (Albany, 1991) 33Google Scholar. English translation modified.

73 This “objective” strand of phenomenology was particularly important for Suzanne Bachelard, Jules Vuillemin, Gilles Gaston Granger, and Jacques Derrida. We should also mention an important Christian reappropriation of Husserl, especially with Paul Ricoeur, Jean Ladrière, and Pierre Thévanaz.

74 See Janicaud, Heidegger en France, bibliography, as well as 140–47, which gives a limited, though good, account of the Catholic response to Heidegger.

75 See Lepp, review of L'Etre et le néant, 75; or M. Carrouges, “La Crise de la pensée d'avant-garde,” La Vie intellectuelle (Jan. 1946), 131–9.

76 Mercier, “le Ver dans la fruit,” 232. For the Christian existentialists, Heidegger's Mitsein offered many advantages over Sartre's conflictual understanding of relationships between pour-soi. See ibid.; and Troisfontaines, Le Choix de Sartre, 28 and 47.

77 See de Waelhens, A., La Philosophie de Martin Heidegger (Louvain, 1942), 302Google Scholar. “We would like to show now, that if Heidegger wanted to surpass the ontology of Dasein, in view of formulating an ontology of Being in general, he did not succeed in reality, and he must be contented with the former.” See also Munier, R., Stèle pour Heidegger (Paris, 1992), 9Google Scholar; and G. Marcel, review of de Waelhens's book in Dieu Vivant II (1945).

78 Rabinbach, A., “The Letter on Humanism as Text and Event,” New German Critique 62, (1994)Google Scholar.

79 Ibid., 30.


80 Between 1951 and 1958 the MRP got no more than 12 percent of the vote, as opposed to a high of 28 percent in 1948.

81 See especially H. Birault, “Existence et vérité d'après Heidegger,” in idem, ed., Phénoménologie-existence (Paris, 1953); Jolivet, R., Le Problème de la mort chez M. Heidegger et J-P Sartre (Paris, 1950), 28Google Scholar; idem, “Foi Chrétienne et pensée contemporaine,” Revue Thomiste (1953), 404–14; as well as the book it reviewed, Dondeyne, Foi Chrétienne et pensée contemporaine, 49.

82 Marcel, G., La Dimension Florestan (Paris, 1958), 161Google Scholar.

83 Many French readers in the 1930s, such as Wahl and Gurvitch, had seen Heidegger's philosophy as a secularized theology; they nonetheless regarded it as atheistic.

84 Heidegger, M., Basic Writings (San Francisco, 1993), 253Google Scholar.

85 See also Dondeyne, A., Foi Chrétienne et pensée contemporaine (Louvain, 1951), 49Google Scholar, where he suggested that the “second Heidegger” of the letter to Beaufret was in line with the “existentialisme ‘ouvert'” of Jaspers and Marcel.

86 A. Jeannière, “L'Itinéraire de Martin Heidegger,” Etudes (Jan. 1954), 65.

87 Ibid., 83.


88 O. Corvez, “La Place de Dieu dans l'ontologie de Martin Heidegger,” Revue Thomiste (1953). Corvez had started writing on Sartre a few years beforehand and this had turned his attention to Heidegger. See idem, “L'Etre-en-soi dans la philosophie de Jean-Paul Sartre,” “L'Etre de la conscience dans la philosophie de J.-P Sartre,” Revue Thomiste (1950), 360–74, 563–76. See also idem, “Chronique Heideggerienne,” Revue Thomiste (1953), 591–619; Munier's introduction to Heidegger, M., Lettre sur l'humanisme (Paris, 1957), 1819Google Scholar; and the work of Guitton, J., Le Clair et l'obscur (Paris, 1962), 89Google Scholar.

89 Corvez, “La Place de Dieu,” 385–8.

90 Derrida cites Birault favourably in “Violence and Metaphysics,” 407 n, while his courses from the early 1960s follow Birault's narrative of the history of philosophy closely. See my Ph.D. dissertation, “The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1946–1967,” Harvard University, 2009, especially chap. 5.

91 Birault, “Existence et vérité d'après Heidegger,” 189, original emphasis.

92 Ibid., 162 and 181.


93 A. Dondeyne, “La Différence ontologique chez M. Heidegger,” Revue philosophique de Louvain (1958), 35–62 and 251–93, 262.

94 Ibid., 290.


95 See also the postface to M. Heidegger, Qu'est-ce que la métaphysique?, published in 1959 by the Dominicans of Saulchoir and cited in Janicaud, Heidegger en France, 143; Munier's introduction to the Lettre sur l'humanisme, 8; J. Ladrière, “Histoire et destinée,” Revue philosophique de Louvain (Feb. 1960), 120–23; A. de Waelhens, “Identité et différence: Heidegger et Hegel,” Revue internationale de philosophie (1960), 221–37, especially 230–37; J. Paumen, “Heidegger et le thème nietzschéen de la mort de Dieu,” Revue internationale de philosophie (1960), 238–62; A. de Waelhens, “Nature humaine et comprehension de l'être,” Revue philosophique de Louvain (Nov. 1961), 672–82.

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