Critical assessments

Jean-Paul Sartre

Critique of Dialectical Reason. Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles, ed. Jonathan Rée, trans. Alan Shreidan-Smith. London: Verso, 2004, 519-520.

[…] But, far from making our task easier, the homogeneity of individual praxis and common praxis at first presents us with difficulties; it involves a kind of aporia, or impotence of the dialectic. Given that the group as an interiorised multiplicity is so profoundly different from the organic individual, that, in other words, we have avoided treating the group as an organism, except metaphorically, how can the group produce, in common, actions whose fundamental structure is the same as that of individual actions? It might be said that a limit is given a priori. Not a limitation adopted as pledged inertia, not for that matter a limitation experienced and suffered as the insurmountable resistance of some inert materiality to a given undertaking: but rather a kind of breathlessness of the dialectic reproducing its original movement, regardless of the internal constitution of the agent who realises it. This involves a new kind of untranscendability, and it is necessary to explain it. In order to do this, we must make a closer examination of the process of organisation, not as a real constitution of a being-in-the-group based on the pledge, but as a distribution of tasks.

It is common – for example, in periods of revolution – to contrast a centralising, authoritarian tendency coming from above, that is to say, from the elements who hold power for the time being, with a democratic, spontaneous tendency which grows from the base. The first is supposed to realise the organisation of the masses into hierachised action groups from outside or, at least, on the basis of a frozen immanence-transcendence; and the second is supposed to realise groups through the free, common action of the multiplicity upon itself, and as such to represent true democratic self-determination in interiority. The difference between these kinds of organisation is supposed to be qualitative and radical; they are treated as two essentially opposed realities, only the second of which can really constitute the group as common self-creation. The implication of this fundamental contrast is that truly common objectives, operations and thoughts are produced in the autonomous process of the demassification of the masses by themselves and of their spontaneous organisation.

This conception has political and ideological foundations which cannot be discussed here. I am not denying that politically it is of the greatest importance whether organisation is imposed from above or produced from below. Similarly, I admit that the social, ideological, ethical (and, primarily, material) consequences of a movement will be completely different depending on whether the popular movement produces its leaders as a temporary expression of its praxis and reabsorbs and transcends them through the development of this praxis or whether, on the contrary, a group detaches itself from the masses, specialises in the exercise of power and arranges the tasks in an authoritarian manner in the light of its own conception of the people’s objectives. Of course it is obvious that the régime itself will be different in the two cases, as well as the relations of reciprocity between individuals. But the important point here is, quite apart from any political considerations, that the mode of regroupment and organisation is not fundamentally different according to whether it depends on centralisation from above or on a spontaneous liquidation of seriality within the series itself and on the common organisation which follows. In short, this is not and cannot be an issue about Blanqui, Jaurès, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Stalin or Trotsky. And, just as a premeditated crime and an act of justified defence may, in spite of all the practical legal differences between them, involve the same muscles and be realised in the same basic actions (the differences emerging at a higher level and from the point of view of a different praxis – that of a police investigation or a trial, for example), so, in the same way, the type of formal intelligibility and rationality can be the same with organisation from above as with organisation from below. […]