The Existential Roots of Communism: An Unlikely Connection

Existentialism and communism, seemingly disparate philosophical and political ideologies, found an unexpected intersection in the mid-20th century. The existentialist movement, marked by thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, emerged in the aftermath of World War II, reflecting on the individual’s search for meaning in an apparently indifferent universe. While existentialism traditionally emphasizes individualism and personal responsibility, it played an influential role in shaping the intellectual landscape that contributed to the rise of communism.

Existentialism’s Terrain

Existentialism, born out of the ruins of war and the disillusionment with traditional moral frameworks, posits that existence precedes essence. This means that individuals are responsible for creating their own meaning and values in a world devoid of inherent purpose. Existentialist thinkers emphasized the importance of personal freedom, choice, and the rejection of external authorities dictating meaning.

The Individual and Alienation

Existentialism’s focus on the individual’s quest for meaning resonated with the alienation experienced by individuals in capitalist societies. The increasing industrialization and commodification of everyday life led many to feel disconnected from their labor and alienated from the products of their work. Existentialism, in its critique of alienation, provided a philosophical framework for individuals seeking alternatives to the status quo.

Existentialism and Marxism

Existentialism’s connection with communism became apparent through the influence of Marxist ideas on prominent existentialist thinkers. Jean-Paul Sartre, a key figure in existentialist philosophy, engaged with Marxist thought, particularly in his later works. Sartre’s exploration of the concept of “bad faith” and his emphasis on individual responsibility converged with Marxist critiques of capitalist exploitation.

Sartre’s Engagement with Marxism

Sartre’s existentialist philosophy evolved over time, and in his later works, he delved into Marxist concepts to address societal issues. In his famous work, “Critique of Dialectical Reason,” Sartre attempted to reconcile existentialism with Marxism, emphasizing the collective dimension of human existence. He argued that individuals are not isolated beings but are interconnected in a web of social relations, echoing Marxist ideas of class struggle and historical materialism.

Existentialism in Practice: The Rise of Communism

Existentialist ideas, when combined with Marxist principles, contributed to the rise of communism in various intellectual and political circles. The fusion of existentialism and Marxism provided a powerful narrative that resonated with individuals seeking meaning and purpose in a world marked by inequality and exploitation.

The global upheavals of the 1960s saw the convergence of existentialist and Marxist thought in various social and political movements. Student protests, anti-war demonstrations, and calls for social justice were infused with the spirit of existentialist rebellion against the perceived absurdity and injustices of the existing socio-political order.

While existentialism and communism may appear incompatible at first glance, their intersection reveals a complex interplay of ideas. Existentialism’s emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility, when coupled with Marxist critiques of societal structures, provided a fertile ground for the rise of communism. The synthesis of these seemingly opposing philosophies reflects the dynamic nature of intellectual and political movements, demonstrating that even disparate ideologies can converge to address the profound questions of human existence and societal organization.