E59.3001 – Doctoral Theory Seminar

Frederico Bertagnoli

Adventures of the Dialectic – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

How does M-P see the arc of the dialectical method from Hegel to Marx to Weber to Lukács to Lenin to Sartre? Does M-P finally go beyond it?

  1. The Crisis of Understanding

What is the crisis of understanding?

It is the crisis in the historian’s understanding of history that Weber pointed out: the dualism between a knowledge of the past that situates the past as a spectacle towards which we shouldn’t be judgmental, and the practice that confronts the past in decisions made in the present for which we are responsible. M-P calls it “ the dualism of the objectivity of understanding and of moral feeling ” (p. 11); the opposing ways knowledge and practice confront the past: “ knowledge by multiplying views, confronts [the past] through conclusions that are provisional, open, and justifiable (that is, conditional), while the practice confronts it through decisions which are absolute, partial, and not subject to justification ” (p. 10). M-P also says that Weber tried to go beyond this contradiction by juxtaposing “ the order of truth and that of violence ” (p. 9). Truth in the Kantian understanding of objectivity, and violence as a matter of present existence. To Weber, M-P exemplifies, “ all politics is violence ” (p. 26).

How does M-P show Weber’s theory of history?

Instead of stating the common explanation that, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , Weber showed that the transition from Protestantism to capitalism denatured religion, M-P claims that Weber saw “ a logic ” (pp. 12 and 19) between Protestantism and the capitalistic spirit that “ anticipate[d] certain results he ha[d] and inkling for ” (p. 12). M-P says that if “ Weber succeeds in understanding the basic structure of the facts, it is because he has discovered an objective meaning in them, has pierced the appearance in which reason is enclosed, and has gone beyond provisional and partial perspectives by restoring the anonymous intention, the dialectic of a whole ” (p.14). In other words, to M-P Weber showed how a dialectical philosophy of history can be applied: “ History had meaning ,” “ meaning arises in contingency ,” “ the historical understanding which reveals an interior to history still leaves us in the presence of empirical history ” (p. 16). That is a philosophy of history “ without dogmatism ” (p. 16)

Does Weber escape M-P’s criticism?

No, because Weber ‘s philosophy of history “ does not break the circle of knowledge and reality but is rather a meditation upon that circle ” (p. 29). Weber, “ a liberal ” (p. 25), ducks away from the violence of the present and political action. Weber, according to M-P, does great in showing that history’s aim “ is to recover the fundamental choices of the past ” (p.24), but at the same time “ never sees the fundamental choice of the proletariat appear ” (p. 25). Weber does not apply his historical understanding to the benefit of political action.

  1. “Western” Marxism

What is “Western” Marxism and why is it in quotation marks?

It is the early Marxism of George Lukács, who tried to overcome a problem Marx didn’t solve: can the dialectical philosopher of history overcome the relativism of his own position in history, for example, the fact that his view of history as a science is also part of history?

M-P says that Lukács’s aim is to “ recover an absolute in the relative ” (p. 31). Lukács, in M-P’s explanation, said that the absolute can be recovered if we put it “ back into history ” (p. 30). The historian can measure his own relativism if he has the self-criticism to recognize the distance between the past and his knowledge at the same time as he awakens as a subject of history. Some kind of totality can be recovered, not that of “ all possible and actual beings but of our coherent arrangement of all the known facts ” (p. 31)

Lukács’s dialectic is, therefore, a “ continued intuition, a consistent reading of actual history ” (p. 32); “ a process of indefinite verification ” (p. 53); “ a philosophy of history [that] does not so much give us the keys of history as it restores history to us as permanent interrogation ” (p.57). For Lukács, says M-P, Marxism should be a philosophy without dogma that constantly questions our state of becoming, and the knowledge henceforth derived “ is the genealogy of truth ” (p.57).

  1. Pravda

What’s M-P’s criticism of Lenin’s pravda ?

According to M-P, Lenin wrote Materialism and Empiro-Criticism in order to reaffirm that dialectical materialism was a materialism. In other words, it presupposed a materialist scheme of knowledge and simply added the dialectic onto it. Thought is a product of external reality and therefore subject to the movement of history, whose outcome had already been determined by Marx’s science of history. Lenin’s “ materialistic metaphysics ” preserves the dialectic “ outside ourselves ” (p. 65). History becomes “ a relationship between persons embodied in “ things ” by a “ second nature ” which is opaque and determined like the first ” (p. 65). This “ new dogmatism…exempts Marxism from applying its own principles to itself, and settles dialectical thought…in a massive positivity ” (p. 60). Finally, M-P concludes that Lenin’s use of expedients in philosophy hid “ an internal difficulty of Marxist’s thought ” (p. 62).

M-P compares the early Lukács with the early Marx, and Lenin’s book to the later Marx. Lukács and the early, Hegelian Marx develop a thesis where the concrete dialectical movement of history will bring about the realization of philosophy (the famous principle that one cannot destroy philosophy without realizing it). But M-P says that in the Capital, Marx is already operating within a principle of “ scientific socialism ” in which “ except for knowledge of the economy, which does reach being, we are cut off from truth ” (p. 63).  The consequence is that, in the latter model, change in the world is no longer the result of a praxis-philosophy of self-criticism, but of a praxis that becomes “ the type of action a technician would make, like that of an engineer who builds a bridge ” (p. 63). Thus, the proletariat is replaced by the professional revolutionary (p. 65).

Does M-P changes the gear at this point in the book?

It seems so, since the problem Weber had alluded to and Lukács tried to overcome is now abandoned by M-P who introduce into the self-critical dialect question the problem of “ the inertia of infrastructures ” (p. 64). Dialectical materialism is “ too supple and too notional ” and does not accounts for “ the opacity…the density of real history ” (p. 66).

  1. The Dialectic in Action

Why did M-P choose the example of Trotsky?

Because Trotsky offers a “ balance of both practical and dialectical sense ” (p. 74). Trotsky’s concept of historical selection an his understanding of the two-way communication between the Party and the proletariat expresses a fine dialectical theory: what most concerns Marxist philosophy exemplified by Trotsky is “ the recognition by the proletariat of its own action in the politics which the Party presents to it ” (p. 78). However, in his struggles with Stalin, Trotsky made no attempt to institute any dialectic between the Party and the proletariat. M-P points out that Trotsky just did not seem to know what was going on. He did not point out that “ the Party was no longer the Party of the proletariat ” (p. 82).

Likewise, “ Marx never conceived of a collective and planned economy that was not for the benefit of the proletariat ” (p. 84).  To M-P “ the beautiful parallelism in the young Marx between the realization of philosophy and the realization of socialism was destroyed by “scientific socialism” to the benefit of the infrastructures. The sphere of the revolution was less and less the relationship between persons and more and more the “things” and their immanent necessities ” (p. 84).

What Trotsky’s divergences with the Marxist establishment show is that they forgot the weight of institutionalizing Marxism, says M-P. They situated the dialectic in things or in the future. This crude theory was complemented by brutal action and violence. The Marxist dialectic mythified revolution to the point that it became “ the underground work of the negative which never ceases ” . According to M-P, Marx “ was able to have and to transmit the illusion of a negation realized in history and in its “matter” only by making of the noncapitalistic future and absolute Other. But we who have witnessed a Marxist revolution well know that revolutionary society has its weight, its positivity, and that it is therefore not the absolute Other ” (p. 90). In Bolshevism, the adventures of the dialectic in action had clearly come to a dead end: “ the dialectic thus plays precisely the role of an ideology, helping communism to be something other than what it thinks it is ” (p. 96).

  1. Sartre and Ultrabolshevism

Is Sartre an ultra-Bolshevik?

M-P asks how Sartre can attempt to justify Communist actions while remaining outside the Party. How does he say Sartre justifies the Party? For Sartre, the Party would always be justified because it was a pure and absolute negation of the bourgeoisie. The Party in Sartre’s dialectic, moreover, is not only a pure negation but it is also pure action, since it is a constituting and creative force: it is the negation of the bourgeoisie but it also creates the Proletariat: “ the Party is by definition the bearer of the proletarian spirit ” (p. 108), since there is no proletariat without the Party creating it. Therefore, “ the Party…is the proletariat in substance because before it there was no proletariat ” (p. 108). Thus, it is the Party that constitutes the proletariat, and “ if there is a proletarian, he has confidence in the Party ” (p. 109). On the other hand, “ the militant’s function is…to obey orders ” (p. 110).

What does Sartre substitute for Marx’s concepts?

Sartre’s notion of consciousness, like his Party, provides all meaning with no external appeal to facts, “ which say neither yes nor no ” (p. 105). For Sartre, “ conscious awareness is an absolute. It gives meaning; and in the case of an event, the meaning it gives is irrevocable ” (p. 115). In place of Marx’s notion of praxis, Sartre substituted his own concept of freedom. True politics, for Sartre, was pure creation: praxis was a matter of will, and therefore there were no constraints on what was possible: “ the will believes only in itself, it is its own source ” (p. 107). Praxis “ is thus the vertiginous freedom, the magic power that is ours to act and to make ourselves whatever we want ” (p. 132).


The Adventures of the Dialectic is a complex book because it is both a series of “samplings, probings, philosophical anecdotes, the beginnings of analyses” (p. 3) as well as the reflex of a change in Merleau-Ponty’s attitude towards Marxism. In the earlier parts of the book, we find M-P’s account of Max Weber’s problems with historical analysis. Later, by following the road from Lukács to Lenin to Trostky to Sartre, M-P shows how Marxism grew successfully less empirical and more abstract, ending in Sartre’s “magic”, while the dialectic become fossilized into ideology. He says, “The adventures of the dialectic…are errors through which it must pass, since it is in principle a thought with several centers and several points of entry, and because it needs time to explore them all” (p. 204). M-P says that there was a dialectic at work in the adventures of the dialectic even within the history of its own apparent self-destruction. The dialectic that stretched from Marx to Sartre was predicated on the reality of a historical fact, namely the genesis and development of the proletariat into “a true, homogeneous, ultimate society” (p. 205). Such a fact didn’t exist, and Sartre’s magic was the most carefully developed consequence of its non-existence. However, “what is then obsolete is not the dialectic but the pretension of terminating it in an end of history, in a permanent revolution, or in a regime which, being the constestation of itself, would no longer need to be contested from the outside and, in fact, would no longer have anything outside it” (p. 206). The adventures of the dialect were errors, but of a kind that invite the critical reader to pass through them to reach beyond them.