17th Jul, 2021


By Jairus Banaji

In her conversations with Sartre published as La Cérémonie des adieux (1981), Simone de Beauvoir reminds him of the background against which the Critique emerged. Apart from the work he did on the long methodological essay that Gallimard would publish as Questions de méthode, she said, “wasn’t there another motivation? From 1952 on you had taken to reading an enormous amount about Marxism, and philosophy became something … political”. Sartre replied that, for Marx, philosophy was something that should be suppressed. “For my part, I didn’t see things that way. I saw philosophy dwelling in the city of the future. But there’s no doubt that I looked toward Marxist philosophy” (de Beauvoir, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, pp.172–3). 

The harsh, forbidding style of the Critique has made it probably least read text of “Marxist philosophy” ever published. Yet, it is certainly one of the most important (in my own view, the most important). In the best single introduction to the book, Andre Gorz described the stakes involved here. “The aim of Sartre’s enterprise, by which it stands or falls, is to establish the dialectical intelligibility of historical processes (this is not the same as the study of these processes themselves), and by the same stroke to provide a reciprocity of perspective that permits an understanding of the individual as the alienated agent of history… If the individual is explicable through the society, but the society is not intelligible through individuals – that is, if the ‘forces’ that act in history are impermeable and radically heterogeneous to organic praxis – then socialism as the socialization of man can never coincide with socialism as the humanization of the social. It cannot come from individuals as their reappropriation by collective praxis of the resultant of their individual praxes…The positivist (or transcendental materialist) hypothesis is that the historical process is impermeable to dialectical intelligiblity. If so, then socialism, born of an external logic, will also remain external to individuals and will not be a submission of Society and History to individuals and their demands…” (Gorz, “Sartre and Marx”, NLR, I/37, May-June 1966, pp.38-9). 

The essay below is a slightly revised version of one that was written and published in India in 1978 in the Bulletin of the Communist Platform. The preface to my essay on the theses on Feuerbach explains the general background against which both essays were written. The intense theoretical life of the Platform Group involved readings, discussions, debate and numerous translations of Marxist classics that were simply unavailable in English at the time, even when, like Kautsky’s Die Agrarfrage (1899) or Grossman’s book on Marx’s theory of crisis (1929), they had been published decades earlier. The attempt to introduce Sartre into those discussions took the form of this essay, which is best seen as an introduction to the Critique that underscores some of its key themes as I saw them then and translates substantial extracts from the text. In a short preface to the version that was published in the Bulletin, I pointed out, “In this essay I have followed the odious convention of male designations (‘he’,‘his’). Conventions are worked matter in Sartre’s sense, and this is obviously a matter worked only by males. All page references are to the original French edition (Paris, 1960)”. The point about male designations bears repeating, of course. In revising the text I’ve added page references from the Verso translation, which wasn’t available to me in 1978. These references appear in bold. The translations are my own, which doesn’t mean that I haven’t now consulted Sheridan-Smith’s translation as well. 

In ‘The Wall’, a story by Andreev, a wall divides heaven and earth from each other, leaving only cruel and unnecessary suffering on the side of humanity. People come together and separate in a mad dance; repulsive as lepers, they poison one another’s existence. Hating this life, they butt their heads against the wall, trying to make a breach in it. They seek desperately for some way to destroy it. But the mind is powerless before the fatal obstacle, and those who do not submit to fate perish at the immovable wall. As a symbol of an obstacle to freedom and joy, the wall differs from the real obstacle only in that it is formed of dead stones. But the obstacle to the progress of mankind consists of the people themselves, suffering, wretched, pitiful, yet immovable in their inertia. It is this wall of the inert human mass that we must destroy.

We socialists must be the men of the future. We must foresee this future, and by it, by our vision, we must guide our lives and actions! According to our teaching, in every modern civilised nation there is a vital revolutionary stratum, which creates the future. This is the lowest stratum, the very foundation of the wall – the proletariat. When it comes into motion, then, as the Communist Manifesto says, with the force of geological upheaval it will destroy everything that rests upon it. It will bring down the entire wall.

Vladimir Akimov

1. Dialectic and history

We have to be able to imagine how a book like this could have been written, and yet we have no means of imagining it, except through our own action which is a way of living the concrete relationship that unites us to its writer. ‘Our understanding of others is never contemplative’ (p. 98).

It is 1925, you are twenty, and in your country, in the universities you go to, there is a deep hatred of dialectical reason. Hegel is unknown to you, and, without a knowledge of Hegel, without Marxist teachers, you know nothing of Marxism itself (p. 22). You read Capital, you understand everything, it is all quite clear, and yet you have understood nothing. Nothing at all. But slowly you begin to change. In the suburbs, on the horizon of your limited world, for you are an intellectual from another class, there is a vast, sombre mass of workers, and they live Marxism, it is their action, and this mass exerts at some distance an irresistible pressure of attraction on you. So, it was not the idea that transformed you, and not the conditions of life and work of the class on your horizon, for you know little about them. It is one linked to the other; it is the class as the incarnation of an idea (p. 23).

Now it is the bloody history of this part of the century that will force you to understand the reality of the class struggle. It is the war that will shatter all the old frameworks of your thought. The war, the occupation, the resistance, the years that follow. In 1937 a Russian begins to lecture on the Phenomenology at the École des Hautes Etudes. You go there, listen to him. Time passes. History has now taken hold of you. For two and half years, the Civil War in Spain dominated your life. Spain was a field of battle. You go to the Bibliothèque Nationale and take a reader’s ticket. You have embarked upon Hegel’s Phenomenology. At present, you scarcely make head or tail of a word of it. But History has burst over you and dissolved you into fragments. In France, the Popular Front struggles for a few months, then collapses. Madrid is still holding out, but is it true that the Stalinists have assassinated the revolution? Time passes. You have decided to work at Hegel every afternoon from two till five. It’s the most soothing occupation you can imagine. But History has taken hold of you.

The man who lectures at the École knows all this. He knows you are History. He knows that Spain was a battlefield, and that is why you are here. So, this is what he says –  

Man is self-consciousness. Man becomes conscious of himself when he says “I”. Now a man who contemplates the world can never say “I”. This man who contemplates the world, who is absorbed by what he contemplates, can be brought back to himself only by some force within him that troubles him. A force that agitates you, disquiets you, moves you to action. This force within you that troubles you is called desire. Desire is what transforms the world revealed to itself in man’s contemplation into an object revealed to a subject by a subject different from the object and opposed to it (A. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, p. 5). Or, desire is the primordial structure in the constitution of human subjectivity.

So, a specifically human reality, that is, a reality that hears itself, is never attainable within the limits of passive contemplation. Desire moves you to action. Since desire is realised as action that negates the given, the very being of this I which is infected by desire will be action, and the universal form of this being will not be space but time. So, this man tells you that man, who is self-consciousness, is therefore history, or time. Man’s being is becoming, and this he is only as an action that negates the world in order to go beyond it as this given world, to transcend it. Man is perpetual transcendence of the given world, a ceaseless action riveted to the future, to something that is not.

Now this is not enough, for my comrade Nizan has been killed, and I am here in the Bibliothèque reading more Hegel. Politzer has been tortured and shot. So this man who lectures must tell you a second thing.

For man to be truly human, for him to be essentially and really different from an animal, his human desire must actually win out over his animal desire. Now all desire is desire for a value. The supreme value for an animal is its animal life. Human desire therefore must win out over this desire for self-preservation. Or, man’s humanity only comes to light when he risks his animal life for the sake of his human desire. It is in and through this risk of life that a human reality is born, emerges within the order of nature and becomes revealed as reality. 

This is how this lecturer wants to explain, to account for, the history that we know, human history, which is a history of class struggles. For he goes on to say that to substitute oneself as the value desired by another’s desire is to seek recognition, and this search for recognition becomes the fundamental motor of human history. It accounts for the primordial struggles of mankind, for the social relations of domination and slavery, and for the emancipating and humanising role of the slave’s work. The relation of domination is born out of struggle. Here, two consciousnesses each seeking recognition from the other, seek this in the form of their risk of life. If both really risk their lives, all consciousness is abolished and history becomes impossible. In this struggle, the consciousness that truly risks its life, that subordinates its animal (non-human) desire for preservation to its human (non-animal) desire for recognition is the consciousness that wins. It becomes master. Thus, classes are born. But through this very relation, in which the master finds himself in an impasse, for he is doomed to abstract identity with self, and to gaining the recognition of a consciousness to which he ascribes no recognition, through this relation the slave now learns, through work, to repress his desires in the service of an idea, of what does not exist in the biological sense of the word, the idea of the master. Thus, through his work, which also makes the slave the master of nature, the slave finally comes to the same result to which the master came by his risk of life: he no longer depends on the given, natural conditions of existence (Kojève, op.cit. pp. 6ff., 25ff., 48ff.).

Sartre attends these lectures, hears all of this.

He agreed with Kojève that if there is something like a dialectical reason, then its basis is human action, or praxis. The dialectic ‘is the practical rationality of man who makes history’ (p. 129; 33). He agreed also that need (besoin), or desire, is fundamental to a conception of human action and of history (p. 166; 80). 

But is it not also true that this man who acts, who makes history, who is time, acts on the basis of ‘conditions’ he has not chosen, that these ‘conditions make man as much as he makes them’. Thus, there is an element in history that remains unintelligible if we follow Kojève throughout. But the dialectic is precisely the intelligibility, the rationality, of history. So, there is something wrong in the dialectic that Kojève (and through Kojève, Hegel?) explain to us.

The first form in which we can state the problem of historical intelligibility, of the intelligibility of history in terms of man’s being as perpetual becoming, as action, might be put like this: ‘How is one to understand this statement that man makes History if in another sense it is History that makes man?’ (p. 60). To resolve the problem of historical intelligibility Sartre rejected completely the second thing that Kojève had said. And, in a sense, the whole of the Critique of Dialectical Reason might be seen as an attempt to resolve the problem of historical intelligibility while accepting the first part of Kojève’s argument but rejecting the second.

For this second part, the further exposition of the lecturer, allowed for no dialectical reversals. Kojève said that relations of domination are born from an unmediated confrontation of two consciousnesses. Domination established, work allows the slave to obtain a status of self-consciousness, because the slave represses his desires in relation to something purely abstract (the master). Thus eventually, in this dialectic, there is only one moment of true counterfinality (or tragedy). This is the impasse in which the master finds himself within the relation of domination. Or, alienation is only the alienation of the ruling classes.

Thus, no proper theory of alienation, of this history which I make depriving the actions through which I make it, depriving my labour, of their meaning, is contained in this pure dialectic of self-consciousness. If Sartre’s first point of departure is entirely in agreement with Kojève – the dialectic is the rationality of human action (p. 134; 39), or Man is Action – his second one goes beyond Kojève. The dialectic, which is the rationality of human action and of history, ‘is in a certain sense experienced by man as alien power’, just as much as ‘in another sense it is man himself who makes the dialectic’ (p. 131; 35-36). Indeed, Marxism must accept both starting-points and make their contradiction the basic principle of historical intelligibility. ‘If we want to preserve the real complexity of Marxist thought, then we have to say that in a world founded on exploitation, man is at once a product of his product and a historical actor who can in any case never pass for a product’ (p. 61). And when we seriously consider whether there is a single Marxist who has ever followed through this contradiction, or dialectical circularity, and transformed it into the very principle of historical intelligibility, when we answer this in the negative, then the Critique, which follows through this contradiction at successive levels of complexity, emerges as probably the most important work of theory produced by any Marxist since Marx’s Capital

2. The dialectical priority of action (praxis)

Let us formulate the problem of dialectical intelligibility in the following terms: ‘We have to seize action (praxis) and its result from two inseparable points of view. That is, of its objectification (of man acting on matter) and that of its objectivity (of totalised matter acting on man)’ (p. 284; 225). In the pure dialectic of self-consciousness, there is only the objectification of human activity. But a truly dialectical reason is a Reason that is also non-dialectical—or, if there is a dialectic, then, obeying its own law of development, there must be within this dialectic a non-dialectic or anti-dialectic.

Action/praxis can be defined as ‘an organising project which surpasses the given material conditions towards an end (fin) and which through work inscribes itself in inorganic materiality as a reshaping of the practical field and reunification of the means deployed towards the given end’ (p. 687; 734). This can be called the dialectical structure of praxis, of conscious human action, whether individual or common, and its definition necessarily refers us to a moment that is not-action, the moment of Matter, or of materiality. In fact, human action ‘presupposes a material agent (the organic individual) and the material organization of an enterprise on matter through matter’ (p. 158; 92). In reworking the practical field, this organism which in its very being is praxis/action, which is a practical organism, operates a synthesis, it “totalises” the multiplicity of inert matter, or, totalisation is this relation of interiority which mediates between the parts of a whole. Totalisation as the dialectical structure of action makes the notion of time possible, which totality does not.

In the Critique, totalisation forms the specific structure of what we call history. History is totalisation or it is nothing. But Sartre’s project is to investigate not history itself but the ‘static conditions of its possibility’ (p. 155; 68), that is, the logical conditions of possibility of a totalisation of this order. Hence it is also possible to say that the Critique asks itself, ‘How is history possible?’ in the same fundamental sense in which Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason asked ‘How is experience possible?’. In fact, the Critique of Dialectical Reason moves further than Kant’s Critique, because human experience is an experience of history, it is something intrinsically historical, and therefore to ask “how is experience possible?” is to ask what makes history and the experience of history possible. 

To repeat; in the Critique, Sartre is not concerned with concrete history, but with its internal ‘logical structures’ or conditions of possibility. These are established or developed at successively more complex levels of intelligibility, all of which, even the most concrete or ‘synthetic’, form only abstract moments of dialectical experience, for all of them form part of the ‘regressive’ phase of the dialectical movement. In Vol.2, which Sartre planned to call the Critique of Dialectical Experience, he will ‘recompose’ the historical process in a reverse moment of progression, once its conditions of possibility have been seized and established abstractly. 

Three overall moments of dialectical experience dominate and shape the internal structure of the Critique (Vol. 1): the praxis of the ‘organic’ individual, the negation of this in matter, and the praxis of groups. Each of these are levels of intelligibility of the historical process. The praxis of the organic individual finds its dialectical limit in its own work as the exteriorisation of interiority or in what Sartre calls worked matter (p. 158; 71), and passes over at this limit into a dialectic of passivity, or anti-dialectic. The dialectic of passivity is the specific moment of experience or level of intelligibility corresponding to praxis that turns/returns against itself as something bearing the permanent seal or stamp of inertia. (The theory of alienation, or the dialectical experience of alienation as an a priori possibility of human activity, is contained in this moment.) Here, in exploring the negation of organic action (that is, of individual praxis) in and through worked matter, the series emerges as the fundamental type of social ensemble. Common praxis or the constituted action of groups then forms the final moment of this entire movement. Sartre proposes to argue that social classes ‘do not possess a unique and homogeneous type of being, but exist and form at all levels’ (p. 155; 67). (To illustrate this nature of classes, much later in the book he will argue that at any given moment the working class itself comprises all dialectical statuts; it is ‘at the same time a group whose organizations have become institutions [e.g., mass parties with their ‘cadre’], a fused or a pledged group [workers’ councils; soviets], and inert seriality’ (p. 647; 683); but this anticipates the argument below).

Once we have followed through this movement it should be possible to comprehend the practical statut (let’s define this to mean a specific place in the spiral of the dialectic) of the entire range of ensembles conceivable in any historical society: not only of social classes as the most important of these, but of the state, mass parties, trade unions, and of course the so-called ‘unorganized masses’. But the depth of dialectical intelligibility which allows us to differentiate the practical statut of a lynch mob from that of a strike committee, or of individual capital from social capital, or of groups from classes, and to distinguish rigorously between ‘societies’, ‘systems’, ‘structures’, ‘processes’, or between praxis and process, will only become possible because at each level of intelligibility, in each moment of the dialectical experience, new determinations are established. 

Yet this entire movement has a basis or a ground principle. Sartre himself vacillates between two conceptions of this, and appears to shift imperceptibly from one to the other in the course of the Critique. One conception of the ground principle states the dialectical priority of the praxis of the organic individual in the entire movement. This priority is signalised through its description as the ‘constituting dialectic’ of history (p. 154, 178; 66, 96, where the Verso translation always has ‘constituent’). The strongest argument that Sartre adduces for this conception is the notion of the praxis of the organic individual as an ‘untranscendable limit’ of the praxis of groups or common praxis. The former, ‘organic praxis’, the free, conscious activity of individuals, forms the ‘very foundation, always present and always concealed of the latter’ (p. 643; 677-8). The alternative conception asserts not so much the priority of individual action over common action (of a constituting dialectic over a constituted dialectic) as the priority of praxis itself over worked matter. And, since what matters here is praxis, the ground principle can just as well be formulated as the dialectical priority of constituted action over Being or worked matter or the practico-inert. So, Sartre can say, ‘Without constituted praxis, everything disappears, even alienation, since there is nothing left to be alienated, even reification since man becomes an inert thing from birth and one cannot reify a thing’ (p. 731-32; 789).

At any rate, accepting the weaker formulation, the principle that sustains the whole movement of the Critique is that of the dialectical priority of action over being. Without conscious projects, without human aims or objectives or desires, history vanishes. If human relations are simply the passive product of something we call ‘material circumstances’, then such relations are by their very nature reified and it would be impossible to understand what their reification would mean (p. 180; 97). Now action is dialectic. To assert the priority of action over being, or of praxis over the practico-inert, of dialectic over anti-dialectic, is to argue that at any given time relations among humans ‘are the dialectical consequence of their own activity’ (p. 180; 97), no matter how mystified those relations appear in their own eyes. 

This world in which I no longer recognise myself is a world I have created. Expressed differently, without work (which is action, indeed its model-type) there would be no ‘mode of production’ (p. 671; 713).

3. Domination by worked matter: scarcity and counterfinality 

What movement is it, however, that leads from one to the other, from work as a living praxis to the mode of production as its inorganic synthesis? From freedom to alienation? From the translucidity of my aims to my experience of necessity? 

Man ‘is’ only as a ‘becoming’. Man is action, he is a practical organism. But praxis would be impossible to conceive, at least in the historical world we know, without Hegel’s or Kojève’s desire, that is, need. Or, man is a practical organism with material needs. Need is the primordial relation of the dialectic of individual (organic) action/praxis. ‘It is the first totalising relation of this material being, man, with a material ensemble which he is part of. This initial totalisation is transcendent in the sense that the practical organism finds its being outside itself in inanimate being’, or in natural resources (p. 166; 81). To find its being in nature, the practical organism transforms itself into its own tool, acts on the inert objects of its external environment through the intermediary of the inert body which it is (as material organism) and which it makes itself. Here, instrumentality, end and work are given together: the organic totality is projected as totalisation of the movement through which the living body utilises its own inertia to overcome the inertia of things. Now it is scarcity, an absence of what the organism looks for in the environment, which by transforming the organic totality into a pure possibility, entails that the organism is no longer simply the destiny of its function but its aim or its end. ‘In the first instance praxis is nothing but this relation of the organism as external end and future to the present organism as a (organic) totality thrown into danger’ (p. 168; 83). And this ‘action born of need is a totalisation whose movement towards its own end actively transforms the environment into a totality’ (p. 170; 85). The practical organism now traverses the surrounding world as a project, it unifies a field of instrumentality around itself, and in and through the creation of this instrumental field transforms inert multiplicity into totality, so that ‘this inert plurality which has become totality’ is in itself ‘the end fallen into the domain of passivity’ (p. 171; 87). In short, we can say that ‘human labour, that is, the primordial human praxis through which the organism produces and reproduces its own life, is entirely dialectical: its possibility and its permanent necessity rest on the relation of interiority which unifies the organism with its environment and on the profound contradiction between the organic and the inorganic orders, both present in each individual; its initial movement and basic character are defined by a double contradictory transformation: the unity of man’s project gives to the practical field a quasi-synthetic unity, or the crucial moment of work is that in which the organism makes itself inert to transform the inertia that surrounds it’ (p. 174; 90). Here Sartre adds, ‘The oscillation which opposes the human thing to the man-thing will recur at all levels of dialectical experience; however, the meaning of Work is established by an end, and Need, far from being a force that pushes the worker from behind, is, on the contrary, the lived revelation of an end which is to be attained’, in this case the reproduction of the living organism itself (p. 174; 90).

Matter as something purely non-human and inorganic is governed by the laws of exteriority (and thus open to penetration by non-dialectical reason, that is, science). Within dialectical reason and dialectical experience, matter is inseparable from its human functions or meanings and contains these only to the extent that ‘man has already attempted to confer unity on it’, and to the extent that ‘it comes to form the passive support of the stamp of this unity’. Matter in its human function, or as the passive synthesis of human activity, can be called the ‘passive motor of history’ (p. 200; 122).

In history as we know it, our human history, the one-sided (non-reciprocal) relation of surrounding matter to man manifests itself in the specific and entirely contingent factual form of scarcity. Scarcity ‘is a fundamental human relation’ (p. 201; 123), but inconceivable in any dialectic which suppresses matter as a mediation between men (p. 192; 113). ‘What no one has so far tried to do is to explore the kind of passive action which is exerted by matter over men and over their history when their praxis returns to them as something stolen from them, in the form of counterfinality. History is more complicated than certain simplistic forms of Marxism suppose, and man has to struggle not only against Nature, against his own social milieu, against other men, but also against his own action as something become other. This primordial form of alienation finds its expression through all other forms, but it is independent of them and on the contrary their very basis’ (p. 202; 124).

Now, ‘abstractly, scarcity can be seen as relation between the individual and his environment. But in practice, and historically, this environment is an already constituted practical field that refers to each of its collective structures (what these are we shall see later) and the most basic of these is precisely scarcity conceived as negative unity of the human multiplicity (of this concrete multiplicity)’ (p. 204; 127). Thus, if work forms the basic type of totalisation of matter by man, the primordial totalisation of men by materiality manifests itself ‘as the possibility of a common destruction’ of all mankind and as ‘the permanent possibility for each individual of this destruction coming to him from matter through the action of other men’ (p. 204; 127). ‘Scarcity realises the passive totality of the individuals’ of a society ‘as the impossibility of coexisting’ (p. 205; 129). Sartre is of course emphatic that this is not a proposition about concrete history (about this or that historical situation) and that he is still dealing with ‘a very abstract moment’ of dialectical experience. What counts here are the ‘structures of dialectical intelligibility’ (p. 205; 128). Totalised passively into an inert and negative unity by matter, ‘man constitutes himself as Other than man’ (p. 206; 130). ‘The mere existence of each is defined, through scarcity, as the perpetual risk of non-existence for another and for everyone. Or, better still, this constant threat of annihilation that hangs over myself and everyone is not something I discover only in Others, but I am myself this threat as an Other’ (p. 205; 130). Thus, there is in man (in all men) ‘an inert structure of inhumanity’ (p. 207; 130) which is simply man’s interiorisation of his own negation by matter. In fact, ‘the historical process is impossible to understand without this permanent element of negativity, which is at once external and internal to man – the permanent possibility of being, through his very existence, the person who makes others die or whom others make die – in other words, without scarcity’ (p. 221; 148).

Scarcity is the first concrete validation of ‘that basic discovery of dialectical experience, that humans are mediated through things to the precise extent that things are mediated through humans’ (p. 165; 79). The negative element in history is man’s interiorisation of scarcity as a relation to other men, that is, as the negation in man of man by matter. The circularity might be redescribed as follows –  ‘there is a dialectical movement and a dialectical relation within praxis’ between action as the negation of matter and matter as the negation of action (p. 230; 159). Sartre clarifies this by saying that ‘This negation of action, which has nothing to do with defeat, cannot be translated in action except in terms of action itself, that is, its positive results, in the form in which these become inscribed in an object only to return against it and in it in the form of objective and negative commands’ (p. 230; 159).

To develop this new moment of dialectical experience – the return of praxis against itself in its objectified form and as a negation of its enterprise – Sartre returns to the conception of praxis itself. ‘Praxis whatever its concrete nature is basically an instrumentalisation of material reality. It envelopes the inanimate thing in a totalising project that imposes on it a pseudo-organic unity. By that I mean that this unity is naturally the unity of a whole, but that it remains social and human, that by itself it does not obtain the structures of exteriority that define the molecular world. If unity persists, it is, on the contrary, through material inertia. Since this unity is only the passive reflection of human action itself, that is, of a given enterprise carried through in given conditions with given instruments and in a historical society at a given stage of its development, the produced object reflects the entire society. Only it reflects it in the dimension of passivity’ (p. 231; 161).

This dimension of passivity, of the absorption of human action by the inertia of materiality, is the sphere of man’s domination by worked matter, or of his domination by himself as matter. ‘In surpassing the given material conditions man objectifies himself in matter through work: that means he loses himself so that the human thing comes into being’ (p. 240). Loses himself – his praxis becomes absorbed in passive and inert syntheses of innumerable other actions, and his finality (his ends) reappears as counterfinality (as a negation of his ends). The Chinese peasant household that cuts wood from the surrounding forests – this is a living organic action motivated by need – creates an absence of forests and eventually, through this absence of forests, massive periodic flooding and famines. ‘Worked matter’, materiality that absorbs and passivises human action, ‘reflects our activity back to us as inertia and our inertia as our activity’ (p. 247; 179). It is this dimension of passivised action, of worked matter as the alienated (counterfinal) objectification of praxis that Sartre calls the practico-inert.

The practico-inert, this ‘site of violence, darkness and magic’ (p. 358; 318), of an inverted praxis (p. 235; 165), is the specifically non-dialectical moment of the Critique. Sartre explores this level of historical intelligibility, praxis as inertia, and the experience of this inertia as a praxis-without-authorship, as necessity, with the example, taken from Braudel’s major study, of the circulation of precious metals in the Mediterranean world of the Renaissance (pp. 235 ff.; 165-78). To start with, there is no being, no materiality or matter devoid of human significance at least not within the field of human experience. ‘At any given historical time, things are human to the very degree that men are things’ (p.247; 180). Matter as the inert and passive support of human action, as an inertia that retains its meanings, refers us to those very projects, to human action, as dialectically fundamental. In fact, there could be no experience of alienation (of domination by worked matter) if man were not basically action. If he were pure materiality, neither action nor alienation would be conceivable. ‘Slavery is possible only because there is freedom’ (p. 248; 181). Only two choices are possible at this level. Either man is ontologically other than himself and one then elaborates a philosophy founded on a hatred of man. Or man is himself, he is the active source of this destiny which confronts him as his future. And if man were pure being, the only time conceivable would be the time of degradation, a dialectic moving in reverse from the complex to the simple, in short, involution and dissolution would then replace evolution. Thus, at the start of Spain’s ineluctable decadence and crisis, there lies human action. The regime of Philip II accumulates the precious metals. That is, organises their extraction, transport, melting and minting into coins. But there is no human action that does not crystallise its meanings in matter, and no matter that does not condition human action through the passive unity of its prefabricated meanings (p. 238; 169). Thus ‘the Spanish government accumulates gold but there is a flight of gold’ (p. 241; 173). If the accumulation of gold is founded on a type of human mediation defined by a common, deliberate praxis that unifies certain men in a single enterprise aimed at a single objective (p. 239; 170), then this flight of gold implies another form of human mediation which Sartre will call ‘serial’. For on the margin of that common enterprise, of the extraction and accumulation of gold by the regime, there are other men who are others in relation to its common praxis. ‘The synthetic interiority the group’, of the Spanish regime, ‘is traversed by the reciprocal exteriority of individuals formed by their material separation’ (p. 240; 171-2). Gold leaves Spain, flows across her borders, through these others. And their serial action finds its own external link in the inertness of gold and the inert idea inscribed on each piece of gold that the precious metals are wealth. Then thirdly, there is the counterfinality that turns the abundance of gold, of ‘wealth’, into negativity, into mass impoverishment throughout the Mediterranean littoral. The value of each piece of gold diminishes as the total mass expands, the total sum acts negatively on its parts as if it were whole (p. 242; 174). Prices rise, employers cut wages, there is a crisis in the labour market. No defence of wages is possible: atomised and massified, the wage-earners of Spain form a vast inert system conditioned from the outside (p. 243; 175). And here one form of materiality collides with another: depopulation augments the value of each unit of labour-power. Wages begin to climb upwards. In short, ‘worked matter, through the contradictions that it contains within itself, becomes for and through men the fundamental motor of history’ (p. 250; 183). The historical decline of Spain is inconceivable without the role of the precious metals, of human things, of inert materiality on which men have inscribed their meanings and which absorbs their action and re-exteriorises it against itself as their destiny. ‘In worked matter the actions of all men become unified and take on a meaning, that is, they constitute for all of them the unity of a common future’ (p. 250; 183). This future, the decline of Spain, bears the stamp of pure counterfinality. The enrichment of Spain is the source of its decline. 

4. The inert exigencies of worked matter: working at machines

The image elaborated through this illustration is now applied directly to the factory. ‘Praxis as unification of inorganic plurality becomes the practical unity of matter. The material forces assembled into the passive synthesis of the tool or the machine produce actions: they unify other inorganic dispersions and thereby impose a certain material unification on a plurality of persons … the praxis inscribed in the instrument through past labour defines behaviour a priori’ (p. 250; 184).

In our experience, the typical symbols of the practico-inert are not simple objects and tools, but whole material ensembles. We refer to ‘the’ factory or ‘the’ company to mean either a combination of instruments surrounded by walls or the personnel within it or both indifferently. ‘If individuals were only a free praxis organising materiality … we could not really talk about this typical unity present in the social field as passive activity, active passivity, praxis and destiny. For this kind of social object to have a being, man and his products must exchange their qualities and their statuts within production itself’ (p. 251-52; 185

The level of dialectical intelligibility has shifted from the purely abstract moment of the action of organic individuality to the moment of its negation in worked matter. We deal with agents now from the angle of their domination by worked matter – and with human praxis as a temporalisation within the field of worked matter. ‘This man remains a man of needs, of action and of scarcity. But as a man dominated by worked matter, his activity no longer finds its source directly in need, although need remains fundamental to it: it is aroused in him (suscitée en lui) from the outside by Worked Matter as the practical exigency (exigence) of the inanimate object. Or, if you like, the object comes to define (désigne) its man as this person from whom a certain type of conduct is expected’ (p. 252; 185-6). The machine defines this man as a worker, as this or that kind of worker, and the work that this person performs as an ‘activity aroused in him from the outside’ is ‘the work of Others, of all others, of whom he is one’. Through the machine the worker becomes this ‘Other from whom certain motions are expected’ (p. 254; 188).

Sartre contrasts the reciprocity of ends, desires desiring desires, that defines common praxis through structures of reciprocity with the inert finality of machine work. ‘What one person may hope of another, when their relation is a human one, is something defined in reciprocity. This hoping is a human act. The question of passive exigency does not arise here…praxis as such can unify with praxis in a reciprocal action, each can formulate his ends through a recognition of the ends of others, but no praxis in the strict sense can even formulate a command, simply because exigency is not part of the structure of reciprocity’ (p. 253; 187). On the other hand, ‘the demand of a tool that expects to be operated in a definite way, according to a definite rhythm, etc. undergoes basic transformation through its very materiality: it becomes exigency because it acquires the double character of otherness and of passivity. In fact, exigency … constitutes itself in each worker as something other than him (he has no means of modifying it, he can only conform to it, it does not enter the dialectical movement of human performance), and in the same blow it constitutes each worker as other than himself: insofar as the worker is defined by his praxis, this finds its source not in need or in desire, it is not the ongoing realisation of his project but, as something constituted around an alien objective, it is, in the agent himself, the praxis of an other and it is an other that objectifies itself in the result’ (p. 253; 187-88).

The worker who operates a machine engages in action (praxis), but this is his praxis as the praxis of someone other than himself, of an indefinite multiplicity of persons capable of the same ‘definition’ through that instrument. ‘Through materiality it is man as Other than himself who affirms his dominance over man: the machine has to be preserved in its market condition and the practical relation of man to matter becomes man’s response to the exigency of the machine’ (p. 254; 188). Of course, individuals interiorise the inert commands of matter to re-exteriorise these as commands delivered by men: it is through the apparatuses of control and supervision in the factory that the machine enforces a certain type and rhythm of work in the worker (p. 256).

The machine shapes its man to the very degree that man shapes the machine … it constitutes its operator as a machine that must operate machines. All relations within the practical agent are reversed by it; as categorical imperative, the machine makes the worker a pure means, but a conscious means (for he knows its imperative); as a source of wages, it transforms his praxis (or his labour-power) into a commodity, that is, an inert product that preserves its power of unifying a practical field. Finally, the machine becomes a living thing, a pseudo-organism only to the extent that the worker makes himself a force of inert exteriority (expends his own substance). The machine defines and creates the reality of the man who operates it, makes him a practico-inert being who will be a machine to the degree that the machine is human and a man to the degree that the machine remains a tool to be used. At the same time, the machine determines his future as a living organism, just as it defines the future of its owner. The difference here is that it defines the worker’s future negatively as the impossibility of living long. Not only through the counterfinalities that we have described (air pollution, destruction of the environment, job diseases, etc.), but also because it represents for the worker…the permanent threat of low wages, technological unemployment and deskilling. And the rationality of this lies in the real meaning of industry: the machine was created to replace man…in the machine the worker discovers his being as indifferent generality, his praxis as something already materialised in tasks that are predetermined as inert exigencies to be obeyed, his future as powerlessness…’ (p. 269-70; 207-8). 

Now, ‘to the extent that the machine imparts to the worker the meaning of a practico-inert being, devoid of any particular interest (and of any possibility of having one), it defines the worker as a general individual…this does not mean that the machine produces abstract beings without individuality: the human agent remains, even within his reification, a constituting and dialectical totality’, a practical organism. 

In fact, each (general) individual expresses the particularity of his praxis in the way in which he constitutes himself and allows himself to be constituted as generality, and this generality of each defines the relations of all of them; each discovers in the Other his own generality. Inert generality as the milieu of the working class in the beginnings of industrialisation cannot be seen as a real and totalising unity of workers (in a given factory, town or country) ... it comes to them through worked matter … and is constitutive of every one of them and all of them as the negative unity of a destiny that condemns them. But in this very act, in the negative milieu of the general, each worker perceives this general destiny of the individual worker and of all workers (and not yet of a worker totality…) in the very generality of his own destiny. Or, if you like, he sees his worker’s destiny, that is, the negation of the possibility of his own existence, in the generality of machines as something owned by the generality of Others… In the capitalist period, the contradiction of the machine is that it creates and denies the worker in the same blow: this contradiction, materialised as a general destiny, is a fundamental condition in the growth of class consciousness (prise de conscience), that is, in the negation of the negation. (p. 270-71; 209-10).

5. The notion of ‘interest’

Thus, machine work is praxis, but praxis which forms a response to the exigencies of worked matter, ‘activity as passivity, power as impotence’ (Marx), or passive activity. The transition from the formal to the real subsumption of labour into capital can also be described as a dialectical transcendence of praxis in passive activity. This is a transcendence (dépassement, Aufhebung) and not an abstract substitution, because ‘materiality as the inflexible necessity of the practico-inert transcends the free praxis of individuals only to conserve it within itself as the indispensable means by which its heavy machinery works’ (p. 376; 340). Moreover, the transition from praxis to passive activity is itself the object of a living praxis – the praxis of the capitalist in enforcing the norms of abstract labour, that is, in ‘breaking up the old psycho-physical nexus of qualified professional work’ (Gramsci, “Americanism and Fordism”).

This remains incomplete, however, because this action – of reorganising the methods of production and styles of life of a large sector of the population – is itself definable within the dimension of worked matter. Asked, “why would a capitalist do this?”, we would automatically reply, “because it is in his interest to do so”. Thus, the notion of ‘interest’ emerges as a further specification of the field of the practico-inert.

Interest is definable in Sartre’s dialectic as one’s being-entirely-outside-self-in-a-thing insofar as it conditions praxis by its categorical imperative (p. 261; 197). ‘Taken on his own, in his free and simple action, an individual has needs, desires, he is a project, he realises his ends through work. But in this abstract and fictitious state, the individual cannot be said to have an interest... Interest is a certain relation of men to things within the social field. It is something discovered in the practico-inert moment of experience when man constitutes himself in the external milieu as this practico-inert ensemble of worked matters even as he establishes the practical inertia of the ensemble in his real person’ (p. 261; 197). An individual can be said to possess an interest from the moment when a material ensemble defines him in his personal particularity, and when its preservation and expansion at any cost conditions his activity as categorical imperative (p. 263; 199).

However, Sartre immediately goes on to suggest that the notion of interest as a practico-inert relation is impossible to conceive without reference to the structure of alterity, of otherness, that defines the field of the practico-inert. If interest appears initially only as a ‘relation of men to things’, the mediated nature of this relation is what counts later. ‘As always interest is born out of alterity as the primary human practical relation but deformed by its conducting matter, and only sustains itself in the milieu of alterity’ (p. 272; 210). In a wider definition not restricted to bourgeois property, interest is ‘the negative and practical relation of man to the practical field through the thing which he is outside (à travers la chose qu’il est dehors) or, in another sense, a relation of the thing to other things of the social field through its human object’ (p. 267; 204).

The obvious example of this nexus is the factory and its bourgeois owner. ‘The French industrialist who in 1830, in the heyday of family capitalism, cautiously introduces English machinery “because it is in his interest” in fact has no relation with those machines except through the intermediary of his factory’. His desire to expand is simply the real expansion of his factory as something he controls through his praxis. ‘If he imports machinery from England, it is because the factory’, which he is as a thing outside himself, 

requires this (l’exige) in a given competitive field, therefore insofar as it (the factory) is Other and a thing conditioned by Others… The decision is dictated to him as an exigency by the competitive milieu (defeating his competitors by selling at a lower price) but negatively, because competition (and the possibility that other factories will import English machines) makes him vulnerable insofar as he has constituted himself as a factory. But scarcely has the machine been installed, than the interest is displaced. His interest in the machine, that is, his subjection to his being-outside-self, was the factory; but the interest of the factory becomes the machine itself: once it comes into operation, it is the machine that determines production, it is the machine that forces him to break the earlier equilibrium between supply and demand and to search for new markets, that is, to allow demand to be conditioned by supply. The interest of the factory has changed, the caution and stability that characterised that interest are transformed into calculated risk and expansion; the factory-owner has installed an irreversibility within the walls of his enterprise. And this irreversibility (the machine never stops) defines him in his being as well as his praxis, or rather as social object it realises in him the identity of Being (as structure of inertia) and of praxis (as the expansion which is ongoing). But, in the antagonisms of alterity (here the competitive milieu) the interest of each factory owner is the same to the precise degree that it is constituted as Other; or, if you like, the compulsion to effect perpetual cost reductions by installing ever newer, ever more advanced machines comes to each as his interest (the real exigency of the factory) insofar as it is the interest of Others and insofar as for Others he himself constitutes this interest as the interest of the Other. (pp. 263-64; 200-1.)

So, in the name of “interest”, being-outside-self as worked matter unites individuals and groups through the negation of each by all and of all by each, as a negation defined in alterity. 

Which amounts to saying that the interest-object acts (through the mediation of the individual) under the negative pressure of similar exigencies developed in other interest-objects. At this level it is impossible to say … whether for the industrialist profits represent an end or a means: in the movement of interest as negative exigency – in other words, in the never-ending transformation of the means of production that becomes necessary – the greater portion is reinvested in the enterprise itself; in one sense, the aim of these transformations is to maintain or increase the rate of profit, but in another sense profit is the sole possible means for the capitalist to realise these transformations … in the unity of the total process, the factory as the possession-power of an individual or of a group of individuals constitutes itself in its preservation and development as its own end... From the impossibility of halting the movement of production without destroying the object to the necessity of finding new markets for an expanded volume of production and of expanding production to retain market share, one comes up against the movement of growth and of motivation of a quasi-organism, that is, of the inverted image of an organism, a totalised false totality where man loses himself so that it exists, a totalising false totality that regroups all the persons of the practical field in the negative unity of Alterity. (p. 265; 202.)

The machine is the capitalist‘s interest in the sense just defined. But, as we saw, it is also a determination of the practical field of the working class. However, to the very extent that the machine is the capitalist’s interest, it is the worker’s destiny or fate. Like the capitalist, the worker has his being in the machine. ‘But the machine is not, cannot be, the interest of the worker. The reason is simple: far from objectifying himself in it, it is the machine that objectifies itself in the worker’ (p. 269; 206). We saw this in the previous section. In the machine the worker finds his being as indifferent generality, or the machine ‘designates’ or defines the worker as a general individual. This inert generality which is the milieu of the working class comes to workers from worked matter, as a false negative unity, ‘the negative unity of a destiny or fate that condemns all of them’ (p. 271; 209). Now, the movement of the working class, the constitution of the class into a ‘class for itself’ and no longer simply ‘as against capital’, is the very process by which this inert generality (which is also the first definition of the class as being) becomes transformed into a unifying totalisation, in the course of which and as which the class actively negates its being-outside-self as destiny, constituting that destiny as its future interest.

            This implies that the class negates not the machine as such or the machine in itself – for this would be a negation of the worker who is a product of the machine, or whose being is the machine – but negates the machine ‘insofar as it is destiny’, that is, ‘insofar as in a given social order it dominates or controls the worker without allowing him to control it in return’ (p. 271; 210). The capitalist, in appropriating the machine as his interest, constitutes the destiny of workers as an interest of the Other experienced and lived by them in the form of a counter-interest (destiny), and the class struggle, the totalisation through which an inert generality and identity becomes a class interest, is thus a negation of the negation, a negation of the capitalist’s interest as the worker’s destiny, or a negation of the interest of the Other as negation. ‘The combination of workers, if it takes place, is indissolubly linked to the constitution of a general interest as class interest’ (p. 273; 212).

            So ‘interest appears as the inorganic materiality of the individual or of the group in the form of absolute and irreducible being that subordinates praxis to itself as a means of preserving itself in its practico-inert exteriority. Or, if you like, it is the passive and inverted image of freedom, the only form in which freedom can produce itself (and become aware of itself) in the infernal world of practical passivity’ (p. 279; 219).

            Interest and destiny are practico-inert relations among humans, and classes obtain their first statut of intelligibility at this level of practico-inert relationships. Class Being is collective being-outside-self-in-worked matter, practico-inert being. ‘As practico-inert being, class being comes to men through men across the passive syntheses of worked matter’ (p. 294; 238), as their ‘being-outside-in-the-thing’, which is ‘their fundamental truth and their reality’ (p. 286; 228). Sartre then proposes to show how the being of classes as inorganic materiality forms the inert status and objective limit of their praxis.

6. Class being as practico-inert limit: French anarcho-syndicalism

The complex based on coal and iron found its typical resonance in the so-called “universal” machine. By that one means a machine, for example, the lathe, whose task is indeterminate … and which can accomplish quite different jobs as long as it is directed, set in motion and controlled by a skilled and expert worker. The universal function of this machine creates the specialised character of its operator … in this product its inventor envisaged a certain kind of worker, to be exact, highly skilled workers (travailleurs qualifiés), capable of carrying through a complete operation from start to finish, that is, a dialectical praxis. This practical aim is built into the machine in form of an exigency: it entails a reduction of physical effort as such but demands skill. It demands the attention and concentration of a man completely freed from all secondary tasks: through this the universal machine determines first of all the form of recruitment; through the employers it creates possibilities of employment and of comparatively higher wages; a structured future now opens for certain sons of workers defined by the dispositions or situation necessary for apprenticeship. But in the same blow it creates an inferior proletariat which is both a direct product of the appearance of this better-paid elite of workers…and a layer required by the machine itself as the ensemble of manual labourers who in each factory gravitate around the skilled workers, obey them, and free them of all inferior tasks that others can perform. Thus the 19th century machine establishes a passive structure within the working-class. (p. 295; 239-40.) 

Sartre writes, 

I shall call this structure a solar system; the manual labourers, defined quite simply as individuals without specialisation (hence perfectly indeterminate) gravitate in groups of five to ten around a skilled worker defined by his specialisation. The machine organises persons. Only, we should note that this human organisation has nothing to do with a synthetic union, with a community founded on an act of consciousness; the hierarchy becomes established in a mechanical dispersion of massified pluralities and quasi-accidentally. It is precisely the material inertia that permits this strange, rigid hierarchical unity within dispersion, just as it is the congealed action of matter, as the mechanical future of a group, class or society, that a priori establishes this hierarchical order as an ensemble of abstract relations that has to unify some individuals and that will impose itself on these individuals, whoever they are, within the temporal framework of production: already the factory, with all its machines, has decided the ratio of manual workers to skilled workers, has established for each worker the probabilities defining his future within the hierarchy. 

In this way the universal machine imposes differentiation on the workers as a law of things; but at the same time and through the very process we described for Spanish gold, it becomes its own idea. The property of a capitalist, it throws its operator into the ranks of the exploited, keeps alive and intensifies the contradiction that opposes the possessing class to the working class; yet through the skill it demands, it engenders in the hands, in the body of the man who operates it, a humanism of labour. The skilled worker does not see himself as a “subhuman conscious of his subhumanity”. Of course, his product is stolen from him but his indignation as an exploited worker finds its deepest source in his pride as a producer. Only the “wretched of the earth” can change life, do change it every day, only they nourish, clothe and house the whole of humanity. And since the machine is selective, since, through the very competence that it demands and creates, it constitutes labour for the skilled worker as the honour of the exploited, in the very same act it produces the manual worker as an inferior being with a lower wage, a lower technical value, and a lower being. To be sure, in relation to the capitalist this worker is someone exploited; but what is he in relation to the elite of workers? Perhaps someone who never had the chance (his father was poor, he started work at twelve), or someone who lacked the courage or the talent. Perhaps all of this. A tension exists. This is not a real antagonism, at least not at first: towards the professional worker the manual worker harbours ambiguous feelings. He admires him, listens to him: in acquiring a political and sometimes a scientific training, the skilled worker only develops the idea which the machine has of itself and of its operator. That is also why he sees himself as the militant wing of the working class. Militant action is something one imposes on the manual worker: he is someone who follows. But sometimes this worker gets the impression that when they participate in his struggles, the worker elite doesn’t always defend his interests. 

Everything I have said so far is inscribed in being. The inert idea of work as a point of honour, the technical operations, the differentiation of workers, this hierarchy, the tension that flows from it – all of this is a product of the machine, or, if you like, it is, in a given factory, any factory at all, the practico-inert being of the workers themselves in the sense that their relations with one another are the machine itself through its servants. But what one has to show is that these passive structures will later form a definite inertia within the workers’ action groups – there are a certain number of structures that no praxis will be able to transcend, they are unsurpassable. I have shown elsewhere how anarcho-syndicalist organisation, product of the free efforts of the elite within the class, was destined, even before unification was realised, to reproduce in the form of a “voluntary” association structures that were or had been established in certain enterprises through the mediation of the universal machine. But one would be sadly mistaken to suppose that it was the machine that engendered the Syndicalism of 1900 the way a “cause” produces its “effect”. If this were so, the dialectic and the human race would jointly disappear. Indeed, the humanism of labour is the material being of the skilled worker: he realises it in his work, with his hands and eyes, he receives it in his wages which express both the exploitation of this worker and the hierarchy of all exploited workers; finally, he brings it into being through the very influence that he exerts over the manual labourers and through that obscure conflict, still difficult to grasp, that opposes him to them. But he has to discover what he is. That means that his movement to unite with other skilled workers and to negate exploitation in practice necessarily occurs as the projection of what he is in his praxis itself: with what will he surpass exploitation if not with what exploitation has made of him? The basic movement through which the skilled workers combine and overcome their antagonisms is simultaneously an affirmation of the humanism of labour. The anarcho-syndicalist condemns exploitation in the name of the absolute superiority of skilled, manual labour over all other forms of activity. Practice only goes to confirm this basic principle: in the epoch of the universal machine it matters little whether the manual labourers go on strike or not, the absence of a few professionals, difficult to replace, is enough to disorganise the entire factory. Without knowing this, the elite of specialist workers abolishes the means of protesting against the exploitation of the manual workers: of course, they are indignant about the wretched condition of those workers , but they cannot justify the demands made by these “subhumans” on the basis of the skills attaching to the work they do. In a period when machine work demands a kind of lordship of (skilled) workers over their assistants, the basic principle of worker humanism and the related circumstances of the class struggle lie at the origin of a new discovery that one can call the paternalism of the worker elite: the skilled worker has to educate the labourers, involve them, galvanise them with his own example, etc. Thus the association that they form against capitalist exploitation reinvents rigorously but freely all the conditions which materiality imposes on alienated man. What interests us here is this subtle nothingness within positive being – the impossibility of transcending this humanism. In fact, it was transcended when the deskilling of the skilled workers brought about by the specialised machine reshaped the unity of the working class (in the advanced countries of capitalism) on new foundations of the interchangeability of all specialised workers. Work suddenly took on the same features for all of them: exhausting compulsion, hostile force. Of course, workers still had the pride of being workers but because they were the rockbed of society and not because the particular character of their work set them apart. A humanism of need... slowly began to crystallise. But it is crucially important that anarcho-syndicalism could never accomplish this transcendence on its own. The reason is simple: this practice and this theory represented the very life of the group and this active group (whether it was a union or the personnel of the factory) was nothing but a reunification and reorganisation of the struggle on the existing structural foundations. It was really impossible that the skilled workers, who were better educated, more combative, more effective, who through their mere absence could bring work to a standstill, should really, in practice, enroll into mass organisations that would have given the majority to the less educated, less militant workers. If such mass unions are today possible as well as necessary, it is because the techniques of struggle have changed along with the structure of the class – the interchangeability of semi-skilled workers (ouvriers spécialisés) compels them to adopt a strategy of mass action. This equality between workers came from changes in the means of production and in the practical tasks entailed by those changes: that equality is therefore true, that is to say, it proves its effectiveness every single day. But in 1900 it would have been an idealist position as the smallest strike would have shown. How could one argue that all workers were equal when strikes could succeed without the manual labourers, and when labourers on their own could never win any strikes? And how could you ascribe the same importance to all perspectives when manual workers, less educated, more hesitant, and without the profoundly respectable pride of the skilled workers, really did form a mass too inert to be aroused and galvanised into action?...The skilled worker came to identify the real, complete human being with himself. And this false identification (false not in relation to their employers but in relation to the masses) was an untranscendable limit because this identification was the workers themselves or, if you like, it was the expression, in theory as well as in practice, of their own practico-inert relationships with the other workers… When the problem of the kind of structure the unions should have was posed (should unions be craft or industrial?), the theory and practice (of syndicalism) became false because they posed an inert resistance to any effective reorganisation; their worker humanism became false when it led certain syndicalists to dream of the constitution of a proletarian chivalry; their relation to the masses became false when the docility of the manual workers gave way to growing discontent. And above all, the ideological and practical ensemble that expressed the struggles of a class structured by the universal machine became false when it prevented the trade unions from enrolling and organising the new masses, already brought into being before 1914 by the first specialised machines. But how could that exploited class fight for a proletariat other than itself? And what was this proletariat if not precisely the one structured in its being by the universal machine and passively infected by the material idea of ‘work as honour’ which the elite interiorised in its praxis? In deciding who they were, it was the machine that decided what they could be: it deprived them of the very possibility of imagining any other form of struggle at the same time as it gave to their self-affirmation, that is, to their ethico-practical reinteriorisation of its exigencies, to the active development through time of the structures prefabricated by it, the sole form of struggle that was effective against this class of employers in these circumstances. In short, here being is a prefabricated future as negative determination of what unfolds in time (temporalisation). Or if you like, it appears in action…as its congealed and unseizable contradiction, as the impossibility of going any further, or of wanting more or understanding more, as an iron wall within translucidity… To us who belong to another society (still capitalist, but one whose structures have mobilized new sources of energy, new machines, and mass production) the limits interiorised [in the praxis of that class] appear as the objective meaning of the structural relations that prevailed in the period of Anarcho-syndicalism....

Every practico-inert limit to a human relation can always (this is always abstractly possible) be revealed to the men whom it unites as the objective being of their relationship. But that is the very moment when their experience of this sense as real being shows them that it has always existed, interiorised but petrified, in their living praxis , down to their moments of subjectivity… But here we should insist above all that this prefabricated objectivity does not stop praxis from being a free temporal development (temporalisation) and effective reorganisation of the practical field in the pursuit of ends revealed and posed in the course of this praxis. In fact, anarcho-syndicalism was a living and effective struggle that forged its own weapons step by step and established unity among the trade unions starting from complete dispersion. Today its historical role even appears to have been that of establishing the first organs of unification within the working class. Or, better still, anarcho-syndicalism is nothing but the working class itself at a certain moment in its development, creating its first collective apparatuses in rudimentary form. What we quite simply have to understand is that its particular type of hierarchical unity was already inscribed in the human plurality by the universal machine insofar as it was structured through (the machine’s) exigencies for stratified groups of workers. (pp. 295-301; 239-47.) 

Sartre concludes this long analysis by noting that the political ideas and practice of the syndicalists (their theory, their organising drives, their struggles, and so on) ‘only realised humanly, that is, through praxis and dialectically, the sentence passed by the universal machine on that working class. Moreover, this was a sentence that had to be realised: without human praxis the class would have remained the inert collective which we shall discuss in the pages that follow. 


7. Class Being as a statut of seriality


As the practico-inert statut or passive ’condition’ of all human praxis, whether individual or common, class being defines a ‘type of collective being which is the foundation of all individual reality’ (p. 304; 250). Defined ontologically, then, class is an ‘inert collective (that is) the inorganic and common materiality of all the individuals of a certain ensemble’. ‘This basically is what one refers to when one speaks of “class”. For in the first instance by “class” one doesn’t mean either the active unification of all the individuals within organisations they have created or the natural identity of a collection of separate products’ (p. 304; 251). The first of these senses is ruled out because we often speak of ‘divisions’ within the working class and this already presupposes some deeper unity on the basis of which the class might set out to pursue its unification. Thus, the divisions appear as accidents which cannot affect the substance which remains, ontologically, one, viz. the class itself.

            But what is the dialectical intelligibility of the type of ensemble that Sartre calls the collective (e.g., of classes)? Sartre directly anticipates the movement of dialectical experience at this point by drawing groups into the argument. As between groups as the conscious bearers of some common project or undertaking or of a common praxis, and collectives, there is a relation of ontological priority in favour of the latter. The group itself can only emerge within the matrix of the collective, and its emergence can never wholly suppress the collective (p. 306; 253-4). A working class that actively totalises across its entire length and breadth is historically exceptional. This is the kind of situation that characterises the periods we call ‘revolutionary’ (p. 357; 316). The class group constitutes itself against class being, as its negation, yet class being remains the fundamental form of unity of workers as a class. It is their unity as Being or their social materiality. This relation of logical anteriority can also be stated by saying that when the active groups disintegrate, the collectives into which they disintegrate preserve no trace of them (p. 384; 348). Moreover, in the interactions between groups, it is the collectives that form their mediation or field of battle (p. 608; 635). Secondly, ‘the group is defined by its enterprise and by that constant movement of integration which strives to make it a pure praxis’ (p. 307; 255). The group is praxis, its being is totalisation. ‘A group is not … it constantly totalises itself and disappears either by fragmentation (dispersal) or by ossification (inertia)’ (p. 429; 407). On the other hand, ‘the collective is defined by its being … it is a material and inorganic object of the practico-inert field insofar as a multiplicity of individuals produces itself in it under the sign of the Other, as a real unity within Being, a passive synthesis ... the inertia of this object penetrates each individual praxis as its fundamental determination by the passive unity, that is, by the anterior and given interpenetration of all individuals as Others’ (p. 307f.; 255). The abstract moments of dialectical experience are now reintegrated in the kind of being which is called being-collective. These moments were – reciprocity as a basic human relation; the separation of individual organisms; the practical field with its dimensions of alterity; inorganic materiality as man’s being-outside-self in the inert object. In the collective the abstract opposition between ‘reciprocity as a relation of interiority’ and ‘solitude of organisms as a relation of exteriority’ finds its dialectical resolution, it finds itself transcended and conserved in a new type of ‘external/internal’ relation which Sartre calls seriality. Seriality is a structure of ‘false reciprocity’, and the collective only realises the unity of interpenetration of its individuals to the extent that it structures their relations in seriality (p. 308; 255).

            A multiplicity structured in seriality can be called series. In the series I have my being-outside-self in matter, in an inert object which is my interest or my destiny. As a collective interest/destiny, this inert object unifies me with others. The mediation is passive (p. 405; 376). Our exteriority as organic individuals becomes determined, through the passive mediation of this inert object which is our ‘collective’ interest/destiny, as identity. Exteriority mediated as identity is identity as alterity or otherness. This identity-in-alterity means quite simply that in the series I am the same as the Others. My being is being-Other. I become myself as Other than myself, and that is why I am the same as the Others. ‘Everyone is the same as the Others because he is Other than himself’ (p. 311; 260).

            If the constitutive rule of the group or of common action is, ‘The Other is the same as myself’, that of the series is ‘The Other is the same as myself as Other than myself’, or ‘I am an Other’. Alterity is the governing law of the series or of serial multiplicities, multiplicities structured in seriality. Other than serial identity as the identity of alterity, and other than the passive or inert unification of the series through a collective object, which is our common being outside-self as our interest/destiny – there is ‘the experience of powerlessness (impuissance) as the real link between the members of series. In fact, the series is something revealed to each individual the very moment he grasps within himself and in the Others their common powerlessness (impuissance) in suppressing their real differences’ (p. 325; 277).

            The notion of seriality is not only fundamental to the Critique; it is among its numerous concepts one of the most fertile. There is a distinct suggestion in the Critique that the dimension of seriality forms the fundamental moment in the growth of working-class consciousness. (In this respect Sartre’s own approach to the history of the working class in its period of emergence contrasts sharply with that of E.P. Thompson.) Sartre argues that, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the working class found its negative ‘collective object’, the object through whose passive action it was totalised in seriality, in the ensemble of machines (of the means of production) owned by capitalists. ‘We have already seen that the common interest of the class can only be the negation of this negation, that is, the practical negation of a destiny suffered as common inertia’ (p. 351; 309). For the class, practical organisation – whose structures of intelligibility we still have to come to – is a ‘human exigency’, it is means and end together, for it is both its means of struggling against its destiny (that is, against the men who in given society make the machine the worker’s destiny) and a future projected dissolution of the practico-inert field in a permanently active social organisation that will govern production as a concrete totality. The practical organisation of the class thus implies ‘a connected negation of two reciprocal aspects of the practical field: negation of the collective object as destiny and a corollary negation of multiplicity as seriality’ (p. 351; 309). Seriality is here the ‘being-to-be-transcended’ (p. 351). 

            Now, no common action could actually transcend this being that must be transcended unless it already contained within itself some structure of unification. We have seen that at the practico-inert level, that is, the level of class being, such a structure of unification is contained in seriality itself. The primordial sense of class unity is powerlessness as a force of alterity (p. 352; 310). ‘In this sense, the common-class-being of the workers in 1830 is, in the presence of their Machine-Destiny and of the organs of oppression and violence, the seriality that defines their relations of reciprocity, because this profound powerlessness is at the same time their unity’ (p. 352; 311). Despite the concentration of large masses of workers in the same workplaces, dispersion remains a key factor, Sartre writes. ‘The indefinite plurality of conflicting relations is what creates the class as indefinite series that everywhere finds its serial unity in the powerlessness of the individuals who compose it. Exploitation becomes the passive unity of all workers (and no longer simply as an identical condition) in the sense that each worker lives the isolation of the Others as his own isolation and lives their powerlessness through his own. As collective (recall the precise meaning Sartre assigns to this term!) the class becomes a material thing made up of men in the sense that it constitutes itself as a negation of man and as the serial impossibility of negating this negation’ (p. 353; 312). The class is ‘the destiny one cannot change’. ‘It is not a practical solidarity (at this level of intelligibility!) but, on the contrary, the absolute unity of destinies thanks to the lack of solidarity. Each worker feels himself confirmed in his inertia by the inertia of all the Others… The Other, for this proletariat which is only just emerging, is in the first place the serial totalisation of the Others, that is, of all those, himself included, who to any given worker represent the possibility of unemployment or of work at lower wages’ (p. 353; 312). Thus, at this level, class being is a milieu structured in seriality, or ‘the inert-being-of-seriality, as the basis and raw material of every other combination, is really the unity of the workers in their being and by Being insofar as their destiny draws its rigidity from their dispersion’, and class praxis ‘can only emerge on the basis of this underlying common-being’ (p. 357; 317) and presupposing its purely negative unity.

            Now, it follows that this serial and practico-inert statut which is the being of a class could never produce a class struggle if there were not the permanent possibility of dissolving seriality (p. 644; 679). The notion of class interest, as the potential negation of the class’s destiny, forms an initial and merely abstract determination of this possible unity which is the dissolution of seriality. If being were the only determination of social classes, that is, if classes were simply reducible to their ontological dimension, the one whose structures Sartre has been establishing thus far, then class struggle would become unintelligible. Struggle is a type of praxis, and praxis at the level of the practico-inert, e.g., of classes, implies either the passive activity which is action in response to the inert exigencies of a practico-inert object (machine work) or the dissolution of seriality, the practical totalisation of individuals into groups, which is action as negation of the inert. The definition of classes in terms of their being (that is, as practico-inert social objects) forms only a first step to understanding the complex reality of classes in history. Sartre will later say that ‘classes are shifting ensembles of groups and series’ (p. 610; 638), that they form a perpetual movement of mediation between their serial and grouped multiplicities (p. 643f.; 678ff.). Thus, a more concrete definition of classes implies a new level of intelligibility, that of common action, or of the group.

8. The group

The organised praxis of a group that struggles ‘finds its source at the very heart of the practico-inert, in the opaque materiality of powerlessness and inertia (and) as a transcendence of this materiality’ (p. 357; 316). It follows that the practico-inert is itself a field contained between two radical negations. It constitutes itself through counterfinalities and the mediation of worked matter as the passive synthesis of serial relationships, hence as a negation of individual praxis; on the other hand, the group emerges within the social field of collectives as ‘a practical rejection of seriality’, that is, of the practico-inert (p. 359; 319).

            Sartre distinguishes three basic moments of dialectical experience in relation to the group. There is no suggestion that these form actual ‘stages’ in the life-cycle of any given group. The group can disintegrate, that is, relapse into seriality, at any stage prior to its degradation in the shape of the institution. The three moments of the dialectic of common action, that is, of the activity of the group, are – the fused group, the organised group, and the sovereign-institutional group.

            The fused group is not something that ‘is’, it is a praxis, a perpetual totalisation. Praxis is its only real unity (p. 438; 418). ‘It has neither existence (it is not an organism [like the individual]) nor being (it is not a material totality [like a machine])’ (p.451; 434). The fundamental structure in the constitution of this practical, totalising entity which has neither existence nor being but is pure action, is a relation of double mediated reciprocity. Two consciousnesses may stand in a direct, immediate relation to each other; but this relation can be revealed as a reciprocal link only through the intervention of a third consciousness which, through its totalisation of their unity, establishes their double totalisation as a unified totality (pp. 184-197; 100ff.). The first dialectical determination of the group member is thus as this ‘third consciousness’. As a ‘third’, each totalises the reciprocities of the others. And this mediated reciprocity, reciprocity presupposing three consciousnesses, that defines the relations between group members is itself double: each third mediates between the group (this project, this objective, this action which is the group) and all the other ‘thirds’, and the group, as this action or project, mediates between all the ‘thirds’ (p. 404; 374). This student comes to the group as I do. She is the same as myself. In her I see myself coming to the group (p. 406; 377). In this type of human mediation, the very reverse of serial mediation, it is not objects but praxes that take on the decisive role of mediation.

            The fused group can be defined as a group whose only constitutive structure is this relation of double mediated reciprocity. Its Being is pure action. In such a group, there is pure freedom – that is, the absence of all inertia. And precisely because of that, because its unity is purely practical, the unity of this action, a group of this kind runs the risk of disintegrating into serial dispersion once the common action/praxis which it ‘is’ (the task which it set itself, which it actively pursues) is over. Now, the problem of the group that seeks to survive is related to the problem of being, that is, of permanence (p.435; 414). A group that seeks to survive is a group that ‘posits itself for itself as immediate objective’ (p.437; 417). Its permanence becomes in each member the common objective. But at this moment it acquires a ‘contradictory statut, because it wants the sort of permanence that comes to it [can only come to it] from the inert and it wants free totalising praxis or, if you like, it wants that totalisation in its very freedom should enjoy the ontological statut of an inert synthesis’ (p. 437-8; 417). Now the group’s unity, no longer securable by the praxis around which it totalised in fusion (as a fused group) must come into being ‘as an inert synthesis at the very heart of freedom itself’ (p. 438; 418). Freedom creates its own inertia, in full consciousness and voluntarily, to secure the permanence of the group. This new statut, freedom producing inertia, is the oath. The oath retains the structure of mediated reciprocity; through it ‘each third affirms the permanence of the group’ (p.440; 420). It is, however, an inert determination of the future, or this ‘inertia is above all negation of the dialectic at the heart of the dialectic itself’ (p.440; 420). From now on, whatever the future developments, the totalisations in motion, ‘one element will remain non-dialectical – the common belonging of every member to the group. The group will of course enter new dialectical combinations that will transform it, but its common unity cannot thereby be changed’(p.440; 420). In this moment ‘we again discover the dialectical law we have encountered from the very start of our experience: the re-exteriorisation of inorganic inertia is the basis of instrumentality, that is, of the struggle against inertia of matter within the practical field. The group now seeks to make itself its own tool against the seriality that threatens it with dissolution’ (p.440; 421).

            The oath is a free practical invention founded on the fear of alterity which is the ‘rule of a practico-inert social field’ (p.319; 270). When you take the oath, then in fact you are saying, “I shall not be the Other through whom the group breaks up”. ‘The origin of the oath is fear, both of the third person and of myself as a third’ (p.447; 430), and this is a fear born from the absence of any fear, from the absence of any specific pressure through which a common action might become possible now. Thus ‘the basic reinvention at the heart of the oath is the project of substituting a real fear produced by the group itself for the external fear that has receded’ (p.448; 430). As an action performed on itself to ensure its survival, the group cannot help being a source of coercion. Through the oath, the members of the group as common individuals create a ‘statut of violence’. Every freedom protects itself at the risk of its own annihilation. Freedom constitutes itself, freely, as Terror, or, ‘being-in-the-group as a limit that is untranscendable produces itself as the certainty of death if this limit is surpassed’ (p.449; 432). Terror is the fundamental statut of the pledged group (p.450; 433). ‘This is the birth of humanity’, Sartre writes, for every organisation founded on the reciprocity of the oath signifies the victory of man as common freedom over seriality (p.453; 436). And comradeship, brotherhood, fraternity are, finally, only the positive form of this Terror (p.455-56; 439-40). 

            Now, the rudimentary praxis of the fused group was something ‘undifferentiated’. The praxis was everywhere the same, everywhere common, in each individual it was total. Here there was complete translucidity, no inertia, no control, no organisation. As pure translucidity the action of the fused group retained and amplified the characteristics of organic, individual action/praxis (p.459; 445). At this level, the common individual is the organic individual who interiorises the multiplicity of thirds and unifies it through his action (p.462; 449). The problem of the intelligibility of common action is thus posed not at this level, but at the level of a group that has secured its permanence in the condition or statut of terror and that now performs the reflexive action on itself that is called organisation. The problem of intelligibility only arises at the level of the organised group

            Here it is not the notion of organisation itself that poses the problem. The term ‘organisation’ denotes at once the internal action through which the group defines its structures and the group itself as a structured activity pursued in the practical field on worked matter or on other groups. Organisation implies a complex reality ‘which we can describe in these terms: the group acts on its transcendent object only through the mediation of its individual members, but the individual member/agent executes his activity (action) only in the established framework of the organisation, that is to say, insofar as his practical relation with the thing is directly conditioned by his functional relations with other members of the group’ in the format in which these have already been established by the group or its representatives (p.460; 446).

            Rather, the problem is posed specifically by the increasingly objective appearance of organised groups as structured ensembles. But what are structures in such cases? That is, how are ‘structures’ intelligible? They are ‘strange internal realities, at once organized and organizing, which are both the synthetic products of a practical totalisation and objects always open to a rigorous analytic study’; they are the ‘inorganic skeleton as well as the defined powers of everyone over everyone else…mechanical elements and simultaneously expressions of a live integration into a unitary praxis, contradictory tensions between freedom and inertia’ (p.487; 480). This implies precisely that, however remote and alienated in appearance, structures are a product of human activity, more exactly, a synthetic product of that common action that groups perform on themselves , which we called ‘organisation’. Structures are not the result of organic (that is, individual) praxis, but of group praxis, and groups acquire structures in organising themselves. To be born within a group/structure, e.g., an exogamous clan, a subcaste, ‘is to produce oneself as a specification of the group and an ensemble of functions (responsibilities and powers, debts and credit, rights and duties)’ (p.493; 487). Born within a pledged group, the common or group individual finds himself bound by a pledge, but as a free agent in possession of his freedom, not as a passive object receiving his status from the outside (p.491; 485). Within this group/ structure ‘it is the common individual’s aim to preserve the permanence of relations across changes in the position of individual terms’ (p.493; 487). (Hence the diachronic stability of the often exceedingly complex and ramified structures of matrimonial exchange studied by Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), which Sartre discusses here. Yet, despite their stability and their crystalline appearance, these kinship systems belong not to the practico-inert but to common praxis, they are active, not passive, syntheses.)

            In terms of Sartre’s dialectic, structures represent the ‘necessity of freedom’. Their intelligibility remains the group as totalising praxis, that is, at this specific moment of experience, viz. the organised group, ‘the free adherence of each (common individual) to the community … as the (material) inorganic being of each’. ‘This necessity which is exteriority structuring interiority is exactly the reverse of the practico-inert: the latter, as we saw, appeared to us as passive activity; the former, on the contrary, constitutes itself as active passivity. This being-inorganic of everyone … comprises a large area of indeterminacy: it is the foundation of my praxis, it frames and circumscribes it, channels it … but my praxis itself is not reducible to this skeleton: it is more and something else; it is the free concrete realisation of a specific task’ (p. 494; 489). To fight inertia the group infected itself with a primordial inertia, the oath; it absorbed into itself the element of passivity which it needed to survive. ‘But the group in itself is precisely not a passive synthesis and its passivity’, the oath, organisation, ‘only sustains the active synthesis which is praxis’ (p. 495; 489-90). So, even as structures, groups are not and can never be totalities, passive syntheses, they are and remain totalisations, multiplicities totalising themselves to totalise the practical field within a common perspective. Organised groups are ‘a complex dialectic of praxis and inertia, of totalisations and of elements already totalised’ (p. 497; 492). To repeat: it contradicts the very notion of the group to conceive of it as a purely ‘objective’ reality, inert synthesis, totality, etc. This remains equally true at the level of the organised group, where, in fact, the common individual is no more than the common praxis which has to be realised through the actions of individuals (p. 467; 455), or where ‘individual praxis is a mediation that cancels itself’ (p. 470; 459), or where, finally, reciprocity as a relation of interiority between concrete individuals loses its original character of something concrete, immediately lived and spontaneous to become a worked and centrifugal reciprocity, a bond of absence (p. 479; 470).

            Yet there is a level, Sartre will write, at which the organised group acquires the appearance of a merely practico-inert ensemble; more than a practical organism it comes to resemble ‘the complex formed by a machine and by the workers who use it for some specific job’ (p. 539; 546). And, significantly, Sartre appears to suggest that it is only finally at this level (of the organised group) that we can bring in the notion of a constituted dialectic. ‘By this we should understand the following: there isn’t a dialectical praxis here (in organisations) that realises the unity of individuals but, on the contrary, there are individual, constituting dialectics which through their work invent and produce a dialectical apparatus in which they enclose themselves and their instruments… What counts here is that common praxis is at once a praxis and a process’ (p. 539-40; 547). So, in posing the problem of the intelligibility of organised action, Sartre introduces a new concept, process.

 9. Praxis and process: Taylorism

The group is not an organism, even if organic structure is its immediate, illusory appearance in the field of the practico-inert and against that field (p. 381; 345). We know that the group is simply the unity of a multiplicity interiorised by each common individual and that the oath is the practical expression of this unity. ‘Everything would be simple if to praxis as a living and concrete temporalisation of the group there corresponded a living and concrete group – in short, a Gestalt, an organism or a hyperconsciousness – that temporalised and objectified itself. In fact, we know that the group…exists nowhere except everywhere, which is to say it belongs to each individual praxis as interiorised unity of the multiplicity’ (p. 507; 506). The praxis of the group ‘is not the temporalisation of an organic unity’, that is, of a real practical organism (the individual), ‘but a negated and instrumentalized multiplicity which temporalizes and unifies itself in the common praxis through the mediation of individual temporalisations’ (p. 507; 507). But what is this unity of local (dispersed) and heterogeneous (functionally differentiated) praxes? This is one form in which Sartre formulates the problem of the intelligibility of constituted praxis.

            The group is unified multiplicity. Abstractly, its constitution presupposes the two dialectically opposed moments of ‘unity’ and ‘multiplicity’. But even when the oath has resolved their opposition through interiorisation, that is, when it succeeds in fighting multiplicity by interiorising multiplicity, subjecting it to an eternal unity, the interiorisation of multiplicity is something perpetually defeated; there is always a ‘dispersive limit to its (the group’s) unification’ (p. 536; 542). To combat the perpetual reappearance of multiplicity, organisation acquires a vertical dimension. ‘Against the dispersive force of the practico-inert field, the group has to create within itself apparatuses of mediation, control and inspection whose basic function lies in putting the various sub-groups into relation with one another or with the central apparatus’ (p. 536; 543). At this stage, ‘the internal action of the group on itself is intensified to fight the multiplicity that is beginning to erode it’ (p. 544; 552). If organisation developed initially as the exteriorisation of the inertia of interiority, it evolves now as the interiorisation of the inertia of exteriority (p. 537; 543). Such a group becomes process.

             ‘What difference is there, then, between process and praxis? Both are dialectical: they are defined by their movement and their direction; they overcome obstacles of the common field and transform them into’ so many markers of their development. 

Both are defined by starting from a particular determination of the field of possibilities... Both are violence, fatigue, wear and the perpetual transmutation of energy. But praxis reveals itself immediately by its end … at any given moment of the action, it is the agent who produces himself in such and such position, makes such and such effort… I have called this praxis free for the simple reason that, in the given circumstances, starting from a given need or given danger, it invents its own law in the absolute unity of the project (as a mediation between the given, past objectivity and the objectification that is to be produced). Now process is not comparable either to an avalanche or flood or to an individual action: in fact, it conserves all the features of individual action, since it is constituted by the goal-driven action of a multiplicity of individuals; but at the same time these features receive within it the modification of passivity because, through the resurrection of multiplicity, each here presents itself as a passivity (and implies passivity as everywhere, in all the heres) and activity appears as an unseizable elsewhere…In the group-process, practical activity, as unseizable and fleeting event, serves as organising mediation between the inertias one experiences. (p. 541-42; 549.)

‘Process manifests itself as an object, which doesn’t mean that we perceive it as totality; quite the contrary. But the movement which animates it is not one of those that I as a practical organism can produce; it belongs to the category (of objects) I experience insofar as I have my being-outside-myself-in-the-world. In other words, it reveals itself as a reality in relation to which I shall always be outside, even if it envelopes me and drags me along, and which will always be outside me, even if with everyone I contribute to producing it. This reality is structured in interiority’, it is something mediated through my praxis, now defined as function, ‘and yet it has no interiority’(p. 543; 551). The law governing process can be called a ‘transcendent law of interiority’ (p. 543; 551). As a type of common praxis, processes are totalisations, they preserve their finality ‘but reversed, passivized and masked by necessity’ (p. 543; 551).

            The concept is a deeply significant one, if only because, despite its appearance of pure objectivity and of a sort of inevitability, no determinism is involved in process. Individual praxis remains its untranscendable limit, even if most actual processes escape the control and often even the comprehension of individuals (p. 549; 559). It forms the key to those highly bureaucratised mass parties which touch the very limits of dialectical intelligibility by appearing to us as ‘enormous passive objects’ that simply ‘consume their energy in internal reactions, absorb the human activities of their members, and subsist through a sort of inert perseverance’ (p. 544; 553). Later, the same concept will be used to establish the important dialectical distinction between ‘exploitation’ and ‘oppression’. For the moment, Sartre applies it to re-examining the labour process under Taylorism.

Taylor is without doubt the first of those persons we call “organisation men”. His aim is to increase productivity by eliminating wasted time. If a worker’s action comprises five successive operations, then five operators who each perform one of these operations five times will take less time than five workers each producing the entire action. The organiser’s invention consists here in substituting passive temporality for temporalisation. An act is a temporalizing praxis. And, in a certain sense, each elementary operation is also temporalized (in fact, it too is an act, complete in its realisation…). But what ensures that the living totality of the act disappears is that the five operations are spatially segregated and (at the very least) separated by intervals of dead time, the time of waiting. Thus, each operation is passive in relation to the one that follows, they are not part of a single temporal development, rather, each is separated from the others by time being determined through the negative exteriority of inertia. Moreover, insofar as each operation on its own has been subject to time-study and has had its “normal” duration established through a determination of exterior time (temps d’extériorité) … it reintegrates a passivity into its free practical accomplishment: instead of being conditioned by the result to be attained and by the free organism in action, it temporalizes itself dialectically by retaining as its internal skeleton the passive temporality defined by the factory clock. The action is now constituted by five acts determined by their interiorization of passivity and separated by the passive flow of time (the abstract skeleton of the time of Others – of employers, of other workers, of clients, etc). It disappears as organic action. Moreover, in isolated ‘detail’ labour every individual worker is deskilled as a practical agent; his operation is no longer an action; at the same time, however, he becomes a common individual … in the sense that his operation depends on the first two, for example, and conditions at a distance the last two. (pp. 549-50; 559-60.)

Sartre goes on to say, ‘All the same, even in this amputated, mutilated form, even when wrenched from his muscles and hands by an external rhythm, the operation remains his practical operation and despite its determination in inertia dialectically realises itself through him, even at the most elementary level. But what counts here is that the skilled act of labour, destroyed by Taylor, stolen from the skilled workers and redistributed to the four corners of the factory, rediscovers itself objectified in its totality as the manufactured product of five separate workers’. ‘What is so striking is that reified labour, because it is the praxis of every worker, rediscovers in inorganic matter its synthetic character as a free determination of the practical field… [W]ithout further information, nothing allows us to say whether any given sample of a product has been created by a multiplicity of actions external to one another and determined in passivity or by a single totalising process. The first moment of this example shows the absolute homogeneity between an integral dialectical action and a decomposed, alienated, operation, between free temporalisation and stolen temporality. This homogeneity does not manifest itself in the concrete moment of work, but in the objectified synthesis embodied in the inertia of the product’ (p. 550-51; 560-61).

These deskilling changes brought about by Taylorism are soon followed by a second moment: the specialised machine. To the extent that each operation becomes mechanical, each machine can perform a single operation… Specialisation passes from men to the machine, and the worker whom one rivets to his machine after an apprenticeship of a few weeks, sometimes a few days, knows his interchangeability. Finally, through automation, the individual operations are integrated to become the task of a machine or a complex of machines. This is when, finally, human action is completely absorbed and reexteriorized in a passive instrument. Yet, the product doesn’t change or scarcely changes. To the consumer its inert unity reflects the creative power of human labour…What remains in the end is an objective interchangeability –  between individual praxis, the passive aggregation of common operations, production by specialised machines, and automation as a substitute for practical autonomy. From our point of view this means that at every stage the original praxis of the organism serves indifferently as a model for both machines and groups. Always decomposable, always deskilled, it remains unsurpassable, and there exists no other constituting schema… And yet, in automation praxis changes into pure process and under Taylorism into semi-passivity. (p. 551-52; 562.) 

10. Praxis-Process: the organised group as institution

Sartre analysed Taylorism for two reasons – not only to show how under increasingly automated labour processes human praxis disappears as organic action, changes by degrees into pure process, that is, becomes determined in passivity, but also to underscore the role of individual praxis as the unsurpassable limit of organized action, hence ‘the fundamental condition of historical rationality’, in other words, the only model through which organised action and thus History become intelligible (p. 643; 678). In fact, if there did not exist this ‘real homogeneity’ between common praxis and individual praxis, if the structures of the former were of an entirely different order from those of the latter, it would be impossible for us to understand the action of groups and our own action within them. This does not mean, of course, that common action is an ‘organic synthesis of the members of the group’, but only ‘that the group sets itself objectives with an individualised structure and cannot attain them except through common operations of an individual type’ (p. 509; 509).

            This is only another way of saying that organic individuality remains the indispensable moment of every ‘common’ (that is, group) operation, even in the practico-inert field of alienation. And this means that ‘every individual, when he realises the mediation between the common individual (who has no real existence except through the organic life of the agent) and its object, only reaffirms his essentiality against the group’ (p. 568; 584). 

When groups become organised, the individuals within them come to embody functions, specific competences, and in relation to the common operation every function or competence has a merely relative importance. ‘Therefore the common individual is inessential or only relatively essential’ (p. 568; 584). Is it not also true that when you clashed with the member of that party, when you attacked the positions of his party, he was, for you and for himself, simply the abstract incarnation of his party? You reduced this individual to something inessential, through him you went straight to – his party, to his ‘only reality’ (p. 559; 572). His personal characteristics scarcely mattered either to you or to him.

            In the face of this definition, my essentiality, the knowledge that I have of myself as freedom, of that moment through which I could submit, with full consciousness and freedom, to the Oath, to that limitation on my freedom, creates within the group – every other third, every common individual, has this same knowledge – a ‘circular form of seriality’. And this seriality which evolves within the group is ‘curiously not an alienation of praxis to the practico-inert … but a rediscovery of free individuality as the sole means and sole obstacle to the constitution of the organised group’ (p. 571; 587-88). Sartre grounds the birth of the group as an institution in this rebirth of seriality founded on my awareness of my freedom, or on the awareness by each other third of his freedom. The institution only reinforces and pushes to its maximum the definition of the group as pure essentiality, of the individual as its inessential means of survival. ‘The institution has this contradictory character, often noted by sociologists, of being (both) a praxis and a thing’ (p. 581; 600). It possesses a considerable power of inertia because it affirms its essentiality (‘posits itself as essential’) in and through its inert-being (son être-inerte) , while it defines the humans inside it as ‘the inessential means of its perpetuation’. ‘The institution is fundamentally unchangeable because within the institutionalised group my praxis determines itself as incapable of changing it’ (p. 581; 601). The sole means of communication with the Others in a group that has evolved into an institution is the serial unity of the mass media (in the first place, those newspapers which the party calls its “organs”) (p. 582; 602). Nothing I say here matters. If I decide to resume the dialectic as a free totalisation, decide to repeat the dialectical experience, in other words, if within this mass centralised party I suddenly unite myself with others around some specific praxis not determined in passivity, determined as a mere mediation of the party’s decision-making (its process), then this group which I now am as my praxis becomes through a chain of circular alterity a ‘faction’ or ‘disruptive force’ (p. 582; 602). The institution’s real power is founded on the serial powerlessness of its common individuals. ‘We saw active passivity as an outcome governed by the inertia of the oath and as the very condition of common activity. And in the field of the practico-inert we experienced passive activity as a product of alienation. One should now see the institution in the declining group as the transition from one (active passivity) to the other (passive activity)’ (p. 583; 603). The unity of the institution is the unity of otherness (p. 584; 604). Authoritarianism properly emerges at the level of the institutional group. Authority as a group relation develops fully only at the level of the institution, that is, through the rebirth of seriality and of powerlessness within an organised enterprise (p. 587; 608). The whole structure of coercion (of terror) that defined the group from the moment of the oath is here interiorised in the living praxis of a single third. The quasi-sovereignty of each third, of the common individual, becomes the total sovereignty of this third (of Stalin), who reinteriorises the multiplicity of institutional relations to make them the synthetic unity of a real (that is, organic) praxis (p. 587; 609). If the institution is the inorganic being-one of the serialised community, the Sovereign ‘represents the dissolution and synthetic reunification of this external passivity in the organic unity of regulative praxis, that is, of the praxis of the group now returning to it as the common praxis of one person’ (p. 587-88; 609). All apparatuses of control and mediation that emerged in the group as it organised itself ‘must pass through the sovereign, be re-interiorised by him’ as the ‘permanent mediation between common individuals’ (p. 591; 613-14). ‘The institutional group, a constituted reason, the dialectic imitated and now deviated by seriality, seizes itself in the practical unity of the sovereign as constituting reason’ (p. 596; 620).

            All said and done, the institution is a group, and the group is praxis. Thus, in spite of the complete effacement of the translucidity of organic, individual, praxis, in spite of the absolute sclerosis and ossification that sets in with the long-term evolution of an organised group, in spite of the resurgence of seriality and the powerlessness that goes with it, in spite of the degradation of the group into a quasi-collective – this group, authoritarian, bureaucratised, hierarchical and totally centralised, is never completely assimilated to the practico-inert. Its meaning remains that of a praxis, an active enterprise aimed at specific objectives or some overall mission (p. 583; 603). 

11. The state

It is now possible to move to a definition of terms closer to the reality of history that have so far remained absent –  ‘society’, ‘state’, ‘oppression’ – and to return to the question of social classes. ‘Society is not a group or ensemble of groups or even ensemble of groups in struggle with one another. Collectives are both the matrix within which groups are born and their graveyard, they persist as the indefinite sociality of the practico-inert, nourish groups, sustain them and everywhere overflow them with their indefinite multiplicity. If there are multiple groups, the collective is their mediation or field of battle. Thus, society, approached very abstractly by dialectical experience at this moment of its development, yields its most formal and indeterminate structure: in the material context of needs, dangers, instruments and techniques, there cannot be a society unless there are, in one way or another, human multiplicities that are reunited by a container or by a soil, and unless these multiplicities are divided in the course of history into groups and series, and unless the essential internal relation of society’, whether one deals with production, consumption or defence against external enemies, ‘is finally the relation of groups to series’ (p. 608; 635). Society is thus defined as the site of all the manifold relations of grouped multiplicities and serial multiplicities. As for the state and its specific intelligibility, ‘this cannot in any case pass for the product or expression of the totality of individuals in society, or even of their majority, since this majority is in any case serial… Thus the conception of a diffuse popular sovereignty incarnated in the sovereign (the State) is pure mystification. There is no diffuse sovereignty: the organic individual is sovereign in the abstract solitude of her work; in fact, she is immediately alienated in the practico-inert where she learns the necessity of powerlessness (or powerlessness as necessity at the base of her practical freedom). At the level of the series juridical and institutional power is completely denied to human multiplicities by the very structure of their relations of exteriority’ (p. 609; 636). The various gatherings within society ‘have neither the power nor the quality to accept or to refuse the state. Far from sovereignty passing from the collective to the sovereign, it is from the sovereign that sovereignty moves downwards to modify the collectives without transforming their structure of passivity. As for the Institution as such and the concrete power which fills it, we know that institutions are produced in the group when groups become institutionalised, and that it is a process-praxis that both ensures its effectiveness and imparts to a community relapsing into pure seriality a certain kind of unity. So in a given society the state is neither legitimate nor illegitimate: it is legitimate in the group, since it has been created in an environment of sworn faith’. The others, those not bound by this oath, do not challenge the legitimacy of the state but that is only because, due to their powerlessness, ‘they have no means of contesting or establishing any kind of legitimacy’. ‘There is therefore something like acceptance, but it is in itself ineffective since it exists in every Other only as a consciousness of widespread powerlessness. I obey because I cannot do otherwise’ (p. 609; 636). Serial impotence assigns a serial pseudo-legitimacy to the state, to any state, whichever epoch of history one takes (p. 609; 637). The state is ‘primarily a group which is constantly reorganising itself’, and ‘[t]he powerlessness of the series as alterity in flight is at once the source as well as the limit of state-power’ (p. 610; 637).

            Where there are classes in a given society, the state inserts itself in their struggles as the organ of the exploiting class or classes and forcibly maintains the statut of the oppressed classes (p. 610; 638). Given that any class is a moving ensemble of groups and series, this means that ‘the formation of the state as permanent institution and as the coercion exercised by one group over all serialities, can only be produced through a complex dialectic of groups and series within the dominant class. A revolutionary organisation can be sovereign. But the state constitutes itself as a mediation between conflicts internal to the dominant class, insofar as these threaten to weaken this class in front of the dominated classes. The state incarnates and realises the general interest of the dominant class beyond the antagonisms and conflicts of the particular interests within that class. That amounts to saying that the ruling class produces its state (that the struggles within the ruling class create the possibility as well as the necessity for one group to emerge to defend the general interest) and that its institutional structures will be defined through that concrete reality (that is, in the final analysis of the mode of production and its relations)’ (p. 611; 638). When Marx writes that it is the state that is sustained by the life of civil society (la vie bourgeoise), he is right, but strictly on the condition that one adds that there is a circular process here and that ‘the state, produced and sustained by the ruling class, constitutes itself as the organ of its contraction and integration. Of course, this integration occurs in particular circumstances and as a historical totalisation. But it occurs through the state’ (p.611; 639).

            However, this is not enough, for 

the state cannot take on its functions if it does not posit itself as mediator between the exploiting and the exploited classes. The state is a determination of the ruling class and this determination is conditioned by the class struggle. But it affirms itself as a profound negation of the class struggle: its legitimacy, naturally, is something it derives from itself and the series has no choice but to accept it. And yet it is necessary that they do accept it, necessary that the state presents itself to the dominated classes as their guarantee. It is absolutely impossible to ignore the fact that the regime of Louis XIV as much as that of Hitler ... claimed to embody the legitimate interests of the entire people (or of the nation). So the state produces itself for the benefit of the ruling class but as an active suppression of the class struggle within the national totalization. The term ‘mystification’ is quite inappropriate to describe this new contradiction: in a certain sense, yes, there is mystification and the state maintains the established order; it intervenes in the class struggle to shift the balance in favour of the exploiting classes. But in another sense, the state is really produced as something national; it takes a totalizing view of the social ensemble; it sees further than the individual protagonists and can conceive of a paternalist social policy which it then has to forcibly impose on the ruling classes, even when this is done in their interest. Lenin remarked that in every equilibrium in the balance of class power, the state becomes the arbiter. But this is only possible because the state has already posited itself for itself before the class from which it emanates. (p. 611-612; 639-40.)

So from our formal point of view, and regardless of the historical reasons underlying its evolution in such and such society, the state belongs to the category of institutionalized groups with a specified sovereignty; and if within this category we distinguish between those groups which work directly on a common inorganic object, those which are built to fight other groups, and those whose objectification requires manipulation of inert serialities, etc., it is obvious that the state belongs to this final subcategory. Born out of a certain kind of seriality (the ruling class), the state remains as heterogeneous in relation to that class as it does with respect to the dominated class, since it constitutes its power on their powerlessness and since it reappropriates the power of others (the ruling classes) over others (dominated classes) by interiorising it and transforming it into law. (p. 612; 640.)

Finally, ‘the real contradiction of the state is that it is a class apparatus that pursues class objectives while at the same time positing itself for itself as the sovereign unity of everyone, that is, in this absolute being-other which is called the “nation”’ (p. 613-14; 642).

            So, Sartre attempts to construct a theory of the state that can account both for its class determination and class functions and for its real autonomy. One of the most striking aspects of this theory is its critique of the notion of popular sovereignty as the legitimising basis of the modern state. This critique proceeds not on the standard argument about the class determination of the state, but on the very conception of the state itself as a group that establishes its own legitimacy, which the serialities (of all classes in society, including the ruling class) are in no position either to accept or to contest. There is a kind of acceptance, Sartre argues, but it is the passive acceptance of powerlessness.

            Sartre then examines the most pervasive type of action performed by the ensemble of institutional groups that make up the state on the surrounding serialities. He calls this ‘extero-conditioning’ (extéro-conditionnement), apparently basing the idea on what the American sociologist David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd (1950),  called ‘other-direction’. Here, the praxis of the sovereign group (the state) consists in conditioning a mass of individuals through the principle on which mass advertising works, namely, actively shaping the behaviour of each individual (of the series) by appeal to the Others, that is, by a manipulation of alterity that generates the illusion that the series is a practical totality. ‘The sovereign’s aim is to act on the series so as to produce out of it (or extract from it) a total action in alterity itself’. The sleight of hand involved here can be called the ‘totalization of the series’ (p. 615; 644). ‘Manipulated seriality’, Sartre will argue later, is the heart of fascist politics, because it allows for the staging of pogroms. Through the mediation of a controlled operation ‘alterity … becomes the index of refraction of a unified social milieu whose law is that each of its practical characteristics is produced through the determination of each Other (in alterity through all the Others)’ (p. 614; 643). Other-direction, the manipulation and control of serialities through the praxis of the sovereign group, ‘pushes alterity to an extreme, since it makes the serial individual do the same as the Others in order to become the same as them’ (p. 620; 650). This specific praxis on worked matter depends in turn on serial forms of communication, the mass media, and works only because ‘the serial individual has been produced from childhood as other-directed’. Thus, ‘in infant schools in America’, Sartre writes, ‘and throughout the child’s education, everyone learns to be the expression of all the Others’ and of a whole social milieu (p. 621; 651). 

            This conception enables us to distinguish serial forms of behaviour of a purely passive variety and controlled serial actions. Take the following example. We have seen how a practico-inert object (e.g., gold, the universal machine) can produce its own idea (gold creates the idea that its accumulation is an expansion of wealth; the universal machine creates its own idea in the syndicalism of the craft worker). To the extent that this inert object becomes the common-being-outside-self of a series, the idea which that object creates of itself becomes as such the unity of the series. ‘It is in this way that colonialism, as a material system in the practico-inert field of colonization, or, if you like, as the common interest of the settlers, produces its own Idea in the very course of development’. If colonialism defines the exploited in the colonies ‘in terms of their essence (that is, as exploitable sub specie aeternitatis), that is because it cannot afford the slightest change in their condition without inviting self-destruction. Colonialism defines the exploited masses as eternal because it constitutes itself as the eternity of exploitation. To the extent that this inert sentence passed on the colonized becomes, in its ideological form, the serial unity of the settlers, in other words, their bond of alterity, it is the Idea as Other or the Other as Idea. It remains therefore an Idea of stone, but its force derives from its absence everywhere (ubiquité d’absence). In this form of otherness, it becomes racism. The peculiarity of racism is that one is not dealing in its case with a system of thoughts (pensées) which are false or malignant. Racism is in no sense a thought. Its very formulation is impossible ... In reality, racism is the colonial interest lived as a bond between all the settlers in the colony through the serial flight of alterity’ (p. 344; 300). ‘In this specific case, the serial unity of the settlers comes to them from the Absolute Other who is the colonised, and produces an image of the colonized themselves as an active grouping… The powerlessness of the series (of the settlers) constitutes itself as the magical power of the colonized’ (p. 345-6; 302). Sartre, here, describes the racist idea ‘as an idea that cannot even be put into thought’ and sees it as a good example of a more general category of serial ideas that characterise all forms of behaviour governed in alterity. Racism is a serial ideology, it is always the attitude of Others. On the other hand, this inert and passive seriality cannot by itself account for the active anti-semitism of the German middle classes in the 1920s. If, in the colonies, the live praxis of oppression was displaced to the armed forces of the colonial state, in Germany, the oppression of the Jews was more widely diffused through sectors of the population. In the few pages of the Critique that discuss fascism, Sartre describes the racism against the Jews as a product of the ‘systematic other-direction (extéro-conditionnement) of the racism of the Other’, that is to say, as a product of ‘a continuous action of the group on the series’. ‘And this action is defined initially by its reflexivity: the group demonstrates racism to the series by producing within it, or causing to be produced within it, practical signs of its hostility to Jews’ (p. 622; 652). Hatred of Jews was a hatred felt by the Others. ‘But totalising propaganda constituted this hatred in other-direction, that is, as the exigency of a totalising ceremony’. Whether these middle-class masses became the practico-inert agents of an induced pogrom then depended on the regime. ‘The arrest or execution of a Jew on government orders passively realised the same ceremony of alterity in the masses. Every act of violence became irreversible, not only because it destroyed human lives, but because it made everyone an other-directed criminal, accepting the crimes of the leaders insofar as he had committed them elsewhere and as an other’ (p. 622; 653). The transcendent action of the group can then always convert this acceptance of the sovereign’s acts of violence into lynchings, or into what Sartre describes as ‘the pogrom as the passive activity of a directed seriality’ (p. 623; 653). The conscious control and manipulation of seriality by organized groups, not least the sovereign group (the state), thus distinguishes fascist violence from the situation in, say, the French colonies. Through other-direction, the group is able to extract ‘organic actions’ from the series (the so-called ‘masses’) while making sure to preserve their wholly unorganised, practico-inert statut (p. 623; 654). 

12. Oppression as praxis

‘The practico-inert can be studied as a process’, Sartre writes, ‘but this process, because it is already passive action, completely presupposes the praxis (as a relation with the practical material field and with Others) which it reabsorbs and transforms into the object’ (p. 671; 713). ‘If the mode of production is, in human history, the infrastructure of every society, it is because work – as a free concrete operation that becomes alienated in the collective… – is the infrastructure of the practico-inert (and of the mode of production), not only in the sense of a diachronic totalization (and because such and such with its special exigencies is itself the product of labour), but synchronically, because all the contradictions of the practico-inert and especially of the economic process are necessarily constituted by the perpetual realienation of the worker in his work’ (p. 671; 713).

            There is another way of saying this. If the class struggle were merely a practico-inert structure, then the human order, the specifically human reality that emerges within nature, would be rigorously comparable to the molecular order, and positivism would have to replace the dialectic as the rationality of history. Take the example of French colonialism in Algeria. Here, the dispossession and dissolution of the existing rural communities created vast reservoirs of labour-power which were then offered for sale to the settlers. Here, one might try to argue that ‘the molecular constitution of the masses which was the material, inorganic and necessary condition of the process of over-exploitation, is given as the inert consequence of a rigorous determinism’ (p. 679; 723). In other words, the starvation wages paid to the workers of Algeria was established by forces beyond the control of either of the two basic classes. ‘In reality, this inertia, inorganic as it is, is created every minute of every hour by the petrified violence constituted by the presence of the army. And the internal consequences of this induced powerlessness (poverty, sickness, competitive hostilities, rates of birth, etc), even if defined in seriality and as determinations of the practico-inert field, are, taken as a whole, a governed process’ (p. 679; 723). This means that the primordial violence of the French conquest, the disintegration of whole communities, ‘is reabsorbed in the inert violence of the institution’. ‘To the very degree that the institution-presence of a metropolitan army is a praxis that provokes inorganic inertia in the masses, the colonised himself sees in this inertia both his own destiny and an oppressive praxis of the enemy. Even when this individual interiorises this in a feeling of inferiority…, even if he tries to get closer to his conquerors and to be like them (in short, even when he demands assimilation), he does not for one moment cease to resent this very condition, this very ontological statut, as a ruthless and unforgivable violence to which he is subjected by an enemy of stone… In his practical and daily life the exploited testifies to oppression, in every one of his responses, not as an alienation but as a pure and simple force exercised by some men over others’ (p. 679; 724). Not only is this practico-inert process that we call the ‘colonial system’ the product of past praxes – initiated by organised groups of capitalists and politicians in France – but the system has to be kept alive day after day through the institutional praxis of armed oppression, once the primordial praxis has been dialectically surpassed in its inertia. (The violence that is being inflicted on dalit workers in India today [1977] is likewise a praxis of oppression that incessantly re-animates the ‘objective’, practico-inert, process of their super-exploitation. The castes function not simply as inert collectives but through these as the source of a more active violence, a praxis of oppression, that the groups emerging out of them engineer in the form of ‘caste’ atrocities. Here, too, violence is aimed at suppressing the organisation of the masses, that is, at preserving the molecular statut of large masses of rural workers and making sure they do not organise.) 

            Sartre concludes the long analysis of colonialism (pp. 671ff.; 716ff.) by repeatedly underscoring the circularity between praxis and the practico-inert as the backbone of history. Class struggle loses all meaning unless we can agree that ‘exploitation must be inseparable from oppression’. 

[I]t is capital which is expressed through the mouths of capitalists and which produces them as projects of unconditional exploitation. But on the other hand it is capitalists who sustain and produce capital and who develop industry and the credit system through their project of exploiting in order to realise a profit. This is the circularity which we have encountered everywhere. But we must recall its movement in order to understand the bond between process and praxis … above all, we must return to this notion of ‘class struggle’: if it is a practico-inert structure … or if it is hexis the human order is strictly comparable to the molecular order, and the only historical Reason is positivist Reason, which posits the unintelligibility of History as a definite fact. But, on the other hand, if it is praxis through and through, the entire human universe vanishes into a Hegelian idealism. (p. 987-88; 734.)

In the English translation of the Critique, the whole of the final portion of Sartre’s text is arranged as a concluding chapter called ‘Class Struggle and Dialectical Reason’ (p. 688ff.; 735ff.), and what he does there is, as he says, ‘employ all the discoveries which our investigation has given us, at every level of formal complexity’.