In a recent paper published on his personal blog last week Thursday, titled Alienation is dehumanization: Marxism is a lightbulb moment for the unhinged Existentialist, comrade Sihle Lonzi, went on an attack of what he called ‘bewildered existentialists’. Which, judging by the people he tagged in his post were represented by myself, Sinawo Thambo, Sisipho Fongoqa and Awonke Goso. In the article Sihle makes four main claims:
- Existentialism is abstract
- It is only meant to be understood by a select few and not accessible to the ‘masses’
- For existentialist, the subject is self-constitutive while for Marxists it is the Object that determined the Subject.
- Existentialist provide no solution on a way forward, hence Marxism becomes a lightbulb moment.
In this essay I attempt to deal the four main claims that Sihle puts forward in the article in an attack on the ‘bewildered existentialists’. It is important that we first grasp what is it that we mean by existentialism? The Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that the term became to be associated with a cultural movement which flourished around the 1940s to the 50s. The claim by the existentialist at the time which were most notably represented by Sartre was that “to understand what a human being is, it is not enough to know all the truths that natural science—including the science of psychology—could tell us” (Crowell, 2004) In simple terms, to focus on the empirical is not enough to tell us about our existence in the world.
““Existentialism”, therefore, may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence” (Crowell, 2004). It seems to be this move away from the fetish with the empirical that confuses those against existentialists. It is also this reason that they make claims that Existentialism is abstract and esoteric and therefore, cannot be relied upon as a revolutionary theory. However, even this understanding of existentialism would lack any intellectual rigor, as Prof Percy More argues that “Thought is abstraction and therefore infinite, universal and atemporal. Existence is finite, temporal and particular” (More, 2017: 63). For one to ask questions about human existence outside of the truths of the natural science does not mean that one is not answering questions of real empirical effects. It seems to be that these so called Marxists suffer from what Wilderson rightly captures, as conceptual anxiety. To account for this lack of conceptualization of the philosophical positions of the ‘bewildered existentialist’ they claim that it is abstract and that it is esoteric. The question to such claims is that do you think when Marx wrote the communist manifesto, the working class understood what surplus value exploitation is? Even today you never find any unionist explaining to the workers in a Marxist mathematical way the ways in which they are exploited. All they need to do is to simply say that the worker is exploited and because the worker has a lived experience of that exploitation will never ask deep questions as to what is the Marxist conception of exploitation. The claim by the so called Marxists, which Sihle claims to represent, that existentialist are abstract and esoteric is simply an admission on their part that they are failing to grasp the conceptual arguments put forward by the so called existentialist and they are using the so called lay man argument to hide their own intellectual inadequacies in grasping concepts.
The third claim made by Sihle in his article is that existentialist have a self-constitutive understanding of the subject while for the Marxist it is the Object that determines the Subject. This claim is completely false. It may have been that in his reading of some works on existentialism he came across existentialists who believe so, but to claim that all existentialist believe this, would be a false claim to make. In fact the cultural movement that is said to have made existentialism popular was rejecting precisely the claim by initial philosophers in the field like Descartes that the subject is self-constitutive. It was Kierkegaard who claimed that Descartes was wrong to say that “I think, therefore, I am”. Kierkegaard argued that one indeed, had to exist first before one could think. As Sartre made famous also through the slogan “existence precedes essence”. Sartre in the part about ‘the look’ in his book also rejects the notion that a subject is self-constitutive. As Cromwell argues that “The basis for Sartre’s reading of history, and his politics, was laid in that section of Being and Nothingness that describes the birth of the social in the “Look”(le regard) of the other. In making me an object for his projects, the other alienates me from myself, displaces me from the subject position (the position from which the world is defined in its meaning and value) and constitutes me as something. Concretely, what I am constituted “as” is a function of the other’s project and not something that I can make myself be. I am constituted as a “Frenchman” in and through the hostility emanating from that German; I am constituted as a “man” in the resentment of that woman; I am constituted as a “Jew” on the basis of the other’s anti-semitism; and so on. This sets up a dimension of my being that I can neither control nor disavow, and my only recourse is to wrench myself away from the other in an attempt to restore myself to the subject-position. For this reason, on Sartre’s model, social reality is in perpetual conflict—an Hegelian dialectic in which, for ontological reasons, no state of mutual recognition can ever be achieved. The “we”—the political subject—is always contested, conflicted, unstable” (Cromwell, 2004).
Fanon takes this outlook further to argue that in fact, in the situation of the colonized the colonized is denied the power to look back: “In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is an impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation” and he goes on to argue that “Ontology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (Fanon, 1952:82-83).
Therefore, the claim that for Existentialists, the subject is a self-constitutive one is false.
The last claim made by Sihle in the article is that Existentialism offers no solution for the oppressed because we argue that our problems are not contingent to historical development but are necessary, while they (The Marxist) argue that the problems we face are simply contingent to history. Sihle is again wrong here. And this is something that is popular among anti- existentialist, and that is because they cannot not grasp the concepts, they claim that we are providing no solutions and they unknowingly fall into the trap of the system by excitedly trying to implement solutions that have been found by History to not work. In fact Scholars of Marxism will tell you that the biggest contribution of Marx was on the critique of Capitalism more than on charting a way forward, hence Lenin becomes important to Marxists with his ideas of a vanguard party. All of the predictions of Marx were shown to be false in fact. Instead of capital falling into a crises it has become more and more advanced giving concessions to certain groups of the traditional working class to a point were some of them are employed but not exploited.
The liberal obsession with quickly finding a synthesis while we have not yet been able to find the anti-thesis is dangerous. This is what Zizek warns us against. DON’T ACT. JUST THINK. Yes this may let us “wallow in a myriad of contradictions” but rather that than to simply continue to act while all our revolts against the system are simply used by the system to consolidate itself and become even more sophisticated.
Even the now reactionary Achille Mbembe got it: “the questions we face are of a profoundly intellectual nature. They are also colossal. And if we do not foreground them intellectually in the first instance; if we do not develop a complex understanding of the nature of what we are actually facing, we will end up with the same old techno-bureaucratic fixes that have led us, in the first place, to the current cul-de-sac”.