15/07/2017 by socialistfight
or How Jean-Paul Sartre tried and failed to become a Marxist
By Ella Downing, May 2008
The extended essay is submitted in partial fulfilment of the Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy.
Jean-Paul Sartre was the first person to turn down the Nobel Prize for literature
Sartre claims to have becomes a Marxist towards the end of his career, claiming in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) and Search for a Method (1962) that to have reconciled his Existentialism with Marxism. By considering Sartre’s early work, this essay deals with two basic problems which might contradict this statement. Firstly, his reasoning is not sufficiently Dialectical, rejecting the nothing of synthesis. Any attempt to reconcile his approach with either the Hegelian or Marxist Dialectic is therefore futile. Secondly, his depiction of ‘self’ and privileged position of the individual in his philosophy is arguably non-Materialist and therefore at odds with Marxism. We take Hegel as Marx’s major formative influence, and Heidegger as Sartre’s, arguably the students incompatible notions of ‘self’ and the individual originate in their masters competing philosophies. Finally, this essay hopes to show the Sartre’s early writing, whilst not being Marxist, has certain Marxist sympathies which pave the way for his eventual attempted conversion.
Sartre’s Search for a Method (1963) Sartre writes that ‘Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not yet gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it’.  This apparent conversion comes late in his career, and seems a radical divergence from his earlier works. In this essay, which originally formed the introduction of the English translation of his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), Sartre explains both philosophically and autobiographically his reasons for first denying and then accepting Marxism. However, it is still a matter of dispute whether Sartre’s philosophy is, or could be, Marxist. This essay will therefore examine texts such as Being and Nothingness (1943) Existential and Humanism (1946) and What is Writing (1947) and try to discern the various Marxist and non-Marxist tendencies therein.
Firstly, we will consider Sartre’s understanding and use of the Dialectic (understood here as mode of reasoning which reflects the movement of history, as distinct from Platonic Dialectics), a difficult but immensely interesting concept that originates with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Moreover, Dialectical reasoning is central to Marxist thought, the Materialist-Dialectic being among Marx’s major philosophical doctrines. To which degree Sartre’s philosophy allows for Dialectical reasoning and movement should therefore illuminate whether it is reconcilable with Marxism. Secondary sources do much to explain Sartre’s understanding and development of the Dialectic; we shall therefore rely somewhat on Mary’s Warnock’s Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essay’s (1971). The second chapter deals with Sartre’s notion of the individual and ‘self’, considering that the Dialectic as a philosophical doctrine deals with ‘wholes’ and ‘collectives’, Sartre’s insistence on the privileged position of the individual would seem contradictory with his later insistence on Dialectical reasoning. Sartre’s notion of the self is very comparable with his early mentor’s, Martin Heidegger, and can therefore be said to have phenomenological roots. This arguably creates a mystical notion of the self which is too un-materialistic to be reconciled with Marxism. Sartre is rarely thought of as a Marxist, my interest is why this is and how he came to call himself one.
The notion of Dialectical Reasoning is a slippery one and perhaps therefore open to much misinterpretation, but still worthy of investigation. Hegel’s formulation has had a wide influence and arguably, through his influence on Marx, has ‘changed the course of nineteenth- and twentieth-century history’. More specifically, George. L. Kline explains that Sartre was influenced by a ‘rediscovery’ of Hegel and Marx which ‘took place in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s’, facilitated by the likes of Merleau-Ponty and Kojéve, together with the finding of various lost manuscripts. Hegel puts forth the case of Dialectics in his Phenomenology of Mind (1807), where he uses the Master/Slave relationship to demonstrate how it this ‘topsy-turvy logic’ works. This was of particular interest to Sartre who identified it as one of the texts two major themes (alongside ‘alienation, including self-alienation’). The master/slave dialectic is postulated as the source of, and basis for relationships between, consciousnesses (minds).In the battle for recognition and power the master identity has the upper hand and the slave identity necessarily resists this. In the attempt to cancel one another out the different features of the corresponding identities become apparent, the master is necessarily complacent and the slave industrious. What happens here is ‘that the master, through increasing dependence on the slave, and the slave, who develops independents through labour, switch roles’.As a framework for the relation between entities it is as ambitious as it is hard to decipher. Moreover, to reason dialectically is to reflect the movement of history. As such Hegel suggests an overarching Dialectic which describes this movement, it is ‘the process of Mind coming to know itself as ultimate reality’, with the eventual goal of history as ‘the necessity of absolute idealism: that is the only thing that is ultimately real is the absolute idea, which is Mind, knowing itself as all reality’.
Parallels can be drawn between Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Hegel Phenomenology of Mind. As Kline points out ‘Sartre’s basic categories are Hegelian; they are taken mainly from the Phenomenology’. His ‘Being’ and ‘Nothingness’ are not unlike the initial stages of Hegel’s overarching dialectic, in which ‘being’ is confronted with ‘nothing, the antithesis of being’ and are brought together ‘under a synthesis, becoming’. Sartre stresses however that ‘Nothingness’ is different from ‘nothing’, ‘nothing’ is a nonentity, ‘it nihilates itself’.  It is not related to ‘being’ as nothingness is therefore ‘not within the province of the understanding’. Moreover ‘nothingness’ resides with the for-itself and is therefore a suitable topic for ontological investigation, unlike Hegel’s ‘nothing’. The in-itself and for-itself are also originally found in the Phenomenology, but are understood in Hegel as ‘the partially phases of the dialectical whole’ and therefore synthesis into the ‘in-and-for-itself’. This is not so in Sartre who sees the relationships between for-itself and in-itself as indivisible from one another but without any hope of reconciliation, ‘consciousness is always present to something which it is not, and thus is present to itself, but always in the form of not being something’. Negation is retained as the basic form of relation between these entities, but synthesis is impossible; object and subject are in perpetual limbo. Because the for-itself must know itself through something other than it, it can never identify with itself, so ‘the being of consciousness does not coincide with itself in a full equivalence’. This stance clearly veers from Hegel’s insistence that mind will come to know itself as all reality, the reason is that Sartre rejects a synthesis between object and subject.
Marx’s divergence with Hegel is marked most notably by his adaptation of the Dialectic into the Materialist Dialectic. Bertrand Russell identifies a significantly altered conception of materialism in Marx. Rather than the passive matter of earlier materialists, matter for Marx is ‘transformed in the process of being known’, so that ‘all sensation and perception is an interaction between subject and object’. Man’s interaction with matter is therefore vital to his being, and as we alter the material realities of the world, the world alters us. So whereas Mind was the primary entity and driving force for the Dialectical movement of history in Hegel, Marx insists on matter, more specifically ‘man’s relation to matter, of which the most important part is the mode of production’.
In this way Marx’s materialism in practice becomes economics. The outcome of the dialectical process is correspondingly altered. The Hegelian argument holds that the goal of history is the achievement of Absolute Mind, where being is dissolved into knowledge and Mind identifies with itself. Marx views the internal contradictions in modern society as the unreasonable division of labour between the classes and the discrepancy between that which is produced and that which is needed. The Dialectic synthesis therefore becomes the classless society, where production is such that man can identify himself in the objects he produces (and non-alienated from the world he produces). While Hegel argues that ‘reason is the sum of all reality’ and ‘reason and reality are strictly identical’, Marx holds that ideological conflicts are simply the manifestations of material conflicts.  So for Hegel history comes to realise itself through Mind, in Marxist terms the proletariat come to realise themselves as the motor forces of history through labour and class struggle.
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness the fractious relation between the for-itself and in-itself is less comparable with the Hegelian Master-slave hypothesis because of the impossibility for synthesis between the two. It is however distinctly more akin to Marx’s conception of mans relation to material reality. For Sartre, these two entities (in-itself and for-itself) are connected by an unbridgeable separation, the in-itself ‘is a being which is not what it is and is what it is not’ and ‘yet the for-itself is’. It perpetually reconstitutes itself both towards and away from the in-itself, beginning with one’s facticity and ending in one’s death, but always expresses itself as ‘pure possibility separated by everything existent’. So then for Sartre the realm of the ‘objectified is the realm of the given- of facticity, inertness and determination’ whilst the realm of consciousness is a resounding negation of all this, and fundamentally irreconcilable with it. Marx‘s notion of objectification however meant the indelible mark made on history and nature by human praxis, ‘where any significant production or human action must be an objectification’.
Objectification is vital to production, which in turn is vital to consciousness. In Sartre, objectification is the process by which consciousness necessarily realises its nature as negation, or nothingness. Neither philosopher agrees with Hegel that objectification can be overcome, Marx however insists that the alienation inevitable in the specific features of capitalist objectification can and should be overcome. For Sartre alienation is fundamentally related to objectification (capitalist or not), and placed at the ontological centre of the human being; ‘as a fixed and uneliminatable feature of la condition humaine’. So the synthesis which Marx proposes between alienated subject and object is impossible in Sartre since alienation and objectification are parallel, indivisible processes. Sartre’s dialectic diverges with Hegel at the same point at which it diverges with Marx, at the point of synthesis.
We see that in Being and Nothingness Sartre’s position is arguably non-dialectical because of the lack of possible synthesis. However, between then and the publication of the Critique he has come to a very Marxist position- ‘I affirm both that the process of knowledge is dialectical, that the movement of the object (whatever it be) is itself dialectical and that these two dialectics are only one’. Whereas previously the for-itself and in-itself, subject and object, were connected by an unbridgeable separation, now the process of mind is seen as a reflection of the process of man relation to the object. Sartre writes in his Search for a Method that he unreservedly accepts Marx’s definition of Materialism, and that he cannot conceive of it ‘in any form except that of the dialectical movement (contradictions, surpassing, totalisations).’ It seems that he has come to see Dialectical reasoning not just as the method by negation come into the world, but more as the best tool with which to describe history, there exists a parallel between ‘what is being studied by the dialectic and the dialectic itself.’ Another feature of the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic which is not found in early Sartre is the prominence of the collective. For these philosophers, the dialectic dealt with ‘wholes’, humans are essentially social, and society works through mass participation. It is a matter of controversy special importance, to assess whether or not Sartre successfully incorporates his concern for individual freedom with the determinism of social dialectics. We will return to this issue later, for now it is practical to mention something of Hegel and Heidegger.
Just as Marx was taught and heavily influenced by Hegel, Sartre was a pupil of Heidegger and equally impressed by his philosophy. Whilst both Hegel and Heidegger might be categorised as ‘phenomenologist philosophers’ the underlying disharmony between these two philosophies marks them as intellectual rivals. Here we can identify the philosophical roots of the tension between Marx and Sartre, and see it as grounded in the appreciation of the individual as opposed to the collective. Indeed, Heidegger ‘consciously set his own thought in opposition to Hegel’s’, distrusting the tendency towards generalisation and particularly ‘system building’. Whilst Heidegger always insisted that Being and being-in-the-world, and never separate from it, he nevertheless endows the individual consciousness with special status of being able to disclose the outside world. Hegel and Marx give the individual no powers of disclosure; Marx regards his own philosophy as ‘nothing but an expression natural to a rebellious middle-class German Jew in the middle of the nineteenth century’, and Hegel would similarly see the individual is simply a product of the larger relationships in society. 
The Individual and ‘Self’
Sartre’s concern for the individual, evident throughout his career and arguably distorting his later Marxism, can be partially blamed on Heidegger. For Heidegger Truth is understood as ‘the disclosure of the world to and by the Dasein, unmediated by concepts, propositions, of inner mental states’. Disclosure, when it eventually arrives, is not full disclosure, but finite disclosure limited by its temporal existence. It is therefore not complete in Heidegger’s view; the world is therefore illusive. The self, always a being-in-the-world and never separate, is therefore also essentially illusive, doubly so because it is the vehicle by which it cannot find itself. Similarly Sartre holds that ‘consciousness cannot become an object to itself’ and ‘is always present to something which it is not’, so its relation to the outside world necessarily means it eludes observation. Moreover Sartre investigates Heidegger’s concept of Mit-sien (being-with) and agrees that ‘being-with-others is an essential characteristic of my being’ (‘Desine ist je meines’ in Heideggerian terms). Sartre goes on to say ‘the Other is the ex-centric limit which contributes to the constitution of my being’, but just as the external world does not allow for the self to be investigated, full understanding of the through the Other is an impossibility, because the Other only partially constitutes the self.
Here the argument against Negative Theology can be used to render both Heidegger and Sartre’s positions invalid. If we propose that God exists but claim we cannot know anything about him, any features or characteristics, then our claim to his existence also falls through. To exist means to have particularities, existence itself is a feature. If we substitute the word God for Self we encounter the same problem, we cannot in either Heidegger or Sartre find the ‘root’ or ‘pure’ self, but yet both maintain that it exists. Marxism answers this by rejecting the concept of a root self entirely, we are products of our social and economic relations with the tendency to internalise external conflict. Moreover, Hegel and Marx offer no ethical path for the individual as such, but Heidegger did. He argues for authenticity, authenticity by disclosure.
And indeed, we can find throughout Sartre’s career this phenomenological tendency which obscures the self and accurate representation of the individual, right from Existentialism is a Humanism, through What is Writing? right up until his apparent conversion to Marxism. In an interview given in 1970 he says, ‘I have never ceased to develop the idea that in the end you are always responsible for what is made of you’, it seems to be a living principal in Sartre himself. Biographically speaking What is Writing? presents the intellectual foundation/justification for Sartre’s politicisation, partly if not wholly as a result of the Nazi occupation in France where he supposedly found himself in a situation where he must either choose to resist or comply. Very similarly he writes in the Search for a Method fifteen years later that it was not any intellectual epiphany which engendered his new thinking, but ‘the heavy presence on my horizon of the masses of workers, an enormous, sombre body which lived Marxism, which practiced it’. This comparison arguably shows Sartre’s concrete situation, or his facticity, to be the major factor in the evolution of his ideas. However, whereas his attitude of 1947 emphasises the choice in the face of politicisation, his attitude of 1960 suggests the inevitability of his Marxism. For Marxists, the individual is a social entity, its capacities generated through intercourse with the world, and no less a product of society than a factory, the state or an intellectual doctrine. Although Sartre’s biography is of interest, his philosophical appreciation of the self is more pertinent here, and that is what we will discuss now.
Existentialism and Humanism (1946) presents Sartre’s initial doctrine on the special place of the individual in his philosophy. He recalls Descartes’ cogito and writes that it is the ‘absolute truth of consciousness as it attains to itself’ and therefore the only solid piece of absolute truth suitable as the bedrock of philosophy. His conception is not entirely Cartesian however; the realisation of the cogito alone, without recourse to divine intervention, satisfies the criteria for others, ’when we say ‘I think’ we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other’. This is similar to Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’, a doctrine which equally rejected the Cartesian tendency toward solipsism. The Heideggerian being however is inactive and isolated, it endeavours to find truth in ‘line-by-line examination of ancient texts’ and ‘re-examining philosophy in reverse’ to reveal unblinkered vision of early philosophers. The Self-studies dead authors, re-establishes long dead ideas and contemplates its own death. Surly this is not being-in-the-world as, but a denial of that basic fact. The Sartrean Self is different, in Existentialism is a Humanism the individual knows what is best for himself, and in choosing a particular mode of action (or inaction) shows a ‘commitment on behalf of all mankind’; ‘in fashioning myself I fashion man’. Even if this very Kantian appeal for the universality of maxims seems naive or unrealistic, at least there is an appreciation of the active-self. In Search for a Method he will come to refer to this Sartre as a ‘petit bourgeois intellectual’ and indeed much of this thought is self-referential. However, his theory of self does gradually alter.
In What is Writing? Heidegger’s influence can be spotted again, but the balance is starting to shift away from the inactive self, towards a not only active but interactive notion of the individual. Sartre writes that by speaking ‘I reveal my situation by my very intention of changing it; I reveal it to myself and others in order to change it’. This is understood in a very Heideggerian sense as ‘action by disclosure’; it is the author’s way of influencing the world by a ‘secondary method of action’. Moreover Sartre argues that the prose writer, and by extension the prose itself is essentially political. Unlike other forms of art which obscure truth by way of misleading signification, prose is akin to speech and therefore has the transgressive quality of interaction. Prose interacts with the living world of its day; ‘with every word I utter, I involve myself a little more with the world, and by the same token I emerge from it a little more, since I go beyond it towards the future’. Marx’s eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach (whose materialism greatly impressed Marx) equally rejects contemplative philosophies; ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various way; the point it to change it’. What is Writing? is a lost cause to begin with simply because Sartre neglects the very real differences between speech and writing (temporal/permanent, oral/visual etc…) in his insistence to justify his own role in history. As Robert C. Solomon puts it, ‘Sartre wanted nothing less than to change humanity through his writings’.
He therefore places the prose writer in the world of action as opposed to ‘art’. However, he goes on to retrospectively corrects this mistake when in his Critique where he makes the point that praxis ‘takes place in the sociohistorical world, in other words, takes place dialectically’. Within dialectical thinking human artistic production as a whole must be fitted into its own dialectical equation and Sartre’s artificial distinction between art and prose would become evident almost immediately. Despite this momentary lapse, it is still worth examining whether Sartre’s questions of whether an author can be politically committed, that is, can they change the world. Whilst editor of the German newspaper, Marx writes in the Rheinische Zeitung that ‘since every true philosophy is the intellectual quintessence of its time… the time must come when philosophy comes into contact and interaction with the real world of its day’. Since authors, as Sartre says, ‘must try to be as right as [they] can in [their] books’, and therefore reflect a moment in history by their intention of changing it, perhaps writing can only change anything in a period of radical change. Despite the fact that What is Writing? includes much self-justification, it would be unfair to suggest the Sartre’s view of the self at this time is simply a philosophical caricature of himself. More than that, it seeks to alter the world whereas once it was only concerned with altering itself.
One might suppose therefore that when we arrive at the Critique and Search for a Method that Sartre’s conception of the individual’s facticity, and hence its ability to alter the world, would be more comprehensive. For Marxists (as Sartre now claims to be) this means the understanding of individuals in class terms; individuality is always determined to a greater or lesser extent by ‘some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it’, so that ‘a nobleman always remains a nobleman, a commoner always a commoner, apart from his other relationship, a quality inseparable from his individuality’. Sartre is keen to avoid much of the determinism found in Marxism and is almost scandalised by the realisation that ‘history is made without self-awareness.’ Sartre writes that philosophy is in danger ‘of denying all real subjectivity in the interests of objectivity’, and that the truth of the matter is ‘that subjectivity is neither everything nor nothing; it represents a moment in the objective process’. Fair enough. But to say, ‘it is neither everything nor nothing’ where the term potentiality of possibility would comfortably fit is to arguably mystify the issue. As Anthony Manser notes, Sartre consistently attempts ‘to deny that the individual and society are equally identifiable entities, existing on the same level’.
The privileged position of the individual has therefore been retained throughout his whole career; in Existentialism and Humanism – ‘our point of departure is, indeed, the subjectivity of the individual’. In the Critique – ‘the starting point of understanding, and hence of the dialectic, is human praxis’, praxis is understood as residing with the individual, ‘the individual is the conceptual starting point’. Praxis and the dialectic are prominent, and whilst praxis is understood dialectically (i.e. entailing its wider social implications) both are still subjugated to the individual. That a large part of the second section of the Critique ‘is taken up with denying that a section of men can ‘do’ things in the same way an individual can’ reiterates this point. Praxis for Marxist (although a term never used by Marx is a fitting one for his philosophy) is at the very core of man, ‘he must remain in continuous interchange [with nature] if he is not to die’. Through his interaction with the outside world he creates objects alien to him, and in this vein comes to realise that ‘his own life is an object to him’. This materialist conception of consciousness hold that man’s relation to matter is primary, the division of labour is the social basis of man’s interaction with the world, so any form of consciousness is at some level class-consciousness; as complex as the social relations it reflects. When Sartre writes that ‘we support unreservedly the formulation in Capital by which Marx means to define his ‘materialism’, he must also include subjectivity as product of material reality, steaming from the social and historical evolution of man. However, for Sartre subjectivity consists of a ‘moment’ where externality is internalised, a moment ‘perpetually eliminated only to be perpetually reborn’. More than that, it is an essentially elusive moment as equally unobservable as his earlier notion of the self. More often stated than proved in Sartre and arguably without real material origins, Sartrean subjectivity, or Nothingness, is problematic.
Sartre’s doctrine of radical freedom is extreme in nature, freedom is understood as the very condition of being conscious, and so to be human is to be free. In the interview of 1970 Sartre states that man must be responsible for what is made of him, even if he ‘can do nothing else but assume this responsibility’. Having developed a larger appreciation of man facticity he now talks of social attitudes; perhaps we cannot do what we please but we can think about our given situation in any way we choose. Solomon makes the point that Sartre’s thought has a very limited understanding of the sub-conscious; instead it postulates that ‘people conveniently deny their own decisions and their own activities’. This is understood in Being and Nothingness as bad-faith, and is presented to us through a description of a waiter who moves with ‘the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton’. He is denying his decision-making nature, not facing the fact that he is ‘condemned to be free’. But Existentialism and Humanism makes the point that only with a realisation of the Cogito do we realise our own, then everyone else’s, radical freedom to choose. The stage before that seems very similar to the idea of a ‘sub-conscious’, Sartre’s own word, ‘automaton’, suggests this.
This freedom still resides with the individual, and very little room is made for the notion of national identity, class, gender and so on as determining factors in social attitudes. Marx wrote – ’the transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting those material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour’. Since for Marx humans are economic beings, a feature which necessarily follows from his Materialism, their attitudes stem from the current economic and political tensions. Also, there are very real and valued benefits for Ruling class in propagating unenlightened views or simply lying to the populace, whether it is to divide the domestic population or to justify imperialist enterprise. Moreover, Sartre says ‘man can always make something out of what is made of him’, and that ‘this is freedom’. This assumes that the relatively limited choices with which the majority of humanity is faced with have something more than an illusory difference. Sartre speaks of the waiter who is ‘playing at being a waiter’, arguing that his behaviour constitutes acting in bad-faith. It is almost as though we can only be existentialists in our spare time, unless of course your job title is ‘philosopher’. Most unskilled labourers (of which there are millions) must work to stay alive, in conditions not of their choosing, for pay not of their choosing and for a duration decided by someone else. That they can somehow ‘assume responsibility’ for this is a pitiful substitute for economic freedom!
Sartre writes in the Search for a Method that during his education Marx was systematically denied as a credible philosopher, and although lectures ‘advised us to read him’ it was only because ‘one had to know him ‘in order to refute him’.’ I share some of Sartre’s suspicion when I consider that his rather radical conversion to Marxism is rarely considered. There are certain features of Sartre’s early work, the lack of a synthetic stage in his Dialectic and the privileged position of the individual, for example, which jar quite forcefully with Marxism. Sartre’s continued concern with objectification and alienation, arguably place him in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. These two processes however, are explained through ‘Nothingness’, a quality exclusively of the individual. Moreover, his tendency to retain an appreciation of the self which has some kind of ‘root’, or ‘pure’ self, means the individual cannot be abandoned in true Marxist terms, i.e. an entirely social being. Kline argues that Sartre’s growing concern for the ‘objectification of sociohistorical praxis’ in the Critique has forced him in effect to ‘renounce his earlier existentialism emphasis on the subjectivity of the free individual’. Clime comes to the conclusion that Sartre’s ‘existentialism has been organically absorbed into his Marxism’, and whilst this is the subject for a further essay perhaps, it also suggests the incompatibility of these two philosophies. However Sartre offers another reason why Marxism is often hidden or negatively presented to us, he makes the point in the Search for a Method that ‘Marx wrote that the ideas of the dominant class as the dominant ideas. He is absolutely right’.  If Communism is the anti-thesis of capitalism then, dialectically speaking, it is necessarily suppressed in accordance with the laws of capitalism and by the dominant class of the day. Further investigation is therefore probably a good idea.
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