Permanent Deviation: Understanding Our Place in History with the Aid of Sartre's Critique, Volume Two

Philosophy Compass 10 (10):685-689 (2015)
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The unfinished, posthumously published second volume of Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason consists for the most part of a study of the evolution of the Soviet Union under the reign of Stalin. Essentially, Sartre sees this history as amounting to a lengthy deviation from the goal of socialism, a deviation that he regards as thoroughly intelligible in light of social and historical circumstances. Some ten years after abandoning his work on this book, on the occasion of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Sartre concluded that this ‘deviation’ was permanent. At the same time, Sartre believed, as he had stated already in Volume I of the Critique, that the post-Stalinist era must be characterized as ‘One World’, a historical turning away from the plurality that had prevailed in all of past human history. The present essay attempts to capture Sartre's approach to history as ongoing ‘totalization’ – conflict-filled, subject to contingency and chance and the frequent occurrence of ‘holes’, and nevertheless intelligible. Although Stalin died many decades ago, and the Soviet Union itself no longer exists as such, it is argued here that Sartre's approach in this book is very useful as a key to the present time. Future history is indeed unpredictable, but Sartre's techniques of historical analysis remain valid. It is also contended, more controversially, that today the ideal of democracy may be in the process of following the path of socialism in the direction of permanent deviation



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William McBride
Purdue University

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