Merleau-Ponty's Political Thought

Conall Cash


In the world of post-war French philosophy in intersection with Marxism, Maurice Merleau-Ponty is spoken of far less than the likes of Sartre or Althusser. Yet his political writings – Adventures of the Dialectic, Humanism and Terror, and the essays collected in Sense and non-sense – reveal an engagement with classical Marxist thought and its relationship to Hegel, as well as with the political questions raised by the revolutionary experiences of the early twentieth century, that few of his contemporaries could equal. The relationship of these writings to Merleau-Ponty’s major phenomenological works is not self-evident, and there is no summatory work uniting the phenomenological and the political, as Sartre aims at with the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Keeping these two areas of his work quite separate allows Merleau-Ponty a certain distance from tendencies to reduce the political to philosophy. In the contributions of his student Claude Lefort to the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, we find some indications of what it might mean for a phenomenological perspective indebted to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy to be brought to bear on a political program. But a more systematic effort to think the political writings in relation to the major works has often been lacking in the reception of his work and its relation to intellectual history of his period. This paper will draw on the uses made of Merleau-Ponty’s thought in some recent works of intellectual history, such as Stefanos Geroulanos’ An Atheism that is not humanist emerges in French thought, and Stephen Hastings-King’s history of Socialisme ou Barbarie. It will then propose a way of understanding Merleau-Ponty’s political thought in relation to the philosophy developed in The Structure of Behaviour and The Phenomenology of Perception with regard to the dialectic of sense and non-sense; in the process it will argue for the relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s thought to the reconstruction of a Hegelian Marxism (greatly indebted to Lukács) as a task of the present.

Merleau-Ponty - Phenomenology and Marxism