Originally written on April 29, 2010

About a week ago, a good friend of mine e-mailed me an article on existentialism, after a blog post of mine had got him examining the topic. The author of the article, Alexander Green, laid out a fairly simple explanation of the basic characteristics of existentialist thought. This, in turn, got me thinking about my role in the world, both as an individual and as an activist for social change. In essence, it is the self versus the society. Perhaps that is a bit too confrontational of a description, but I do indeed at times feel pulled between my individual desires, thoughts and manifestations and the desire to exacerbate critical thinking and pro-active social change. These two worlds are most certainly not mutually exclusive, but nonetheless, it is a common tendency of the Marxist left to distance dialectical materialism from individual notions of self, and of spiritualism and the role that plays in our schema of the social world around us.

Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre are generally considered the most significant existentialist thinkers. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used existentialism as a means of connecting ourselves and our psyche with the ideas of Christianity and ultimately influenced the ideas of Sartre. Perhaps the philosophical divorce, so to speak, between the existentialists and the materialists, was a matter of petty and semantic differences between the great thinkers of this time. It actually reminds me of the modern left; perpetual bickering over trivial matters of semantics which further marginalizes and divides the left–but that’s another rant for another day. In this case, Nietzsche reveled in critique of German idealism, with Hegel being the foremost philosopher of this group. Of course it was Hegel who gave us modern dialectics (evolved from the Socratic method), which would greatly influence Karl Marx to adopt dialectical materialism as the principle of thought and the philosophical foundation that communism would be based upon.

Perhaps an overly simplistic analysis, but somewhat historically accurate, is that this little “rift,” or intellectual and philosophical “street fight” between Nietzsche and Hegel ultimately influenced Marx to dismiss existentialism as an inherently bourgeois notion of self-importance. This little philosophical rift which began almost two-hundred years ago, has continued with modern Marxism being critical of general existentialism as well. In my mind, this doesn’t have to be the case at all. A keen understanding of self within the world at large is a necessity if one is to realize their role in ameliorating the social world.

Before this devolves into a pedantic philosophical diatribe,–if it hasn’t already–let me give simplistic synopsis of existentialist thinking. Again, this is borrowed from A. Green’s article which I eluded to earlier. The first generalized theme of existentialism is an acceptance of the absurd. Life in and of itself is somewhat absurd in the sense that we live life with no conception of a beginning before that life or an end afterwards. Of course, various religious theologies give explanations of this, but delving into those would be, not only time consuming, but antithetical to this discussion–though it does play an integral role in our universal schema. Marx might dismiss this notion as antagonistic to class struggle as the idea of accepting life as absurd is dissuasive to revolutionary actions. But absurdity of life may very well lead us to accept that our time on earth as we know it is brief, thus we must make the world around us a world that is free; that gives meaning–a world free of the suffocating constraints of capitalist exploitation.

Next, we look at personal freedom as a theme of existentialism. This notion is one that everyone, regardless of ideology or philosophical understandings, embraces. The Marxist and the Existentialist might have differing ideas on what constitutes personal freedom. This freedom gives one the ability to make choices that affect not only self, but society as a whole. Within the idealistic “worker’s paradise” that Marx pontificated about, personal freedom is the freedom of self-determination over the means of production. That idea is almost parallel to the contemporary American ideal of the “self-made” man: living life without the restraints of bureaucracy and government; doing what one wants to do without outside interference. This is different than nihilism and hedonism in the sense that this personal freedom benefits not only self, but society as well. Of course this ideal has yet to come to fruition under the constraints of capitalism, and was ultimately an unimaginable outcome given the oversight of states and economic systems purported to be modeled on Marxist philosophy with an end result being a quilling of these notions of personal freedom.

Individualism is a key component of existentialism. We would like to think of ourselves as having a unique place in the world. Marx dismissed individualism as a imperialist notion used to further class antagonisms. While this is indeed true, both historically and within a modern context, the idea that we are unique and different from everyone else, yet wholly similar, is the foundation of our collective understanding of freedom. Obviously, this understanding has been manipulated and propagated by the ruling class. Individualism has turned into a marketing ploy in contemporary capitalist society. Yet to dismiss individualism as antithetical to revolution in a Marxian context, would be dismissing our self-worth as a whole. Self-worth is not just relevant to imperialistic manipulation, but relevant ultimately to a society free of the restrictions of any system existing to exert power and control, in whatever the ideological guise may be.

We now move on to authenticity, passion and acceptance of death as the final relevant existentialist ideals–relevant to this particular exploration anyway. Authenticity can loosely be explained as our notion of being true to ourselves and our calling, yet this is not easily accomplished. We can be consumed with what others think of us and how much easier it is to conform to prevailing ideas and trends. An authentic self is something we constantly strive for, yet rarely achieve completely. The existentialist lives a life a passion; going after what they want full steam ahead and enjoying every second of it. Again, something we all aspire to, yet largely unfulfilled with the responsibilities and demands placed on us by ourselves and by society. Finally: acceptance of death. Once we accept that we will not exist in this form forever gives one the freedom to live their life in accordance with the aforementioned ideals of existentialism. Again, I will not explore theological philosophies relating to death and what, if anything, exists beyond that.

For what my conceptualization is worth, I believe existentialism is something we all try to live on a daily basis, regardless of our particular political, economic or philosophical leanings. Now that I have moved on from academia and associations with groups strictly adhering to particular philosophies, I can better understand that my need for individual autonomy is not due to imperialist indoctrination, but rather a legitimate understanding of my place in this world. I can be truly free as an individual while still using dialectical materialism as a means of explaining contemporary political economy and as a means of exacerbating positive social change. Self and society are not mutually exclusive, nor are the philosophical foundations of modern intellectual thought. We all can influence the world in our own unique way and we can also live a life of contentment that is true to our notion of self.