Review of
James Miller, History and Human Existence:
From Marx to Merleau-Ponty

By Ralph Dumain

Miller, James. History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

I never heard of this book before I chanced upon it in a used book store, and I'm guessing it long ago disappeared down the memory hole of intellectual history. Yet it fits in perfectly with my intensive research on a number of fronts and is serviceable as a suitable addition to my guide in progress to the interplay of rationalism and irrationalism in bourgeois thought.

This book also unwittingly illustrates something all too obvious, the abandonment by "left" intellectuals of Marxism, which ultimately means capitulation to the rule of unreason and barbarism.  That this book was published at the end of the '70s and ends with Merleau-Ponty I think is quite significant. Such a book probably could not get published today, since the radical chic intelligentsia abandoned Marxism somewhere in the 1980s and moved on to postmodernism. Now Marxism has always been mixed up with other intellectual streams, from Darwinism to Nietzscheanism to Neo-Kantianism to positivism to Freudianism to neopositivism to phenomenology to existentialism to structuralism to analytical Marxism and other trends I've surely left out.  So the engagement with various intellectual trends is not nor should it be a novelty, nor is there necessarily any legitimate entity such as "Marxism" that deserves to be preserved in its purity. Marxism was always in trouble the minute it became "Marxism", and all of its major problems were in play by the end of the 19th century. Yet when Marxism’s perspective, i.e. the centrality of the fundamental class structure of society and the prospects for the creation of a rational society drop out of the picture—for intellectuals this means theoretical perspective—the vacuum created results in a loss for the prospects of humanity on planet Earth—severely imperiled at this crucial moment—and also a loss and imperilment of the capacity of human reason itself.

Miller wonders about the capacity to institute reason in human society, tied in with the viability of the prospect of a socialist society. His emphasis is an essential one: the centrality of the human individual and the development of his and her capacities in the process of social emancipation—which he puts at the center of Marx's project, a theme too often obscured by the collectivist nonsense peddled as Marxism. Miller reviews a lineage of thinkers which will be familiar to scholars and connoisseurs of Marxist theory, yet his concise and lucid adumbration of their ideas and the essential problems they faced philosophically and politically, in a concentrated narrative, is very useful in summing up the interplay of rationality and irrationality, optimism and pessimism, social analysis and metaphysics, over the past century and a half.


Miller summarizes Marx's social theory and the role of alienated labor and the prospects for free individuality within it, and points up the ambiguities in Marx, for example: is Marx's theory a science; does Marx's theory convincingly argue for the conclusive overcoming of entrapment within capitalism, or does it in the end only prove the impossibility of escaping from social conditioning in class society?  All in all, Marx comes down on the side of revolutionary rationalism; i.e. people ultimately are capable of acting in their rational interest.


Miller applies the usual criticisms of Engels, but doesn't go too far, and keeps him on the side of Marx rather than on the side of the Second International, where Marxist theory's basic weaknesses are instituted.  Much more could be said about Engels' theoretical contribution and his philosophical interventions. Marxist philosophy, while often falling down on the job as a constructive enterprise, has always excelled in its criticisms of bourgeois philosophy, and Engels' interventions into the confusions and obfuscations of the late 19th-century hodgepodge of science and speculation deserve more considered attention.

As Marxism is definitively elevated to a science with "materialism" as its foundational principle, and history is seen as lawful a process as the processes of nature, the role of human subjectivity and freedom in a deterministic universe becomes ever more problematic. To the extent that orthodox Marxism is philosophical, the major philosophers of this trend are Plekhanov and Labriola, with Kautsky holding the line. Hilferding made Marxist theory value-free. Bernstein ineptly fought this tendency via the untenable dualism of Neo-Kantianism.  The most sophisticated response to revisionism, as Miller sees it, is Max Adler's introduction of subjective teleology into the mix. (118)

Lenin comes in for the usual drubbing, and his notebooks on Hegel are not seen to ameliorate substantially Lenin's position, not to mention that Lenin accelerated political nastiness in philosophical debates to an unheard-of level. While Lenin's more voluntarist politics seems to contradict a fatalist view of historical development, Lenin's perspective actually reinforces the passivity of the proletariat, esp. viz. the scientific perspective monopolized by the party intelligentsia (a tendency with its roots in Kautsky's orthodoxy). The emancipation of the individual, and with it, democracy, disappears from Lenin's purview.

While there is a certain merit in Miller's critique, his dismissal of Lenin as philosopher is unwarranted. For example, he neglects the import of Lenin's struggle against positivism and the mystification of the revolutions in physics. (Those who refer to Second and/or Third International Marxism as positivistic need to be precise about their meaning.) As for Lenin's politics and view of the vanguard party, the situation is more complicated, both conceptually and in practice, before and after the 1917 revolution.

The next upsurge of revolutionary rationalism is exemplified by Luxemburg, Lukács, and Gramsci. I don't recall whether Miller specifically makes this claim, but it appears here as in many other writings that Rosa Luxemburg represents the highest point reached during the period of the Second International. Lukács of course is the fount of the resurrection of Marxist philosophy following the First World War. Korsch and the Council Communists (Pannekoek) only come in for passing mention, and then Gramsci gets the spotlight. Gramsci virtually renounces the scientific pretensions of Marxism to pose a historically uncertain outcome of the struggle for socialism against barbarism.

Now none of this is new to the informed reader and probably seems trite as I summarize it. But remember, this recapitulates what was learned in the English-speaking world by the end of the '70s, and more importantly, though Miller's analysis is abbreviated in several respects, the ideas he pinpoints he succeeds in explaining succinctly and well, especially in view of his overall project, which is about the relationship between individuation and social development.


We begin here with the incorporation of irrationalist tendencies into Marxist theory, which emphasize subjectivity, unreason, radical contingency, social ossification and social pessimism. Influences include Kierkegaard, Bergson, Sorel, and above all, Nietzsche. Nietzsche emphasizes not only the sovereignty of the (exceptional) individual but disintegration as the defining tendency of contemporary society. "While he promulgated an important series of affirmative doctrines, such as the will to power and eternal recurrence, his decisive significance for social theory derives not so much for his positive ontology, which valued whatever enhances life, as from his negative teaching, and, above all, his insight into the modern epoch. (141) Nietzsche cast doubt on the optimistic perspective of the Enlightenment.

I will grant Nietzsche his due in certain areas, but social theory is not one of them.  Weber thought Nietzsche and Marx to be the two paramount influences of his time. Nietzsche uncovers the fearful nature of society and the individual's passions and creates a chaotic picture of existence that inherently challenges all conceptions of an orderly universe of either a divine or secular nature. (143) It is quite understandable why Nietzsche would be such an eye-awakening presence in an ideological culture that repressed the subterranean impulses and tabooed underbelly of psyche and society.  But to me this is just another manifestation of a void in late 19th century (and much of 20th century) bourgeois culture which would sprout a Nietzsche but which Nietzsche in my mind does not properly fill.  (What's so disgusting now is how advanced bourgeois decadence is the way it is taking over the humanities, so that now Nietzsche is cultural capital for the most corrupt opportunist elements of the Ivy League, including even Black Studies [or should I say "African American" in keeping with the buppification of the black academic intelligentsia.] Well, before Freud, what was there but Nietzsche?

But now we come to the individual I would call the third great modern philosopher of subjectivity, Husserl. Then comes the macabre development of phenomenology in the hands of Heidegger, who ends up exerting a decisive influence on Neo-Marxism.

Next comes a short excursion into Critical Theory, specifically Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer. Amongst the three of them taken together, the most comprehensive engagement with contemporary philosophy and social theory was achieved to date. Horkheimer and Adorno were ambivalent in their engagement with existentialism, life-philosophy, and the like, both criticizing and recognizing these philosophies, in accord with their fluctuating assessments of the possibility of social emancipation. Yet all three still maintained a prioritization of reason, an orientation that was severely battered by the rise of fascism and World War II. Miller briefly summarizes the individual trajectories of these three thinkers.

Miller concludes:

The unflinching loyalty of the Hegelio-Marxist form of rationalism helped keep a critical Marxist philosophy alive throughout the thirties and forties. At the same time, though, their allegiance, however qualified, to Hegelian modes of thought, as well as their apparent belief that Freud had essentially solved "the problem of the subject," helped limit their philosophical reconsideration of subjectivity. (155)

Miller maintains that the most far-reaching engagement of Marxism with subjectivity was effected by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. I am skeptical with respect to Sartre, as I find his efforts far inferior to those of any member of the Frankfurt School even on a bad day. But perhaps we shall see why Miller makes this claim.

Sartre is the first figure since Engels to get a whole chapter to himself, and Miller does an excellent job of explicating the stages of Sartre's philosophical development, demonstrating at every point the irresolvable contradictions of Sartre's perspective. Perhaps Miller thinks that Sartre is close to the summit in engaging subjectivity because no matter how much Sartre incorporates the social (which apparently reaches its maximum in Sartre's study of Flaubert), in the final analysis all of Sartre's philosophy is predicated on the project of the individual, an emphasis which sets an all-time record for Marxism. Sartre's revolutionary élan notwithstanding, the actual portrait he paints of ineluctable interpersonal conflict renders the prospects for revolutionary transformation of society quite dodgy. The summit of Sartre's philosophical attempt to fuse existentialism with Marxism is reached in his Critique of Dialectical Reason.  Sartre undertakes a philosophical anthropology to provide a foundation for answering the question, "What makes history possible?".

But now Miller wonders:

Oddly, Sartre never clarified why Marxism so obviously needed a priori support—unless he felt that Marx's image of the future could be sustained in no other fashion. To be sure, he did not undertake a logical deduction of the dialectic in the Critique, but he did propose an ontological deduction; in order for History to be possible, man must be a being of praxis, characterized by "need, transcendence and the project." Since he also derived praxis from scarcity, presumably a contingent rather than necessary circumstance of human affairs, he hedged his bets. Apparently, his philosophical anthropology was necessary a priori merely for this historical world—the only one we happen to know."  (184-5)

At this point I have to say that of all the philosophers attempting to think their way beyond the straightjacket of orthodoxy, none can compare to the Frankfurt School—to put it bluntly: not any ten most celebrated French philosophers put together. But I am not conversant with the work of Merleau-Ponty, who, at least at the beginning of the final chapter (to be followed by an Epilogue), is far more appealing than Sartre and other phenomenologists and Kantians.  We shall see how this chapter turns out.

Now all this is old stuff, and those of you familiar with it may be bored to tears just reading a rehash of it again.  Yet I think that, my usual nitpicking aside, this book serves very well as an explication of the ideas it incorporates and thus could certainly serve to introduce new people to these streams of thought and the issues they were designed to grapple with. But just as importantly, this narrative concentrates and highlights a fundamental historical as well as intellectual tension operant within the past century and a half. Consider the dynamic tension at work:

(1) the conflict between the rational and irrational dimensions of human existence, and their reflection in competing philosophical traditions and their hybrids;

(2) the alternation between empirical (scientific?) and philosophical analyses of society and the individual;

(3) the interventions of scientific and metaphysical perspectives in the process of both stimulating revolution and coping with frustration and defeat.

Now, all of this is framed in the book by an emphasis on the individual subject within the social and revolutionary process, which Miller finds central in Marx as opposed to much of Marxism.  I think this is a valid emphasis for a book, for several books. But let me add one important observation: in the treatment of the individual, with the exception of references to the would-be science of psychoanalysis, the individual is approached exclusively from the standpoint of philosophy. Now if you were going to read serious treatments of individual thought and behavior intended for a popular audience and published in the USA over the past half century, you would find at various times an emphasis on psychoanalysis, behavioral psychology, the effects of advertising and techniques of persuasion on mass psychology, the institutionalization of conformity and alienation (the "organization man", the "lonely crowd", etc.), experimental psychology, evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, cognitive science, etc.—some trends fading into the background in time, others more recently coming to the fore.  Of course, there is plenty of philosophizing of various sorts, mostly sordid, but also pop versions of real philosophies as well.  My point though is, if social structures can be analyzed scientifically because such analysis can to some extent (I assert this only provisionally) get away without a philosophical foundation for human agency, why not apply allegedly scientific procedures to the analysis of the individual, which was at least part of the program of the Frankfurt School, not to mention nothing essentially new at all for Kautsky?  Why pitch one's tent in philosophy in the final analysis? Why phenomenology?

I don't think this is an impenetrable mystery, but it poses an essential question on a number of fronts, regardless of the object of analysis. Naturalizing epistemology, for example, comes into question here. So does, overall, the tension between naturalism and the philosophies of subjectivity. It seems that the ghost of Kant continues to haunt the world. I don't think philosophy and empirical analysis can ever fully collapse into one, nor do I think they can remain apart. And there is not only knowledge, and not only even the absence of knowledge, but ideology, or our subjective relation to what is known and what we are.  Is philosophy, though, destined to be the last stand, an ark perched on Ararat as the world is consumed by the Flood? It seems this has happened time and time again, and surely we cannot rest content with this. Let's just hope we still have a choice.

Written 9 July 2008
Edited & uploaded 10 January 2010

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History and Human Existence by James Miller
Full text provided by University of California Press

History and Human Existence by James Miller
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