As political camps grow increasingly extreme in their messaging – with Democrat and Republican views both turning less nuanced, with the Right and Left seeming to need each other in order to justify their political survival — it may be helpful to recall a person who tried to make a case for what he called the voices of silence. This person, active in a period marking both post-WWII relief and early-Cold War anxiety, was Maurice Merleau-Ponty: a French phenomenologist who, in his distinctive way, never gave way to absolutist thinking, and who wrote of Cezanne’s doubt in art and then applied it to his own personal politics. Merleau-Ponty developed rethinking as a method, and – while never relinquishing his commitment to social, political, and economic justice — infused his understanding of these fields with the admission that being human is, for better or for worse, a complex undertaking. And that this sometimes involves acknowledging our limits together with our contradictions.

Merleau-Ponty was not considered to be influential as a political thinker, but when, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir , he co-founded Les Temps modernes in October 1945, he was made political editor and editor-in-chief, keeping his name off the masthead for reasons he never expressed. [i] He’d emerged from the Second World War as a Marxist and defender of the Soviet Union — expounding a public position in Humanism and Terror over which Albert Camus criticized him — but when he learned of the extent of the gulag system, he underwent what Claude Lefort called a “crisis in faith.” In January 1950, Merleau-Ponty published an article criticizing the Soviet Union, in which he wrote: “There is no socialism when one out of every twenty citizens is in a camp.”[ii] By July, 1950, a few weeks after North Korea invaded South Korea, Merleau-Ponty considered the Soviet Union to be an imperialist power. He also resigned as political editor of Les Temps modernes while remaining its editor-in-chief, in effect silencing the magazine’s political commentary. [iii]

In May, 1952, that silence cracked. Francis Jeanson, Les Temps modernes‘s managing editor, published a largely Marxist critique of Camus’s The Rebel — exploiting a review of the literary-philosophical essay in order to express the long-stifled political agenda of the editorial staff’s less self-critical members. It seems Merleau-Ponty understood this marked the end of his influence over the review. In June, he published the first half of “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” an essay on art and language that he dedicated to Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre had, in late May, undergone what he called a communist “conversion” and was preparing to make it public in a series of essays to be published in Les Temps modernes as well. The series was called “The Communists and Peace” and the first piece was published in July, the same month as the concluding half of “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” the last of Merleau-Ponty’s essays to appear in Les Temps modernes. In August, the review published Camus’s “Letter to the Director of Temps modernes” together with Sartre’s “Reply to Albert Camus,” which publicly ended their friendship. Five months later, Merleau-Ponty left Les Temps modernes altogether.

Between 1950 and 1952, in the throes of his “crisis in faith,” Merleau-Ponty began to synthesize the research he had undertaken since the publication of Phenomenology of Perception (1945), the seminal philosophical work on which he worked during the Second World War. In a 1951 report on his own work, submitted as part of his candidacy to the Collège de France, Merleau-Ponty mentioned that he was working on two books: The Origin of Truth and Introduction to the Prose of the World[iv] Claude Lefort, editor of the posthumously published Prose of the World, writes that Merleau-Ponty only finished half of this projected book. He estimates Merleau-Ponty’s work on this manuscript to have taken place between July 1950 and March 1952 — which overlaps with his politically “silent” period — at which point Merleau-Ponty prepared “an important chapter, considerably modified” to be published as “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” [v] And while Lefort is convinced that “the philosopher remained attached to his enterprise for a long time,” he notes that Merleau-Ponty was also “working in another direction . . . reread[ing] Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky and accumulat[ing] considerable notes on Weber and Lukács which were part of his next project,The Adventures of the Dialectic, published in 1955.” [vi] His philosophical research went into courses at the Collège de France, but his writing at that time focused on rethinking his politics.

There appears to be a connection between Merleau-Ponty’s setting aside philosophical writing in order to focus on a political critique after years of political silence, and the “Epilogue” to Adventures which appears to trace his descent into doubt. In his characteristic first-person plural, Merleau-Ponty begins with the admission that “[j]ust after the war we tried to formulate a Marxist wait-and-see attitude.” At the same time, he locates the possibility for this rethinking in the defaming Humanism and Terror, from which he quotes himself: “If it happens tomorrow that the USSR threatens to invade Europe,” he wrote, “and to set up in every country a government of its choice, a different question would arise.” Merleau-Ponty continues:

[T]he Korean War raised this “different question” . . . Marxist wait and see became communist action. It remained itself only insofar as there was a margin between communism and non-communism, and this margin was reduced by the state of war. . . . Wait-and-see Marxism had been a position just after the war because it had objective conditions: those neutral zones throughout the world, in Czechoslovakia, in Korea, where the two actions had a pact. Since these zones were disappearing, wait-and-see Marxism was for us nothing more than a dream, a dubious dream. [vii]

The dubious dream, looking back from a historical standpoint, seems not only the idea of wait-and-see Marxism, but the very notion that Czechoslovakia and Korea were “neutral zones.” The coup d’état in Czechoslovakia took place less than a year after the publication of Humanism and Terror, and one can only hypothesize on the degree of good-willed idealism necessary to “wait and see” whether the Stalin-backed communists in control of the state’s information, agriculture, finance, and police apparatuses would respect their “pact” with the non-communists. And while it may be possible to charge Merleau-Ponty with an idealism that prevented him from seeing the simmering conflict in Czechoslovakia, it seems his eventual crisis arose because, despite this idealism, he did not completely relinquish the capacity to critique himself.

This is the capacity that Merleau-Ponty identifies as one of Marxism’s major flaws: “It is the certitude of judging history in the name of history . . . that, in the guise of modesty, makes the Marxist critique a dogma and prevents it from being self-criticism.” [viii] His censure is less political than moral: “One could no longer be satisfied with not choosing: in the perspective of war, to put it clearly, the refusal to choose becomes the choices of a double refusal.” [ix] It seems Merleau-Ponty understood this dimension of his mistake all too well: “This in itself shows well enough that we were not on the terrain of history (or Marxism) but on that of the a priori and of morality.” [x] The gravity of this realization, it seems, led Merleau-Ponty to pull himself away from his philosophical writing and dedicate himself to an investigation of how his political commitment had ended in moral compromise.

We may never truly know how it happened that arguably one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century was moved to make such a shift. But an anecdote from a few years earlier may shed some light. In July 1947, not long after the argument with Camus, Merleau-Ponty published an article called “Learn to Read” in Les Temps modernes — a response to what Camus calls in his notebook Merleau-Ponty’s complaint that Camus and others had misread Humanism and Terror (1947). As Camus writes: “He explains that no one is ever right and that it’s not so easy,” and then adds in parenthesis, “I hope he’s not going to the trouble of proving this for my sake.” [xi] Both the book and the response essay it prompted were written before Merleau-Ponty “became aware” of Soviet concentration camps, and in hindsight it’s possible to criticize him for being blinded by his convictions or idealism. But the qualities of his character, described by Camus, that I’m stressing here are his “going to the trouble” to “explain.” For even while remaining unconvinced by Camus’s argument, Merleau-Ponty afforded his interlocutor the respect, even if in an angry tone, of taking the time to reiterate his own position. This also meant considering the criticism at least for as long as it took to formulate his defense. This tendency of “going to the trouble” to “explain” went, later, beyond defense to self-criticism. At the moment that he realized the extent of his political and moral error, he could no longer develop and write philosophy. He owed it to himself, and to those against whom he had argued earlier, to “go to the trouble” of reevaluating how his political commitment had led to supporting a morally indefensible leader. And this point, I believe, is one that needs to be thought about and considered by everyone today on every point on the political spectrum.

Justifying terror abroad in the name of human rights is fundamentally different from insisting on a nation’s responsibility to its own people. Political engagement is about convictions, not just winning. Trying to win at any price is sometimes the greatest formula for failure. In a political environment where lying, corruption, and hate-mongering are par for the course, the idea of channeling anger for the sake of good can become another path to self-destruction. What’s lacking is the kind of self-criticism necessary to dig open new wells of power based not on maneuvering but on honesty. Our answers are not outside — they’re within. The most destructive politicians sometimes succeed because they have the ability to channel their inner selves and broadcast it to anyone who will listen. By connecting with our own voices, we become less susceptible to the voices of others, by listening to the voices of silence, we can tune out the voices of cacophony. By being honest with ourselves, and with our own shortcomings, we can forge a political discourse that will lead us beyond anger and hate toward a horizon of measured policies — and toward greater consideration for what we hold dear in the world.

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.

Hubert Dreyfus and Particia Allen Dreyfus, “Translators’ Introduction, Sense and Non-sense, Northwestern University Press, 1964, ix.

[ii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. Richard McCleary, Northwestern University Press, 1964, 264.

[iii] Jon Stewart, “Introduction,” The Debate Between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, ed. Jon Stewart, Northwestern University Press, 1998, xxiii.

[iv] Ibid., xii.

[v] Ibid., xiv.

[vi] Ibid., xvii.

[vii] Merleau-Ponty, “Epilogue,” Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. Joseph Bien, Northwestern University Press, 1973, 230.

[viii] Ibid., 231.

[ix] Ibid., 230.

[x] Ibid., 232.

[xi] Albert Camus, Notebooks: 1942-1951, trans. Justin O’Brien, Knopf, 1965, 166.