Document Type


Date of Award



Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), Philosophy, French, 20th century, Communism, France

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

W. Warren Wagar

Second Advisor

Charles E. Freedeman

Third Advisor

George H. Stein


This study is a critical appraisal of the intellectual origins of French New Left social theory, as it emerged from the leftist critiques of traditional Marxism carried out by such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, and Cornelius Castoriadis in the period 1945 to 1968. Sartre’s existentialist critique revolved around what he considered to be the lack of a Marxist theory of subjectivity. Lefebvre’s revisionist critique questioned the validity of the traditional Marxist view of advanced industrial society. Castoriadis’ gauchiste critique denied Marxism revolutionary status, claiming it had been transformed into a bureaucratic ideology.

The study begins with a survey of the intellectual status of Marxism in post-1945 France. Particular attention is devoted to the proliferation of intellectual interest in Hegel and Marx’s early writings as sources of theoretical renewal.

Sartre’s existentialist challenge to traditional Marxism is presented as the initial arena of theoretical dialogue. In the debate which ensued between the existentialists and the Marxists, a significant theoretical transformation evolved. Without renouncing his conception of the fundamental irreducibility of individual freedom, Sartre came to accept the historical and social dimensions conditioning it. For their part some of the Marxists, like Lefebvre and Castoriadis, came to recognize the ‘existential’ dimension of historical and social reality. Sartre’s attempted synthesis of existentialism and Marxism in his monumental study, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, was the fundamental development in the post-war critique of Marxism in France.

The existentialist, the revisionist, and the gauchiste critiques developed in the late 1940s and 1950s, and converged in the 1960s as a French New Left social theory. Its main themes focused on the project of discovering egalitarian solutions to the problems of alienation and bureaucracy in advanced industrial society. The French social upheaval of May 1968 appeared to confirm the relevance of this project as well as revealing its limitations. The supercession of New Left social theory in the aftermath of May 1968 brought to a close this period of French intellectual history.