Obviously someone like Marcuse is often lumped under both 'Marxism' and 'existentialism'.

What about Marx?

I ask myself a lot how there can be any meaning to life when death is inevitable and irreversible. And maybe the best reply I can think of is "the point is [that you can]... change it".

Could Marx be considered an existentialist: and if the above is a decent way to resolve 'the meaning of life' could that tell us anything about how he used existentialism?

  • 2
    Sartre has written a bit about this -- maybe consider reviewing The Search for Method
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:55
  • @JosephWeissman appreciate it, tho i'm not a fan of sartre's marxism
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:58

3 Answers 3


I suppose the answer to this depends largely on what one calls "Existentialism."

There are clear points at which Marx is in agreement with Existentialism, especially a focus on concrete, factical life, especially a life as it is actually lived, rather than as it is determined by some overarching schema. Indeed, the general slogan that "existence precedes essence" sounds not dissimilar to Marx's "inversion" of the Hegelian dialectic. All of which is to say that Marx's views aren't diametrically opposed to Existentialism, broadly understood.

The difficulty is that Marx's own alignment with Existentialism is undercut by what is typically understood as the basic Existentialist premise of the importance of individual subjectivity in contrast to what is the key of Marx's thought, namely the social, or, as he refers to it in his earlier writings, "species-being." For Marx, individual subjectivity is of less importance than its capture by social dynamics, which is to say that he conceives of human beings as first of all beings in relation to particular social forms (compare, for instance, the Kierkegaardian thesis that "the crowd is untruth"). Which is not to say that Marx is inimical to Existentialism, just that the distinctive characteristics of Existentialism are of lesser importance to Marx than they are to more "canonical" 19th Century existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky.

Marx shares with proto-Existentialism influences in the form of Feuerbach, Schelling, and even certain moments within Hegel himself that seem to offer an escape from a crude Idealism in favour of sensuous life and concrete existence. Nevertheless, these influences play out somewhat differently, making it hard to say that Marx himself is in some obvious way an Existentialist.

As to the meaning of life question, you're right that to some extent both Marx and Existentialism urge a need to create or produce that meaning. The question really concerns the sources of this creation: are they the product of the self-assertion of a unique individual or are they born out of a conflict that is best understood as a means of producing new social forms? The answer is not necessarily dichotomous, but the terms in which it is phrased tends to lead to different foci.


Here's a decently on-topic chapter from a legendary US Marxist theoretician: George Novack's Marxism vs Existentialism. Conclusion: No.


I don't have an answer to your main question, however you write:

I ask myself how can there be any meaning to life when death is final and irreversible

I take it this is why Arendt focuses on the notion of natality rather than mortality in her theory of action; action being only possible when men come together in their plurality; plurality being for her the condition for action.

She essentially, in common with other modes of thought in modernity, is overturned the category of the vita contempletiva for that of the vita activa.

The highest form of this is action, one mode of this is politics, in its wide sense where men come together to act, and to decide how to act - it's within these constellation that power manifests itself - the power of the plural - as opposed to the strength - the strength of man in the singular; it's lowest form, is the biological mode of existing that is closest to nature and is mere subsistence - she calls this labour; intermediate between these two is work where man, as Homo Faber builds the human world of artifice.

I'm not sure that she would call herself a Marxist, but she certainly takes Marx into account, at least critically; for example Marxs notion of Labour & Capital fits into her notion of Work.

In the essay by Sartre, put forward as a possible answer by Weissman to your question, Sartre distinguishes Kierkegaard - who is sometimes taken to be a precursor of existentialism, from Hegel, calling the former a Romantic Christian; perhaps one can think of Marx as a Romantic Materialist, given his espousal of the proletariat as world-historical. I take it though, that for the proletariat to become world-historical they cannot remain merely the proletariat; as trade cannot become world-historical simply by remaining trade.

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