Philosophy as Interpretation of the Present: Claude Lefort and the “Socialisme ou barbarie” Years

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Philosophy as Interpretation of the Present: Claude Lefort and the “Socialisme ou barbarie” Years

The prestige of theory too often adapts itself to an elusion of the facts that gives one the happy conviction of thinking while remaining ignorant of what is thought […] To me it seemed better to observe [the facts] sometimes too closely than to judge them from too high above. [1]  Claude Lefort, Un homme en trop: Réflexions sur l’Archipel...[1]

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Can a statement express an entire body of work? This assertion by Claude Lefort could lead us to believe this, given how accurately it summarizes his philosophical project and presents itself as the discourse on an original method, a remarkable relationship to thought and knowledge.

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From his first articles in the journal Les Temps modernes, to the publication of Writing: The Political Test, [2]  C. Lefort, Écrire: À l’épreuve du politique (Paris,...[2] a collection of articles in which he questions how to connect theoretical reflection with the practice of writing, Lefort constantly constructed his philosophical work through a particular conception of thought as it takes place; his whole intellectual trajectory can in fact be understood as the attempt to grasp the real on the basis of the facts that emerge within it: "Philosophy only takes form when thinking and doing – calling forth, making manifest – become one. [3]  C. Lefort, "Préface," in Sur une colonne absente: Écrits...[3]

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Starting with the event that both precedes and exceeds any attempt at theoretical reduction, thought grapples with the present, a here and now that imposes limits and order upon it. In this sense, the work of Lefort is, strictly speaking, a work of interpretation; of course, he discovered this task of the philosopher in reading Machiavelli. [4]  C. Lefort, Le Travail de l’œuvre Machiavel (Paris,...[4]

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Like the Florentine, who sought to think "while tested by facts (à l’épreuve des faits)," [5]  Nicolas Machiavel, Discours sur la première décade...[5] Lefort sought to philosophize on the basis of the event as it occurs. Thinking thus amounts to interpreting the world, inhabiting the real and adopting its forms. For Lefort, since "[w]hat is to be thought is never detached from the experience of the present (l’épreuve du présent)," [6]  C. Lefort, ibid., 58 [Ibid., 49].[6] the true philosopher is therefore one who confronts the unpredictability of the facts that present themselves in the contingency of a present. Furthermore, such a conception presupposes that thinkers are in reality caught in the folds of a present that they try to interpret, that they offer a diagnosis of events without ever being able to extract themselves from it. This is the contradiction of thought itself that Lefort discovers in Machiavelli’s work: how can we interpret the present if we are embedded in the present? How can we understand it if we cannot extract ourselves from it?

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Just like the Prince for whom politics is an art of the permanent deciphering of the here and now, and whose power is always put to the test (éprouvé) by that ability to interpret the real, thinkers must question the present while abandoning all pretense that they can express the truth of it. In other words, they must devote themselves to the exercise of an interpretation that is endlessly made then unmade, through which they experience their own vulnerability.

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Certainly, this reflection takes on its fullest theoretical dimensions with Lefort’s discovery of Machiavelli and Machiavelli in the Making, but in reality it was already present in his work in the 1950s, more particularly during the pivotal era of Socialisme ou Barbarie. In fact, from 1956 to 1958, we find in the work of Lefort – as the heir to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology – the first manifestations of a form of thought that refuses to "hang over" life, leading him to gradually move away from Marxism, to undertake theoretical reflections on the notions of totalitarianism and bureaucracy, then to develop a critique of the ideologies that ultimately led him to leave the journal. [7]  On this topic, see Lefort’s preface to his book Éléments...[7]

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In this article, we would like to show how the philosophical practice of interpreting the present takes form in Lefort’s work during his years with Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the role that this practice plays in the critical stance that he took, from the outset, in relation to the journal. Commentators have too often contented themselves with considering the Socialisme ou Barbarie period as an important, even a decisive, moment in Lefort’s intellectual development, without seeing that this assertion is relevant above all in recognizing a constitutive and irreconcilable gap between two methods of thought. [8]  Olivier Mongin, "Un parcours politique, Du cercle des...[8] To put it another way, it was not so much in the process of putting the journal together as in the test (épreuve) that the process put him through that Lefort strengthened his conception of the work of thought as interpreting the present, thought that takes root in the experience of the real, and accepts its own vulnerability upon the emergence of the event.

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Although Lefort had by 1958 definitively split with the journal he helped found, [9]  Claude Montal was the pseudonym that Lefort used in...[9] that break was in reality only the culmination of a long series of conflicts between him and the various founders of and contributors to Socialisme ou Barbarie. We cannot go over all of these differences here, but we should point out that they did not merely involve the group’s program; they were above all the result of a difference of philosophical method concerning the status of the thinker. In a way, there is continuity in the conflict between Lefort and his colleagues in the journal, which has to do with the task that Lefort assigned philosophy: interpreting the present.

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When we take a closer look, Lefort’s adventure in Socialisme ou Barbarie does resemble a collection of "small but successive" [10]  C. Lefort, "Entretien avec L’Anti-Mythes," in Le Temps...[10] divisions. Still more striking is the fact that the seeds of the break in 1958 were already there at the journal’s creation. In a 1975 interview with the journal L’Anti-Mythes, Lefort declared:

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For me, the very creation of Socialisme ou Barbarie was not without problems. Although I actively participated in it, it was the occasion of a falling-out; the more so since my name […] did not appear in the first number of the journal. I considered it essential to publish an organ of reflection, discussion, and information; the sub-title, "An Organ of Critique and Revolutionary Orientation," reflected my perspective. But […] I was not weighed down with the project of the construction of an organization and was reticent toward anything that might appear to be a new Manifesto or programmatic conception […]. The conflict was not very clear. Some perceived the journal only as a means to construct the organization. I did not deny this objective, but it was the journal itself that mattered most to me. [11]  C. Lefort, ibid., 228-229. [Ibid., 175-176][11]

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Therefore, from the start, Lefort set out to privilege the critical dimension of the journal; his role, as he often reminded his readers, consisted less in forming a "party organ" than in proposing critical thinking on what happens in and through capitalism. Lefort wanted to make Socialisme ou Barbarie an interpretive tool for the capitalist and bureaucratic society as it presented itself here and now, and not an attempt at a political systematization of the social. From this perspective, it seems as though that ambiguity had never been dispelled. While differences on the role of the journal were undoubtedly the cause behind Lefort’s departure, they mainly highlight a fundamental discrepancy between a philosophical conception inherited from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and the journal’s programmatic dimension, which was primarily Marxist:

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Nor did I dispute the fact that the journal had to outline a political program; but the project of elaborating theses covering all the problems of the workers’ movement made me uncomfortable. […] I had adopted [Merleau-Ponty’s] critique of any claim to absolute knowledge. In fact, this critique should have taken me further, but I forced myself to reconcile it with Marx’s thought. It was more important to me to discover Marx’s critical dimension than to extract from him a total conception of the world which would allow the assimilation of the history of the 20th century. [12]  C. Lefort, "Entretien avec L’Anti-Mythes," 229. ["An...[12]

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If the journal’s political program made Lefort so "uncomfortable," it was because that ambiguity between Merleau-Ponty’s influence on the one hand, and the inspiration from Marxism on the other, was his to begin with. Lefort’s thinking at the time, which still bore some Marxist traits, sought in a sense to carry out a synthesis between the Marxian critical project and the conception of the event as inherited from Merleau-Ponty, to protect Marx’s thinking from any tension coming from a body of knowledge looming above. The gradual straying from Marxian theories and the discovery of Machiavelli constituted two simultaneous and complementary symptoms of the impossibility of such an undertaking; a third was the definitive break with Socialisme ou Barbarie. Besides, we know that that break took place at a specific moment: Charles de Gaulle’s coup d’état in 1958. In the explanation that he gave later, Lefort noted that the discord was focused less on the meaning to give the event than on the consequences it would have for the journal itself: the members of the group believed that the conditions were finally right for the establishment of a new political organization. As he put it so laconically to L’Anti-Mythes, "I think they lost touch with reality." [13]  C. Lefort, ibid., 233 [Ibid., 178].[13]

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In reality, the nature of the event is merely secondary here; De Gaulle’s coup d’état, as important as it was in postwar French history, is not the only explanation for the break between Lefort and the journal. But it is characteristic of a moment in Socialisme ou Barbarie’s history when its intellectual stance, in Lefort’s view, was irremediably altered, when the journal’s demanding work of thinking seemed to come to a complete halt. The position from on high that the journal took in relation to the event is what Lefort is indicting here, as he already did at the journal’s inception. Lefort’s permanent "discomfort" within the group originated here. Since the journal never stopped vacillating between theoretical reflection on the one hand – thus risking to cut themselves off from the social context that they intended to examine – and on the other, the practice of thought embedded within the flow of the real and subject to its variations, Lefort could never feel entirely at ease there. And when Socialisme ou Barbarie ultimately abandoned any requirement to interpret the real, in order to shift toward the construction of a politically avant-garde project, when it turned away from the exercise of true thought in order to form a "leadership" claiming to teach the masses rather than learn from close contact with them, the break was definitive.

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That "high-altitude position," a discourse refusing to experience its own vulnerability in being tested by facts, self-confirmed by the 1958 event, was bluntly condemned by Lefort. [14]  O. Mongin, "Un parcours politique, Du cercle des idéologies...[14] The attempt to consider the experience as it happens, and not from a dominant position, was thus regularly weakened throughout the years that Lefort devoted to the journal, particularly due to various influences to which that attempt was subject. [15]  In particular, the arrival at the journal of the "Bordigist...[15] We then understand what the critique of Lefort by his comrades conceals in his view: losing touch with reality means forgetting the indeterminate nature of the coming event: it means no longer thinking in the present, but subjecting the novelty of the event to the already-known, stripping it of its radical newness so as to make oneself – in vain – a master through the recourse to a totalizing theory. If Lefort’s philosophical intention could be summed up in a requirement, it is probably the one he states here, which will accompany him throughout his work: to never lose touch with reality.

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The critique of high-altitude thinking, although present in all of Lefort’s reflections during the Socialisme ou Barbarie years, is particularly apparent in "L’expérience prolétarienne" ("The Proletarian Experience"), an article published in December 1952 in issue 11 of the journal and later republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Elements for a Critique of Bureaucracy). [16]  C. Lefort, "L’expérience prolétarienne," Éléments d’une...[16] As the title indicates, Lefort’s intention is manifest. Beyond the refusal of thinking from on high, from now on the question is to understand what is at stake here and now, to conceive the experience acting on the flesh of the social, to assess it as best one can, to offer an interpretation of it that is admittedly limited and incomplete, but one right inside the event, within its folds. In fact, Lefort seeks to define what a "concrete analysis of the proletariat" could be, in order to try and close the "gap that separates what is experienced from what is elaborated […]." [17]  C. Lefort, ibid., 83 [Ibid.].[17] The article demonstrates what, from this perspective, constitutes the most concrete approach in the philosopher’s opinion: "Rather than examining the situation of the proletariat from the outside, this approach seeks to reconstruct the proletariat’s relations to its work and to society from the inside and show how its capacities for invention and power of organization manifest in everyday life." [18]  C. Lefort, ibid., 84 [Ibid.]. Emphasis mine.[18]

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As a conception of the social from within instead of without, Lefort’s approach presents itself as a method for the journal itself and sets as its objective to gather the testimony of workers and to place their experiences at the heart of its theoretical project. Thinking and doing are always to be combined, thereby requiring the intellectual to make his "theoretical elaboration" dependent on "deciphering proletarian social relations" with the involvement of the workers themselves: the contributors to Socialisme ou Barbarie "could only claim to crystallize this process of knowledge." [19]  C. Lefort, "Entretien avec L’Anti-Mythes," 230. Emphasis...[19] If it is true that Lefort’s attempt to impose this conception on the other members of the journal was a failure, it nevertheless remains a potent guideline for any thinking that refuses to place itself over an element of the real as it comes into being.

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But this does not mean that this conception is merely the reconstruction of an experience or a first-hand account. It is a truly interpretive analysis of that experience or, to use Lefort’s words, a "shaping" and a "forging of meaning" of these social relations. As he writes, the testimony of a worker remains conditioned by their situation as a witness: "To tell a story is not to act within it. Telling a story even entails a break with action in ways that transform its meaning." [20]  C. Lefort, ibid., 90. ["Proletarian Experience"][20] In other words, "[j]ust because the theoretician’s eloquence devastates those who allow themselves to be subjugated without understanding it, one need not refuse every relation that discloses an asymmetry between the speakers’ respective positions; one need not consider the use of certain concepts, or of a discourse or mode of interrogation whose meaning is not immediately clear, to be a sign of aggression." [21]  C. Lefort, ibid., 244 ["An Interview with Claude Lefort,"...[21] The question is then to find a delicate balance between thinking from a dominant position, which judges from too high above and risks lapsing into ideological deductivism, and immanent thinking, embracing the real, embedded in the action and incapable of detaching itself from it. This would then be the nature of true thought: caught in a permanent state of instability, in an irreducible interval between pure interiority and pure exteriority. By way of concluding his article on the proletarian experience, Lefort wrote the following:

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Who will work out the relationships understood as significant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit content of a document the intentions and attitudes that inspired it, and juxtapose the testimonies? The comrades of Socialisme ou Barbarie? But would this not run counter to their intentions, given that they propose a kind of research that would enable workers to reflect upon their experience? […] We hope it will be possible to involve the sources of the testimonies themselves in a collective critique of the documents. In any event, the interpretation, whatever its origin, will have the advantage of remaining contemporary with the presentation of the text being interpreted. It can only establish itself if it is recognized as exact by a reader capable of finding other meanings in the materials they receive. [22]  C. Lefort, "L’expérience prolétarienne," 96-97. ["Proletarian...[22]

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So the work of interpreting facts that occur does consist in trying to forge meaning from them, but this is always on the basis of lived experience, of making oneself the "contemporary" of the event as it happens. Besides, in his text severing his ties with the journal, didn’t Lefort write that "politics is therefore not to be taught, it is rather to be clarified as what holds the status of a tendency in the lives and actions of workers," [23]  C. Lefort, "Organisation et Parti," in Éléments d’une...[23] confirming by the same token that experience is in fact what regulates the actions of thought? Should we be surprised, then, that the last words of this article, with which Lefort ended his collaboration with Socialisme ou Barbarie, call for the necessary "unity of workers’ experiences"? [24]  C. Lefort, ibid., 113.[24]

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Lefort’s thinking is rooted in the mire of experience and the real, these accidenti that Machiavelli spoke of and that force thinkers to constantly readjust themselves to the principle of change. The requirement for a praxis of philosophical thought through which that thought is put to a test (épreuve) dissolving any principle of certainty, thereby leaving itself vulnerable, is at the same time its condition of possibility. This requirement is what Lefort could no longer put into practice at Socialisme ou Barbarie: he therefore sought to reestablish it with Informations et Liaisons ouvrières, a bulletin that let workers speak for themselves in order to think through their own experiences.

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Understood in this way, the interval in which thought functions is not, strictly speaking, an intermediate realm between immanence and an overhanging position but a breach in which it tests itself constantly. [25]  On the notion of the "breach" (la brèche) and the relation...[25] Because it ventures to observe the present too closely rather than judge it from too far above, the philosopher immediately abandons "the idea that there would be in the things themselves […] an entirely positive meaning, or a determination as such that is intended to be known […] and, as a result, the philosopher is destined to indicate – in things, in history, in social life or in works by others – the discord, the contradictions, the fractures that are signs of meaning’s indetermination and that compel us to move forward while the impossibility of a closure of knowledge puts us to the test." [26]  C. Lefort, Les Formes de l’histoire (Paris, Éditions...[26]

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In fact, what Claude Lefort discovers in his Socialisme ou Barbarie years, following Merleau-Ponty and in anticipation of his encounter with Machiavelli, is not so much the risk for philosophy to think within the facts themselves as the risk to try and evade them. Being a philosopher thus means questioning the present and by the same token "mourning knowledge," by learning that thought occupies a place that is by nature always unstable, uncertain and fragile, open to the indeterminacy of the event and subject to the principle of the real.

Notes

[1] Claude Lefort, Un homme en trop: Réflexions sur l’Archipel du Goulag (Paris, Éditions Belin, 2015), 16.

[2] C. Lefort, Écrire: À l’épreuve du politique (Paris, Éditions Calmann-Lévy, 1992) [Writing: The Political Test, trans. David Ames Curtis (Durham NC, Duke University Press, 2000)].

[3] C. Lefort, "Préface," in Sur une colonne absente: Écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1978), XV.

[4] C. Lefort, Le Travail de l’œuvre Machiavel (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2008) [Machiavelli in the Making, trans. Michael Bradley Smith (Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press, 2012)]. This masterful study of Machiavelli’s œuvre assesses that modern will to philosophize on the basis of the real as it is happening, thus breaking with the political idealism of classical philosophy. Indeed, we are indebted to Claude Lefort for having discovered that all of Machiavelli’s thinking, both in The Prince and in the Discourses on Livy, can be interpreted as an attempt to envision philosophical and political action on the basis of a confrontation with the present. In Machiavelli’s writings, Lefort discovered a particular attitude toward the present, a practice that queries the here and now, paying close attention to newness, to the event and to its contingency. This interpretation of the present would subsequently lead us to cast doubt on the assertion of Michel Foucault who, in his reading of Kant’s What Is Enlightenment?, makes Kant the first philosopher to formulate a diagnosis of the present, to foreground the question of the present as a philosophical problem. Lefort’s book on Machiavelli undermines this assertion: before Kant, there was Machiavelli.

[5] Nicolas Machiavel, Discours sur la première décade de Tite-Live, book I, chapter 32, trans. Alessandro Fontana and Xavier Tabet (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2004), 163. [Translator’s note: the author’s sense here is dependent on the very specific French translation of this passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.]

[6] C. Lefort, ibid., 58 [Ibid., 49].

[7] On this topic, see Lefort’s preface to his book Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1979), 7-28. In it Lefort recounts his intellectual journey, in particular his split with the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, which he places in a larger process of straying from Marx’s arguments and his development of a critique of communist bureaucracy.

[8] Olivier Mongin, "Un parcours politique, Du cercle des idéologies au cercle des croyances," in La Démocratie à l’œuvre: Autour de Claude Lefort, ed. Claude Habib and Claude Mouchard (Paris, Éditions Esprit, 1993), 137-150.

[9] Claude Montal was the pseudonym that Lefort used in writing all his articles for the journal.

[10] C. Lefort, "Entretien avec L’Anti-Mythes," in Le Temps présent (Paris, Éditions Belin, 2007), 230 ["An Interview with Claude Lefort," trans. Dorothy Gehrke and Brian Singer, Telos 30 (Winter 1976-77): 176].

[11] C. Lefort, ibid., 228-229. [Ibid., 175-176]

[12] C. Lefort, "Entretien avec L’Anti-Mythes," 229. ["An Interview with Claude Lefort," 176]

[13] C. Lefort, ibid., 233 [Ibid., 178].

[14] O. Mongin, "Un parcours politique, Du cercle des idéologies au cercle des croyances," 143.

[15] In particular, the arrival at the journal of the "Bordigist comrades" led by Véga, with their conception of a dogmatic Marxism and their willingness to reorient the group toward an organizational form as Castoriadis wished, heightened the insurmountable feeling Lefort had that he was drifting away from the others, a feeling that ultimately led him to abandon the journal.

[16] C. Lefort, "L’expérience prolétarienne," Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 71-97 ["Proletarian Experience," trans. Stephen Hastings-King, viewpointmag.com, Viewpoint Magazine, 26 Sep 2013, Web, 19 November 2019].

[17] C. Lefort, ibid., 83 [Ibid.].

[18] C. Lefort, ibid., 84 [Ibid.]. Emphasis mine.

[19] C. Lefort, "Entretien avec L’Anti-Mythes," 230. Emphasis mine. ["An Interview with Claude Lefort," 176. Translator’s note: Translation slightly modified.]

[20] C. Lefort, ibid., 90. ["Proletarian Experience"]

[21] C. Lefort, ibid., 244 ["An Interview with Claude Lefort," 184].

[22] C. Lefort, "L’expérience prolétarienne," 96-97. ["Proletarian Experience." Translator’s note: Translation slightly modified.]

[23] C. Lefort, "Organisation et Parti," in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 104.

[24] C. Lefort, ibid., 113.

[25] On the notion of the "breach" (la brèche) and the relation to the historical event, see Lefort, Edgar Morin, Cornélius Castoriadis, Mai 68, La brèche (Paris, Éditions Fayard, 1988).

[26] C. Lefort, Les Formes de l’histoire (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1978), 12-13. Emphasis mine.