Sartre vs. Lefort: The meaning of proletarian experience

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Sartre vs. Lefort: The Meaning of Proletarian Experience

byAlexandre FeronBy the same author

Member of the Archives Husserl in Paris (UMR 8547)

1

The beginning of the cold war marked the end of the first, triumphant period of Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes and plunged it into a crisis that took it several years to overcome. While there was a tacit agreement on the need to rethink the journal’s overall strategy, divergences and tensions appeared, however, regarding the new strategy to adopt – leading to many departures, the most famous of which was that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the journal’s political editor. At that time, a vigorous clash of ideas took place between Sartre and Claude Lefort, who was a member both of the "Socialisme ou Barbarie" group and of the editorial staff of Les Temps modernes, and was also a close associate of Merleau-Ponty. This confrontation left its mark on both protagonists. Sartre, for his part, gave a relatively dispassionate account of the conflict in 1960, [1]  Jean-Paul Sartre, "Merleau-Ponty," Situations IV: Portraits...[1] but always refused to lend any political or theoretical credibility either to "Socialisme ou Barbarie" or to Lefort. [2]  When Michel Contat questioned him on Socialisme ou...[2] As for Lefort, his hostility toward Sartre was entrenched: attacks on Sartre were a regular feature of his books and articles, and definitely played a role in the new anti-Sartre doxa that started to develop in the French intellectual landscape in the 1980s – a hostility that even led Lefort, perhaps by mistake, to make false accusations toward Sartre. [3]  For example, in the chronology that he presented for...[3] We would like to look back at this conflict, in order to bring out the underlying issues and themes of this debate – specifically by insisting, in the context of this article, on the critiques that Sartre expressed toward Lefort.

1 - A Multidimensional Confrontation

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We will first recall the chronology of the confrontation, which lasted from 1952 to 1954. It started with the first two installments of Sartre’s "The Communists and Peace," [4]  J.-P. Sartre, "Les communistes et la paix," Les Temps...[4] for which Lefort formulated a critique in "Sartre et le marxisme" ("Sartre and Marxism," April 1953), [5]  C. Lefort, "Sartre et le marxisme," Les Temps Modernes...[5] followed, in the same issue of Les Temps modernes, by Sartre’s rejoinder, "Réponse à Claude Lefort" ("An Answer to Claude Lefort"). [6]  J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Les Temps...[6] Lefort then wrote a long letter from Brazil dated June 1953, "De la réponse à la question" ("From the Answer to the Question"), [7]  C. Lefort, "De la réponse à la question," Les Temps...[7] published in 1954 in the "Letters" section of the journal. Sartre had a short note appended to this text tersely indicating the reasons why he felt it was pointless to continue the exchange. [8]  "On the specific problems that I had examined in my...[8]

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This confrontation is to be understood firstly on the basis of the tensions within Les Temps modernes. In the early years when the journal was in its ascendancy, it highlighted the figure of the committed intellectual who refused to submit to the Communist Party line, even attempting a direct involvement in politics with the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (RDR, "Revolutionary Democratic Rally"), a short-lived party. The beginning of the Cold War, however, put a stop to that strategy and forced the journal to find some way of giving itself a new impetus. There followed a clash between two positions. On one side, Merleau-Ponty wanted Les Temps modernes to back away from the ambitions it had in 1945 and to stop intervening as a journal in current political events by reporting on and interpreting them. [9]  "Since the Korean War, I have decided […] that I will...[9] On the other, a new and younger team led notably by Claude Lanzmann and Marcel Péju wanted the journal to get more involved in politics and align itself more openly with the Communist position in the Cold War. The extreme tension that prevailed within the journal from the start of the Korean War and that was directed in particular at Sartre was reflected in the pessimistic tone of his writings at the time: The Devil & the Good Lord, or the conclusion of Saint Genet. In 1952, Sartre finally moved toward a rapprochement with the French Communist Party, the PCF. The decisive event was the arrest on 28 May 1952 of Jacques Duclos, the PCF’s acting Secretary General, in what was called the "Carrier Pigeon Affair." Sartre then wrote "The Communists and Peace" in order to openly stand up for the PCF, fearing that the party would be banned and that Western governments were becoming increasingly authoritarian (at a time when McCarthyism was plaguing the US). [10]  On the circumstances under which Sartre wrote the text,...[10] The carefully managed balance that had been maintained until then in the journal between pro- and anti-communist articles shifted toward the first of these (where it stayed until 1956), which led to the tension between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty and the latter’s departure.

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One of the key moments in this reorganization of the journal was the debate between Sartre and Lefort. Dissatisfied with the position taken by Sartre in "The Communists and Peace," Lefort vehemently criticized him during an editorial staff meeting. Sartre then invited him to write a text for the journal. The text was a violent indictment of Sartre: not merely a critique of his ideas, it adopted a professorial stance in attempting to show, often ironically and derisively, that Sartre understood absolutely nothing about Marxism or politics – deploying Lefort’s talent as a polemicist seasoned by ten years of activism in far-left movements. Sartre responded in an article whose tone was just as sarcastic and aggressive. Merleau-Ponty tried to defuse the situation by having some passages removed from each text, but they were both published in the journal in 1953. Merleau-Ponty tried to convince Sartre that the idea for Lefort’s text did not come from him, despite Lefort’s theoretical and even stylistic closeness to his former teacher, but the confrontation appeared to be a displacement, a substitute conflict for the "quarrel which never took place" [11]  J.-P. Sartre, "Merleau-Ponty," Situations IV, 189 ["Merleau-Ponty,"...[11] (it may even have been what kept it from taking place).

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Yet Lefort was not just Merleau-Ponty’s anti-Sartrean mouthpiece. He had already shown that he did not always share the positions of his former teacher, as demonstrated both by his polemical 1946 article "Double et triple jeu. Réponse à Maurice Merleau-Ponty et à Pierre Hervé" ("Double and Triple Game: Response to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and to Pierre Hervé") [12]  C. Lefort, "Double et triple jeu: Réponse à Maurice...[12] and by the fact that the articles Lefort wrote for Les Temps modernes were often accompanied by editorial notes written by Merleau-Ponty, openly distancing himself from Lefort’s comments. [13]  See for example Les Temps Modernes 29 (February 1948):...[13] Moreover, Lefort was an active member of the "Socialisme ou Barbarie" group at the time, and although his articles for Les Temps modernes were not openly militant, they reflected a large portion of the group’s concerns: critiques of Trotsky’s political strategy, [14]  C. Lefort, "La contradiction de Trotsky et le problème...[14] but also of the Trotskyist analysis of the USSR as a "degenerated workers’ state," in order to present it on the contrary as a new society of exploitation (as we see in his articles on Kravchenko and Ciliga). [15]  C. Lefort, "Kravchenko et le problème de l’U.R.S.S.,"...[15] Lefort was not the only member of the group to participate in Les Temps modernes (Benno Sarel also had articles published in it), but although he was clearly acting on his own initiative, it also seems as though his presence in the journal was seen by "Socialisme ou Barbarie" as a means of intervention. By taking advantage of the avowed pluralism that Les Temps modernes put into practice, the group could use the journal as a forum to reach a larger audience and attract attention to itself and its analyses [16]  On "Socialisme ou Barbarie"’s strategy concerning Les...[16] at a time when the decline in its active members was considerable (there were only about ten left in 1952). [17]  See P. Gottraux, part 1, chapter 3, "1951-1952. Les...[17]

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Finally, the harsh tone adopted during the conflict also had to do with the critical situations, from both a theoretical and political point of view, in which each of the protagonists found himself. Of course, they were undeniably close, theoretically and politically speaking: since the end of World War II, they had both been trying to conceive of an interplay between Marxism and phenomenology in the theoretical perspective of overcoming the opposition between objectivist and subjectivist approaches, and in the practical or political perspective of a revolutionary transformation of the society. However, one of the points on which they disagreed was where this project should be heading: they were taking it in diametrically opposed directions. In the early 1950s, Sartre committed himself to a gigantic effort of thinking against himself (a requirement that became his philosophical watchword) and to a complete restructuring of his theoretical framework, by way of a close confrontation with Marxism as theory (he buried himself in Marx and all the authors of the Marxist tradition) and as practice (having until then refused involvement with any party, he developed a closer relationship to the PCF, experiencing the Communist movement from the inside). This restructuring led him to write Critique of Dialectical Reason. In Lefort’s critiques, however, he discovered the extent of the work that remained to be done. Lefort, for his part, was having doubts about his involvement in "Socialisme ou Barbarie," where he represented a minority tendency that developed a critique of the very idea of a revolutionary party – becoming engaged in a process that gradually led him first to distance himself from revolutionary activity and Marxism, then to break with them definitively in 1958. [18]  See C. Lefort, "Organisation et parti: Contribution...[18] The conflict between Lefort and Sartre was thus a conflict between two individual trajectories caught up in different, contradictory processes within the political and theoretical tensions of the 1950s.

2 - Social Ontology of the Working Class

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Although the conflict had its origins in Sartre’s stance with regard to the PCF, it did not, however, actually take place on the level of political strategy. In "Sartre et le marxisme," Lefort couched the debate in theoretical terms by attacking the theory of the proletariat that Sartre’s stance presupposed. According to Lefort, Sartre considered that the multiplicity of individuals making up the proletariat could only obtain unity and consistency as a class through the synthetic, transcendental action of the Communist Party [19]  C. Lefort, "Sartre et le marxisme," 1542-1543.[19] – to such a point that the dissolution of the party would lead to the atomization of the workers and their inability to carry out a struggle against their exploitation and against capitalism. Lefort reacted to this perspective with the idea that the unity and consistency of the proletariat as a class is on the contrary immanently present in what he called "proletarian experience" or "worker experience" – reformulating for the benefit of the readers of Les Temps modernes the theory of proletarian experience that he had already published in Socialisme ou Barbarie. [20]  See in particular "Le prolétariat et le problème de...[20] For Lefort, the unity and continuity of the working class over time is the unity of an "experience," in other words the way in which the working class gives meaning to the objective conditions in which the development of capitalism places it, to the events in its history, as well as to the imperfect solutions that it has tried to invent to fight against capitalism and overcome it. This supra-individual experience presents itself as "the progress of self-organization," in other words as the progressive awareness of the fact that all the forms of representation that the proletariat gives itself are always alienations, and as a cumulative experience allowing the working class to learn from its mistakes and to come closer to the moment when it can take on the leadership of a society freed from capitalism. Such an experience therefore takes place independently of the parties and institutions that claim to embody it, and to a large extent in opposition to them.

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The political purpose of the analysis was to demonstrate not only the uselessness of parties (worker experience does not need a party in order to move ahead) but also their detrimental nature (they inhibit and prevent the proletariat’s development). This is the reason why Lefort considered it a positive sign that, in his view, workers had been gradually distancing themselves from the PCF since 1947. The autonomy of the working class that Lefort had been defending was of course in opposition to the PCF but also, more directly, to the idea of a revolutionary party, an idea that still held sway not only for the Trotskyist movement but also for the majority tendency in "Socialisme ou Barbarie" led by Castoriadis. [21]  See for example Cornelius Castoriadis, "La direction...[21]

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Sartre’s reply, which immediately followed Lefort’s article in the issue of Les Temps modernes, was on the same theoretical level as that article and presented itself primarily as a critique of the notion of "proletarian experience." Examining this notion from the point of view of social ontology, Sartre ascertained that it relied upon an implicit and unquestioned form of Hegelianism. The very first question that Sartre asks concerning Lefort’s conception is one of the subject of that experience: "Whose experience? Who is the subject? Experience of what?" [22]  J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations...[22] If the idea of a cumulative experience has undeniable meaning when we are dealing with an individual subject, what meaning can it have when we speak of a supra-individual entity like the working class? We would necessarily have to presuppose a unity and continuity transcending the individuals within it while providing them with a cumulative past that they have not experienced. But in order to remain coherent, we would therefore have to assert the existence of a subjective supra-individual entity. Thus, in order to refuse to recognize the Party’s tangible action on behalf of class unity, Lefort would be forced to implicitly presuppose the existence of a metaphysical entity that he calls "proletarian experience," which is nothing but another name for Hegel’s concept of "Spirit."

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But Lefort’s implicit Hegelianism also manifests itself in his conception of history, according to Sartre. As with Hegel’s approach, proletarian experience is for Lefort a cumulative history conceived in the form of progress: proletarian experience expresses itself in different institutions (unions, parties) that are always imperfect, but whose failure is firstly a lesson, until the moment when that experience becomes conscious of the fact that it is its own power of representation, thereby reconciling with itself. As with a particular form of Hegelianism, all of the negativity, suffering, contradictions and conflicts in history are ultimately converted into positivity and mere "moments" of a teleological history making the achievement of Spirit possible, [23]  J.-P. Sartre comments ironically on this point in particular,...[23] in what could be called a gigantic proletarian theodicy.

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For Sartre, the notion of proletarian experience is therefore a metaphysical notion that impedes a true understanding of the way in which social classes are formed. A rigorous methodological starting point must refuse such theoretical presuppositions: indeed, the real difficulty for social ontology is understanding how there can be supra-individual effects within social classes, or how there can be quasi-entities like classes or processes without ever being able to conceive of them as objects or as subjects. Admittedly, events occasionally take place as if there were something like a proletarian supra-individual experience, but the issue for a serious Marxist analysis must be to understand the functioning of these events and not to hypostatize that subjective impression as a metaphysical entity.

12

Sartre’s "Reply to Claude Lefort" thus constitutes one of the essential milestones in the process he undertook to rethink his approach to the social, which would lead him to the social ontology he presented in Critique of Dialectical Reason in 1960. The issue was to describe the structure and constitution of a social class in all its complexity. But what Sartre highlighted was that the tangible "social entities" like classes must always be understood as complex totalizations in permanent transformation encompassing different ontological statuses: the moving unity of a form of atomization characterizing any social entity (which he called a "series"), strongly integrated forms approaching the consistency of a subject without ever attaining it (which he called a "group"), and institutional forms that in particular guarantee the temporal permanence of a gathering of individuals concerned with certain objectives (these include political parties and unions). In opposition to the illusion of "spontaneism" that he critiqued in the second installment of "The Communists and Peace" and again in his "Reply to Claude Lefort," Sartre declared the essential importance of forces of mediation in the constitution of any social entity. In his view, if "today the masses need the Party," it is because they need an institutional force of mediation in order to guarantee their unification and their communication: only the Communist Party and its associated institutions can offer this to them in the current situation. [24]  J.-P. Sartre, ibid., 10 [Ibid., 237].[24]

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More fundamentally, however, any class with these three ontological statuses is always in contact with other classes and involved in a struggle where each class tries to influence another by directing a particular action toward the three dimensions of the opposing class – in particular by trying to isolate the mass of individuals belonging to that class from the groups and institutions claiming to represent them and that allow them to struggle. This is what Lefort neglected: according to Sartre, Lefort does away with class struggle [25]  "Suddenly one feels that something is missing from...[25] and presents the development of the proletariat as the progressive achievement of its autonomy, which is not at all determined by its confrontation with the opposing class (the confrontation is at best only an opportunity to actualize a given aspect that the class already contains). The fundamental element that Lefort neglected, in Sartre’s view, is a class’s relational character: the structure and constitution of a social class are inseparable from class struggle, to the extent that each class has an effect on another and reorganizes itself according to the imperatives of the struggle. [26]  Sartre then insists in particular on the dimension...[26]

14

Drawing on this analysis, Sartre considered that if the PCF were to be weakened or, worse still, banned, this would constitute a serious threat to the working class. As Merleau-Ponty recalled, Sartre’s priority was not so much the question of the USSR as that of the working class in France. [27]  "Fundamentally, it seems to me that what Sartre did...[27] But any ban on the PCF would deprive the working class of the institution that guaranteed its structure, its unity and its consistency as a class, and therefore the means to lead the class struggle against exploitation and capitalism. The dissolution of the party would only produce atomization and demoralization, making any concerted struggle impossible.

3 - Who Is Claude Lefort?

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However, Sartre adds a polemical ad hominem charge to this theoretico-political discussion: "But you, Lefort, who are you? Where do you fit in?" [28]  J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations...[28] This direct interpellation, which recurs periodically throughout Sartre’s text, must be understood in both an epistemological and a political sense.

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The interpellation is intended first of all as an epistemological reminder. Lefort claims to be in a position to describe "the proletarian experience" by bringing its true meaning to light. But this meaning is not exactly the one that appears in the consciousness of the workers, whose "knowledge [is] usually implicit, more ’felt’ than thought, and fragmentary." [29]  C. Lefort, "L’expérience prolétarienne," Éléments d’une...[29] The meaning emerges from this knowledge after it has been reformulated, condensed and recaptured by the militant investigator: the workers then judge the interpretation valid if they recognize themselves in it. But a configuration of this kind is not as different as Lefort imagines from the way in which the Communist Party sees its own relationship to the working class, i.e. as an organ capable of presenting workers with the truth of what they think and desire even as they themselves cannot put it into words – a truth in which the workers recognize themselves after the fact. Sartre then asks Lefort what allows him – a petit-bourgeois intellectual in a group comprising ten or so members of which only one is a worker, a group in which only a few dozen workers recognize themselves – to claim that his interpretation is superior to the interpretation of a Party whose leadership is, conversely, made up to a large extent of workers, sociologically speaking; a party with hundreds of thousands of workers as members and in which millions more workers recognize themselves. "How can you speak to us of the experience of this working class […]?" [30]  J.-P. Sartre, ibid., 21 [Ibid., 244].[30] Here again, according to Sartre, Lefort appears to be a Hegelian without knowing it, one who seeks the company of a holder of Absolute Knowledge. [31]  "[Y]ou who live like myself on the income of capital...[31]

17

The requirement that Sartre imposed on himself to situate his own discourse is one that was a constant for him since the Liberation: he would maintain it throughout his intellectual journey. It is only by fully understanding their own "situation" that the writer or the intellectual becomes capable of participating in the political debate and speaking out. As for Lefort, he refused to situate himself, i.e. to shed light on the place from which he spoke, thereby coming to believe that he could speak on behalf of the proletariat and uncover its truth. [32]  "But you refuse to be situated in time and place, for...[32] On a more general level, Sartre directed this critique toward Marxism, as one of the flaws in what he called "transcendental" or "external dialectical materialism" ("le matérialisme dialectique du dehors ou transcendental") is precisely that it historicizes all discourses but its own and is incapable of accounting either for its historical inscription or for the truth value of Marxism. [33]  See J.-P. Sartre, "Introduction, A: Dialectique dogmatique...[33] The purpose behind the reconsideration of Marxism that Sartre undertook in the 1950s was precisely to ground the truth of Marxism while accepting its situated character: the main focus of Critique of Dialectical Reason was to carry out what he called a "critical investigation" ("expérience critique") – an investigation experienced from inside and not interpreted from outside – that would be capable of revealing the transformation of Marxism at work in the process of de-Stalinization that was underway at the time.

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But this interpellation is not only a methodological reminder: it targets Lefort as an individual. As a general rule, Sartre approached intellectual debates like a boxer, able to identify his opponent’s weaknesses and the places where his punches could do the most damage. [34]  For this image, see Jean Cau, "Croquis de mémoire,"...[34] This is what he did with Lefort. The question of the place from which Lefort spoke was one that was entirely unresolved for him at the time. The early 1950s was a period of uncertainty and doubt for him. From a professional perspective, he taught philosophy at the lycées in Nîmes and Reims, and tried to find an academic post in the university system – in an effort that Sartre characterized as an attempt to establish himself within the intellectual bourgeoisie. [35]  J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," 13 ["A Reply...[35] As an assistant to Georges Gurvitch at the Sorbonne in 1951, he contributed regularly to the Cahiers internationaux de sociologie ("International Journal of Sociology") edited by Gurvitch, while trying to find a place in the postwar intellectual arena, often by taking controversial positions, against Lévi-Strauss for example. [36]  C. Lefort, "L’échange et la lutte des hommes," Les...[36] Later, with the help of Raymond Aron, he was transferred to the sociology department of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, "National Center for Scientific Research"). From a political perspective, his years of political activism, mainly in the PCI (Parti Communiste Internationaliste, a Trotskyist party), seemed to be behind him: he did not become very involved in the strictly militant activity of "Socialisme ou Barbarie," even going as far as to withdraw from active participation in the group for this period. In his 1975 interview with the journal L’Anti-Mythes, Lefort acknowledged that he was then having doubts about his activism and Marxism in general, but that he was unable to fully admit them to himself or at least fully express them before his theoretical and political break with Marxism in 1958. The sociologist Philippe Gottraux used the example of Claude Lefort’s career, along with that of the other members of "Socialisme ou Barbarie," to carry out a study of how activists disengage from politics and how some of them reinvest their "militant capital" in academia. [37]  P. Gottraux, part 2, "Pour une sociologie d’un désengagement,"...[37]

19

In his pointed attack on Lefort, Sartre maintained that Lefort attempted to justify his personal evolution through analyses that claimed to have general and objective value. Because he does not want to be an active member of a political party anymore, he denounces the very idea of political parties and political intervention; because he wants to carry out sociological investigations, he declares that "the vital question becomes one of clarifying this [proletarian] experience and helping it develop, not of trying to replace the current party with another party, imposed from outside, that would by necessity bear the same features." [38]  C. Fefort, "Sartre et le marxisme," 1568.[38] Sartre does not criticize Lefort for his "abstention," [39]  Ibid.[39] any more than he criticizes Merleau-Ponty for his desire to withdraw from direct involvement in politics; he does criticize them, however, for trying to objectively justify their subjective, personal evolution. As he wrote to Merleau-Ponty:

20

That you withdraw from politics (that is, what we intellectuals call politics), that you prefer to dedicate yourself to your philosophical research, is an act that is at once legitimate and unjustifiable. I mean, it is legitimate if you are not trying to justify it. It is legitimate if it remains a subjective decision which concerns you alone, and no one has the right to reproach you for it. […] But if, in the name of this individual gesture, you discuss the attitude of those who remain in the objective domain of politics and who try somehow or another to make decisions based on motivations that are objectively valid, then you in turn deserve to be criticized by an objective judgment. You are no longer someone who says, "I would do better to abstain," but you are rather someone who says to others, "it is necessary to abstain." [40]  J.-P. Sartre, "Lettre à Merleau-Ponty," July 1953,...[40]

21

Sartre then ends his reply to Lefort by reminding him of the critiques that he once directed at Merleau-Ponty and by alluding to the closeness of their current positions. [41]  J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations...[41] An approach that refuses to distinguish matters of individual weariness with activism and politics from what a situation objectively requires would drag everyone into one’s own trajectory, ultimately hindering the action of those who do not share that weariness and wish to carry on fighting. Sartre notes that Lefort’s line of argument could thus be used by any member of the bourgeoisie or by employers, as it involves arguments aiming to delegitimize all the institutions (parties and unions) and individuals wishing to intervene in class struggle. This allows him to bluntly declare: "[I]f I were a’young owner,’ I would be of your party, for with your interpretation, you establish the foundations of a Marxism for all." [42]  J.-P. Sartre, ibid., 13 [Ibid., 239].[42] Sartre’s intent is to remind Lefort of the consequences of his stance and of the effects of his affirmation of workers’ autonomy and of "spontaneism," from the perspective of political action.

Conclusion

22

The debate between 1952 and 1954 marked each of the two authors deeply. For Lefort, beyond the understandable grudge he would bear against Sartre and the more general hostility that he would have toward those he called "progressive intellectuals," [43]  C. Lefort, "La méthode des intellectuels progressistes,"...[43] this confrontation would be an important step, from a theoretical and political perspective, in the trajectory that would lead him to abandon Marxism. We note for example that the term "proletarian experience" disappeared from his later writings and that in his theory of democracy he recognized the inherently, unsurpassably conflictual nature of the sociopolitical sphere – aspects of his work that may have some connection to the violent critique that Sartre addressed to him. [44]  The effect of this critique may be detected in the...[44]

23

As for Sartre, Lefort’s critiques led him to reconsider the theoretical foundations of the positions he took in the first two installments of "The Communists and Peace," and to deepen his appropriation of Marxism, notably toward a social ontology. This is probably what explains why Sartre had taken the time to compose such a long reply to Lefort – the issue was not only circumstantial, it involved a theoretical clarification – when he did not respond either to Lefort’s reply to his own text, to the text Castoriadis published in Socialisme ou Barbarie, [45]  C. Castoriadis, "Sartre, le stalinisme et les ouvriers,"...[45] or to Merleau-Ponty when he reopened the debate in Adventures of the Dialectic. We may indeed wonder if this text by Sartre was not already a response to Adventures of the Dialectic, before he returned to all of these questions much more extensively in Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Notes

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, "Merleau-Ponty," Situations IV: Portraits (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1964), 257 ["Merleau-Ponty," Situations, trans. Benita Eisler (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1965), 295-296].

[2] When Michel Contat questioned him on Socialisme ou Barbarie, Sartre refused to concede that they were right, saying "But that organization was only a little nothing! […] Just because my present feelings about the Communists are the same as theirs were then does not mean that their reasons were necessarily the right ones." "Autoportrait à soixante-dix ans," in Situations X: Politique et autobiographie (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1976), 182-184 ["Interviews with Sartre: Self-Portrait at Seventy," Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken, trans. Paul Auster and Lydia Davis (New York, Pantheon, 1977), 50-51].

[3] For example, in the chronology that he presented for Merleau-Ponty’s collected works in the "Quarto" collection, Lefort wrote that "Sartre approved of the Soviet intervention in Hungary" (60), which is completely false. In 1958, Lefort simply declared that the way in which Sartre explicitly condemned the Russian intervention and defended the Hungarian insurrection actually and objectively played into the hands of the communists. See Claude Lefort, "La méthode des intellectuels progressistes," Socialisme ou Barbarie 23 (January-February 1958); republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1979), chapter VIII, in particular 250-268.

[4] J.-P. Sartre, "Les communistes et la paix," Les Temps Modernes 81 (July 1952) and 84-85 (October-November 1952). The texts were republished in Situations VI: Problème s d u marxisme, 1 (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1964), 80-152 and 152-253 ["The Communists and Peace," trans. Martha H. Fletcher, The Communists and Peace with A Reply to Claude Lefort (New York, George Braziller, 1968), 3-231].

[5] C. Lefort, "Sartre et le marxisme," Les Temps Modernes 89 (April 1953): 1540-1570; republished in the first edition of Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (1971), but cut from the second (1979).

[6] J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Les Temps Modernes 89 (April 1953): 1571-1629; republished in Situations VII: Problèmes du marxisme, 2 (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1965), 7-93 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," trans. Philip R. Berk, The Communists and Peace with A Reply to Claude Lefort, 233-296].

[7] C. Lefort, "De la réponse à la question," Les Temps Modernes 104 (July 1954): 157-184; republished in the first edition of Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (1971), but cut from the second (1979).

[8] "On the specific problems that I had examined in my answer to Lefort, this letter contributes nothing new. As for the other questions that it raises, and the concerns that it expresses, the next installment of’The Communists and Peace’ will serve as a response." Note by Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Temps Modernes 104 (July 1954): 184. The third installment of "The Communists and Peace" was published in Les Temps Modernes 101 (April 1954); republished in Situations VI: Problèmes du marxisme, 1, 253-384.

[9] "Since the Korean War, I have decided […] that I will no longer write about events as they happen. This is for reasons relating to the very nature of this period and for other reasons that are permanent." Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Lettre à Sartre," 8 July 1953, Parcours deux: 1951-1961 (Lagrasse, Éditions Verdier, 2000), 145-148.

[10] On the circumstances under which Sartre wrote the text, see in particular Sartre, "Merleau-Ponty," Situations IV, 244-257 ["Merleau-Ponty," Situations, 283-295] and Annie Cohen-Solal, "Des pigeons et des chars," in Sartre 1905-1980 (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1999), 555-561 ["Pigeons and Tanks," in Sartre: A Life, trans. Anna Cancogni (New York, Pantheon, 1988), 328-330 ff].

[11] J.-P. Sartre, "Merleau-Ponty," Situations IV, 189 ["Merleau-Ponty," Situations, 227].

[12] C. Lefort, "Double et triple jeu: Réponse à Maurice Merleau-Ponty et à Pierre Hervé," in Jeune Révolution: Revue des étudiants communistes internationalistes 2 (1946).

[13] See for example Les Temps Modernes 29 (February 1948): 1516.

[14] C. Lefort, "La contradiction de Trotsky et le problème révolutionnaire," Les Temps Modernes 39 (December 1948-January 1949), republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, chapter I ["The Contradiction of Trotsky," trans. Alan Sheridan, in The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, ed. John B. Thompson (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1986), 31-51].

[15] C. Lefort, "Kravchenko et le problème de l’U.R.S.S.," Les Temps Modernes 29 (February 1948) [republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, chapter V]; "Le témoignage d’Anton Ciliga," Les Temps Modernes 60 (October 1950) [republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, chapter VI].

[16] On "Socialisme ou Barbarie"’s strategy concerning Les Temps Modernes, see in particular Philippe Gottraux, Socialisme ou Barbarie: Un engagement politique et intellectuel dans la France de l’après-guerre, part 2, chapter 3 (Lausanne, Éditions Payot, 1997), 256-267.

[17] See P. Gottraux, part 1, chapter 3, "1951-1952. Les basses eaux," 47-53.

[18] See C. Lefort, "Organisation et parti: Contribution à une discussion," Socialisme ou Barbarie 26 (November-December 1958); republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, chapter IV ["Organization and Party," A Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology: Autonomy, Critique, and Revolution in the Age of Bureaucratic Capitalism, translated anonymously (La Bussière FR, Éditions Acratie, 2007)].

[19] C. Lefort, "Sartre et le marxisme," 1542-1543.

[20] See in particular "Le prolétariat et le problème de le direction révolutionnaire," Socialisme ou Barbarie 10 (July-August 1952) and "L’expérience prolétarienne," Socialisme ou Barbarie 11 (November-December 1952), both of which were republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, chapters II and III [an English translation of "L’expérience prolétarienne" is available as "Proletarian Experience (1952)," trans. Stephen Hastings-King, viewpointmag.com, n.p., 26 September 2013, Web, 11 November 2019]. Sartre was familiar with these articles and specifically quoted from the first of them in his response to Lefort.

[21] See for example Cornelius Castoriadis, "La direction prolétarienne," Socialisme ou Barbarie 10 (July-August 1952) ["Proletarian Leadership," in Political and Social Writings, Volume 1, 1946-1955: From the Critique of Bureaucracy to the Positive Content of Socialism, trans. and ed. David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis / London, University of Minnesota Press, 1988)].

[22] J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 50 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 265].

[23] J.-P. Sartre comments ironically on this point in particular, borrowing Jean Hyppolite’s terms: "Hegelian universal idealism (panlogicisme)" is paralleled by a "allembracing tragic sense (pantragicisme)." Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 15 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 240].

[24] J.-P. Sartre, ibid., 10 [Ibid., 237].

[25] "Suddenly one feels that something is missing from your discussion. […] So much I understand, but what is missing is the class struggle." Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 13, 15 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 239, 240].

[26] Sartre then insists in particular on the dimension of class passivity (formulating a reproach against Lefort that Merleau-Ponty will later formulate against him).

[27] "Fundamentally, it seems to me that what Sartre did not want was for the working class to be sidelined." Merleau-Ponty, Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier et autres dialogues, 1946-1959 (Lagrasse, Éditions Verdier, 2016), 229.

[28] J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 19 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 244].

[29] C. Lefort, "L’expérience prolétarienne," Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 85 ["Proletarian Experience (1952)"].

[30] J.-P. Sartre, ibid., 21 [Ibid., 244].

[31] "[Y]ou who live like myself on the income of capital and whose activity is unproductive, you do not have the right to explain the worker’s subjectivity as if you were Hegel and it were the World-Spirit." Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 22 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 246].

[32] "But you refuse to be situated in time and place, for then you would lose your claim to Knowledge. Being situated would teach you that you are neither Hegel, nor Marx, nor a worker, nor Absolute Knowledge, but rather that you are a remarkably intelligent, young French intellectual […]." Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 34 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 254].

[33] See J.-P. Sartre, "Introduction, A: Dialectique dogmatique et dialectique critique," Critique de la raison dialectique / Théorie des ensembles pratiques: Vol. 1 (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1960) ["Introduction: The Dogmatic Dialectic and the Critical Dialectic," Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles, ed. Jonathan Rée, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London / New York, Verso, 2004)].

[34] For this image, see Jean Cau, "Croquis de mémoire," Les Temps Modernes 632-634 (July-October 2005): 12.

[35] J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," 13 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 239]. Sartre thus reiterated the critiques that Pierre Frank, a leading Trotskyist, had already leveled against Lefort in 1949: "There has always been some group of intellectuals, more or less fresh from bourgeois universities, who thought that their diplomas allowed them to cross out the entire history of the workers’ movement with a stroke of the pen; who, after a short stay in a revolutionary organization, went off to find a cushy spot in the bourgeois world. […] The most recent of these was Lefort. No sooner had he left his philosophical studies behind him than he considered himself above the simple tasks of the rank and file members, as he presented new analyses, discovered the’rot,’ put the finishing touches on Marxism and so on." Pierre Frank, "Les mains sales," La Vérité: Organe de défense des travailleurs (late February 1949): 2.

[36] C. Lefort, "L’échange et la lutte des hommes," Les Temps Modernes 64 (1951); republished in Les Formes de l’histoire: Essais d’anthropologie politique (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1978), chapter 1, 21-45.

[37] P. Gottraux, part 2, "Pour une sociologie d’un désengagement," 171-366.

[38] C. Fefort, "Sartre et le marxisme," 1568.

[39] Ibid.

[40] J.-P. Sartre, "Lettre à Merleau-Ponty," July 1953, in Merleau-Ponty, Parcours deux, 134-135 ["Philosophy and Political Engagement: Letters from the Quarrel between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty," trans. Jon Stewart, in Stewart, The Debate Between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty (Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press, 1998), 332].

[41] J.-P. Sartre, "Réponse à Claude Lefort," Situations VII, 92 ["A Reply to Claude Lefort," 296].

[42] J.-P. Sartre, ibid., 13 [Ibid., 239].

[43] C. Lefort, "La méthode des intellectuels progressistes," Socialisme ou Barbarie 23 (January-February 1958); republished in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, chapter VIII. Gottraux, for his part, notes that from 1953 on, the Sartreans became the "primary intellectual target of Socialisme ou Barbarie." (see P. Gottraux, 263-267).

[44] The effect of this critique may be detected in the article that Lefort published in 1955, "L’aliénation comme concept sociologique" (Cahiers internationaux de sociologie 13; republished in Les Formes de l’histoire, chapter 3, 78-112), in which he criticized a metaphysical and Hegelian use of the concept of alienation as applied to the understanding of history.

[45] C. Castoriadis, "Sartre, le stalinisme et les ouvriers," Socialisme ou Barbarie 12 (August 1953) ["Sartre, Stalinism, and the Workers," Political and Social Writings, Volume 1, 1946-1955 – From the Critique of Bureaucracy to the Positive Content of Socialism, trans. and ed. David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis / London, University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 207-241].

Outline

  1. A Multidimensional Confrontation
  2. Social Ontology of the Working Class
  3. Who Is Claude Lefort?
  4. Conclusion