Symbolic politics and expression. “The proletarian experience” between Merleau-Ponty and post-Marxism

1Merleau-Ponty’s thought is one whose influence is difficult to grasp. It is especially the case for his political thought, which was not directly associated with a line or a party in particular, and in which the ambiguity of history does not allow for a definitive closing of political questions. Our intention here is not to determine the politics of Merleau-Ponty himself, but rather to consider which political questions are opened by his philosophy, and what the consequences of this are for Marxism, not working from the opinions expressed by Merleau-Ponty himself at this or that moment, but working from questions that his thought makes it possible to ask. The young Claude Lefort’s 1952 article, “The proletarian experience,” published as an editorial in the 11th issue of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, will allow us to examine an application of Merleau-Pontian thought within Marxist theory. [1] But we would first like to situate this article in a more recent context, which is that of “post-Marxism,” especially in the thought of Ernesto Laclau and of Chantal Mouffe: if post-Marxism relates to the essentialist vestiges of Marxian thought, we will ask ourselves if Merleau-Pontian thought, in which one finds that this critique to be is already well developed, necessarily leads to conclusions that one could qualify as post-Marxist. The text of “The proletarian experience” will therefore be introduced by a third element, between Merleau-Ponty and post-Marxism, in order to ask whether Merleau-Pontian thought can, or cannot, result in conclusions that are identifiable as Marxian. It is then a question of determining if Marxism and anti-essentialism are truly incompatible, as Laclau and Mouffe think.

Merleau-Ponty, the symbolic, and post-Marxism

2Laclau and Mouffe cite Merleau-Ponty for having influenced them during the development of their theory of hegemony elaborated in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). They propose to establish a link between their own project, that of defining discourse as a concept that contains both the mental and the material, the subjective and the objective, and the Merleau-Pontian project of “drawing into question” the “very classical dichotomy between a field constituted outside of any discursive intervention, and a discourse consisting of pure expression of thought.” With his concept of perception as “a more primary foundational level than the Cogito,” Merleau-Ponty proposes a surpassing of “the essentialism inherent in every form of dualism.” [2]

3The idea that practice precedes objectivity, that the identification of objects requires the prior advent of a world of meaning or of a symbolic world, a world in which every object finds its meaning through its investments in those for which this object is part of the world, constitutes – as Laclau and Mouffe admit – a central idea of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. But will the political conclusions of a Merleau-Pontian phenomenology be identical to those that Laclau and Mouffe draw from their notions of discourse and hegemony? For them, these concepts motivate political conclusions that touch upon both the question of political subjects and that of social domains of struggle. If, as Laclau and Mouffe highlight, a political subject is constructed or articulated by the strategic work of hegemony, if there is not any “positivity of the social,” and if the social is constructed by symbolic articulations, this means that any idea of a privileged subject of politics or of revolution required by its social objectivity – its relation to the means of production – is found refused, obviously including the conception of the proletariat in Marxism. Any notion of a social domain as a privileged site of struggle will also be refused, including the idea of the economy’s precedence.

4It is certain that some themes of Merleau-Ponty’s thought possess a filiation with what is called post-Marxist thought, like the thought of Laclau and Mouffe. This link is highlighted by the American intellectual historian Warren Breckman in his work, Adventures of the Symbolic, which extracts a filiation going from German romanticism to Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadis, Althusser, Lacan, Laclau and Mouffe, and that relies on the category of the symbolic: what all of these thinkers refuse by maintaining the effectivity and permanence of the symbolic is precisely the idea that politics are the function of some social objectivity. [3]

5The idea that Laclau and Mouffe propose, namely that the social is discursively articulated, entails that the field of political struggles be thought of in a radically positive way: political work is not making an objective condition that one is already subjected to recognized, but rather constructing subjects. There is no immanent process that leads from an experience to a reaction, for example from exploitation to revolt. Social antagonism is not the result of a confrontation between two objectives, two already-formed social groups, but rather the result of a new articulation of the social world determining the fact that this antagonism is the site of the moment’s struggle. Discourse, in the sense of the articulation of the world and of political subjects, receives a new role in this conception of the political, and this implicates the language in which individuals already express themselves: this language does not disclose a being that pre-exists it, but presides over the formation of this being.

6An equally “symbolic” conception of social antagonism can be found in Merleau-Ponty. It is expressed, for example, in Humanism and Terror, when he writes that “history makes irresolute opponents possible because it itself is ambiguous.” [4] Politics is born in undecidability, and the statement that this undecidability is permanent and opens the path to a profound extension of politics. But does this extension constitute an erasure of the centrality of a class politics, as is the case in Laclau and Mouffe? The great interest of Lefort’s text, “The proletarian experience,” comes from the fact that it expresses a philosophical perspective that one could call Merleau-Pontian, in which politics is not founded on objective bases but on the symbolization wherein our relation to a history that does not deliver its meaning as an external fact is expression, and on the positive formation – or articulation – of a subject, but, wherein this perspective is nevertheless developed in order to defend the precedence of proletarian politics. The first question that is posed is to know if it is the objective fact of being a worker that gives the proletariat its capacity for self-expression, if this expression is therefore secondary with regard to a foundational objectivity – or if the proletariat is understood as a subject that is symbolically or discursively constituted.

Class autonomy, positivity of politics

7In this text, Lefort shows his intention to carry out a profound change of theoretical perspective within Marxism, by passing from the given objectivity of the proletariat, to experience, autonomy, and self-expression of this class-subject. He critiques the tendency in Marxist theory to “convert the theory of class struggle into a purely economic science,” which turns proletarian action into a simple execution of a governing knowledge that sees the direction of history from the outside. The critique that Lefort gives of this philosophy contributes to a theoretical work developed in the pages of Socialisme ou Barbarie, which Lefort was a founder of with Cornelius Castoriadis. The journal, from its origins in 1949, offered a critique of Stalinism that calls for a profound transition in the global communist movement, and in Marxist theory. The experiment of the Stalinist regime particularly shows that the seizure by the state – including a worker state – of the means of production does not produce a move beyond exploitation or alienation, and so does not produce socialism. For Socialisme ou Barbarie, a deeper level of exploitation and of inequality than that of private property is revealed by Stalinism, and one that relies on the opposition between directors and executors of production. Proletarian revolution must then not only abolish private property, but also any “direction of production as a specific function permanently exercised by a social stratum,” according to Castoriadis. [5]

8Socialisme ou Barbarie therefore emphasizes the autonomy of worker struggles and of the necessity for workers to organize themselves far from any party that claims to represent them. One also sees that this critique of Stalinism and even of Leninism leads to philosophical conclusions on the role of human actors in the production of history. The role of Stalinist bureaucracy in directing production was strictly linked to the idea of its awareness of the laws of history, as though these laws existed outside of the existence of those who are subjected to them. [6] In place of such a conception of history as a force that is external to the existence of individuals, whose laws are known by the directors of society, one finds history’s auto-immanence, in which its meaning is never extricable from the existence of those who live it. A political consequence of this understanding of history as a process constantly carried out by human activity is that the process that leads from capitalism to socialism does not happen in the future, when the means of production are given to the proletariat, but that it is already happening at every moment, and that socialism is not the simple negation of capitalism, but that its positive content must be produced, and is already in the process of being constructed in workers’ practice. Even if workers are subjected to capitalist exploitation that tries to reduce them to the state of an object, capitalism itself could not function as a mode of production if this total reduction came about one day: the creativity of workers is a fact that is necessary for capitalist production, and it is for this reason, Castoriadis reminds us, that “the modern system of exploitation […] is incapable of being stabilized.” [7]

9The symbolic forms of expression are thus invested with a new significance: Marxist theory does not possess the “true” meaning of this experience, as if this meaning was separable from experience itself. On the other hand, all new expression of proletarian experience is a potential opportunity for the development of Marxist theory because this expression is not the simple revelation of an objective being that precedes it, but rather of an active discovery without precursors. There is not a world of facts and another world of interpretations, but a single world in which meaning is not possessed by those who live it, and that has no prior existence to what one says about it. The complementarity of these two elements – (1) an open conception of history, whose meaning is not extricable from lived experience; and (2) the creativity of producers and therefore their strong presence from the beginning of their own emancipation – give strength to proletarian forms of expression as a symbolic means of activating this opening and this creativity.

Testimony and expression. The non-objectivity of the meaning of the proletarian class

10For all of these reasons, Lefort proposes to gear the journal toward the reception and the distribution of worker testimony. The particular interest of these accounts has to do with the particularity of the proletarian class in which there resides an interval between the “meaning of class” and the “social category” that this class occupies in capitalist society. If “the role of class in production” is truly important for understanding the “meaning” of this class, “the most important thing” is nevertheless that “this role does not give them any power in action, but only an ever stronger ability to lead.” [8] Unlike the bourgeoisie, the objective world appears as a confirmation of its class identity, it finds itself merely concerned by the improvement of its current situation. But the proletariat, which, through its history, develops an ability to direct at the same time as it is prevented from using this ability, lives a deep conflict between its objective being in capitalist society and its “class meaning,” a self-expression that would take advantage of this ability to direct. Thus, “the profound interest” of workers “is to not be workers.” [9] It is in the context of this non-coincidence between “class meaning” and social objectivity of the proletariat that one must understand the role conferred to testimony by Lefort: this non-coincidence implies that the self-expression of workers is not the confirmation of a being that already objectively exists, but the expression of a disagreement between “social category” and “class meaning,” that gives proletarian language a positive content and not a secondary being.

11Moreover, this contradictory reality of the proletariat gives revolutionary theory a reason to be interested in the concrete experience of work, because it is at work that this “ability to lead” is developed at the same time as it is found interrupted by current relations of leadership. Lefort highlights the positive role of technical progress played by workers, whose action “does not only the form of a resistance, but also that of a continuous assimilation of progress and even more so that of an active collaboration with this progress.” [10] This is because capitalist work is not a domain of pure negation to which the only response would be resistance and refusal, but is, on the other hand, a domain in which the prevention of autonomy coexists with the development of technical powers of workers that gives them a greater capacity for autonomy, that the concrete experience of work becomes a true domain of activist research: it is in this domain that the revolutionary subject is produced, positively, and that even the learning of techniques of capitalist production takes part in its revolutionary development.

Experience and theory

12One must ask the question of knowing how this concrete reality of proletarian experience will become the object of an analysis. The political formulations that are expressed from a proletarian point of view do not suffice as an expression of one’s own experience because this experience is not represented from the outside. By contrast, Lefort proposes an approach that “would seek to reproduce the attitude [of the proletariat] from the inside opposite its work and society and to show how its capacity for invention or its power of social organization are revealed in everyday life.” [11] This emphasis placed on everyday life is necessary in order to access proper experience, which precedes all “explicit reflection.” The workers, according to Lefort, have “a spontaneous behavior, […] and it is, quite evidently, in this behavior that their personality is most completely revealed.” [12]

13This notion of spontaneous behavior demonstrates the presence of a Merleau-Pontian phenomenology in this text. We are not in contact with the work as an abstract consciousness faced with an object that preexists us and of which we only have more or less accurate impressions; and our behavior is not the straightforward effect of conscious ideas that we have, nor of objective conditions with which we are confronted: in this behavior there are all of the habits learned in our encounters with the world of perception, encounters through which our capacities are developed in a practical relation with that which is outside of us. The Merleau-Pontian notion of an “intentional arc” describes this relationship between our body and the world that we perceive, an arc that maintains “the life of consciousness,” and that corresponds to the way in which we are developed in the prehension of an outside world. [13] Lefort wants to access this level of proletarian experience because it is on this level that the creativity of workers, what he calls their ability to lead, is found.

14Revolutionary theory must begin to listen to the forms of expression of this subject, without imposing a definite being onto it, because, as we have already pointed out, the particularity of this subject relies on its non-coincidence with its current social objectivity. The idea of worker testimony as “narratives of life or of individual experience” is proposed in this way, and the latter half of Lefort’s text tries to determine the potential function of this testimony, following the first examples that had already been published by Socialisme ou Barbarie, especially the text “The American Worker” by Paul Romano. Lefort reuses the distinction that he inherits from Merleau-Ponty, between explicit consciousness and implicit attitudes and behaviors, to defend the ability of individual testimonies to shed light on the generality of proletarian experience. Even if the individual cases merely showed details and opinions that are personal, the “proletarian situation” that, for Lefort, is shared by all workers, could be accessible among a plurality of various testimonies, and the theoretical work will be “to look for particular examples of traits that have a general meaning.” [14] As Stephen Hastings-King notes, the role that is thus given to theory by comparing and analyzing worker testimonies so as to extricate a “general meaning” finds its inspiration in the Husserlian notion of the epoché or “reduction”: by comparing a plurality of cases, we reduce phenomenal experience to its universal aspect. [15] “It is only by being connected with a concrete individual that responses referring to each other, confirming each other or refuting each other, can extract a meaning, bring to mind an experience or a system of life and of thought that can be interpreted.” For this reason, individual narratives have a much greater value than mass statistics. [16] At the same time, Lefort does recognize the difficulties that his project has in accessing proletarian experience through individual narratives. He writes that “narrating is not acting and even assumes a break with action that transforms meaning,” therefore recognizing that the accounts that he is asking for entail a certain distancing from the very experience that it seeks, and even a “change of attitude.” [17] For Lefort, these difficulties are real, but they do not mean that his project is wrong: it remains a part of his project to extract from concrete proletarian experience an abstract element, in the gap between experience and writing, and between testimony and theoretical generalization, but these gaps are the unavoidable result of the fact that “the concrete proletariat is not an object of knowledge,” because of its ability to transform. Theory will not manage to join up with the experience that inspires it: instead, it will take part in the ripening of proletarian experience itself, that develops in an open process of permanent correction.

Conclusion: a concrete subject of symbolic politics

15“The proletarian experience” then offers an application of Merleau-Pontian thought that defends a Marxist politics, that does not see a contradiction between the politics of proletarian revolution and a philosophy of the symbolic that goes beyond objectivity. For Lefort, the very experience of the proletariat, that expresses a gap between its “social category” and its “meaning of class,” carries out a shift of politics toward subjectivity within concrete history, toward the positivity of expressions as forms of self-creation, and toward a symbolic politics. If the proletariat is defined as not coinciding with its social category, the content of its self-expression is invested in a complexity of a particular density, and it is in this context that Lefort grants such an importance to worker narratives; it is because the self-expression of workers is neither Marxist propaganda nor a reflection of bourgeois ideology, but a process of permanent discovery of its own capacities, which are also in the state of becoming, that this expression possesses an intrinsic interest. If for Lefort, unlike Laclau and Mouffe, the “social category” that the proletariat represents gives it a necessarily central role in political struggles, it is not owing to a stable being, but to an ability to move beyond, an ability whose ends we do not know. In this sense, for Lefort, the proletariat functions as the concrete subject of the process of symbolization that Laclau and Mouffe already find completed: it is the democratization of productive and social leadership that can give humanity the ability to be symbolized beyond its objective being. This proletarian subject is not automatically produced, rather it must be produced by a hegemonic work completed by the workers themselves, for which a central instrument will be their means of expressing a relation to the world that they continue to develop by developing their creative capacities. If, today, many questions are raised having to do with the viability of the Marxist hypothesis of the proletariat, this text by Lefort confronts us with the theoretical richness of this hypothesis, and with everything that its failure would draw into question: what it offers is the historical coming of a subject endowed with the material capacity to move beyond the true conditions of existence that Marxism itself had identified as determinant, and therefore a conception of the historical genesis of a symbolic politics. [18]


  • [1]
    We are here echoing the remarks of Frédéric Monferrand, who writes that Lefort’s text “establishes the program of a Merleau-Pontian politics that is not Merleau-Ponty’s” (F. Monferrand, “Politiser l’expérience. Mereleau Ponty in Socialisme ou barbarie et ‘L’expérience prolétarienne’” in Chiasmi International 19, 2018.
  • [2]
    Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, second edition, London, Verso, 2001, p. 146.
  • [3]
    Warren Breckman, Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy, New York, Columbia University press, 2013.
  • [4]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur. Essai sur le problème communiste, Paris, Éditions Galimard, 1947, p. 101.
  • [5]
    Cornelius Castoriadis, “Socialisme ou Barbarie” in Socialisme ou Barbarie, 1949, N°. 1, p. 35.
  • [6]
    As Castoriadis again writes: “Bureaucracy arises like consciousness of history, detached from history’s body: but this bodyless consciousness can only be a ghostly consciousness that vanishes from itself; depreived of a body, bureaucracy also quickly loses the ‘consciousness’ upon the base of which it was formed” (Casotriadis, “Phénoménologie de la conscience prolétarienne” in La Société bureaucratique, Paris, Union Générale d’Éditions, 1973, p. 126 [unpublished text from 1948]).
  • [7]
    C. Castoriadis, ibid.,, p. 23.
  • [8]
    Claude Lefort, “L’expérience prolétarienne,” in Socialisme ou Barbarie, N°. 11, 1952, p. 43.
  • [9]
    Ibid., p. 43-44.
  • [10]
    Ibid., p. 46.
  • [11]
    Ibid., p. 49.
  • [12]
    Ibid. It is on this level of analysis that Lefort sees the necessity of moving beyond “the distinctions of the subjective and the objective”: any objectivity of “economic conditions” is presented in this attitude, that “itself realizes the integration or permanent development” of these conditions with the explicit ideologies of workers.
  • [13]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1945, p. 158.
  • [14]
    “L’expérience prolétarienne,”, op. cit., p. 52.
  • [15]
    Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing, Chicago, Haymarket, 2014, p. 113-114.
  • [16]
    “L’expérience prolétarienne,” op. cit., p. 53.
  • [17]
  • [18]
    This text by Lefort echoes the text by Georg Lukács, “The Changing Function of Historical Materialism” in which one finds the idea that the advent of socialism (a state under the dictatorship of the proletariat) will carry out a mutation in Marxism itself, by going from a society of economic determination to a society in which the economy is determined by conscious collective leadership. See Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1972, p. 223-255.