Overcoming or accepting social division: Castoriadis, Lefort and the Hungarian Revolution

1For the members of the group "Socialisme ou Barbarie," the Hungarian revolution of 1956 constituted an event of major importance, as it attested to the possibility that a mass political movement could weaken the foundations of bureaucratic domination. Moreover, issues 20 and 21 of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie were devoted mainly to the protest movements that took place in 1956, both in Hungary and Poland, against the bureaucratic power structure. The two principal leaders and theoreticians of the movement, Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort, had published two important articles in issue 20 (December 1956 – February 1957): "The Proletarian Revolution against the Bureaucracy," in which Castoriadis harks back to the Hungarian events, developing a more general analysis of the situation in the Eastern bloc, and positively assessing the potential for resistance and struggle demonstrated by the Hungarian, Polish and East German workers against the bureaucratic powers, [1] and "The Hungarian Insurrection," in which Lefort sought, shortly after the events, to bring out "the truth about twelve days of struggle." [2] Twenty years later, Castoriadis and Lefort revisited the Hungarian revolution in the first issue of the journal Libre, respectively publishing two articles, "The Hungarian Source," [3] and "Une autre révolution" ("Another Revolution"). [4] While reusing the bulk of the analyses they developed twenty years earlier, in these texts the authors contextualize the Hungarian revolution within the larger context of the struggles for democracy that have emerged over the past two centuries.

2My hypothesis is that this revolutionary movement constitutes an event on the basis of which we may understand on a symbolic level the intellectual and political convergences and divergences that arose constantly between Lefort and Castoriadis, from their shared history of activism within the PCI, [5] to "Socialisme ou Barbarie," up to their falling-out and definitive split in the early 1980s, with their respective careers attesting to both a close proximity and a large distance between the two. [6]

3Indeed, what is puzzling when we seek to grasp the concurrent evolution in Castoriadis and Lefort’s thinking is that we notice to what extent their ideas can prove surprisingly close in some areas (in particular the analysis and the scathing critique of bureaucratic domination, the emphasis placed on an implacable demand for democracy and therefore the constantly reiterated refusal of any form of arbitrary power), while diverging, sometimes widely, on these same matters (a shared condemnation or refusal does not necessarily mean a shared viewpoint on the legitimate goals of a political project). The frequency with which their paths crossed and the regular encounters between their ways of thinking therefore seem inseparable from their mutual antagonism and a history of splits, with the moments of convergence between their ideas never becoming pure and simple intersections or overlays. The paths of Castoriadis and Lefort did converge in the context of their work as political critics in "Socialisme ou Barbarie," and in May 1968 within the framework of the book La Brèche where they each shared their analyses of the May movement, [7] or even in the 1970s in journals such as Textures and Libre, but the roads they took never coincided, so to speak, and if we could even talk about convergences in their case, these were more meeting points involving shared issues and oppositions than they were considerations worked out jointly on the basis of identical philosophical and political sensibilities.

4Because of this, we realize that although Castoriadis and Lefort were able to agree on unstinting support for the revolutionary movements in the Eastern Bloc, this was not for comparable reasons; similarly, although they both pointed out some shortcomings in these protest movements, or in some of their consequences, it wasn’t necessarily in the same places or about the same facts and, therefore, the same problems. And this was not just true for the Hungarian revolutionary movement: on this score we could identify other historical events where the confrontational relationship between Castoriadis and Lefort was made quite clear. To take but one example – a major one however – they both supported the May 1968 movement and even criticized it on some of the same aspects, but occasionally for fairly different and even opposing reasons. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 thus accounts for one of the main points of discord between the two philosophers: not just the content and the meaning behind the democratic project, but more precisely the question of the relationship that binds society to itself, clarified by Lefort from the angle of what he called the "originary division of the social," an idea that Castoriadis never accepted. For him, there is no reason why the will to overcome the division of the social body – a division that, in his view, is not constitutive but instituted – should inevitably lead to the advent of a totalitarian form of state. Furthermore, he objected to Lefort that calling power an "empty place" sidesteps any questioning of the effective actuality of contemporary politics when those politics are developed from within an oligarchical context. Conversely, Lefort always distanced himself from the idea of democracy as a form of regime that is embodied in a very specific set of institutions: self-government, or the crystallization of democratic action as direct democracy. In this last case, he felt that this ran the risk of leading to the deadening dream of a society wanting to take a form beyond the fundamental distinction between the real and the symbolic and which, for that reason, eliminates the condition without which there is no political liberty.

1 – Convergences…

5If there is one notable place Lefort and Castoriadis’s ideas come together even at the height of their divergences, it is that their constant concern is the demand for democracy against any arbitrary domination. Unlike some versions of Marxism that reduce democracy and liberty to a bourgeois illusion concealing the actual relations of domination, the two thinkers always assigned a central role to the struggle for emancipation, which is a struggle against both economic and political domination. This is demonstrated by the importance that the question of totalitarianism always had for them, as well as by their shared unwillingness to see democratic freedoms as liberties in name only, whose illusory nature was supposedly due to their inability to change the ingrained structure of class relations. That said, we may observe one difference between the two thinkers. At the end of the 1970s, Castoriadis was still only employing the term "totalitarianism" sparingly, mainly using "total bureaucratic capitalism" [8] to characterize the form of bureaucratic domination in use in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations. This is not the sign of a major difference: the expression seeks to express both economic and political domination within the same idea where Lefort put more emphasis on the openly political nature of domination. Lefort had been using the term "totalitarianism" early on to account for the regime of oppression holding sway in Russia. [9] But the differences in vocabulary do not matter that much: they do not concern what mattered most, given that the interest Lefort and Castoriadis had in the movements of struggle and resistance to oppression –not just in the East, incidentally – remained strong.

6Lefort and Castoriadis thus maintained that rights and freedoms, born in the wake of modern revolutions, have in themselves nothing in common with capitalism, as the market is only one possible form of it: capitalism tends overwhelmingly toward concentration, thereby calling into question the autonomous nature of the political sphere. [10] Moreover, the bourgeoisie did not spontaneously grant these rights and freedoms: on the contrary, they were the result of constant struggles against the power in place, struggles in which the proletariat itself participated extensively. These rights and freedoms may well have been partial, and some of them were of a defensive nature, as Castoriadis pointed out; [11] this does not mean, however, that at the origin they were only destined to take on that limited form. The problem is that the bourgeoisie put up a strong resistance to demands of both a political nature (expanding the right to vote) and an economic nature (recognition of the right to strike) by endeavoring to domesticate a democratic dynamic, in order to restore a hierarchy whose legitimacy had been dwindling.

7The critique of right, in parallel to the critique of capitalism, would explain the error that Marx, in Lefort’s view, had made. In The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Marx saw the selfish expression of the bourgeois individual, without really paying attention to the fact that freedom of expression, for example, is not merely a question of a strictly individual right, but is also a freedom of relationships, attesting to the birth of an autonomous public space escaping the prerogatives of political power. [12] One must then work on an actual extension of these rights and freedoms, by translating them within a framework that transforms the instituted relationships of subordination and by making sure that the demand for equality is verified according to the criterion of the real. This requires an acknowledgment of the impact of democratic dynamics, initiated by the intrusion into the public space of the people as the arbiter of political legitimacy, a dynamics that far outweighs the interests of the bourgeoisie. [13]

8The protest movements against bureaucratic domination in Russia and the Eastern Bloc, in this case Hungary, are one of the modern forms of those democratic dynamics that shape societies and help to introduce creative disorder into a fossilized political and social system. On this topic, the analyses of Lefort and Castoriadis on the Hungarian events of 1956 agree completely. Right from the start of his text in Libre, Lefort says that the Hungarian revolution was an event that will remain forever in historical memory because, in his opinion, it was the first major crack that caused whole parts of the totalitarian edifice to crumble, a much deeper crack than the one resulting from the uprising in East Berlin in June 1953 or, three years later, from the revolt in Poland. [14] He thus reiterated what he had already written in his 1956 article: the Hungarian revolution must be understood as a radical protest against totalitarian domination, a protest supported by every segment of Hungarian society. [15] Castoriadis, in his text, also insists on the absolutely radical nature of the Hungarian revolution since the insurrection of the Hungarian people managed to undermine the foundations of the system of bureaucratic domination and the politics of totalitarian terror with which it expressed itself. [16] In addition, to the extent that Hungarian society demonstrated its capacity to mobilize such political creativity in so short a time span (just a few weeks, like the Paris Commune), this uprising carries as much political impact and meaning as three centuries of Egyptian history. [17]

2 – …But Also Some Differences

9So while Lefort and Castoriadis agree in acknowledging the democratic creativity that was an integral part of the Hungarian uprising that thoroughly undermined the structures of the bureaucratic society, they do not however focus on the same aspects of that creativity. This is probably where the main split between the two lies: Lefort insists to a much larger degree on the problem of social division, by showing that the demand for independent unions is one that presupposes the abandonment of the fantasy of a reconciled society that has overcome all internal discord. [18] Thus the demands put forward by the Central Workers’ Council in Hungary for a public recognition of three different sources of authority (the federation of workers’ councils, a parliament elected by universal suffrage, independent unions) is proof of a shared demand for collective self-organization and democratic plurality. [19] In this sense, it appears necessary to create a space for conflict, delimited by institutional norms recognized by all citizens, where oppositions and divisions can be expressed. Conflicts are in fact likely to erupt between the Central Council, as the representative organ for the workers, and the workers themselves, who may legitimately not feel represented by it. There may also be conflict among the workers themselves, between different professional categories. [20]

10For Lefort, democracy must include a multiplicity of authorities and networks of socialization without seeking to force them into a common structure that could not be anything but deceitful. Since the economy, in a pluralist democracy, must not become bound up with the political sphere – even though the two domains are intertwined – the result is that the worker-individual, with their specific interests concerning wages, is different from what they are as a citizen-individual, [21] which does not mean that this division is complete, without any possibility of interaction or mediation. [22] In fact, where Lefort puts his finger on the requirement of an acknowledged division of society and a recognition of the differentiation that is intrinsic to the interplay of democracy, Castoriadis considers the project of establishing direct democracy within the framework of the Workers’ Councils precisely as an attempt to abolish the imposed division of society and the separation between the various areas of collective activity and, more generally, between the different spheres of human existence. [23]

11Indeed, if Castoriadis, like Lefort, recognizes the considerable capacity demonstrated by the Hungarian uprising for weakening the power structure, he seeks to show that the movement only assumes its full force in reference to one of its most important creations, not to say the most central one: the workers’ councils, i.e. the main organ favoring the expression of that democratic creativity supported by Hungarian society as a whole. It is for this reason, in fact, that Castoriadis continued to speak of revolution concerning the Hungarian uprising, but in a very different sense from Lefort:


[…] I hold that what is contained potentially in the constitution and the aims of the Hungarian workers’ councils is the destruction of the traditional, inherited, instituted social significations of political power, on the one hand, and of production and work, on the other hand, and therefore the germ of a new institution of society. This entails, in particular, a radical break with the inherited philosophy of politics and of work.[24]

13Here we recognize a principal characteristic of Castoriadis’s political philosophy: politics in the strongest sense does not only mean the management and transformation of society in a reformist perspective, presenting demands and proceeding gradually (this is ultimately what he will criticize in Lefort’s position), but also the explicit and organized self-institution of the society through which the people, united, exercise a sovereign and collegial collective power over everything that is within their grasp. This is precisely what he observes in the Hungarian revolutionary movement.

14Lefort also speaks of revolution concerning Hungary (in both his 1957 and 1977 texts), but in an entirely different sense. Moreover, he never uses the expression "revolutionary movement" the way Castoriadis does: for Lefort, it relates back to the workers’ movement, which in his judgment is based upon a problematic category – one of a historical process endowed with an inherent necessity – and fallaciously upheld by the project of overcoming social division, precisely at the risk of abolishing the principle of differentiation and democratic pluralism. And yet, in Lefort’s opinion, the Hungarian uprising was definitely a revolution (despite its suppression) to the extent that both the legitimacy of the existing power structure and the entire bureaucratic hierarchy found themselves under question, on the basis of a protest movement supported by the population as a whole and not appropriated by an avant-garde party claiming to speak for everyone. Despite its failure, this uprising revealed the extreme vulnerability of a system of domination whose power could not manage to conceal its great fragility.

15Admittedly, Castoriadis agrees on this point with Lefort but distances himself from him concerning the purpose of the Hungarian uprising and, more generally, on the objectives of any uprising with democratic and revolutionary aims. Although he, like Lefort, recognizes that it is impossible to postulate an ideal state where a society, free at last from all evil, would flourish, as emancipation is more a process than it is a definitive resolution, [25] he will never stop defending the principle of self-government. According to him, it would be impossible to speak of democracy without envisioning the existence of a community that lays down its own laws and which possesses the power to determine its political direction. While Lefort, in his interpretation of Machiavelli, explains the insurmountable nature of social division by the asymmetry of the places occupied by the people and by "the great," [26] feeling that its abolition would amount to destroying the symbolic link that keeps the components of the social body together, Castoriadis seeks to show that there is no contradiction in the project of the autonomous society that would not be built upon the principle of an insurmountable split, in which the power structure would truly express the will of a sovereign people. He thus supports the idea that an authentic democracy must allow the institution of an authority exercised by all the citizens, without needing to lay down a structural division between the people and power. [27]

16But for Lefort – and here we get to the heart of the political disagreement between the two thinkers – the questioning of the sacred character of the law and political institutions must never, unlike what Castoriadis thinks, lead to the instatement of the people as a political subject recognized as the origin and author of the law. Strictly speaking, the law has no origin, as no single individual or group can claim to be behind the institution of laws, which are a matter of anonymous invention in the fullest sense of the term: in truth, no one is the author of the law. In fact, if Castoriadis and Lefort both agree that every society is based upon an ultimate lack of guarantee, they differ on the problem of the law’s origin: saying as Lefort does that society is traversed by a void means recognizing that it is without origin, and that it is therefore impossible to relate the law to a originating authority. But if for Castoriadis the institution is not founded upon any ultimate guarantee, this is not because it is without any origin, as Lefort argues, but in the sense that the law has no extrasocial foundation: as a result, people – gathered together under the figure of an autonomous, anonymous collective – are what form its only origin. It may well be that the activity of the instituting society cannot base itself upon any transcendent guarantee, but this changes nothing about that society’s relation to itself as the conscious origin of the institutions that it creates in accordance with its power. In fact, in the constitutive indetermination of the democratic regime, Lefort sees the sign of a design flaw that prohibits the conception of democracy as the power of the people in the sense that they would be the author of the laws and would hold power in person. On the contrary, Castoriadis sees the mark of the law’s specifically human origins in its lack of any ultimate foundation, an absence that justifies the direct exercise of power by the people in their institutive dimension.

3 – Two Different Conceptions of Democratic Creativity?

17In any case, understanding the point of disagreement between the two interpretations of the Hungarian revolution means grasping the sense of the profound antagonism separating two conceptions of democratic creativity. Lefort defends the principle of democratic representation as the only conception capable of expressing the conflict inherent in social life, while Castoriadis sees it on the contrary as an obstacle to a true politics of autonomy that can only be expressed through direct democracy. If Lefort refuses to think of democracy as an indisputable self-institution, this is because for him such a conception would mean ignoring the question of the third term that allows for the expression of social conflict: the symbolic order of the law, which is necessary in order to give form to political creativity. [28] Conversely, Castoriadis defends the idea that there is really no need to consider democracy alongside representation: the alleged division that Lefort thinks he sees at the base of social life is not a structural condition of society enabling it to develop on the symbolic level, but is rather the circumstantial effect of an asymmetrical and conflictual division of the social world [29] that can be overcome by means of a political intervention focusing on the problem.

18The analysis of the disagreement between Castoriadis and Lefort should, however, be prudent, for the contentious points are not always so clearly drawn, even at the height of their differences; like Lefort, Castoriadis does recognize that the dream of a transparent society is something of a childish fantasy and leads inevitably to a totalitarian nightmare. We must also recognize that the social world has a richness that goes beyond anything that a group of individuals can produce, since a meaningful creation can only become possible from that initial dimension, that institutive yet anonymous image-repertoire. From that perspective, it is probably not inappropriate to allude to the social world in terms of the "outside," if it is true that that world presupposes something that cannot be given as such, an infra-power that structures from the outset what can make sense to individuals. [30] Both thinkers call attention to the disorder – which they call "chaos" or "division" – that constantly acts on the legitimacy of even the most well-established institutions, and that must not be confused with the formlessness of that which seeks order, as energy of this kind always exceeds its institutional consequences. And where Lefort speaks of division and conflict as the cradle of freedom, [31] Castoriadis refers back to the tension between the instituting society and the instituted society as the sign of an undefined political creativity. [32] The space between the instituting society and the instituted society, i.e. the fact that there will always be an excess of political activity in the society in relation to its crystallization in institutions, is precisely what, for Castoriadis, accounts for the democratic creativity that disrupts the order of things.

19This precedence of creation and invention over the instituted order, which can only be expressed through real institutions but which goes well past them, as without that turmoil those institutions would have no substance, explains why a society cannot coincide with itself: the institutions it gives itself do not allow it to close up the split affecting it, the split with which it alters itself by opening itself to that indeterminate time called the future.


  • [1]
    Cornelius Castoriadis, "La révolution prolétarienne contre la bureaucratie," in La Société bureaucratique (Paris, Éditions Christian Bourgois, 1990).
  • [2]
    Claude Lefort, "L’insurrection hongroise," in L’Invention démocratique (Paris: Éditions Fayard, 1998), 193 [partially translated in "The Hungarian Insurrection," in A Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology: Autonomy, Critique, and Revolution in the Age of Bureaucratic Capitalism, translated anonymously (La Bussière FR, Acratie, 2007), 201].
  • [3]
    C. Castoriadis, "La source hongroise," in Écrits politiques 1945-1997, tome III: Quelle démocratie?, tome 1 (Paris, Éditions du Sandre, 2013) ["The Hungarian Source," in Political and Social Writings, Volume 3, 1961-1979Recommencing the Revolution: From Socialism to the Autonomous Society, ed. David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis / London, University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 250-71]. [Translator’s note: This text was originally written in English.]
  • [4]
    C. Lefort, "Une autre révolution," in L’Invention démocratique.
  • [5]
    Translator’s note: Le Parti Communiste Internationaliste (Internationalist Communist Party), a Trotskyist party existing from 1944 to 1968. Castoriadis and Lefort split from the party in 1947.
  • [6]
    In general, I refer to the two articles by Castoriadis and Lefort published in the first issue of Libre in 1977 in preference to their articles published in 1956 in issue n°. 20 of Socialisme ou Barbarie, as they enable a keener understanding of the reasons behind their fundamental political disagreements.
  • [7]
    C. Castoriadis, C. Lefort, Edgar Morin, Mai 68: La brèche, suivi de Vingt ans après (Paris, Éditions Fayard, 2008).
  • [8]
    C. Castoriadis, "Le régime social de la Russie," in Domaines de l’homme (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1986), 175-180 ["The Social Regime in Russia," in The Castoriadis Reader, ed. and trans. David Ames Curtis (Malden MA / Oxford, Blackwell, 1997), 227-235].
  • [9]
    On this topic, see Lefort’s text "Le totalitarisme sans Staline," republished in 1956 in Socialisme ou Barbarie and again in Éléments pour une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1979) ["Totalitarianism Without Stalin," in The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Alan Sheridan and Terry Karten (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1986)].
  • [10]
    C. Castoriadis, "La démocratie comme procédure et comme régime," in La Montée de l’insignifiance (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1996), 235-236 ["Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime," in The Rising Tide of Insignificancy (The Big Sleep), translated anonymously, www.notbored.org, n.p., 4 Dec 2003, Web, 19 November 2019, 350-352].
  • [11]
    C. Castoriadis, ibid., 236-237 [Ibid., 351-352].
  • [12]
    C. Lefort, "Droits de l’homme et politique," in L’Invention démocratique, 56-59.
  • [13]
    C. Castoriadis, ibid., 236 ["Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime," 350-351].
  • [14]
    C. Lefort, "Une autre révolution," 235.
  • [15]
    C. Lefort, "L’insurrection hongroise," 223-224.
  • [16]
    C. Castoriadis, "La source hongroise," 580 ["The Hungarian Source," 251].
  • [17]
    C. Castoriadis, ibid., 593 ["Ibid.," 259].
  • [18]
    C. Lefort, "Une autre révolution," 255.
  • [19]
    C. Lefort, ibid., 255-259.
  • [20]
    C. Lefort, ibid., 255.
  • [21]
  • [22]
    C. Lefort, ibid., 258.
  • [23]
    C. Castoriadis, "La source hongroise," 589 ["The Hungarian Source," 256-257].
  • [24]
    C. Castoriadis, ibid., 593 [Ibid., 260].
  • [25]
    C. Castoriadis, Ce qui fait la Grèce 2: La cité et les loisSéminaires 1983-1984 (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2008), 91.
  • [26]
    C. Lefort, "Machiavel: la dimension économique du politique," in Les Formes de l’histoire (Paris, Gallimard, 1978), 222.
  • [27]
    C. Castoriadis, "La polis grecque et la création de la démocratie," in Domaines de l’homme, 287 ["The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy," in The Castoriadis Reader, 275].
  • [28]
    C. Lefort, Le Travail de l’œuvre Machiavel (Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1972), 487 [Machiavelli in the Making, trans. Michael Bradley Smith (Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press, 2012), 238].
  • [29]
    C. Castoriadis, "Pouvoir, politique, autonomie," in Le Monde morcelé (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1989), 118 ["Power, Politics, Autonomy," in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. David Ames Curtis (New York, Oxford University Press, 1991)].
  • [30]
  • [31]
    C. Lefort, Le Travail de l’œuvre Machiavel, 470-477 [Machiavelli in the Making, 225-229]. See also Serge Audier, Machiavel, conflit et liberté (Paris, Éditions Vrin/EHESS, 2005), 222-225.
  • [32]
    C. Castoriadis, "Socialisme et société autonome," in Écrits politiques 1945-1997, tome IV: Quelle démocratie?, tome 2 (Paris, Éditions du Sandre, 2013), 104-105 ["Socialism and Autonomous Society," trans. David Ames Curtis, Political and Social Writings, Volume 3, 330].