Claude Lefort, reader of Merleau-Ponty: From “the proletarian experience” to the “flesh of the social”

1Claude Lefort, in his interview given to l’Anti-mythes in 1975, [1] recognized the part that Merleau-Ponty played in his political orientation that led him to participate simultaneously in Les Temps Modernes and in Socialisme ou Barbarie. Lefort writes that “The Proletarian Experience,” published in 1952, is probably the most representative of his conception at the time. There, Lefort offers a “phenomenology of the worker movement,” he says, in order to “dispel the abstraction of the notion of class consciousness.” [2] The article by F. Monferrand, recently published in the Merleau-Pontian journal Chiasmi International, convincingly showed to what extent the theses developed by Lefort in 1952, “inherit Merleau-Pontian motives,” “transform them and enrich them.” [3]

2In particular, the author notes, are the last pages of the Phenomenology of Perception that, following a head on debate with Sartrian liberty, led to a renewal of the concept of class consciousness outside of any voluntaryist schema, like with all determinist conceptions that Merleau-Ponty will have continuously critiqued in the various forms orthodox Marxism of his time. By representing the philosophical aspects that support the 1945 analysis, it appears that a same theoretical intention drives Merleau-Ponty in 1960 to mention a “flesh of history,” [4] respecting the project of “discerning a new politics” [5] starting from an examination of communism that is exhibited in the unpublished material from the same period, of an application of his ontological analyses to the field of history. [6] T his new politics, coming out of ontology, is only suggested by the works of Merleau-Ponty as a result of his early passing. The late works of Claude Lefort, on the other hand, seem to hold together Merleau-Ponty’s two demands, namely the attempt to present a coherent examination of communism allowing for access to a new politics, and the will to take the application of ontological categories seriously – including the category of flesh – in the fields of history and of politics. That is where a second direction opens itself to whomever would like to reread the works of Claude Lefort through Merleau-Ponty, twenty years after his break with “Socialism or Barbarism.”

3If these two axes of reading both seem just as relevant and rich with meaning, they also lead to astonishment, since they assume and establish, just as much in the writings of Lefort as in the writings of Merleau-Ponty, a continuity between highly distinct texts – as much from a formal point of view as in terms of content – expressing incompatible political positions, from inside and outside Marxism (Trotskyism, apprenticeship, then apoliticism or reformism). This customary interpretation, that it is difficult to contest insofar as it falls in line with explicit declarations from their authors – this “new liberalism” maintained in the epilogue of the Adventures of the Dialectic in 1955, [7] Lefort’s interpretation in “The Question of Democracy” in 1983 [8] – still provokes a continued questioning of the possibility and the definition of a phenomenology of politics, which both of these authors present to us, if not expressly, at least in its lineaments.

4The phenomenological approach that Merleau-Ponty chooses to undertake in 1945 and that Claude Lefort inherits in “The Proletarian Experience” rests on an initial lack of loyalty to Husserl in basing itself on an incomplete reduction. [9] “Concrete” phenomenological experience, a term that Lefort claims to adhere to in 1952 and Merleau-Ponty in 1945, would indeed not know how to extend beyond the world within which it is carried out without reiterating the massive prejudice of the philosophical tradition: the return toward a natural order taken out from the changing world of appearances. Nor would it know how to render without further ado the natural understanding of the world, without which it would renounce philosophy itself, so that the phenomenology of the working class privileged by Lefort, the “most concrete” [10] one, is located at the same distance from an objectifying approach as it from an ideological approach.

5The suspension of the natural attitude remains a liberation, a freeing of consciousness engaged in the intelligence of the natural world. But in the absence of a complete reduction, it returns to an “effective engagement in the world” [11] that is both corporeal and unconditional, whose particular and empirical engagements from which our factual existence is comprised are merely modulations. In this respect, the social world becomes a “permanent field” or a “dimension of existence,” [12] inasmuch as the “relationship with the social is, like our relationship with the world, deeper than any express perception or than any judgement.” [13] As a result, class consciousness and activist practice fall within a progressive determination and not an act of spontaneous invention. If class consciousness appears, “this is not that the day laborer decided to turn himself into a revolutionary and consequently enhance his effective condition, it is that he concretely perceived the synchronism of his life with the life of workers and the community of their lot.” [14] The assertion would remain banal if it were not a part of the analysis of corporeality; the synchronism of which it is a question expresses a relationship of co-belonging, before it is given in a clear representation [15] – before it is the object of an objectifying intentionality, before it is that of the intellectual or the worker in the discursivizing of one’s experience. “The revolutionary project is not the result of a deliberate judgment, the explicit position of an end,” [16] but crystallizes what was germinating in the nonthematized lived experience of workers: “the class is neither observed nor decreed; like the fatum of the capitalist apparatus, like revolution, before being thought, it is lived by way of haunting presence.” [17] The proletarian experience is a precomprehension of the revolutionary situation, that “eminently contains the ideologies that, to a certain extent, comprise rationalization.” [18] Yet this practical intentionality, which Lefort like Merleau-Ponty finds the illustration of in the phenomenon of class, intentionality, “that is its objects rather than placing its object,” [19] does not relate to consciousness as its organizer, but to the body, and to the habitual body in particular. The Marxian philosophy from which they draw their inspiration is conceived of as a “philosophy of the carnal man,” [20] the man of flesh being objectified by keeping outside of himself, open to the world of the objects of his activity. The process of objectification of which it is a question consequently forms the normal regime of bodily existents; its loss, an alienation, the products of human activity cease to express life at work. [21] The existent becoming part of a world does not result from a voluntary contract, but from an “original pact” [22] signed by our bodily engagement, for which the implications – first perceptive, then political, the incorporation of social structures in the form of dispositional structures – first remain implicit, despite being functional and operative.

6There one must see the presuppositions of the concrete analysis of the proletariat that must be recognized, Lefort writes, “by workers as a moment of their own experience, a means of formulating, of condensing and of confronting an ordinarily implicit knowledge, rather than a ‘felt’ one or a ‘reflected’ one.” [23] The revolutionary project in its completed form is the “completion of an existential project” [24] whose presence is first perceived in the atmosphere of the generality of worker existence, in an eccentricity of its own that is characteristic of the being-body of the existent. [25] Merleau-Ponty and Lefort can jointly refuse Sartre’s voluntaryist solution and the sole subordination of class struggle to a defined state of the economy, idealism and objective thought, that, as a consequence, “also fail to become conscious of class, the former because it deduces effective existence of consciousness, the latter because it draws consciousness from actual existence.” [26]

7The radicalness of the phenomenological project consists in rediscovering this original ground, on a level where “the distinctions of the subjective and the objective lose their meaning,” [27] the only measure of political engagements to come. This archeological inquiry results in the formulation, in the last writings of Merleau-Ponty, of the notion of flesh, taken up by Claude Lefort in his reading of Tocqueville. By analogy, it is on this ontological model of flesh, which Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Marx already hinted at, [28] “that one would have to think about the historical world.” [29] In place of the break signaled between the texts, there appears a will to bore into the initial phenomenological intuition. The distance with regard to Marx’s “naturalism” – the natural order removed from the changing world of appearances – shared by Merleau-Ponty and Lefort, expressed starting from their first texts, appears condensed in Merleau-Ponty’s late expression in The Visible and the Invisible making any historical object into a fetish. [30]

8By recognizing the weight of the imaginary, the realness rather than merely the contingency or the superfluousness of social mystification, it becomes understandable that Tocqueville’s intention is not, in the mind of Lefort, “foreign to the inspiration of phenomenology,” insofar as it gives up on “dispersing the opacity of this social life” and imposes “the demand for a neverending deciphering of the genesis of meaning.” [31] The “flesh of the social” would point out, from this perspective, the ability of the social to accommodate negativity within itself, without negativity becoming the reason for its implosion as a milieu, “a differentiated milieu, developing through the test of its internal division, and sensible to itself in all of its parts” [32]; “one exact milieu, one exact ‘flesh’ (to make use of Merleau-Ponty’s term).” [33] There is not, moving forward, a “flesh of the social,” except insofar as the social takes the figure of a field of tensions, determined by its internal relations that it structures in return. The “depth” of the social appears within our experience in the forms that it can take (political, legal, economic) that, although they are divergent, come together inasmuch as they participate in one symbolic field and there establish its internal tensions – that is to say, as many dimensions of experiences relating to one dimensionality. The original dimensionality of the social, for Lefort, designates the generating principles of society – what he names “the political,” [34] which is neither a sector of experience or a particular domain of social life, but, by there once again borrowing a Merleau-Pontian vocabulary tinged with Marxism, “the society-being of society,” which is, relative to the visible, its “non-figurative framework,” [35] the framework of its visible and particular institutions that are justice, religion, the economy – “this whole that brings together all of the clear or blind views and wills into a struggle with it,” “that nobody sees.” [36] One must consequently speak about the density of the social or of its flesh, in the sense that Merleau-Ponty spoke about “what makes the weight, the density, the flesh of each color, of each sound,” namely that “which grasps them feels itself emerge from them through some kind of winding or reduplication, fundamentally homogeneous with them, that it is the sensible itself coming to itself, and that in return sensible is in its eyes its double or an extension of its flesh.” [37] Lefort will write that, from one of these passages quoted from the work of Merleau-Ponty to another, “the same questioning is redone,” [38] that is to say, here one exact intention of “thinking history from the inside of history,” such that society can never “become an object of representation” [39] for those who are participating in it. The “flesh of history” mentioned by Merleau-Ponty in 1960 then contributes, according to Lefor, t to the will “to radicalize a radical philosophy,” “that finds its roots in human praxis, and essentially in that of class” [40]; it assumes a dual meaning of alienation, at the heart of the two authors’ analyses of youth, and recalled in these terms by Lefort in 1975, an alienation understood both in the “positive sense [exteriorization, objectification] and negative sense [separation, turning back against the class of its formations turned independent and tending to be maintained and to expand at its expense],” [41] the recognition of a density of the social not encumbering the necessity to uncover its inertia when it becomes recognized.

9To lead a coherent investigation of such a historical, social flesh of our political actions, one must admit that it is revealed, short of the habitually neutral subject of historical and sociological inquiry, that for the theorist or intellectual, only an initial engagement is in a position to disclose how social representations are grafted onto a preliminary experience. Consequently, the theoretical basis of Claude Lefort’s political research must necessarily carry itself away in its questioning and face up to what Merleau-Ponty called the fetishism of all historical objects, the “mystery of history.” [42]

10When all is said and done, the phenomenological operation aiming to reveal the native link to world as resistant to the operation of reduction becomes the occasion for the philosopher to be particularly lucid with regard to the social mechanisms of domination and of reproduction, because it discloses the constituent fictions of our relation to the social. The deliberate rallying to a determined social cause – be it that of the worker or of the intellectual – finds its basis in the primitive adherence of the existent to a world, which disclosed, in Merleau-Ponty and Lefort’s first texts, the critical philosophy, before it is called into question. From an activist point of view, the philosophical discourse sees itself attributed to an ambiguous role; admittedly, a group such as “Socialism or Barbarism,” as Lefort maintains, “would only know how to pretend to crystalize this process of awareness” [43] of the working class by itself. For all that, by revealing the process by which (social, political, economic) institutions tend to become autonomous, the phenomenologist forbids hypostasizing them, bringing them back to an experience of corporeality or of existence inasmuch as it is existence of flesh, productive existence. [44] Whatever the case may be of the distance taken by Merleau-Ponty and Lefort with regard to Marxism, their common understanding of phenomenological resources of all experience brings about an activist watchfulness regarding the mute origin of any form of domination and relativizes it. It is this same experiment that the philosopher – Merleau-Ponty first, then Claude Lefort – attempts “to bring to the expression of his own meaning,” [45] all the while recognizing the principial difficulty of such an undertaking – or even its impossibility, or the infinity of the task, [46] but in aligning itself, by definition, with a political process of emancipation.


  • [1]
    “Entretien avec Claude Lefort” in L’Anti-mythes, N°. 14, Caen, 19 April 1975, p. 5.
  • [2]
  • [3]
    Frédéric Monferrand, “Politiser l’expérience Merleau-Ponty, in Socialisme ou Barbarie et ‘l’expérience prolétarienne’” in Chiasmi International, N°. 19, Paris, Éditions Vrin-Mimesis, 2018, p. 87-100.
  • [4]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Préface” in Signes. Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2001, p. 36.
  • [5]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Page [375]. Personal transcription.
  • [6]
    “What I am trying to say in ontology [that knowledge, man are not so much creation and upsurging as they are reworking, emptying, in the extension of discernible logos] comprises application to History,” M. Merleau Ponty, Unpublished page [292] (11a) November 1959. Personal transcription.
  • [7]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Les Aventures de la dialectique, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2000, p. 311.
  • [8]
    “The same necessity makes it go from a thought of body to a thought of flesh and frees it from an attraction to the communist model by making it rediscover the vagueness of history and of the social being.” C. Lefort, “La question de la démocratie” in Essais sur le politique, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1986, p. 32.
  • [9]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2000, p. 311.
  • [10]
    C. Lefort, “L’expérience prolétarienne” in Socialisme ou barbarie, N°. 11, 1952, p. 10.
  • [11]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 15.
  • [12]
    Ibid., p. 420.
  • [13]
  • [14]
    Ibid., p. 508.
  • [15]
    Ibid., 509.
  • [16]
  • [17]
    Ibid., p. 510.
  • [18]
    C. Lefort, “L’expérience prolétarienne,” op. cit., p. 10.
  • [19]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 510.
  • [20]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, “Philosophie et non-philosophie depuis Hegel” in Notes de cours 1959-1961, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1996, p. 335.
  • [21]
    Regarding the different meanings of the concept of alienation, see the critical edition of the Manuscrits de 1844 by Franck Fischbach, Paris, Éditions Vrin, 2007, p. 14 and those that follow.
  • [22]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 204.
  • [23]
    C. Lefort, “L’expérience prolétarienne” in Socialisme ou barbarie, N°. 11, 1952.
  • [24]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 204.
  • [25]
    Ibid., p. 512.
  • [26]
    Ibid., p. 511.
  • [27]
    C. Lefort, “L’expérience prolétarienne,” op. cit., p. 10.
  • [28]
    “In a way, Marxism teaches him about what he is looking for, what his work on the body and on perception already gave him to think about, a relationship with being that demonstrates our participation in being” C. Lefort, in Sur une colonne absente, écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty, op. cit., p. 91-92.
  • [29]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 36.
  • [30]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1964, p. 322.
  • [31]
    C. Lefort, Écrire à l’épreuve du politique, Paris, Éditions Calmann-Lévy, 1992, p. 72.
  • [32]
    Ibid., p. 71.
  • [33]
    C. Lefort, C., “Permanence du théologico-politique” in Essais sur le politique, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1986, p. 281.
  • [34]
    Ibid., p. 285.
  • [35]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible, op. cit., p. 305.
  • [36]
    Ibid., p. 226.
  • [37]
    Ibid. p. 150.
  • [38]
    C. Lefort, C., Sur une colonne absente, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1978, p. 40.
  • [39]
    Ibid., p. 101.
  • [40]
    Ibid., p. 102.
  • [41]
    “Entretien avec Claude Lefort” in L’Anti-mythes, N°. 14, Caen, 19 April 1975, p. 5.
  • [42]
    M. Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible, op. cit., p. 322.
  • [43]
    “Entretien avec Claude Lefort” in L’Anti-mythes, N°. 14, Caen, 19 April 1975, p. 5.
  • [44]
    “When ‘materialist’ history is a main feature of democracy as a ‘formal’ regime and describes the conflicts for which this regime is worked, the real subject of history, that it seeks to rediscover in the abstraction of the citizen, this is not only the economic subject, man as a factor of production, but also more generally the living subject, man as productivity,” in Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 210.
  • [45]
    According the expression from the Cartesian Meditations, used by M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception, op. cit., p. 15, and employed again by Lefort on the subject of Tocqueville, C. Lefort, Écrire à l’épreuve du politique, op. cit., p. 72.
  • [46]
    It is enough to think about the obstacles met by the collection of testimony of proletarian experiences suggested by Lefort. The difficulty of expressing the lived experience of alienation while accepting the impossibility of definitively curbing the social opacity that feeds it appears to us to be illustrated by the preface to the first American edition of Hard Times by Studs Terkel and his citation of regarding the truth of narratives of oppression and dispossession that is scattered through the book but that ends up unveiling, whatever the mystifying force of memory might be, the “invisible scar” with which they were marked during the Great Depression. S. Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, New York, Pantheon Books, 1970.