Some remarks on a comparison between the Frankfurt School and “Socialism or Barbarism”

1Here we are offering some thoughts on a comparison that has been used several times to describe the “Socialism or Barbarism” movement. The “project” of the group “Socialism or Barbarism” has indeed been placed into comparison with the project of what we classically call the Frankfurt School, or more precisely the first Frankfurt School or the first Critical Theory, which, bearing the traces of the collaboration between Horkheimer and Adorno, takes the form of a social philosophy in the 1930s. This intellectual dynamic, which brings together researchers from different disciplines (Fromm, Benjamin, Neumann, Marcuse, Pollock, Löwenthal, etc.), who fuel the review Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung and whose institutional site is the Institute for Social Research, Institut für Sozialforschung, founded in Frankfurt in 1923 by Carl Grünberg, works toward developing a critical theory of which one finds a decisive formulation in Horkheimer’s 1937 article, “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

2In the book of interviews published in 2014, La Communauté politique des “tous uns”, Miguel Absensour thus maintains: “It is completely legitimate that, up to a certain point, one can compare ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ to Critical Theory.” [1] It is also remarkable that the interview with Herbert Marcuse performed by Jean Daniel and Michel Bosquet (André Gorz) and that was published on January 8, 1973 in Le Nouvel Observateur was given the title “Socialism or Barbarism” by the interviewers. [2] Lyotard, we will come back to this, mobilized this comparison several times in order to retrospectively explain what the “SorB” project could have been (Abensour thus examines the “distinctive trait[s] of the group, according to Jean-François Lyotard who often compared it to Critical Theory” [3]). It is not a question for us of arbitrarily comparing two movements of ideas, but rather of demonstrating that their confrontation can allow us to make their shared gestures and their shared thought operations applied to politics stand out, but also, by indicating their differences, to produce a singularization of each of the two groups. It is nevertheless also a preparatory work or simply the sketches of some reflections as the completion of this research would demand a much more significant amount of time.

1 – “SorB”/IFS: what dialogue?

3This comparison could be approached in many ways. Nevertheless, the internal foundations of both constellations of thinkers possess weak resources. In other words, the comparison between “SorB” and IFS cannot really make use of an existing dialogue or any explicit complicity. It is indeed not easy to ascertain the awareness that the activists of “SorB” had of Critical Theory. We will begin with five general remarks on this aspect of the subject.

4(1) First, we know that several researchers have recently undertaken a deconstruction of the “commonplace of a late or posthumous reception of Adorno,” related for them by Abensour, by establishing the awareness a certain number of French thinkers had of his thought starting in the fifties, some of whom corresponded with him. [4] Nevertheless, on the whole, the distribution of the Frankfurt School’s writings in France is not very fast and dates back to the sixties and seventies. This is linked with the “Critique de la politique” collection directed by Abensour at Éditions Payot beginning in 1974, in which he had translated and published, for instance: first Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (1974, Number 1), as well as Beginnings of the Bourgeois Philosophy of History (1974, Number 4) and Critical Theory (1978, Number 18); Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1978, Number 22), Hegel: Three Studies (1979, Number 25), Minima Moralia (1980, Number 26), Critical Models (1984, Number 34), Prisms (1986, Number 37), The Jargon of Authenticity (1989, Number 39); Walter Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire (1982) and Romanticism and the Critique of Civilization (2010); Neumann’s Behemoth (1987, Number 38); and many works by Habermas including Theory and Practice (1975, Number 6) and The Public Sphere (1978, Number 17), in addition to books by Ernst Bloch including Natural Law and Human Dignity (1976, Number 11), Heritage of Our Times (1978, Number 16), Experimentum Mundi (1981, Number 29), as well as works by Kracauer and Simmel.

5In our view, Abensour did not only highlight the difficult and differed nature of Adorno’s reception in France, insisting upon the disinterest that his thought fell victim to for a long time, [5] delaying his reading until the end of the sixties or even the beginning of the seventies, but he also put forth the slightly different hypothesis of several French thinker’s resistance to Adornian critical theory. When asked by Michel Énaudeau about the reasons for some French intellectual “discretion” with regard to the Frankfurt School, he responds as follows:


For once, it seems that there is a conjunction between liberals and Stalinists, as if both of them had wanted to smother a dissident critical voice. For one thing, the liberals did not want the Frankfort School to be known. Maybe this was the case for Raymond Aron?[6] As for the Marxists of the era, they were a bit too Stalinist to tolerate the confrontation with a well-formed, well-argumented dissident intellectual movement. Above all, they had to avoid a revolutionary reactivation, like what happened in Italy. In the philosophical field, one must also count on the presence of Heideggerians who are opposed to Adorno’s thought, which is critical of Heidegger.

7And he adds that Frankfurt’s texts “interfered” with the others’ positions:


At a certain point in time, it was question of publishing an issue on the Frankfurt School in a Marxist journal that was relatively independent from the Party, it seemed, and that was called Praxis. As for me, I hardly believed in it and my pessimism was very quickly confirmed by a negative response, enlivened by the most varied pretexts. What remains is this question: why didn’t the non-Stalinists undertake the work of publication that was necessary? And yet, some Marxian or Marxist dissidents who had become critical of orthodox Marxism had read the Frankfort theorists. Thus, Maximilien Rubel devoted an article to Critical Theory of society in Études de marxologie, just like Lucien Goldman, a disciple of Lukacs, who held dialogues with Marcuse on several occasions. As for Castoriadis, he knew the work of Adorno and Horkheimer well.[7]

9Among the members of “SorB” who subsequently referred the most often to the Frankfurt School, we can take the example of Lyotard whose engagement with Adorno seems to verify the idea of a deferred and later reception of the group’s activities. He was broadly influenced by Adorno’s work, principally Aesthetic Theory, Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics. It is nevertheless a reference that establishes itself at the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, even if his reading dates back further (as the enigmatic 1972 text “Adorno come diavolo” [8] attests). Lyotard seems to have read Adorno in the early seventies (the first preface to Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud from October 1972 indicates that he had not yet done so at the time of these essays, 1968-1971). It is in the development of the idea of postmodernity that Lyotard will make Adorno into a precursor. By making himself the intermediary of the strict examination that postmodernity imposes on Enlightenment thought, he claims to have entered himself into the critical lineage driven by Wittgenstein, Adorno and “some French thinkers.” [9], [10] Of Adorno, he writes, we will be “mindful of any anticipation of the postmodern in his thought. [11] In a general way, he will present the analysis by Adorno of the fall of metaphysics and his own analysis of the breakdown of modernity as comparable. [12]

10(2) We would not know how to evaluate the precise knowledge that Claude Lefort could have had of the Frankfurt School theorists. References to Frankfurt in his works seem to be rare, well after “SorB” and are quite critical. In the November 1975 Interview from the 14th issue of L’Anti-Mythes, when asked about a possible identity of his position with Horkheimer’s as one finds it presented in “Traditional and Critical Theory” – “An open declaration that even a dubious democracy, for all its defects, is always better than the dictatorship which would inevitably result from a revolution today, seems to me necessary for the sake of truth” – Lefort responds:


I agree with the beginning of the sentence: “even a dubious democracy, for all its defects, is always better…” but the end is questionable. If one is to understand that we must dread any disruption in the established order because its conclusion would necessarily be dire, I no longer follow him. My analysis of May 1968 should persuade you of this. As I see it, it is the absence of struggle that risks making it so that the order turns to stone and that in one form or another the process of bureaucratization leads to a totalitarian regime.[13]

12Later, in 1982, he will discuss the fragment “Death of immortality” [14] from Minima Moralia with interest. But, in a general way, in the seventies, the way in which Lefort establishes his anti-totalitarianism by referring to Arendt leads him be in contradiction with what he understands in Adorno and Horkheimer as the affirmation of a continuity between authority and totalitarianism. This is picked up on by Abensour who highlights the divergence between the thesis of continuity – in J-M. Ferry’s terms: the resolutely anti-totalitarian demand of Critical Theory does not lead to a decisive critique of totalitarianism, the critique of reason giving rise to a “non-specific critique of totalitarianism” [15] and the thesis of radical discontinuity. In Horkheimer, over and over again, and Abensour particularly cites one passage from “The Philosophy of Absolute Concentration” (1938) [16] in which Horkheimer mentions an “escalation in oppression,” and in which this continuity would be maintained: “the continuity between the authoritarian State and liberalism is maintained, as if the new form of the State that destroyed liberalism nevertheless remained its successor.” [17] Lefort, following Arendt, considers, on the contrary, total domination as something new or unprecedented in this century and, as Abensour puts it, in contradiction with those that put “the authoritarian State in the horizon of that which is already known.” It is satisfactory for him to return to a logic of politics in order to comprehend the genesis of absolute domination.

13(3) Later on, and rather in the last period of the group’s life, it is Marcuse’s work that is going to interest some of the “SorB” activists. The journal’s 36th issue, from April-June 1964, publishes a review by Hélène Gérard of the 1955 French translation of the book, Eros and Civilization, published by Éditions de Minuit (in the “Arguments” collection) in 1963. She highlights the importance that, as she sees it, relies on the central thesis of the work related to the non-separation of politics and psychoanalysis and real everyday life, while critiquing the way in which Marcuse thinks about non-repression, liberation or the possibility of emancipation itself:


But Marcuse takes on the problem of domination and of liberation in philosophy, and even in academic philosophy: he sees reality from afar and then he forgets Marx and Freud, since both of them, each one in his own field, undertake a return to the real and to lived experience.[18]

15Issues 52 and 53 of ICO (the newsletter Information et Correspondances Ouvrières (1960-1973) [19]) from August-September and from October 1966 publish, in two parts, a text by Marcuse entitled “Are We Still Men?” [20] devoted to a critique of traditional humanism, to revolution as a condition of all humanism, but also to the way in which “industrial society, through its development, drew into question the radical idea of humanism and the Marxist conception of it.” [21] The rest of the text emphasizes the flattening of all contradictions, regarding what Marcuse names “the total integration of the individual,” rationalization of domination or “rationalization of the state of dependence.” [22] For Marcuse, it is a question of drawing out the fundamentally ambivalent nature of the tendency to suppress work induced by the process of automation.

16Marcuse’s analyses undeniably left their mark in the minds of several members of the group and were later greatly discussed. Castoriadis will thus be extremely harsh with regard to Marcuse. In the 1974 interview, he rejects what he understands in Marcuse’s work as an abandonment of the revolutionary project in aid of the valorization of minor revolutionary struggles as a negation of the revolutionary role of the proletariat. [23] He maintains that the everyday struggles of students, of women, of workers entail, as an “upside” of their dispute, another principle, which is in direct contradiction with the fundamental principle of capitalism:


If I am mistaken, we could indeed no longer speak about a revolutionary project in the current period, and we would have to come back to positions such as those that we attributed earlier on to Marcuse. But if I am not mistaken, these homologous meanings necessarily send us back, because their homology asserts itself through various sectors and activities of society, to the question of the social totality and to its reality.[24]

18In reality, his reading of Marcuse somewhat upsets this conclusion: what he analyzes as suppression of the “Marxist proletarian” in no way signifies the disappearance of class struggle, even less the disappearance of the global project of emancipation that he comes to name “total revolution” or socialism. Marcuse is, in reality, especially occupied with thinking about a rising form of reification attached to the automation of production.

19(4) The very weak audience of the “SorB” group outside of the Latin quarter – “this circle was tight. Beyond its borders, our respective works were ignored or deliberately silenced,” Claude Lefort will write in 1979 [25] – allows one to think that the Frankfurters could not have been aware of this activity in the fifties and sixties. This does not mean that there was any ignorance of the French intellectual field. Adorno, as it was shown by Thomas Franck, was for that matter very concerned about his reception in France, with the way in which he was translated, etc. [26]

20The group’s marginality is sometimes masked by the popularization of its ideas starting in May 1968 as well as in the years that followed and by the revival of interest for this movement, but, Castoriadis writes, “one must realize that while we were crossing the desert, we held ‘public’ meetings at the Mutualité with about 20 people outside of the group.” [27] Let’s remind ourselves of some of the numbers that he gives: [28] starting in 1950, the highly isolated group includes about ten people, and the journal’s issues are infrequent and thin. Starting in 1952, the number of memberships increases, the content of the journal is enriched, and its publication becomes more frequent, a few correspondents outside of Paris emerge. One finds that 700 copies of the journal are sold each time (up to 1000 for some issues) and roughly a hundred people outside of the group attend its public meetings. On the eve of May 13, 1958, the group included around 30 members (regularly paying dues, and regularly participating in meetings and in collectively decided tasks). The events of 1958 led to the growth of the number of sympathizers (particularly students) up to a hundred (late 1960). Between 1958 and 1961, the group develops: two or three cells operate in Paris and several are created outside of Paris with students and some workers. The public meetings are attended, and the group has an influence over some non-negligible layers of students in Paris, and over workers at Renault because of work pursued there by Mothé, Castoriadis explains. After the second split of 1962, during the last period, the journal’s outside audience was perhaps at its largest (around 1000 copies sold per issue, public meetings bringing together up to 200 people). Still, on the other hand, Castoriadis points out, if ideas were spreading, the group did not properly speaking recruit new activists.

21Bringing together such forces requires considerable work; but the reminder of a few of these elements makes it possible to come back to the status of the group, which was very minor. Its various players are, for that matter, sometimes more known for their academic works or other activities than radical left activism (Lefort as a person involved with Les Temps modernes up until 1953 or as Gurvitch’s assistant in 1951 at the Sorbonne, Casotriadias as an economist at the OECD starting in 1948; Lyotard, who was invited in 1961 to deliver a lecture “The Problem of History in the Phenomenological Perspective” is presented as follows: “Known by philosophers for his excellent little book, Phenomenology, more than for his collaboration with the Journal Socialism or Barbarism…”). [29]

22One finds that the group gradually tied together contacts abroad with other revolutionary groups and their publications, in the United States, in England, in Holland, in Italy and, a bit later, in Japan. The note that closes issue 15-16 from 1954, entitled “‘Socialism or Barbarism’ abroad,” [30] draws up an assessment of the feedback that the group had been able to find outside of France. Nevertheless, this apparently does not include any correspondents in Germany and, on the whole, this feedback remains very modest.

23(5) A final remark: as Marxist critique seems to be called upon for the transformation of society by many people today and for the past several decades, it is difficult to perceive the utterly dissident quality of this path in the fifties and its nearly inaudible quality at the time. Claude Lefort, on several occasions, mentioned this climate of the fifties, at which time a portion of the texts brought together in 1971 in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie were written, years that Lefort will says in 1979 were hardly conducive to a serene exercise of political thinking:


Whomever has not known the ideological terror that made the Communist Party hang over the left in the post-war years, whomever does not know how progressive writers packed together around Stalinism does not have any doubts concerning the difficulty that existed then for speaking about bureaucratic regimes or totalitarianism and breaking though the ramparts of Marxism-Leninism in order to discover Marx’s thought.[31]

25A few years earlier, in June 1970, he already wrote:


Whomever, today, is between twenty and thirty years old has not suffered the hold that the communist parties exerted while Stalin was alive […]. That person did not know a time when progressive intellectuals swirled around the Stalinist baleen, paying for the audacity of an independent gesture with an intensified loyalty – a time when leftism was confined almost entirely to Trotskyists, pushing a few branches in the three or four even thinner small groups in which these Trotskyists, whom the communists qualified as Hitlerite and whom they treated as such whenever they had the chance, while the left-wing press refrained from giving the slightest reverberation to their actions or to their theses. Does this mean that the world of the fifties can no longer arouse the historian’s interest and that what we were writing twelve or twenty years ago no longer has any documentary value?[32]

2 – A few operations applied to politics

27The examination of the confrontation between “SorB” and Frankfurt must therefore, in our view, be placed on another plane than that of the reconstruction of a dialogue between the players of these two groups. The breadth of these two projects can obviously not be compared. The Institut für Sozialforschung, founded in Frankfurt in 1923, still exists, and the “first” Frankfurt School was succeeded by a second School around the figure of Habermas and then likely a third. The “SorB” group has quite a different temporality: it comes into existence in 1948-1949 and dissolves in 1967. Admittedly, its members will go on to participate in other groups (“ILO,” ICO,” “Pouvoir ouvrier,” etc.) and the journal will act as a reference for other journals. In this way, Lefort, a man of journals if there ever was one, will later involve himself with Textures, Libre and then Passé-Présent. It is therefore a question of comparing gestures, practices or operations. In this regard, the comparison of the two groups takes on meaning.

28(1) The first operation concerns the way in which the two groups are set up. The question is not at all anecdotal because the major guiding question of “SorB” was that of organization, the organization of struggles, the organization of the worker’s movement, but also that of its own organization

29As it has often been noted, [33] the designation “school,” a unifying and retrospective designation that establishes itself upon the return from American exile of its main members, is not really suited for the thinkers of Frankfurt, who are both resistant to all dogmatism – and even, out of principle, anti-dogmatic – and to the airtightness of disciplinary walls that the establishment of a school of thought often entails. Moreover, “School” has nothing monolithic about it. Not only does it bring together thinkers from various disciplines, but these thinkers also embody various positions and its life bears the mark of several great debates or disagreements between some of the members dealing, for example, with interpretation and usage of Freudian psychoanalysis [34] or their relationship to dialectical materialism. Changes in direction over the course of time also seem significant, even if they are open to interpretation. [35] It was Miguel Abensour who explained the reasons for the inappropriateness of the qualifier “school” regarding the Frankfurt School, instead of which it would be better to use circle or “movement, in the sense that one speaks about an avant-garde movement.” [36]

30“SorB” also claimed to be an open and heteroclite grouping, setting up a bridge between theory and practice, or rather incarnating a praxis, as one finds in the link between editorial activity and activist activities in connection with workers’ movements. The theoretical production of “SorB” aimed to fuel action, a line of intervention. Concretely, the practical tasks have to do with the establishment of contact between the group and the working class, between the group and other revolutionary groups abroad and, with “creating a bridge between the European working class” [37] and other working classes. Above all, the revolutionary group was marked by a form of spontaneity. This includes at least two aspects. It first means confidence in a certain inventiveness of immediate practice or in the creativity and the positivity of worker struggles and the refusal to manage them or rather that they be managed. These struggles are not missing something that an intellectual organization would be able to bring to them, hence a continuous critique Bolshevism. But it also means the refusal of the party structure or of a traditional vertical organization and a horizon of self-organizing. The is so significant that it is one of the arguments featured by Lefort when he leaves the group in 1958 to found, with Simon, “Informations et liaisons ouvrières” (ILO). He announced having “often been in disagreement with its [the group’s] direction, so much as I was against what appeared to me as tending toward the reconstruction of a party” [38] and:


It is the experience of activism, for several years, that taught me to scrutinize this strange movement through which a grouping […] reintroduces within itself the rules, practices, specific interpersonal relationships of the organizations that it wants to fight against, weaves together the same kind of social fabric, cultivates the same principles of division, of partitioning of sectors of activity, of segregation of information, tends to turn its own existence into and end in itself, gives itself an opaqueness and a closure to thinking.[39]

32In this case as well, the interpretation of this turn or first split is discussed. Castoriadis will imply that Lefort’s departure, motivated by the general question of organization, was already determined by the nascent conviction of the impossibility of revolution or of radical transformation that entails a move beyond social alienation and prevalence in the real of struggles against the established order.

33(2) The second aspect that we can point out deals with advocacy for immanent critique in the field of Marxism. It is first from this point of view that Lyotard compares the two projects. In Chapter 9 of The Postmodern Condition (1979), he distinguishes between two major types of narrative of legitimation of knowledge. For the first type, knowledge finds its validity in itself, “in a subject that develops by actualizing its possibilities of awareness.” [40] The other mode of legitimation takes places in the autonomy of will: positive knowledge informs the practical subject of what it is possible to do but does not determine what one must do. Marxism, Lyotard adds, also oscillated between these two modes of narrative legitimation. The first form is indeed identifiable with Stalinism.


But it can, on the contrary, in accordance with the second version, develop into critical knowledge, by posing that socialism is nothing other than the continuation of the autonomous subject and that all of the justification of science is giving the empirical subject (the proletariat) the means for its emancipation in relation to alienation and to repression: this was, basically, the Frankfurt School’s position.[41]

35Yet, it is remarkable that Lyotard also attributes this project to “Socialism or Barbarism”: “the critical model was upheld and refined […] in minorities like the Frankfurt School or the ‘Socialism or Barbarism group.’” [42] This is also the meaning of the reference to Rosa Luxemburg made by some of those involved with “SorB.” Thus, as an epigraph to Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China (1962), Pierre Souyri includes this sentence:


Marxism is a revolutionary conception of the work that must always fight for new knowledge, that hates nothing as much as petrification into forms that were acceptable in the past and that retains the best of its living strength in the clinking of self-critique’s spiritual weapons, and in the thunder and lightning of history.[43]

37(3) The third point of convergence between the Frankfurt School and “SorB” has to do with the object of political critique. If this critique concerns domination, bureaucratic domination in the case of “SorB,” Horkeimer also defines critical theory as a critique of the exponential development of bureaucracy in the presentation that he gives in 1968 upon the republication of the 1937 text, Traditional and Critical Theory: “the acceptance, with historical materialism, of the termination of man’s prehistory as the goal to be striven for was the theoretical alternative to resignation in the face of the terror-marked trend to a totally managed world.” [44] Above all, in both cases the result is a dialectical genesis of situations of domination brought about by the transformation of an emancipatory project into its opposite.

38“SorB” would then offer, as Castoriadis puts it, an analysis of the “historical fate of Marxism” [45] or of the historical fates of Marxism. [46] This is why Abensour [47] as well as Lyotard were able to compare the objective of “Socialism or Barbarism” to the objective, in a recent past, of Critical Theory, of the first Frankfurt School. It was a question, in a general way, of pointing out how an emancipatory project dialectally transforms into its opposite, into an undertaking of domination, and of denouncing the most hidden and pernicious forms of this reversal. “SorB” showed that the organs that the proletariat seemed to have acquired (parties and unions) did not function or no longer functioned as means of emancipation for the working class but as tools at the service of the bureaucratic class. In existing forms of organizing worker movements, the general inversion of the purpose of organs that had initially set up was recognizable: “How did we get here? How did the power that came out of the first proletarian revolution as victorious transform into the most effective tool of exploitation and oppression of the masses?” [48]

39Adorno and Horkheimer led the analysis of such a reversal by taking Aufklärung as their object, of an inversion of objective reason into instrumental reason or, due to the fact that reason itself is no longer anything other than “merely an aid to the all-encompassing economic apparatus.” [49] We know that Die Dialektik der Aufklärung did not analyze the growth of domination as regression, but as the fulfillment of a tendency toward inherent rationalization toward modernity, and was used to show the intrication of real domination with the ideal domination of the Enlightenment. “SorB” will also work, as we stated, to bring to light the reversal of the Soviet project into its opposite. Thus Castoriadis will analyze the Soviet Union as a form of “State capitalism,” that appears to have broken with private property but that, paradoxically, also appears to demonstrate within itself the reinforcement of capitalist forms of power and of domination.

40Miguel Abensour also calls on this pattern of inversion or of dialectic reversal. He establishes his interest for this phenomenon in his reading of La Boétie’s Discours de la servitude volontaire, whose object, as Abensour defines it, is to understand how domination has its origins not only in the action of the dominators but also in the actions of the dominated, “when suddenly freedom is reversed into its opposite, thus giving birth to voluntary servitude.” [50] This point of departure extends through the project, “in relation to the path that I quickly mentioned between ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ and the Frankfurt School,” [51] of bringing to light contemporary forms of domination whose specificity is to make their opposite into their aim, to be paths of liberation. It is one of the possible declensions of the paradox inherent to the idea of political critique, all of which share the common feature of both the intrication and the intrinsic distinction of politics and domination.

41(4) One finally finds at the heart of both theoretical projects the uneasy and pessimistic analysis of resistances or of the plasticity of capitalist development. Both confront the problem of the worsening rationalization of society. This analysis nevertheless possesses distinct forms. In the first Frankfurt School, the analysis of growing integration of the individual and that of the class to which he belongs, integration of one’s own to be produced, as Marcuse’s puts it, a “disappearance of proletarian and revolutionary class consciousness,” justifies a shift of the plane of realization of emancipation. This can take the form of a mutation in the practice of resistance or in its potential as protest. This attention to singularity, bit by bit, is found to be invested with political stakes, stakes that overtake the objective of transforming objective conditions or the revolutionary project. At least, this project subordinates that fact of working toward progressive tendencies and toward the ability to resist to socially regressive tendencies. [52] As Horkheimer put it in 1970: “our new Critical theory has come to no longer be an activist for revolution […] it needs to do better than that, without stopping progress, conserving what we can judge to be positive […], preserving […] what we do not want to lose.” [53] For Adorno, the importance of reification incurs the demand to shift the project of transformation on the level of the mental life of subjects, a shift that is also called for by the importance of the role of this structure in the success of authorities, undertakings of domination (that are maintained by the affective consent of subjects):


Given that the possibility for transforming social and political objective conditions that give way to such events is extremely limited, attempts aiming to fight against their reproduction are necessarily pushed back to the subjective plane. By this, I also essentially mean the psychology of those who act in this way.[54]

43Nevertheless, what we are calling a shift of the plane of realizing emancipation is wide open for interpretation. Abensour distinguishes four forms therein that we can examine here: the drift of Critical Theory toward a defensive position; Critical Theory’s attempt to overflow into utopia; its radicalization in the sense of negative dialectics; its definition as theory of knowledge, which is also theory of society… [55]

44The question of the emancipatory project’s shift is also the questioning of its revolutionary nature as well as that of resistance of capitalist development, which deeply divided “SorB.” It came into being in a second phase, once the critique of bureaucracy was well underway. For a long time, indeed, the failures of worker movements were attributed to the incompleteness of struggles. Castoriadis can thus write in 1958: “What are the reasons for this failure? These past three months’ strike movements, which were sporadic, restricted and uncoordinated, were not true struggles. The workers did not go on strike to the point of the complete satisfaction of their demands, by making use of all means necessary in order to successfully conclude their action.” [56]

45We can give credit to “SorB” for having not settled for an analysis of so-called socialist bureaucracies (mainly Stalinist bureaucracy), but to have sought to grasp the nature of modern capitalism, to comprehend the reasons for the growth of the Western system since the end of the second World War and, in correlation, the reasons for proletarian apathy in the most “developed” countries as well as their absence of solidarity with the struggle of the Algerian people and, more generally, with the movement of young colonized nations, contradicting the revolutionary Marxist schema of a spontaneous solidarity of proletarians with the oppressed of all sorts and a keen awareness of the convergence of different struggles for liberation – for example, as Lyotard points out in 1958, in recent years, there has been no walk-out for the Algerian War, the French working class has not fought against the Algerian War. [57] The responses of various members of the group were highly varied. While Castoriadis began to doubt that the system is exclusively dominated by economic contradictions inherent to the antagonistic nature of the production process, Souyri continued to see the proletariat as the only class capable of knocking down regimes of exploitation and seemed to interpret the strengthening of capitalism as “a tendency destined to collide with new contradictions,” as an “economic period” and not as a “lasting and stable transformation.” [58]

46Nevertheless, it is only later that, in the group, Marxism became a question, or at least that the question was asked of the operational nature of Marxist categories for the analysis of advanced capitalism, although, the group had also always made use of a critical Marxism. For “SorB,” for many years, modernity was not simply interpreted as supporting the reversal of the emancipatory project into its opposite, but, to make use of Sébastien de Diesbach’s expression, one of the six former members of the group who worked on the publication of the Anthologie of texts from “SorB,” it remained possible to “base a revolutionary perspective on the very movement of modernity,” [59] a movement that remained contradictory. It is also an open questioning of knowledge when and in what form Marxism as a question was asked in the Frankfurt School beyond the implementation of what Abensour named a “free relationship with Marx.”

3 – Comparing “up to a certain point”

47Here we reach limits of the “SorB”/IFS confrontation or, actually, we see that the projects are comparable, as Miguel Abensour puts it, “up to a certain point.”

48(1) First, if one can speak about “SorB” as a group, this cannot be in the sense of an intellectual circle because this group claimed to be an organ (without, however, being a party) working for a political project. Like many other movements from the era, “SorB” worked for theoretical unity of theory and of practice and for a practical theory or rather a critical practice. It was therefore not only a question of theory even if that theory were critical. Nevertheless, as Henri Simon relates, the dimension of concretization took shape with the events of 1958. [60] The criticism for developing into an intellectual circle will be at the heart of the second split, in 1963-1964, which leads to the departure of Pierre Guillaume, Lyotard, Souyri, Véga (to form “Pouvoir Ouvrier”).

49This activism (working for revolution by distributing the journal at the exit of factories, at the exit, not without trouble, of the Sorbonne, by hosting public meetings, etc.) contrasts with the status of Critical Theory. It is not a question of enclosing critical theory into a theoretical framework and of diminishing the fact that several members of the Frankfurt School built their critique of domination onto empirical studies between 1934 and 1950 so that the analysis of social dynamics did not develop into a philosophical system (“The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State” [Marcuse]; Authority and the Family [directed by Horkheimer]; “The Authoritarian State” [Horkheimer]; Behemoth [Neumann]; State Capitalism. Automation [Pollock]; The Authoritarian Personality [Adorno], etc.). Nevertheless, the concern for substantiating (psychologically, sociologically, economically, historically) critique obviously sets itself apart from the activist undertaking of practical critique. Just as the “philosophical” nature of Marcuse’s discourse is criticized by some members of “Sorb,” it is likely that the group could have, as it had discussed, qualified the Frankfurt School’s other great undertakings in the same way, particularly those in which the radical critique of reason supplants specific critique attached to a precise social or historical reality.

50(2) The second limit of this comparison perhaps reaches the status of an assessment of alienation. But this point also comes across more as a question that we are asking than as an affirmation. Earlier, we noted that the spontaneity that we attribute to “SorB” has two facets. It calls for the refusal to direct worker movements and the refusal to establish the group as a party whose mission would be to do so. But, in solidarity, they call for confidence in the creativity of worker struggles and their ability for self-organizing. One would here have to carefully distinguish this spontaneity of the notion later engaged by some – mainly Castoriadis – from creativity or at least measure the shift introduced by the advocation of creativity. [61]

51The position of some Frankfurters on the two points mentioned is open for interpretation. First, the depth of reification somewhat limits the confidence that one can have in the spontaneity of the masses. Marcuse thus explains that “the masses, in advanced capitalism, are not revolutionary.” [62] Later, because of this, he suggests that the development of the working class’s political awareness cannot happen on its own, and it is to this end that an avant-garde revolutionary party must serve, taking the form of working-class councils, neighborhood councils, councils of students, technicians, women, etc. The function of this party is to guide or, in Marcuse’s terms, it must aid the masses to become revolutionary, by organizing what he calls an education that is both theoretical and practical: “the Party’s work is precisely to make the working class well equipped; and this will only happen by placing oneself at its head, thorough an activist politics, not by demagogically pandering to its prejudices and illusions, as today’s communist parties have a tendency to do.” [63] Of course, this interview with Marcuse is from 1973 and its backdrop is another context than the one that marked the analyses of “SorB.” Moreover, let’s say it again, the first Frankfurt School does not possess any “theoretical core,” which would be incompatible with its anti-dogmatism, as Abensour reminds us, whatever question is legitimately posed by the major theoretical lines of strength that structure it. [64]

52But, while Marcuse’s analysis from the seventies bears the mark of some mistrust with regard to autonomy and the initiatives of the masses as a consequence of their apathy and their integration into the system, for a long time the positions of “SorB” had, themselves, been marked with even more confidence in autonomy, although they also cited alienation leading the exploited to strip themselves of the leadership of their own emancipation, repeating the dispossession of their own production in bourgeois society. In doing so, when some members of the group will critique this confidence that is granted to the potentiality of work movements, they will be all the more able to move closer to the positions of the Frankfurt School that are dedicated to the analysis of domination and of the mental resources of interiorizing this domination. We think about Lefort’s retrospective gaze upon his years with “SorB” in this way. In the preface added in 1979 to his work Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, Lefort evokes the excessiveness of hope that he was able to have in the fifties:


For a time, I believed that I was seeing a revolution materializing that would be the work of the oppressed themselves and that would know how to defend itself against those who purported to lead it. I imagined that such a revolution, benefitting from all of the assets of the worker movement, would make the formation of a new State and a new dominant class impossible. The successive attempts of the proletariat to organize and, as it drew closer, through its violent actions, to free itself from oppression, appeared to me to make up an experience in which everything counted, failures just like successes. I attributed it with the power to gradually decode the figures of its alienation, of which the last and the most secret one was given to it by its own bureaucracy. It is in this way that I imagined the movement of truth in History. At present, I know that I was mistaken. These illusions began to vanish in 1958, it was no sooner that I executed my break with “Socialism or Barbarism” and, from that point on, I strove to destroy them.[65]

54Thus, in the 1971 Postface, Lefort wrote that what was mainly missing from “SorB” was an analysis of the changes that affect the nature of social work (even though he had shown how bureaucracy took the place of the bourgeoisie, “faced with it, the proletariat remained in an unchanged position,” [66] despite all of the transformations that affected it) and an analysis of mechanisms (of membership, of socialization, of fetishization, of identification) that control the repetition that is veiling servitude and antagonism and that make up the authorities’ resources: “Yet, wanting to ignore the effectiveness of the imaginary, we only expose ourselves, under the good colors of revolutionary optimism – itself fraudulent and fooled – to maintaining the game of repetition. [67]


56It is difficult to make the distinction – and doubtlessly the question itself is partly vain – between the demands of thought that, for several members of the group, constituted the legacy of this activism and those that singularize the trajectory of each individual. If, in order to conclude, we stop upon the concern for not predetermining in the present the form of realization of a fair future society, we can say that it profoundly marked Frankfurt Critical Theory as much as the thought of Lefort or of Lyotard. In 1970, Horkheimer makes this into a decisive, distinctive and unchanged element of Critical Theory:


[…] Nevertheless, we are aware – and that is a decisive moment in Critical Theory of this period, like Critical Theory today – we are aware that we cannot determine this fair society in advance. We could say what was bad in society at the time, but we could not say what would be good; ultimately, we could only work on making the bad disappear.[68]

58We know how attached Lefort will be to the interpretation of the present understood as attention to the real, to the undetermined nature of the event that demands that it not be entered into already existing theory. [69] In Lyotard, we will find this constant concern with “not seeking to conclude or to resolve one’s experiences.” [70] At the end of the eighties, coming back to his analyses of the Algerian War in “SorB,” Lyotard will recall the scruple that he already had about not anticipating the outcome by means of an already written Marxist scenario, about not resolving the contradictions of present experience in advance. There was a contradiction and the group was divided on what support they should give to the Algerian revolution. On the one hand, how could they support the National Liberation Front, which controlled the struggle of Algerians, when the group gave itself the task of critiquing all organizations that stood in the way of the free development of class struggle? On the other hand, how could they not support a liberation movement?


Plunged into uncertainty, the young activist comes to think that the liberation of Algeria is not and cannot be the resolution of the country’s contradictions. That it will do nothing but transfer, or defer, these contradictions into other forms. And that the contradiction in which it finds itself is one of these forms. It is illusory to lend meaning to an event, to imagine a meaning for an event, anticipating its meaning by means of a pre-text. It is not possible to avoid this kind of anticipation, it offers too much safeguarding against calls, the “touches,” that come to us from the “great X,” – but alas! – no predetermination exempts thinking about responsibility from having to give, case by case, a response to a case.[71]


  • [1]
    Miguel Abensour, La Communauté politique des “tous uns”, Entretien avec Michel Énaudeau, Paris, Éditions des Belles Lettres, 2014, p. 32.
  • [2]
    The interview is currently published on p. 358-373 in Herbert Marcues, Sommes-nous déjà des hommes ? Théorie critique et émancipation. Textes et interventions, 1941-1979, QS ? Éditions, 2018, Archives du futur, edited by Fabien Ollier.
  • [3]
    M. Abenour, La Communauté politique des “tous uns”, op. cit., p. 55, See in particular in the Condition postmoderne.
  • [4]
    See Danilo Scholz, “Tout seul dans le pays de l’heideggérianisme. Adorno conférencier au Collège de France” in Giuseppe Bianco and Frédéric Fruteau de Laclos (eds.), L’Angle mort des années cinquante. Philosophie et sciences humaines en France, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, “La philosophie à l’œuvre,” 2016, p. 126. And Thomas Franck, “L’adornisme français des années cinquante” in Cahiers du GRM [Online], 12 | 2017, published 31 december 2017, consulted 28 may 2019. URL:; DOI: 10.4000/grm.955
  • [5]
    See M. Abensour, “Malheureux comme Adorno en France?” in Variations, N° 6 (La Théorie critique. Héritages hérétiques), Lyon, Éditions Parangon/Vs, 2005.
  • [6]
    Who met Adorno in the United States. He would have previously participated, in 1939, in the Institute’s journal.
  • [7]
    M. Abensour, La Communauté politique des “tous uns”, op. cit., p. 31-32.
  • [8]
    In the Lyotard collections of the Jacques Doucet library, in the “Work Files” that contain, in particular, the notes collected during philosophical studies, a 46-page “Adorno” file (JFL 450) can be found containing reading notes on texts by Adorno as well as on M. Jimenez’s 1973 book and a 28-page “Ernst Bloch” file (JFL 452).
  • [9]
    See note 8.
  • [10]
    Jean-François Lyotard, Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, Paris, Éditions Galilée, 1986, p. 16.
  • [11]
    J.-F. Lyotard, Tombeau de l’intellectuel et autres papiers, Paris, Éditions Galilée, “Débats” collection, 1984, p. 85.
  • [12]
    J.F. Lyotard, Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants, op. cit., p. 96.
  • [13]
    Interview published on p. 1-30 in L’Anti-mythes, N° 14, 1975, p. 11, found in Le Temps présent, Éditions Belin, 2007, p. 223-260.
  • [14]
    Claude Lefort, “Mort de l’immortalité?” (1982), p. 330-364, in Essais sur le politique, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, “Points essais" collection, 1986, p. 336-340.
  • [15]
    Jean-Marc Ferry, “Théorie critique et critique du totalitarisme,” p. 79-102 in Revue française de science politique, 1984, N° 34-1, p. 94-96 sq.
  • [16]
    Max Horkheimer, “La philosophie de la concentration absolue,” p. 313-326 in Théorie Critique, Éditions Payot, “Critique de la politique” collection, 1978, p. 322.
  • [17]
    M. Abensour, “Pour une philosophie politique critique ?,” p. 207-258 in Tumultes, 2001/2002, N° 17-18, p. 234: See also Katia Genel, “Hannah Arendt et l’École de Francfort. Deux critiques de la modernité,” Study group, “La philosophie au sens large,”
  • [18]
    Socialisme ou barbarie, N° 36, April-June 1964, p. 82.
  • [19]
    The group “Informations et correspondances ouvrières” which came out of the first split in 1958 of about twenty activists from “Socialism or Barbarism” (a series of splits whose origin goes back to 1951), is a group formed around Claude Lefort and Henri Simon, which first publishes a newsletter entitled ILO (Informations et Liaisons Ouvrières) up until 1960 then ICO, between 1960 and 1973, the date of the group’s break-up.
  • [20]
    This 1966 text, translated into French with the title “Sommes-nous déjà des hommes ?” is now accessible in Herbert Marcues, Sommes-nous déjà des hommes ? Théorie critique et émancipation. Textes et interventions, 1941-1979, QS ? Éditions, 2018, Archives du futur, edited by Fabien Ollier.
  • [21]
    Informations Correspondances Ouvrières, N° 52, p. 19.
  • [22]
    Ibid., N° 53, p. 24.
  • [23]
    Interview with Cornelius Castoriadis, APL Basse Normandie, 26 January 1974.
  • [24]
  • [25]
    C. Lefort, “Préface” (1979), p. 7-28, in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, Éditions Gallimard, “Tel” Collection, 1979, p. 9.
  • [26]
    Starting from a work on Adorno’s connections with thinkers gravitating around Arguments and institutions preparing his Parisian lectures, Thomas Franck intends to show the existence of a sustained attention for his work and to nuance Abensour’s idea of a minimum impact for the Frankfurter philosophical presence in France: Thomas Franck, “L’Adornisme français des années cinquante,” op. cit.
  • [27]
    Interview with Cornelius Castoriadis, APL Basse Normandie, 26 January 1974, op. cit.
  • [28]
  • [29]
    Lyotard Archives: JFL 394 (lecture at the Collège philosophique in March 1961).
  • [30]
    “‘Socialisme ou barbarie’ à l’étranger,” p. 82-83 in Socialisme ou barbarie, N° 15-16, October-December 1954.
  • [31]
    C. Lefort, “Préface” (1979), p. 7-28 in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, Éditions Gallimard, “Tel” Collection, 1979, p. 8.
  • [32]
    C. Lefort, “Le nouveau et l’attrait de la répétition,” p. 355-371, Postface written in July 1970 for Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, op. cit., p. 355-356.
  • [33]
    Katia Genel, “Hannah Arendt et l’École de Francfort, Deux critiques de la modernité,” p. 1:
  • [34]
    See K. Genel, “L’approche sociopsychologique de Horkheimer, entre Fromm et Adorno” in Astério [Online], 7 | 2010, published online 31 August 2020, consulted 26 June 2019. URL:; DOI: : 10.4000/asterion.1611.
  • [35]
    J.M. Ferry (op. cit., p. 81-82) points out, for example, that the triple assertion that seems to be supported by Horkeimer’s 1970 text, “Critical Theory Yesterday and Today” (it is not about fighting for revolution: the political vision of socialism by Marx is to be drawn into question; one must preserve certain values of liberalism) does not constitute a break in the unity of Critical Theory. What, from the outside, might constitute a turn does not, for him, possess such a bold meaning.
  • [36]
    M. Abensour, “La théorie critique : une pensée d’exil ?,” p. 179-200 in Archives de philosophie, N° 45, 1982.
  • [37]
    “‘Socialism ou barbarie’ à l’étranger,” op. cit., p. 9.
  • [38]
    C. Lefort, “Préface” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, op. cit., p. 9.
  • [39]
    C. Lefort, “Postface” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, op. cit., p. 360-361.
  • [40]
    J.-F. Lyotard, Condition postmoderne, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, “Critique” Collection, 1979, p. 60.
  • [41]
    Ibid., p. 62.
  • [42]
    Ibid., p. 28.
  • [43]
    Pierre Souyri, Révolution et contre-révolution en Chine. Des origines à 1949, Paris, Éditions Christian Bourgois, 1982 (republication), p. 45.
  • [44]
    Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell and others, New York, Continuum, 1972, p. IX.
  • [45]
    Cornelius Castoriadis, “Marxisme et théorie révolutionnaire,” p. 13-248 in L’Institution imaginaire de la société, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, “Points Essais” Collection, 1975, p. 17. The text was first published in SorB between April 1964 and June 1965, in N° 36 to 40.
  • [46]
    The analysis of the bureaucratic nature of regimes of exploitation set up in the name of socialism focused on bureaucracies in Eastern European countries and Russian bureaucracy (in articles in the Journal such as “Production Relations in Russia,” “Stalinism in East Germany,” “Yugoslavian Bureaucracy,” “Totalitarianism without Stalin” or “Revolution in Poland and in Hungary”) but also on the potentially bureaucratic future of the Algerian revolution (for example: “The social content of the Algerian struggle” (December 1959-February 1960), and on the purportedly socialist nature of the Chinese revolution. We can quote the last phrase of Souyri’s book as an example: “From whatever angle one examines it, nothing resembles a worker and peasant revolution less than this revolution which, one hundred years after the Communist Manifesto, came into the world opening its arms to the despots of the old regime, and declaring to the workers and to the peasants that their own emancipation was not their concern” (Révolution et contre-révolution en Chine, op. cit., p. 441).
  • [47]
    M. Abensour, La Communauté politique des “tous uns”, Entretien avec Michel Énaudeau, op. cit., p. 35.
  • [48]
    Article “Socialisme ou barbarie” in Socialisme ou barbarie, N° 1, March-April 1949, p. 28.
  • [49]
    Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Mieke Bal and Hent de Vries, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Stanford, Stanford University Press, p. 23.
  • [50]
    M. Abensour, La Communauté politique des “tous uns”, op. cit., p. 34.
  • [51]
    Ibid., p. 35.
  • [52]
    Jean-Marc Durand-Gasselin, “La philosophie sociale et ses ressources. Réflexions sur quelques styles et figures comparés,” p. 34-57 in Cahiers philosophiques, N° 132, 2013, p. 36. This makes up one of the characteristic traits of the intellectual work of social philosophy.
  • [53]
    M. Horkheimer, “La théorie critique hier et aujourd’hui,” p. 353-369 in Théorie critique, Éditions Payot, “Critique de la politique” collection, 1978, p. 359.
  • [54]
    Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford, New York, Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • [55]
    M. Abensour, “La Théorie critique: une pensée de l’exil ?,” op. cit., p. 182.
  • [56]
    C. Castoriadis, “Comment lutter ?” (in Socialisme ou barbarie, No. 23, January 1958) republished p. 409-444 in L’Expérience du mouvement ouvrier. “Socialisme ou barbarie”, Paris, Éditions 10/18, 1974, p. 410.
  • [57]
    J.-F. Lyotard, “Mise à nue des contradictions algériennes,” in Socialisme ou barbarie 24 May-June 1958, republished in La Guerre des Algériens, Écrits 1956-1963, Paris, Éditions Galilée, “Débats” collection, 1989, p. 98.
  • [58]
    Letter from Souyri to Lyotard in January 1960, quoted by Lyotard in “Mémorial pour un marxiste : à Pierre Souyri,” p. 89-134 in Pérégrinations, Paris, Éditions Galilée, “Débats” collection, 1990, p. 109-110.
  • [59]
    Socialisme ou Barbarie. Anthologie, Éditions Acratie, 2007, p. 11.
  • [60]
    Henri Simon, “De la scission avec ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ à la rupture avec I.C.O.” in L’Anti-Mythes, N° 6: “58 was the abrupt upsurge of events, of reality in a small group in which all of the discussions were theoretical and in which ultimately differences of opinion could perfectly live together without provoking a clash, because ultimately there was no interest in fighting on this subject…The discussions remained theoretical, purely academic. Starting from the moment when it became a concrete discussion, things intensified and, for that matter, from both sides.”
  • [61]
    See the critique by Lyotard of Castoriadis’s notion of creativity and what sets it apart from the “impetus” of “Sorb” in the political field in Économie libidinale, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, “Critique” Collection, 1974, p. 142 sq.
  • [62]
    Herbert Marcuse, Interview “Socialism ou Barbarie” p. 358-373 in Herbert Marcuse, Sommes-nous déjà des hommes ? Théorie critique et émancipation, op. cit., p. 371.
  • [63]
  • [64]
    M. Abensour, “La théorie critique : une pensée de l’exil ?,” p. 179-200 in Archives de philosophie, N°. 45, 1982, p. 183.
  • [65]
    C. Lefort, “Préface” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, op. cit., p. 9.
  • [66]
    C. Lefort, “Postface” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, op. cit., p. 364.
  • [67]
    Ibid., p. 371.
  • [68]
    M. Horkheimer, Théorie critique, op. cit., p. 356-358.
  • [69]
    See, in this file, Yaël Gambatotto’s text, “La philosophie comme interprétation du présent : Claude Lefort et les années ‘Socialisme ou barbarie’.”
  • [70]
    J.-F. Lyotard, “Touches,” p. 37-57 in Pérégrinations, Paris, Éditions Galilée, “Débats” Collection, 1990, p. 54.
  • [71]
    Ibid., p. 56-57.