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Socialisme ou Barbarie Theorist Claude Lefort Dies at Age 86

Socialisme ou Barbarie Theorist Claude Lefort Dies at Age 86Tendance Coatesy

The French political theorist and philosopher Claude Lefort died on Sunday the 3rd of October at 86 years old. For the left Lefort’s most significant political and intellectual activity was some time ago, in the 1950s hey-days of the libertarian socialist (and critical Marxist) French group, Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Wikipedia summarises thus:

Claude Lefort (1924 – October 4, 2010) was a French philosopher and activist.

He was politically active by 1942 under the influence of his tutor, the phenomenologistt Maurice Merleau-Ponty (whose posthumous publications Lefort later edited). By 1943 he was organising a faction of the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris (Note: an elite institution of the Parisian intellectual bourgeoisie).

Lefort was impressed by Cornelius Castoriadis when he first met him. From 1946 he collaborated with him in the Chaulieu-Montal Tendency, so called from their pseudonyms Pierre Chaulieu (Castoriadis) and Claude Montal (Lefort). They published On the Regime and Against the Defence of the USSR, a critique of both the Soviet Union and its Trotskyist supporters. They suggested that the USSR was dominated by a social layer of bureaucrats, and that it consisted of a new kind of society as aggressive as Western European societies. By 1948, having tried to persuade other Trotskyists of their viewpoint, they broke away with about a dozen others and founded the libertarian socialist group Socialisme ou Barbarie. Lefort’s text L’Expérience prolétarienne was important in shifting the group’s focus towards forms of self-organisation. (Note: their views had something in common both with theories of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ of Djilas’ critique of the ‘new class’ in Stalinist states).

During the 1970s Lefort moved from his libertarian socialist, or ‘gauchiste’ origins, to develop a more general (and explicitly non-Marxist) theory of ‘totaliarianism’. This owed a debt to thinkers like Hannah Arendt (the importance of the plastic nature of politics, and its degradation by ‘totalitarian’ social power), and less to the concepts of a new bureaucratic class.

Lefort’s theory of ’ totalitarianism’ developed, amongst others, these themes:

Totalitarianism abolished the distinction between the state and society. Political power ruled all human relations and created a hierarchy of power. That is between those who give orders and those who obey. The totalitarian ruling enclosed all the public and private space. Totalitarianism denied the principle of internal division in society ( « le principe de division interne de la société ») and affirmed the primacy of the totality – subordinating every social organisation to the state, and all personal life to its orders. Stalinism rested on the "identification of the people with the proletariat, the proletariat with the party, the party with its leadership and the leadership with the Egocrate" (on the model of Bureau-crat). (Lefort 1981, p. 175) The totalitarian state was continuously mobilised against ‘enemies’. Lefort elaborated this ‘ideal-typical’ picture in greater detail over the years.

Opposed to Totalitarianism was Democracy. For Lefort this was characterised above all by institutionalised conflict. This recognised as legitimate divergent interests, different opinions, and clashing visions of the world. Its basic principle was created around an “empty place”, that disappearance of absolute sovereignty (both historically at the end of feudalism, and intellectually, as universal suffrage became a political norm. The grounding of society was axed on no unifying central principle. Democracy was “invented” in this constant stream of divergence.

Democracy was founded on “désincorporation”, having no fixed body. It was bolstered by the separation between civil society and the state, though Lefort considered that alongside representative mechanisms social movement played a role in democratic creativity.

A consequence of this ‘anti-totalitarian’ stand was that the world was regarded as divided between totalitarian and anti-totalitarian states. That is, the Western democracies and the Soviet-Chinese spheres. As a result Lefort, and his fellow thinkers often opposed the Left, considering them agents of totalitarianism. Outside of the fringes of the French ‘second left’, the left as such showed few signs of interest in Lefort’s ideas - though he has had some influence academically, notably in liberal American universities, amongst postgraduates.