Claude Lefort – action and criticism



Considerations on the political and intellectual trajectory of the French philosopher

When we consider the first twenty years of realization of the great modernization project of the Brazilian University – the years that go from 1934 to 1954 – we cannot fail to be surprised, always once again, with the share of luck that this company had: the collaboration of many young foreign professors, whose exceptional value would later be proven by works of great significance in their respective fields of investigation.

In the case of the Faculty of Philosophy, Bastide, Braudel, Lévi-Strauss are always remembered. In the case of the Philosophy chair, the cycle of our first 20 years ended in 1954 with a name that not only exponentially honored this gallery, but that greatly benefited us with his work and his friendship. For, from then on – during these years he spent in São Paulo (1953 and 1954) – he always paid special attention to Brazil, cultivated bonds of friendship with his Brazilian colleagues, was willing – he who had some resistance to the dispersion of trips – to come to Brazil countless times (for courses, congresses, conferences) and received, with a unique affability, a large number of Brazilian students at the EHESS CETSAS (Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales).

My generation had the pleasure of hearing him countless times in São Paulo. In 1974 he gave a beautiful course at the Department of Philosophy on the “Birth of Ideology” in the context of “Civic Humanism”, when we heard, for the first time, names like Salutati, L. Bruni and mentions of the work of Hans Baron, Guilbert or Lauro Martines. In 1975 he came to an SBPC meeting in Belo Horizonte. In 1983 he came twice, once for conferences in Porto Alegre and at USP, another for a course in Social Sciences. In 1988 for a conference at Cebrap, at the IEA and at the Department of Philosophy at USP. From the 1990s onwards, he attended several courses promoted by Adauto Novaes (with whom he became a great friend). This to remember the occasions that come to mind.

I always wanted to ask him about the circumstances that brought him to Brazil in the early 50s, but I ended up not doing so. I was always intrigued by the fact that this 29-year-old, already “well situated” in the French intellectual milieu, wanted to come and teach in São Paulo. In 1945 he already published in number two of Modern Times, recommended by Raymond Aron, who was also close to one of the magazine's then mentors, Maurice Merleau-Ponty; has an important political engagement in leftist groups – from 1943 to 1949 in the PCI and later in the group Socialism or Barbarism. Between 1952 and 1954, in the pages of his own Modern Times, with the already great intellectual star of post-war France, Jean-Paul Sartre.

What would have brought this young man to São Paulo who, shortly after his return to France, did not miss a post at the University of Paris, as assistant to the prestigious G. Gurvitch – a post he held for two years, then moving to a long stay in Caen before your move to the École? It is possible that one of his Brazilian students from the 50s, like Professor José Arthur Gianotti, who became his friend, might satisfy this persistent curiosity. A significant curiosity (as it is perhaps also significant that we did not satisfy it). But for the time being, I am content with the idea of ​​great luck – being able to count on the friendship, attention and work that this extraordinary political thinker dedicated to Brazil, to the Department of Philosophy at USP and to so many of us in particular. We are very grateful for his work and his friendship.

The path opened by Claude Lefort's militant thought seems to me to be paradigmatic of the questions and transformations of the left in the long XNUMXth century – a century that began entirely guided by the flash of the idea of ​​Revolution, of total transformation of the order of the world, and ended with the blackout of this belief, with its almost complete emptying. In the beginning, the horizon of commitment to the project of human emancipation with a radical break with the past of human exploitation – imbued, therefore, with the belief in a radical rupture point between this past and the future; in the end, the bitter taste of witnessing the hegemony of the liberal order erected at the end of history.

At first, everything points to the triumph of the 1917 Revolution; therefore, the great event, the advent of the new, the future, seems to unfold in the Soviet Union: there would have been a radical break with the past of exploitation, initiating the era of emancipation and equality; there, then, the new man would be born, manifesting reason in History. Even the non-communist Western intelligentsia, as we know, is conquered by the image of the Revolution. European intellectuals make public demonstrations of sympathy for the USSR; justify their domestic and foreign policy; they multiplied their anti-war and anti-fascist manifestos and enthusiastically recounted their trips to the USSR. They become socialists, communists, or at least, as they said then, “route compagnons".

However, soon, as we also know, most of them will abandon this "road.”: the Moscow trials (1936 to 1938), the German-Soviet pact, then Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the news about the concentration camps, etc. Little remained at the end of the century of those convictions, of the great revolutionary horizon – especially after the collapse of the Soviet system. Lefort himself noted this on one occasion: “today even the word capitalism, he said, threatens to disappear from our vocabulary”. There is no more “capitalist exploitation”: we live in “market” societies. No more exploitation, no more losers strut for life. But I remember all this because it was in this bewildering century that Lefort made an admirable path, a path that we could perhaps see as entirely polarized by the demand to understand the nature and logic of the social formation and the Soviet regime; the realities that polarize the questions of the century. Well, his own reflection on Democracy emerges from this quest to understand the dynamics of the Revolution and the trajectory of the Soviet regime.

Let us quickly and summarily point out this journey. I begin with the teenager from a family with a leftist sensibility (enthusiastic in 1936 by the popular front by Léon Blum), who, at the age of 15, is disturbed – as he has reported on several occasions – by Roger Martin du Gard's book on the Dreyfuss affair and who then rushes to read another book by the same author, Les Thibault, allowing himself to be carried away by the “adventures of the young hero who becomes a socialist and pacifist, who fights desperately to mobilize workers against the 1914 war and who finds death by throwing leaflets from an airplane over French and German lines”, as remembers in interview (L'Anti-Mythes).

At the age of 17, in 1941-42 (during the occupation), he discovered Marxism in the philosophy course of Merleau-Ponty and began to attend a Trotskyist group, as well as methodically reading Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, under the guidance of a leader of the group that becomes your friend. But, the meeting with the Trotskyists is not by chance, as he himself reports, in 1975, in the beautiful interview given to the L'Anti-Mythe. Before that, in Carnot high school, Merleau-Ponty had asked him one day if he was interested in politics and then what he thought of the Communist Party. Astonished by his answers, Merleau-Ponty asks him if he knows Trotsky and, faced with a negative answer, tells him: “if you knew him, you would be a Trotskyist”.

Because, in fact, he detests in the PCF dogmatism, monolithism, the cult of authority, discipline, “democratic centralism”. In the USSR, he criticizes the militarization of society, bureaucratic hierarchy, inequality of wages and even socialist realism. He found in Marx the critique of bourgeois society in all its aspects, aspiring, therefore, for an anti-authoritarian and critical Marxism. Thus, in 1943, now aged 19, he became a Trotskyist.

But what is it, then, to become a Trotskyist? To be a Trotskyist is, above all, to understand the USSR as a degenerated socialist state; however, socialist. Why a socialist state? Because it would maintain the socialist bases of production: property had been nationalized (since there had been abolition of private property) and planned production (that is, socialized). Thus, the Revolution is accomplished, even if degenerated or deformed. What degeneration is it? The insidious and corrosive bureaucratic degeneration. The parasitic bureaucracy takes advantage of the distribution of the product of that socialized production. Thus, the relations of production are socialist; but the revolution was betrayed, according to the formulation made canonical by Trotsky.

It is within this framework of interpretation and criticism of the Soviet regime that the young Lefort then moves – although, as he says, with many other questions and reservations regarding historical determinism, the leading role given to the proletariat, its “class alliance” with the peasantry, and many others. Thus, in the six years that he remained in the Internationalist Communist Party, from 1943 to 1949, the criticisms, soon turned to the party itself, increased. Trotsky, he thinks, had fetishized the concepts of nationalization, collectivization of production, planning, in order to avoid criticizing the relations of production established by the Soviet regime and in order to remove the question of the class nature of the Bolshevik bureaucracy, accident, deviation. Lefort finds solid support for his criticisms with the arrival of Cornelius Castoriadis from Greece, as he was already making a precise analysis of production relations in the Soviet Union. Next, they leave the PCI, in 1949.

Lefort, Castoriadis and a small group constitute, then, the magazine-collective Socialism or Barbarism, under the fundamental idea that the USSR constitutes a new socio-economic formation, which has nothing to do with socialism. Trotsky's mistake, they said, was to confuse the legal form of ownership of the means of production, in fact nationalized, with their actual social and economic content. Being a proprietor is not just having the recognized right to negotiate what is yours in the market. It is the power to dispose (manage – use) what is yours. Therefore, if ownership of the means of production is at issue, the question must be: who owns the means of production? Who determines what will be produced, how it will be produced, how consumption will be divided, etc.

In the case of the USSR, the answer is very clear: it is the Soviet bureaucracy. Therefore, in the relations of production, the bureaucracy occupies the place that the capitalists previously occupied. As a result, we have state capitalism, bureaucratic capitalism. This state capitalism, say our young militants, does nothing more than carry out a historical tendency of capitalist development. And here we are dealing with a more perverse capitalism, since the workforce no longer has any bargaining power; it cannot go on strike, it has no voice and life of its own, sucked away by bureaucracy.

Finally, it is not enough to say, like Trotsky, that “property belongs to the Nation”, that the means of production have been nationalized. It is necessary to understand which group, which class, plays the role of the Nation in these relations of production. In the USSR, the “Nation” evidently covers up the domination of the bureaucracy. We are in the full domain of ideology. The Nation is projected onto the proletariat; the proletariat, in its party; the party, in its steering committee; the steering committee, in Stalin the egocrat. In short, there will only be effectively collectivized property when the workers themselves dispose of the conditions and means of production, when they are their own managers, that is, when there is self-management.

What, then, would be the true Revolution? It would, of course, be the abolition of the leader/directed division. What would true socialism be? A direct power from the workers and no longer from their “directing body”, the Party. Socialism, therefore, is the management of social life by the workers themselves. Well, that's a nice nominal definition of socialism! But how to get to its real definition? What are the conditions of possibility for this generalized self-management of social production? How is this done, how is it possible? Castoriadis still moves, Lefort believes, on the horizon of determinism (that of the “revolution in things”, as Merleau-Ponty says): historical development would make the Revolution possible by itself. Everything happens, therefore, as if it were enough to abolish property and bureaucracy so that a good society could emerge.

But, let's look closely, the collective Socialism or Barbarism he had a great thesis – the class character of the Soviet bureaucracy – and a political line – anti-capitalist and anti-bureaucratic – from which he deduced other theses concerning all the problems of the labor movement. The group sees itself, therefore, Lefort thinks, as the depositary and guarantor of understanding the true meaning and direction of the socialist Revolution. They think that those who have undertaken the critique of “real socialism” and understood the meaning of the revolution must organize and act (by “their own means”) to achieve their revolutionary goals. Thus, most of the group – much to Lefort's discomfort – saw in the magazine an instrument to build a revolutionary organization and a program of political action.

Let's listen to Lefort's statement in the interview with L'Anti-Mythe: “the group's experience is instructive, because it reveals certain traits, in my opinion, inevitable, of a movement that believes itself to be the embryo of revolutionary organization. None of my former comrades, I think, will dispute: Socialism or Barbarism, without losing sight of its extreme numerical fragility, defined itself as the nucleus of the World Revolutionary Leadership. The core, evidently, destined to transform itself from the moment that a working-class avant-garde coalesced around it. But, finally, it was evident that we potentially embodied this Direction. A leadership, certainly, of a new kind, given that its program was the autonomy of the working class, the fight against bureaucracy. But, after all, a Directorate, an organism whose goal was to conceive the tasks of the labor movement and to encompass all the problems posed by the advent of socialism in the present historical conditions and, therefore, whose first intention was to define the features of the near future. “Revolutionary perspectives and tasks”, the formula that opens the last chapter of all the programs submitted to the Congresses of the great parties is well known; this formula was, of course, also ours”.

It is clear, therefore, that Lefort's criticism of Bolshevism already aimed at the role assigned to the "revolutionary party", so that within the group his discomfort was permanent with this claim to Socialism or Barbarism in considering itself a “party organ”, “albeit a virtual party”. Lefort saw in the magazine only an organ of reflection, discussion, information, in short, an organ of revolutionary criticism and questioning. Thus, the rupture, announced almost from the beginning, became definitive when, in 1958, with the De Gaulle coup, the group “thinks that the time has come to effectively build the organization of which it dreamed”.

Lefort will say later: “I think that at that moment they lost the notion of reality”. In this rupture, Lefort's criticism has two clear targets: first, the idea of ​​an autonomous revolutionary leadership. If the revolution is the power of the proletariat, this power, even in the revolution, can only be exercised by him. A leadership, a party, which acts “by its own means”, which fixes “its own means”, would tend to subordinate the autonomous class struggle to its own strategy and political decisions. One cannot pretend to direct the action of autonomous proletarian movements, as if the 'party' were the owner of the universal, the holder of the meaning of the revolutionary movement. The proletariat is capable of defining its action and its objectives itself. An organization could only provide you with means to develop: theoretical clarification, information, connections.

He already expressed such a position in an article (“L'experience proletarian”) of 1952: “it is only from within the proletariat that knowledge of its history, of its differentiation, of its present tasks can take shape. A direction would crystallize this process of self-knowledge”. A second target for Lefort in his break with Socialism or Barbarism aimed at the very concept of self-management. It is clear that self-management refers to an element of democratic dynamics: participation in decisions in the field of production, administration, schools, and various aspects of social life. However, says Lefort, “conceived as a way of functioning of society taken as a whole, [the idea of ​​self-management] seems to me to be phantasmagoric and even dangerous. Under the guise of mass democracy, it could subject all actions and representations to the common denominator of a 'will of the people'. And the dynamics of democracy would be lost”.

Immediately, therefore, in the first place, the departure of Lefort from Socialism or Barbarism it is associated with his criticism of the postulation of a revolutionary direction, which the group, in its own way, intends to embody; but he is not unaware, then, that the idea of ​​direction is linked to the very idea of ​​revolution. The root of the illusion, he recalls, lies in the representation – inherited from Marx – of a social space that is really divided and destined to become really unified. In other words: “the reduction of the social division to the division of two antagonistic classes that compose, as it were, two societies in one, in such a way that one of them – that of the exploited – could destroy the other and dissolve in itself all the adverse elements, to make [then] a homogeneous society”: society without division, society completely ordered, organic, entirely related to itself, transparent to itself. Therefore, on the horizon of his criticism, it is not just the notion of leadership and party, but more profoundly “the belief in a 'solution', in a general formula for organizing society”. This is what he denounces as illusory.

We are, as can be seen, at the door of the Lefortian interrogation of Democracy, as the philosopher himself testifies: “these reflections led me to re-examine the idea of ​​democracy [...] that I thought essential to free from the representation suggested by the practice of bourgeois democracy, against which Marx and Lenin had justifiably directed their criticisms. Central problem for me: to think of a society that welcomes the effects of social division and the effects of history; that welcomes the heterogeneity of the social – a problem whose study should lead me more and more towards a reinterpretation of the political in the sense that the classics gave to that term, [...] the one that my work on Machiavelli came to feed from 1956 onwards”. The story that follows is well known. Machiavelli, the thinker of the constitutive social division, of the enterprise of socialization of men as inseparable from the conflict, inscribed in the opposition of the desires of 'the great' and the 'people', comes, in fact, to “feed”, in a decisive way, this extraordinary path of critical reflection.

*Sergio Cardoso He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP.

Text established from a communication in the “International Colloquium Claude Lefort: the invention of democracy today”. Originally Published in Ethics and political philosophy notebooks, flight. 1, no32, 2018.


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