The legacy of Claude Lefort

Il·lustració. Retrat de Claude Lefort © Guillem Cifré

Lefort discovered in the foundations of totalitarianism the representation of the people-as-one; he described a regime that tries to deny that division is a constituent of society. By destroying the division between civil society and state, power hopes to condense the spheres of power, knowledge and the law into the same pole. Ignorance of the division creates a dynamic that understands the other in terms of disease.

A pupil of Merleau-Ponty, a youthful critic of Soviet Stalinism and bureaucracy, a reader of Machiavelli and Marx, of Tocqueville and La Boétie, co-founder with Cornelius Castoriadis of Socialisme ou Barbarie, joint editor of various magazines that stoked intellectual debate in France during the 70s and 80s,1 Claude Lefort (1924-2010) remained loyal throughout these experiences to an interrogating stance: paying attention to what the work of thought or the social phenomenon shows us over and above its ideological representation; understanding the political experiences of our day.

In "The Gap between Past and Future" Hannah Arendt held that thought is born of the events of experience, and that it must remain linked to them as the only indicators that can guide it.2 It is no accident that Lefort should have decided to call his last book (which gathers various articles he wrote in the course of his life) Le temps present. Écrits 1945-2005.3 His interest in attempting to understand the appearance of the unexpected, of that which is a sign of the present time, guided his intellectual research. Applying a method that tries to dismantle any dogmatic approach both to thought and to history, Lefort set out to retrieve the fundamental distinctions of political thought. His career is linked to an effort to return to a way of thinking the political with attention to existing forms of society and to the differences between them. In the course of this work he confronts what he calls the blindness of intellectuals in thinking the political; in particular, the blindness of the left in thinking about the phenomenon of totalitarianism and, in contrast to this, the phenomenon of democracy. In short, he looks at the inability to distinguish between a free regime and a despotic regime, between freedom and servitude.

What are the indicators that guide him to be able to think about the different forms of society, the differences between regimes? What political, as well as philosophical experiences, form part of Lefort's outlook?

Political thought, social sciences and Marxism

At the centre of Claude Lefort's theoretical reflection we can clearly make out a permanent interest in rethinking the political over and above the social sciences and Marxism. This breakaway gesture means renouncing the subordination of the event to history written in capital letters, renouncing its inscription in a supposedly more real or truer register; and at the same time it means rejecting the objectivist claim of the social sciences, which take what needs explaining as true. As Lefort says, the fact that politics is restricted to a particular sector of the social space already has a political significance of its own. Criticising trust in an individual who could place himself above the reality of society, who could remain outside it to analyse it objectively or to read in the particular the sign of a predetermined course, Lefort proposed a rethinking of the specificity of the political.

If we look at the writings from the 1950s and 1960s4 and those from after 1970, we note a change in perspective in the way in which Lefort thinks about the nature of the social bond: we perceive a shift away from the search for a principle of social intelligibility towards the conviction that there is no order that pre-exists its political make-up. This change is the result of the acknowledgement that society can not be understood through itself, but that its raison d'etre is, in a way, to be found outside it.5 On this basis, Lefort understands that the political can not be considered simply a particular dimension of society, but must be understood as the generating principle that shapes the social, that makes the relationship between individuals and between them and the world intelligible. Hence, when he attempts to think about the political institution of the social, what Lefort proposes is, in short, to reveal –over and above the practices, over and above the relations, over and above the institutions that emerge from factual determinations, be they natural or historical– an assembly of connections that are not deducible either from nature or from history, but that order the comprehension of what is presented as real.

This style of thought was first laid out in Lefort's research on Machiavelli,6 in which he singled out what were to be two key elements for putting together his understanding of the political. First of all, through his reading of The Prince and the Discorsi, Lefort discovered the original and insurmountable nature of social division, which is rendered in Machiavelli through the presentation of two opposing desires: the desire of the great to dominate and the desire of the people not to be dominated. Secondly, Lefort discovered in the figure of Machiavelli's prince a certain exteriority of power with respect to this original division: power is the symbolic pole from which the division is articulated; and the ways in which this articulation comes about are what shape the different political regimes.

At the centre of the analysis of the political, therefore, is the phenomenon of power. Through the representation of power, and its relation with law and knowledge, we get to see society's symbolic structure, its organising principle. Power, which is engendered through division, makes it possible to differentiate societies according to how it is represented to them. But this difference is instituted over a common background: to Lefort it is a question of knowing the fate of social division under each regime. Indeed, the fact that the social space is ordered and unified, despite the divisions that pierce it, is a pointer to somewhere where the social can be seen, spoken or named. Power appears as that place, thereby showing a certain exteriority of society from itself. Nevertheless, we must avoid projecting that exteriority into the real; the distance between power and social division does not involve a separation between two different entities; on the contrary, it involves the discovery of the place of the political, of that which allows the social to be shaped, delimiting the relation between inside and outside.

In this respect, and in general, Lefort sets out to elaborate a questioning on the political whose guiding idea holds that societies can be distinguished one from another by their regime, or, to put it more suitably, by a certain way of giving form (mise en forme) to human coexistence. Political thought is therefore not restricted to a particular scientific genre, rather its field is the social as such: its constitution, the basis for its articulation. However, to the extent to which we are always already immersed in society, to the extent to which it is impossible to look at society outside a particular way of understanding and giving meaning and signification to the social, Lefort comes to the conclusion that the way we can reach an understanding of the nature of the political is by comparing regimes.

Il·lustració. Retrat de Claude Lefort © Guillem Cifré Portrait of Claude Lefort © Guillem Cifré

Democracy and totalitarianism

In "The Question of Democracy",7 Lefort wonders at the blindness of intellectuals before the phenomenon of totalitarianism. He points out that subtlety in the handling of philosophical works does not prevent great thinkers from returning to the most recalcitrant realism when it comes to thinking about politics, to trying to understand a newly coined political phenomenon. Only Arendt has taken a similar path to Lefort's, in trying to understand the specificity of totalitarianism, a phenomenon the classical terms tyranny and despotism no longer manage to define. They both understand that totalitarianism has been possible due to a radical break with the past, with tradition. But unlike Arendt, Lefort tries to think about the phenomenon in the classical terms of a political regime.

As I said earlier, studying Machiavelli led Lefort to the discovery that all societies are pierced by an original division, and that the way this division is dealt with is what makes it possible to differentiate between different regimes. Machiavelli uses this conceptual structure to interpret the difference between princedom, republic and licence. Lefort used it to distinguish between the Ancien Regime, democracy and totalitarianism.

The break with the theologico-political, and with the way of articulating the relations between power, the law and knowledge in the Ancien Regime, is seen by Lefort as the key to understanding the specificities of the symbolic device both of democracy and of totalitarianism. To put it very briefly, the logic of the theologico-political device was characterised by the incarnation of power in the figure of the monarch, the mediator between men and gods. Incorporated in the prince, power gave body to society, made it one in spite of its divisions. Subject to the Law and above laws, the prince condensed in his body the unity of the kingdom. But the guarantee of that unity was assured by a principle of exteriority: power pointed to something beyond the social; political legitimacy was sustained thanks to the reference to transcendence. In this respect, Lefort held that the theologico-political model provides an imaginary representation of the symbolic: there the "excess of being over appearance"8 figures elsewhere, as outside society.

Against this background it is possible to understand the novelty of democracy. According to Lefort, the fundamental characteristic of democratic modernity arises from a double movement of breaking and continuity: if in the Ancien Regime the reference to the othern figured somewhere else, in democratic modernity this dimension does not disappear, although its representation changes.9 Society does not become transparent, it still has a reference to otherness, but that otherness is no longer figurable, it can not be incarnated in any definitive representation, and therefore the locus of power appears as an empty place. But if the locus of power can no longer refer to a particular outside (God or nature), neither can it be reduced to an undifferentiated within; it points to "a separation between the interior and the exterior of the social which, nevertheless, institutes its relation".10

Thus in democracy the locus of power continues to procure for society the sign of an outside. But from the moment it can not be named, from the moment no-one has definitive authority to occupy the place of the grand judge or the grand mediator, the organ of power shows itself tacitly to be purely symbolic. At the same time, a process begins to do away with the overlapping between the spheres of power, knowledge and the law. Law and knowledge assert themselves in the face of power with new exteriority and irreducibility. Empty, unoccupiable, the locus of power lends itself to a dynamic of competition and critique which enables the legitimation of conflict in every dimension of social life. "The main thing", says Lefort, "is that democracy is instituted and maintained by the 'dissolution of the markers of certainty'. It opens a history in which men experience an indetermination with regard to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and with regard to the basis of relations between one and the other in all registers of social life."11

In light of the democratic experience the totalitarian phenomenon is better understood. Its shaping also involves a symbolic mutation whose best expression is is the new position of power. While democracy faces the disappearance of the theologico-political mechanism by maintaining the unrepresentable distance between the inside and the outside, through the work of uncertainty, totalitarianism is seen by Lefort as the attempt to annul that distance, to close it. A reader of Boétie, Lefort discovered in the foundations of totalitarianism the representation of the people-as-one; he described a regime that tries to deny that division is a constituent of society. Here a logic of identification takes place, directed by an embodying power, between the people, the party and the egocrat, while the image that spreads is one of a homogeneous and transparent society without internal fissures. In a move to appropriate the principles and ultimate aims of social life, destroying the division between civil society and state, power asserts itself as purely social power, intending to condense the spheres of power, knowledge and the law into the same pole. Ignorance of the division, the annulment of distance in all spheres of social life, gives shape to a dynamic that understands the other in terms of disease.

In short, starting with the discovery of the original nature of social division – presented as the basis of the political society – and of the dissolution of the markers of certainty – the result of the break with tradition –, Lefort sees in totalitarianism and democracy two opposite ways of articulating the political regime in modernity: in the former, society is organised around a negation of the division and of indeterminacy; in the latter, society is articulated according to the recognition, if only implicit, of both. "The political originality of democracy", says Lefort, "appears in that double phenomenon: a power which is henceforth involved in a constant search for its own basis because law and power are no longer embodied in the person or persons who exercise it; a society which accepts the conflict of opinions and the debate on rights, because the markers of certainty which once allowed men to situate themselves in a certain way in relation to one another have been dissolved".12

In the mirror of democratic society, Lefort sets out to think without ultimate guarantees, to sustain the indeterminacy. This is the challenge posed by his work and to which he remained loyal throughout his life. Through its reading can be traced a thought committed to thinking the present, to distinguish, here and now, freedom from servitude.



1   Textures (1971-1975), Libre (1977-1980), Passé-Présent (1982-1984).

2   Arendt, H., "The Gap between Past and Future", in Between Past and Future: Six exercises in political thought (New York: Viking, 1961).

3   Lefort, C., Le temps present. Écrits 1945-2005, Paris: Belin, 2007.

4   Mainly included in: Lefort, C., Les formes de l’histoire. Essais d’anthropologie politique, Paris: Gallimard, 1978; and Lefort, C., Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, Paris: Gallimard, 1979.

5   Poltier, H., Claude Lefort. El descubrimiento de lo político, Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 2005, p. 11.

6   Lefort, C., Le travail de l’oeuvre. Machiavel, Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

7   Lefort, C., "The Question of Democracy", in Democracy and Political Theory. Polity Press, 1988.

8   Lefort, C., "On the Permanence of the Theologico-Political?" (1981), in Democracy and Political Theory, op. cit.

9   Let me point out that it is not so simple to talk about continuity and/or a break between the Ancien Regime and the democratic revolution. To Lefort, what the comparison reveals is something that belongs to a more primeval order: the lack of coincidence of society with itself. In the Ancien Regime this lack of coincidence is represented as though split in two fixed dimensions. In democratic modernity it is sustained without being definitively represented.

10 Lefort, C., "The Question of Democracy", op. cit.

11 Ibid.

12 Lefort, C., "Human Rights and the Welfare State" (1989), in Democracy and Political Theory, op. cit.

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