Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Claude Lefort, 1924-2010

It's October, which must mean that one or more of my French theory heroes has died. This time the bell tolls for Claude Lefort, true relic of a particular France I've learned about and loved.

Though lesser known among Anglophone readers than the post-structuralist superstars of the 80s and 90s, Lefort's intellectual efforts in political theory deserve wider recognition. A student of Merleau-Ponty, Maussian sociology, and a founder of post-Trotskyite council communist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, the early Lefort brought phenomenological tools to bear on some of the major political problems and events of his time. As a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie, he joined Castoriadis, Lyotard and others in furthering the critique of bureacratic deformation in communist states and workers' movements. Though for a time a contributor to Sartre's Temps Modernes, Lefort bloodied Sartre's nose in a penetrating Leftist critique of "The Communists and Peace". This singled him out early on as an upstart and, possibly, a major contender.

Essentially unmooring himself from Marxism, Lefort went on to make major contributions in the history of political philosophy and the philosophical critique of totalitarianism. Drawing from Merleau-Ponty and Arendt, he theorized democracy as a perpetually shifting, centreless and interminably constituting political field; totalitarianism on this view being an attempt at drawing up final accounts and foreclosing the political as such through total mobilization. Lefort's analysis of actually existing communism and its collapse, however, was nuanced enough to trouble the simplistic notion of totalitarianism bandied about by other political commentators.

Lefort was, in sum, a rigorous Leftist thinker who responded to the general political disillusionment of his generation with sustained critique and searching forays into intellectual history. This made for less sexy fare than Baudrillard's apocalyptic irony and Deleuze's offhanded comments on anal sex, but I think we could all benefit from a close reading of Lefort.

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