Around Achille Mbembe
Claude Lefort today
Claude Lefort (1924–2010) was one of the most important French political philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, part of a group that includes Raymond Aron, François Furet and a rising generation of thinkers (Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Manent, Bernard Manin) who were to revolutionize how we think about democracy. Yet he remains little known to the public. Esprit has decided to change that by publishing a groundbreaking special issue dedicated to Lefort, entitled ‘L’inquiétude démocratique’.
Totalitarianism: Lefort’s most important idea was to define democracy as an ‘empty space’. Before the French Revolution, power was incarnated directly in the body of the King: l’Etat c’est moi, as Louis XIV famously put it. But now that the King’s head has been chopped off, no one can claim to fully incarnate the ‘people’. The desire to do so – whether Stalin or Hitler – is in fact a totalitarian one, and in doing so Lefort pointed out that totalitarianism is not a separate regime but a pathology of democracy itself. The same might be said of populism today, as Pierre Rosanvallon, professor at the Collège de France, explains in interview. Populists claim to truly incarnate the people, and fall into the same trap of wanting to occupy that ‘empty space’.
Human rights: Lefort also made a key intervention in debates surrounding human rights in the 1970s, as Samuel Moyn writes. Lefort criticized the ‘moralizing’ view of the ‘new philosophers’ such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, who took human rights to be abstract pre-political rights that should be used to measure how oppressive different regimes are. Instead, Lefort argued that rights are part of a political project of the constitution of society.
Untamed democracy: As Antoine Chollet points out, human rights are part of what Lefort called ‘démocratie sauvage’, which might be translated as ‘untamed democracy’. With his friend Cornelius Castoriadis, Lefort directed a review called Socialism or Barbarism, which worried about the bureaucratic threats to democracy. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 led them to ask whether democracy and communism where compatible. Lefort separated the bourgeois, tamed and ‘institutional’ aspect of democracy from its ‘untamed’ aspect, in which there is a continual and unpredictable struggle to defend and expand human rights. With Trump in the White House and Brexit in Europe, that call to reclaiming politics seems as relevant now as it was then.
Source: The Eurozine Review, “Democratic disquiet”
- Uploaded on Cairn-int.info on 09/01/2019
- ISBN 9782372340786