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1 Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort worked together in Socialisme ou Barbarie, a group born in 1949 from a trend within the International Communist Party (a Trotskyist movement they had participated in since 1946). Although they both uncompromisingly critiqued Stalinism with an original analysis of bureaucracy, the two should not be confused. Their work may have been complementary and moved in a similar direction, but the two thinkers followed very different paths. According to Lefort, the end result of a working-class-led anti-bureaucratic movement had to be permanent struggle against bureaucratic rule, without this struggle being subordinated to the objective of seizing power under the leadership of a revolutionary party. Castoriadis, on the other hand, believed that the legitimate objective of a proletarian movement should not be limited to opposing new forms of domination and exploitation from capitalist bureaucracies, but aim to exercise power through direct democracy redefined as a workers’ self-governing society. This is the starting point for understanding their differences and disagreements within Socialisme ou Barbarie, and it is these differences that this paper aims to examine. [1]

2 Castoriadis always argued for the revolutionary transformation of society, whether as prescribed by Socialisme ou Barbarie or, later, in reference to the Athenian democratic polis, which, in his view, provided the seeds for society’s explicit and deliberate self-organization. He would never have considered opposing the revolutionary project to the democratic project—to him, the two were inseparable. A democratic society should be conceived of as a society that can manage its affairs without the intervention of state institutions, and that should constantly review its own organization. For Castoriadis, advocating revolution meant recognizing the possibility for society to have an introspective dialogue with itself and not surrender its creativity to an extrasocial entity such as the divine, natural laws, or the laws of capitalist economics. In essence, he considered this to be the true meaning of democracy: the institution of a social order in which human beings can together reflect on their own power and see themselves as the creators of the laws that they choose to obey.

3 Lefort, on the other hand, would gradually move away from criticism of the concept of revolutionary action as formed by an organized avant-garde to criticism of the very idea of revolution. His criticism of the party led him to more general criticism of the autonomous society that Castoriadis argued for. Indeed, according to Lefort, this conception of democracy reintroduced the myth of an open society as inherited from Marx. There is no doubt that the split between Lefort and Castoriadis in 1958 was over this point.

4 The differences between Lefort and Castoriadis can therefore be seen as originating from two very different views on the nature of democracy. Castoriadis argued for the principle of direct democracy in which the people exercise power themselves, whereas Lefort saw democracy more as a method of political action, a means of questioning power without claiming to exercise it. [2] Castoriadis never accepted Lefort’s opinion that it was a fantasy to think we could move beyond a divided society, and that this would inevitably lead to a totalitarian state. Further, he argued that Lefort’s characterization of democratic power as an empty space overlooked the effectiveness of policies determined oligarchically. On the other hand, Lefort always rejected Castoriadis’s idea that democracy was a form of government that could be embodied by well-defined, self-governing institutions. In Lefort’s opinion, institutionalizing democratic action as direct democracy might lead to the fatal dream of a society attempting to embody itself by avoiding the distinction between reality and symbolism, thus eliminating the very condition for political freedom.

Working Class Experience in Opposition to Bureaucracy (Claude Lefort)

5 If we focus on the period of Socialisme ou Barbarie, between the early 1950s and 1958, when Lefort left the organization, we can see that the differences between him and Castoriadis became apparent very early on. These were not only on theoretical and philosophical points, but also—and especially—on practical issues, in particular the matter of the role of the party and, more generally, concerning the relations between the working class and the party. In a piece called “The Working Class and its Leadership” (“Le proletariat et sa direction”), published in Issue 10 of Socialisme ou Barbarie (1952a), Lefort, who was already wary of the idea of an organization whose aim was to defend programs that covered the whole of social and political reality, expressed his opposition to the ideas defended by Castoriadis and the majority in the group, who intended to form a political organization. As far as Lefort was concerned, what was important was not so much to come up with a new way of conceiving of the party that would contradict the conception of the revolutionary avant-garde as argued by Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, than to question the idea of the party itself. That there was a separate revolutionary leadership was, according to Lefort and a minority within Socialisme ou Barbarie, one of the main reasons for bureaucratic “degeneration.” Lefort’s position was a result of his conception of workers’ action as a political experience through which the working class became the subject in its own history. This is what he called “the proletarian experience,” which implied that creativity should be seen as an intrinsic characteristic of the working class, and that therefore rejected any political leadership that was not a result of this self-organizing process (1952b, 71–97). [3] From this point of view, Lefort said, it was wrong to see the existence of the party as being inherent to the working class experience, or to view any idea that questioned the supposed necessity of the party as a betrayal of Marxist principles (1952a, 62). Although the workers’ movement should organize itself and be unified in its struggles, it was not at all clear that the political organization of the working class should necessarily take the form of a party. The belief that this was the case, according to Lefort, resulted in an essentially abstract conception of revolutionary politics, which could not account for the effectiveness of history in action, and was therefore alien to the experience by which the working class was transformed into a specifically revolutionary entity (1952a, 63).

6 What Lefort meant in his criticism of the positions of the majority in Socialisme ou Barbarie, was that—as the young Marx wrote—the working class and the middle class did not share a similar relationship to politics. In fact, it was precisely because the middle class controlled the economy that it could distance itself from politics through political representation of its interests, the political superstructure only expressing the profound reality of the economic infrastructure. Yet, what applied to the middle class was in no way applicable to the working class. The working class was nothing: neither in the economy, where it was viewed as merchandise, nor in politics, where it was deprived of any rights from the outset. As such, it had no alternative but to organize itself as a historical entity expressing the interests of society as a whole, and was thus dedicated to taking responsibility for its overall direction. Therefore, because it had no special interest to promote, the working class no longer needed the intermediary of political representation, which became alienation pure and simple. [4]?Lefort no doubt recognized the strategic necessity for some kind of political organization when historical circumstances demanded it, i.e., just before a revolution. However, for him, it would be wrong to characterize this spontaneous congregation (the result of the activity of democratic bodies, as with the Soviets) as independent political leadership. In fact, this organization had no other function than to facilitate the working class gaining power, and should therefore logically be terminated once there was a workers’ government (1952a, 68). Having expressed such a libertarian requirement so early on, Lefort was expressing his views on the primacy of effective action, anticipating in some way his conception of primitive democracy as a battleground in the struggle against the arbitrariness of power. [5]?

7 Lefort’s criticism of the ideas defended by Castoriadis and the majority of the group on the need for a revolutionary political party can therefore seem relatively well-targeted. In his view they were primarily concerned with distinguishing themselves from Bolshevism without considering the actual fact of the party’s existence, and he said to them all that it was completely superficial to denounce the traditional idea of the professional revolutionary. In fact, the positions criticized (especially those of Lenin) were not a result of bureaucratic drift in the conception of the relationship between the party and the working class, but logically coincided with the very existence of the party as an organized body separate from the working class (Lefort 1952a, 64). Under these conditions, it would be particularly incoherent to question the existence of bureaucracy as a directing body when one was defending—as Castoriadis was in Socialisme ou Barbarie 2—the idea of a revolutionary party operating on the basis of an organization that existed apart from the actions of the working class (Castoriadis 1974b, 121–143). Basically, Lefort was saying that although the party was authorized to lead the masses as the keeper of the true theory of revolutionary movement, we should not expect it to do anything other than impose it. A party recognized as leadership before the revolution would establish itself after the revolution as the only legitimate guarantor of socialist policy. Once this happened, the reasons for the bureaucratization of workers’ organizations should not be sought in the centralization of revolutionary leadership, but in the “very existence of the party” (Lefort 1958, 107). It was therefore the existence of the revolutionary party as such that should be contested in the name of revolutionary praxis itself.

Working Class Organization in Opposition to Bureaucracy (Cornelius Castoriadis)

8 Granted, Castoriadis also stated in “The Revolutionary Party,” which he wrote in 1949, that the party could never exercise power as such (Castoriadis 1974b, 141). That said, his position on the matter of its organization was very different from Lefort’s. Castoriadis argued that, from the point of view of the working class taking power, the existence of a separate political leadership, hence organized as a party, was necessary up to a point. As soon as organized action with the ultimate aim of gaining power and transforming society in a predetermined way was perceived as political (Castoriadis 1974b, 123), the question as to how best to achieve this end had to be asked. From this perspective, the existence of the revolutionary party as a collective body became inevitable: it had its own statutes and a well-defined program, plus the essential role of coordinating the activity of workers in order to achieve the overall transformation of society. According to Castoriadis, to denounce its very existence because it risked creating a bureaucratic monster amounted to the same thing as capitulating in the face of bureaucracy, allowing it to take the political initiative and leaving no alternative other than permanent struggle against all forms of institutionalized power (Castoriadis 1974b, 141). Lefort and his small group of comrades were without a question right to insist upon the independent nature of the working class struggle, which otherwise would not be able to develop under authoritarian leadership, except in denying the inherently creative potential of working class action. Where they were wrong, according to him, was in the abstract questioning of the need for a political moment as a precondition for the transition to social universality. It was this need that was emblematically expressed in the organization of the working class as a party (Castoriadis 1974b, 131–134). No doubt we should see in these different views the seeds of the conflict that later arose between the two men, resulting from two very different conceptions of democracy. Lefort believed that the aim of democratic action lay more in contesting power by claiming rights against it than by any attempt to democratize its actual practice, as advocated by Castoriadis (Chollet 2008, 202).

9 One of the main differences of opinion between Castoriadis and Lefort, it seems, was a fundamental difference in their perceptions of autonomy. How differently these two thinkers perceived this fundamental political principle was clear at the very start of their collaboration in Socialisme ou Barbarie. In “The Revolutionary Party,” Castoriadis was already refuting the idea that the coexistence of revolutionary leadership and democratic bodies implied a conflict, as with the Soviets or the struggle committees, which were products of the working class’s autonomous activity. Referring to Hegelian rationalism, he argued that it was impossible to speak of any autonomy for entities created by the working class that were not included in the overall framework of historical dialectics, which was where their real meaning resided. At this level, he added, the only entities that could be considered autonomous were those that had managed to become universal so that they transcended all special interests by expressing the interests of the entire working class and therefore of society as a whole (Castoriadis 1974b, 128–129 and 138). It was therefore completely inappropriate to speak of autonomy as a given that needed to be preserved from outside influence. Autonomy in itself existed only as a seed: only if this seed was allowed to produce fruit through the creation of structures that expressed ever-increasing levels of freedom could one speak of autonomy in the profound, effective meaning of the term. Although it is clear that Castoriadis later revised this position in the sense that he distanced himself from the Hegelian concept of freedom, he never stopped thinking that autonomy was something to be constantly strived for, and not the expression of self-sufficient action.

What Meaning Should Be Given to Revolutionary Political Action?

10 In the article “Organization and Party” (“Organisation et parti”), in which Lefort further developed his critique of the party structure started six years earlier, he remarked that the traditional concept of politics did not allow for the problems of society to be raised in the sense of workers’ concrete experience of production relationships (Lefort 1958, 103–4). Basically, he said, seeing politics as a way of being that is out of touch with the everyday experience of exploitation, meant understanding the question of the relationship between the organization (the party) and the working class in the same way as Lenin saw it. A revolutionary party’s only legitimate objective, he added, was to work toward having workers themselves in charge of production, thus in direct relationship with the struggles and demands of workers. [6]?This is why, believing that the position of the group’s majority would only lead to amending Lenin’s arguments in What Is to Be Done?, Lefort argued in 1958 that no political conscience could ever be instilled from outside, or independently of the level of formal democracy within the party that allowed important disagreements to be expressed (Lefort 1958, 102–104). According to him, if the idea of politics had any meaning, it could only be to “make explicit” the trends it perpetuated in everyday struggles against exploitation, and never to impose a theory developed from outside and independently of what producers actually experienced at their place of work (Lefort 1958, 104). Therefore, for Lefort, acting politically in a revolutionary way meant abandoning the role of the activist, dedicated to convincing the exploited that the leadership of the party was sound, and instead criticizing the very phenomenon of exploitation, based on workers’ struggles in the workplace (Lefort 1958). And although the struggle should be broadened, this should not be done in the context of unification at a higher level of autonomy under the aegis of the party, but by coordinating the many attempts by the working class to abolish exploitation.

11 Castoriadis, however, considered such a view of the relationship between the party and the working class as evidence that Lefort’s conception of autonomy was abstract and incapable of stating the problem of political freedom in concrete terms. Taking the issue of autonomy seriously implied questioning the ways in which to achieve it, but it also—and especially—meant working toward making autonomy effective by going beyond an idealistic conception of freedom as a simple regulating marker (Castoriadis 1974a, 212); this would make it objectively possible to create revolutionary political action that was effectively autonomous. From Castoriadis’s point of view, Lefort’s criticism amounted to eliminating the political issue in the guise of questioning the very existence of the party, by putting the problem of freedom in what were really rather abstract terms. Although Lefort conceded that politics should not merely be the technical application of an already predetermined program, he wrote that this did not meant that the only role for politics was to make explicit what workers experienced in everyday life (Lefort 1958, 104). Castoriadis emphasized that, by claiming that the only task of activism was to support and broaden the struggle of workers in corporations by articulating it (Lefort 1958, 111), Lefort’s conception ultimately denied any political program—and the task of a political program was to address the question of society as a whole in an effort of conscious clarification. Lefort’s idea, according to which politics should be based on everyday experience, was quite correct, but it had to be understood in the sense that the party actually had to help to create a working class experience from the perspective of an overarching conception of society (Castoriadis 1974a, 235–7). It was in fact impossible to think of politics except in terms of the whole. For the sake of coherence, even the most reformist politics had to build a vision of society as a whole and not content themselves with viewing problems from a local perspective (Castoriadis 2006, 131).

12 Nonetheless, one might wonder whether Castoriadis was truly opposed to Lefort’s ideas, or whether he was attempting to radicalize them. Although it is indeed true that one role of politics is to make explicit what is involved when individuals experience alienation on a daily basis, it is equally true that their informal struggles hold the premises of a more general questioning of the established order, i.e., much more than a superficial examination would see in them. No doubt, this is the fundamental role of a political organization: to help individuals to reflect on their lives—a reflection that institutionalized imaginary meanings cause them to repress (Castoriadis 1975, 35–6).

13 In any case, Castoriadis reproached Lefort for having made a shift toward a fundamentally abstract conception of politics. Under the pretext of preserving individual autonomy, Lefort’s ideas led to a metaphysical vision of freedom, since it had to assume that human beings could decide to act for themselves apart from any influence, based on free will, and without outside intervention (Castoriadis 1974a, 217). However, said Castoriadis, if praxis had any meaning, it was as action directed toward others as autonomous subjects, allowing them to make full use of their autonomy. [7]?Politics created this constitutive dimension of existence in which freedoms were in contact with one other—and these various freedoms did more than co-exist, but met and changed each other.

14 What appears fundamental in this difference of opinions is that, beyond circumstantial conflicts, it reveals a fundamental antagonism based on contradictory philosophical directions. Whereas Castoriadis was to continue viewing society and history in a general sense while at the same time criticizing the speculative and determinist aspect of inherited thought, Lefort developed his thinking in marked fidelity to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, which led him to completely reevaluate the very meaning of the concept of autonomy. In the end, it was in radical criticism of the idea of autonomy—which had more to do with metaphysical fantasy than a defensible political idea—that Lefort later devoted himself to rethinking democratic action, based in particular on a re-reading of Machievelli. It was precisely in this area that Castoriadis, on the contrary, tried to weave together the strands of democratic praxis and autonomy.


  • [1]
    For a more general comparison of Castoriadis and Lefort’s positions, see Poirier (2011, 307–420).
  • [2]
    In any event, this was what he tried to demonstrate in his book on Machievelli (1972).
  • [3]
    This concept of a proletarian experience, through which Lefort intended to highlight the working class’s subjectivation process, which led it to create itself as a political class, i.e., as the carrier of a revolutionary project, anticipated analyses developed by Edward Palmer Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (Thompson, 1963, revised 1968).
  • [4]
    “[. . .] There is nothing objective about the working class. It is a class for which ecomics and politics have no separate reality, and which is only defined as experience. That is precisely what gives it a revolutionary aspect, but also what makes it extremely vulnerable. The working class must resolve its historical tasks as an entire class and cannot delegate its interests to a party detached from it, for it has no separate interests other than those of the management of society” (Lefort 1952a, 66-67).
  • [5]
    From the 1960s, Lefort used the term “protest” to describe struggles against bureaucratic rule, and no longer “contradiction” (see especially Lefort 1963, 321).
  • [6]
    “The journal constantly said that workers should take control of their own fate and organize themselves independently of the parties and unions claiming to be agents for their interests and their wishes. We believed that the aim of the struggle should only be the management of production by the workers, because any other solution would only condone the power of a new bureaucracy” (Lefort 1958, 101).
  • [7]
    “We are calling ‘praxis’ any action that views the other or others as autonomous and as essential actors in developing their own autonomy. Real politics, real pedagogy, real medecine, insofar as they have ever existed, belong to praxis” (Castoriadis 2006, 112).

The most important contribution by Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis to political critical theory is without a doubt their definition of democracy as an experience rather than an institutional form or a sociological reality in need of classification. This article discusses the differences between Castoriadis and Lefort’s ideas on the democratic experience during the Socialisme ou Barbarie period. According to Lefort, the end result of a working-class-led anti-bureaucratic movement was to be a permanent struggle against bureaucratic rule, without this struggle being subordinated to the objective of a revolutionary party gaining power. Castoriadis, on the other hand, believed that the legitimate objective of a proletarian movement should not be limited to opposing new forms of domination and exploitation from capitalist bureaucracies, but aim to exercise power through direct democracy redefined as a workers’ self-governing society.


  • Chollet, Antoine. 2008. “La question de la démocratie: Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort,” in Cornelius Castoriadis. Réinventer l’autonomie, edited by Blaise Bachofen, Sion Elbaz, and Nicolas Poirier. Paris: Éditions du Sandre, “Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine.”
  • Castoriadis, Cornelius. 2006 (1975). L’Institution imaginaire de la société. Paris: Le Seuil, “Points Essais.”
  • ———. 2005 (1975). “Pourquoi je ne suis plus marxiste,” in Une Société à la derive. Paris: Le Seuil, “La Couleur des idées.”
  • ———. 1974a (1959). “Prolétariat et organisation, II,” in L’Expérience du mouvement ouvrier. Paris: 2-UGE 10–18.
  • ———. 1974b (1949). “Le parti révolutionnaire,” in L’Expérience du mouvement ouvrier. Paris: 1-UGE 10–18.
  • Lefort, Claude. 1972. Le Travail de l’œuvre Machiavel. Paris: Gallimard.
  • ———1963. “La dégradation idéologique du marxisme,” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie. Paris: Gallimard, “Tel.” 1979. (First Edition, Geneva: Droz, 1971).
  • ——— 1958. “Organisation et parti,” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie.
  • ——— 1952a. “Le prolétariat et sa direction,” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie.
  • ——— 1952b. “L’expérience prolétarienne,” in Éléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie.
  • Poirier, Nicolas. 2011. L’Ontologie politique de Castoriadis. Création et institution. Paris: Payot, “Critique de la politique.”
  • Thompson, Edward Palmer. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Victor Gollanz; 2nd edition with new postscript, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968; third edition with new preface 1980. Translated as La Formation de la classe ouvrière anglaise by Gilles Dauvé, Mireille Golaszewski, and Marie-Noëlle Thibault. Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil, “Hautes études,” 1988.
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