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Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Claude Lefort (1924-2010) was a French philosopher and public intellectual who theorized modern forms of politics. He is no stranger to the field of political theology, and his well-known essay, “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?” locates the origin of these political forms in the unraveling of what he calls the medieval “theologico-political matrix.” The following essay will first summarize the key concepts and arguments across Lefort’s oeuvre and then propose various approaches to his work that can be taken by scholars who wish to move the field of political theology in new and more expansive directions. 

By the time he was in secondary school, Lefort had embraced Marxism and begun his apprenticeship with the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological approach influenced him deeply. A few years later in 1948, he co-founded Socialisme ou Barbarie, a group whose journal of the same name developed a critique of Stalinism and searched for a non-hierarchical socialism that could avoid the pitfalls of bureaucratization and repression. Lefort left the group in 1958, formally abandoning the struggle for revolution. Of this period, he later recounted that the object of his analysis had shifted. Rather than focus on the Soviet Union and engage in the debates of his day about whether it was a degenerate workers’ state or an instantiation of state capitalism, he began to consider that “the big novelty was the capacity of power, through the single-party rule, to be omnipresent” (Rosanvallon, 12). It was to this power that Lefort turned his attention in subsequent years, his work forming the seedbed from which French antitotalitarian thought later grew. 

In this sense, Lefort anticipated (and according to some, advanced) a shift in the intellectual and political terrain of France in the seventies. This shift entailed the displacement of Marxism, the omission of revolution, and the turn away from radical politics. Different directions materialized in their stead: the poststructuralism of Derrida and Foucault, the liberalism of Raymond Aron, the negative heterogeneity of the Nouveaux Philosophes, and the revival of democratic theory at the hands of Lefort and others. Although Lefort was associated with the independent, libertarian left, it is fair to say that he was not a critical theorist per se. In his history of contemporary critical thought, The Left Hemisphere, Razmig Keucheyan classifies Lefort as a “convert,” an intellectual figure who ceased to challenge capitalism or to engage in alternative world-building after the changing tides of the seventies. 

Across his works, the question to which Lefort returns is about the nature of the difference between various forms of society such as the democratic, the totalitarian, and the theocentric. He holds that there must be an element that determines the differences between these societies, one that is not reducible to the empirical facts of politics (i.e. actors, sites, and institutions). He names this pre-social, primordial element the political and articulates it in different ways: as the mode of the institution of the social, the principles that generate society, and the overall schema governing its configuration. Failing to identify the political, Lefort warns, we are confined to our experience of the world and deprived of the knowledge of its production. To put it in practical terms, we are left unable to grasp the principle which articulates social division (Lefort has in mind Marxists who grant analytic primacy to social conflict without pinpointing the origin of the social) and which produces markers that order the human experience, such as the economic, the religious, and the juridical (here he has in mind political scientists who neglect to ask how politics was differentiated from other spheres of activity in the first place, or social scientists who study one or the other marker without apprehending them as parts of a whole).  

Lefort observes that the political gives form to society (mise en forme) by shaping social relations (mise en sens) and staging them (mise en scène). Drawing on the theoretical framework of Merleau-Ponty, he argues that each society locates its origin outside of itself, that it can only “open on to itself by being held in an opening it did not create” (Lefort 1988, 222). In other words, it is its refraction through this symbolic location that grants society form as well as meaning. This becomes clearer against the backdrop of European premodernity, in which the king’s immanent and transcendent bodies, modeled after the double nature of Christ as human and divine, served as this symbolic location. By functioning as a link between the sensible and supersensible worlds, the king’s body incorporated society: it provided the form of social relations and focalized the symbols and practices through which the link between the human and the divine was staged.

It was the faltering of the symbolic efficacy of this regime, Lefort writes, that led to the democratic revolution, the “profound mutation” that disincorporated society, dislodged it from its foundation in divine will, and inaugurated political modernity (Lefort 1988, 13). This is the context of his famous declaration that modern regimes are characterized by the dissolution of traditional markers of certainty and the evacuation of traditional sources of power. These regimes are differentiated from one another by their relation to the symbolic place from whence power stems. A (modern) democratic regime keeps the place of power empty in both the banal sense that it cannot be claimed by a particular entity, and in the more laden sense that the symbolic origin of society is maintained but not filled. Unmoored from the body of the king, society can no longer be incarnated in a single body or connected to a transcendental other; it remains plural and indeterminate. Lefort insists that despite the principle of popular sovereignty, the people do not occupy this symbolic place of power due to the ontologization of their division, as well as to the procedural constraints of democratic institutions.

Although Lefort sees in Machiavelli’s glorification of social division and autonomization of the sphere of politics a premonition of the modern democratic project, he locates its inauguration in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which confirms the self-institution of society by refusing to anchor these rights in an ultimate authority. As he sees it, the Declaration does not establish rights whose content is positive, fixed, or universal; it establishes, rather, the political institution of rights, or the right to have rights, to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt. In order to gain these rights, social groups must struggle against one another in what he calls the theater of political contestation. The rights they gain are not incontrovertible; because they lack a final guarantor, they can become fossilized or even be revoked. 

Lefort’s purpose here is twofold. On the one hand, because he locates the origin of the social in the political and not in the individual, as liberal thinkers do, he must confront the timeworn question about the origin of rights in a detranscendentalized society without their usual tools—the social contract, the universal principle of right, the veil of ignorance, and so on. Thus, he anchors rights in the domain of the political, conceiving of them as potentialities that can be activated or deactivated. On the other hand, Lefort holds that rights, like democracy, cannot and indeed should not be fully realized. Although he does not take this as far as his colleague Cornelius Castoriadis or his student Miguel Abensour, Lefort nevertheless insists that in a democratic society, everything must be open to debate and contestation. After all, he avers, this is the ultimate advantage of democracy, the primary consolation prize for the loss of traditional sources of authority and knowledge. Contra Marx, Lefort believes that rights play an important role in this process; rather than point to a dialectic of alienation, they establish and protect the capacity to think, to question, and to debate, albeit revocably. 

A society that is lulled into the sedimentation of power or tempted by its substantiation is en route to what Lefort calls the totalitarian adventure, which subsumes fascism, Nazism, and certain forms of communism. In these instances, social conflicts become so momentous that they can no longer be resolved in the political sphere. This may be due to insecurities relating to war or economic hardship, to disputes over shared values and norms, or even to the breakdown of the authority of those who make public decisions. In such cases, Lefort writes, an entity can appear that offers to fill the empty place of power, to retrieve social identity and coherence, and to unify society in a single body. It is important, however, not to mistake Lefort’s totalitarian entity for the Schmittian sovereign; underlying it is a desire for the people-as-One, and not for the One. Neither is the totalitarian entity identical with the premodern king; while the former refuses the notion of a transcendental place, the latter served as a personified reference to it. Lefort insists that the threat of totalitarianism cannot be abolished; it endures as a latent and ineradicable response to the indeterminacy of modernity. 

In his essay, “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?” Lefort puts forth an analysis of the relationship between modernity and religion, a term which he circumscribes within the premodern experience of Christianity while acknowledging that it can also refer to a transhistorical sensibility apart from the Church. For centuries, Lefort writes, the religious and the political performed concomitant symbolic functions and formed a theologico-political matrix capable of withstanding any conflict that arose between their institutionalized bodies. This matrix was destroyed in the nineteenth century, a “historical fact” to which the rise of a new form of power testifies (Lefort 1988, 224).

The destruction of this matrix was neither a matter of the abolishment of religion, Lefort writes, nor of the extrication of the religious from the political, but of a novel arrangement in which an anonymous power came to provide the symbolic dimension of society, thereby stripping religion of its central function and reducing it to the realm of the imagination. Lefort’s polemic is directed against various philosophical arguments: that religion endures despite its apparent decline; that modern political concepts (the people, the state) acquire the status of the religious; and that the rise of totalitarianism evidences the return of religion. He suggests that the failure of political philosophy to account for the diminishment of religion in modernity is due to its creation in religion’s image and its adoption of religion’s essential features (namely, the search for a singular truth and the refusal of society’s self-immanence). 

Scholars of political theology can take a number of approaches to Lefort’s work. The first is to engage with his phenomenological method, historical analysis, and reflections on the theologico-political. Yet, this approach runs the risk of inadequately acknowledging and accounting for Lefort’s normative framework and political project. For instance, the concept of the symbolic shaping of society is theoretically rich, but it also serves as a counterproposal to the theories of Marxists, liberals, and Enlightenment critics, and at its core lies a defense of the radical indeterminacy of the human. In a similar vein, Lefort’s location of modern power in an empty place can be analytically useful, but it leads to a depersonalized and discontinuous understanding of power, one that suppresses any assertion of cui bono. This need not prevent us from utilizing Lefort’s analysis; there is, after all, no shortage of intellectual figures whose theory we utilize and politics we discard. It is to note, however, that in the case of Lefort, a proper recognition of his politics is still to come.  

A second approach to Lefort’s work is to prescriptively employ his concepts and theories in order to analyze the contemporary moment or to critique and make demands on the present. Examples of this approach can be found in the work of Chantal Mouffe and Jan-Werner Müller, who retrofit Lefort’s understanding of the ineradicable nature of difference in democratic societies for the purposes of their analyses of agonism and populism, respectively. The risk associated with this endeavor is an inattentiveness to the changes that have occurred since the time of Lefort’s writing—changes that have transformed the nature of the challenges we face and the character of the movements which confront them. They include the diminishment of democracy by the rise of neoliberalism, as Wendy Brown has argued; the facilitation of the totalitarian impulse by new means of surveillance, enclosure and social death; the further enmeshment of totalitarianism with white supremacy, far-right populism, and ethno-nationalism; and the abandonment of aspirations toward democratic institutions by resistance movements in favor of new forms of transnational and solidaristic connection. These transformations demand that we approach Lefort’s work with a certain resourcefulness and creativity. 

A third approach explicitly questions, challenges, or seeks paths outside of Lefort’s work. This approach may take the form of a critique of Lefort in the spirit of Charles Mills’ project of unwhitening political philosophy by asking what Lefort’s work sees, what it neglects, and what it obfuscates. Or it may take the form of a decentering or contestation of Lefort’s thought by theorizations of power and analyses of political regimes by those who are marginalized, otherized, or victimized by them. This approach might ask us to reconsider the conceptualization of democracy and totalitarianism as antipodal and non-overlapping; to confront the global dimension of these regimes by asking whether a democratic here necessitates an un-democratic or totalitarian there; and to reintroduce a materialist analysis that takes into account the histories and presents of global and racial capitalism. The risk associated with this approach is of exceptionalizing Lefort or essentializing his thought, which was after all produced over the course of several decades, in response to monumental historical events, and in dialogue with numerous interlocutors. 


Annotated Bibliography: 

  1. Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory. Trans. David Macey. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1988.  

This volume includes the essays which encapsulate Lefort’s thought and for which he is most known. 

  1. Lefort, Claude. The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Ed. David Thompson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

This volume connects Lefort’s critical appraisal of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc with his philosophical analysis of modern power. 

  1. Lefort, Claude. “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?” In Democracy and Political Theory. Trans. David Macey. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1988.  

In this essay, Lefort puts forth an analysis of the historical connection of religion and politics and their disconnection in the nineteenth century. 

  1. Lefort, Claude. Machiavelli in the Making. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012.

In this monograph, Lefort provides an insightful re-interpretation of the Florentine, whom he believed was the quintessential thinker of modernity. 

  1. Rosanvallon, Pierre. “The Test of the Political: A Conversation with Claude Lefort.” Constellations 19 no.1 (2012): 4-15. 

In this interview, Lefort provides an account of his intellectual development and its political dimensions.  

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Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

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