31 October 2010


I have only just discovered that the French political philosopher and activist Claude Lefort died at the beginning of the month at the age of 86.

A student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose executor he became, he was briefly a Trotskyist in the mid-1940s but, with Cornelius Castoriadis, broke with Trotskyism in 1948 and founded the review Socialisme ou Barbarie, which over the subsequent 17 years developed a far-reaching and immensely influential left-libertarian critique of societies both sides of the iron curtain and of the programmes, organisations and intellectual assumptions of the traditional left – Leninist and social democratic.

Lefort left S ou B in 1958, believing that Castoriadis still retained more than a vestige of Leninism in his prescriptions for revolutionary organisation, but they remained close enough to collaborate (along with Edgar Morin) on a widely read account of the events of May 1968, La Breche (The Breach) and continued to work in parallel during the 1970s and 1980s.

Lefort’s writings on bureaucracy, democracy and, especially, totalitarianism, most of which were translated into English and published in the mid-1980s by Polity Press, are his most accessible, and they mark him out as one of the most incisive and forceful political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century – but there was a lot more to him than that. One of his most stimulating books, Ecrire (Writing), is a collection of essays that form an extended erudite meditiation on what it is to write; another is a sustained and subtle reflection on the nature of history. He will be missed.

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