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Rancière: ‘Post Democracy’, Populism, and Anti-Anti-Populism (Part Two: Cultural Revolutions).

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Rancière, Part Two. Cultural Revolutions.

“La rhétorique est une parole en révolte contre la condition poétique de l’être parlant. Elle parle pour faire taire. Tu ne parleras plus, tu ne penseras plus, tu feras ceci, tel est son programme.”

Rhetoric is a language in revolt against the poetic state of the speaking being. It talks in order to silence. You shall not speak further; you shall not think further, you shall do this, that’s its programme.

Rancière, Le Maître Ignorant. 1987 (1)

What is the substance of Rancière’s work? Rancière is a critic of the “post-democratic” world of the capitalist present. In this sense ‘anti-anti-populism’ is principally a sign that he welcomes dissatisfaction and protests against a world ruled by the “self-regulation of capital” and the “painless elimination of politics by consensus” Dissensus  “a logic of disruption” “ a process of equality” can enter the scene, an upset to the “consensual order”.

Can we give examples of these moments of dissensus having a real impact? Is Rancière one of those, like the editors of New Left Review, who reacted with all the glee of second childhood at the Brexit result as a blow to the ‘neo-liberal consensus’? The thought seems to have crossed his mind. But it hard to imagine that he sees the triumph of UKIP and the Tory Right, as the advance of a “communism of multitudes”. Are – marginal – egalitarian challenges to ‘post democracy’, such as the Occupy! or Nuit Debout movement better vehicles? Perhaps. He has also celebrated the mingling of artistic forms, protests, modern dance, films by Pedro Costa and Wang Bing, strikes over the organisation of the working day and demands for free time, to register only some examples. (Le Monde 6.6.18) Which, one could say, sounds more like a post-André Breton Manifesto for Nonconformist Equalitarian Taste than service to any political or economic Revolution.

There is no account of the critics of the attention-seeking tendencies of the Occupy! Movement, or of the anti-democratic implications of its own “consensus” decision-making. Yet…..one also hardly needs reminding that Rancière is always on the watch for the moment when these efforts fall apart, leaving only the egalitarian impulse intact.

These contradictory lines of thought indicate some reasons why Rancière’s writings are hard to get to grips with. On top of this his prose is often sarcastic (anti-populists recite “psalms”)  – his admirers call them “ironic”. The title of the book above, the Ignorant Master, evokes the Maître Penseurs, the Master thinkers, a term the New Philosopher André Glucksmann used against Marxism. Rancière hammers home a message through rhetorical anaphora, the marked repetition of words and phrases – his supporters might say they lend it maximum effect. He rages for egalitarianism in opaque literary French with a distinction between le politique (government as such, which he calls “la police”) and la politique (conflict/dissensus). This is intelligible to those – not necessarily every reader – familiar with the later Foucault’s use of the term ‘Police’ to embrace the wider social order, and Claude Lefort’s distinction between the two French nouns in his essay Permanence du théologico-politique (1981). Such instances indicate how his ideas and their presentation could be compared to a geological structure in which many types of sediment have left their trace.   (2)

Slavoj Žižek offers a handle on how to look into these strata. Rancière “…belongs to the field one is tempted to define as ‘post-Althusserian’: authors like Balibar, Alain Badiou, up to Ernesto Laclau, whose starting position was close to Althusser. The first thing to note here is how they are all opposed to the most elaborated ‘formal’ theory of democracy in contemporary French thought, that of Claude Lefort.” Althusser and the act of breaking free from him, is, it has been argued, looms over much more of Rancière’s career. His commitment to intellectual equality, “emancipation”, political equality against the Post-Democratic Elite, and the aesthetic theorising about the egalitarian potentials of the “sensible” can perhaps be made more intelligible by beginning with his defiance of this Teacher Žižek’s critique of the enthusiasm of the “post-Althussarians” for “pure politics” will occupy Part 3. (3)

Rancière’s entry into the annals of Theory began with some éclat. His contribution to Lire le Capital marked participation in one of the key moments in 20th century Marxist thought. (Le concept de critique de la critique de ‘économies politiques des Manuscrits de 1844 au capital. 1965) Some have suggested, generously, that the text – often appearing to be at the stage of seminar notes – is a significant account of Marx’s theory of alienation and “commodity fetishism”. It only came out in English publication in this millennium (2011), long after the better-known sections by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar. Their impact does not appear diminished by the absence of Rancière’s pages from earlier circulation in the Anglophone world. The fourth volume, by Pierre Macherey (who has had a career as a critic and theorist of “literary production”) and Roger Establet (who went on to write on the capitalist education system) on the presentation and outline of Capital, was disinterred at the same time. Few seem to have noticed. (4)

Althusser’s project involved, Gregory Elliott has stated, a “critique of existing Marxism in its entirety”. Reading Capital may appear a key text in deciphering the hieroglyphics of capitalist appearance, bringing out the “unseen” mechanisms producing the visible surface. It aimed to stake out exploration of the “continent of history” with new eyes. Others may consider it a conceptual clarification that offered tools that could be developed through concrete studies. Following the philosophical essays in Althusser’s Pour Marx (1965) it aimed to bring conceptual developments, free from the “dogmatism” left by Stalinism inside the Communist movement, to the “science of history”, historical materialism, Elliot underlines that the “thrust” was a Marxism “amenable to rectification and capable of yielding new knowledge” (a view underlined in the Introduction to Pour Marx). Whether Lire le Capital itself formed part of the armoury of the theoretical struggle against a multitude of enemies, from the lingering Stalinists and the liberal Italian, wing, to the theorists of Marxist-Humanism, inside the Communist Party, or was primarily a research project, an end in itself, remains disputed, notably by Balibar.  (5)

Rancière became independently visible, both in France and elsewhere, as an egalitarian, and contrarian, through a polemic on this project, La leçon d’althusser (1974). This was a wide-ranging foray against the Marxist “education” from on high offered by the patron of the circle that produced Lire le Capital, Louis Althusser. The object was wider than the domain of Marxist research. His angle was that the former teacher at the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS) had (undeniably) extended the interventions of Pour Marx and the writing of Lire le Capital to open participation in internal PCF politics and factional disputes.

La leçon d’althusser.

In La leçon d’althusser (1974) Rancière extended his questioning of the ‘revisionist’ Party line to Althusser’s alleged contempt for the student actors in the 1968 événements. The reasons for this dissatisfaction were clear. Rancière was not just an alumnus of Theory but was also a graduate of these political struggles in, the no doubt weighty, area of student politics. This was the fight against the “ revisionist” Parti Communiste Français (PCF) inside its own campus organisations.  In that role he had been an editor of the mid-sixties Cahiers marxistes-léninistes. Althusser had anonymously written an article for the publication and had encouraged this turn, up to certain, crucial points, until they had begun to create an independent anti-PCF groupuscule and, above all, during May 68. Having lent his weight in their battle against the Parti Communist Français (PCF); when the crunch came Althusser had turned his back on them when they engaged in action outside the Party’s control to merge with the mass struggle.

For Rancière the lesson of Althusser was wrapped up in that moment. The Party bore responsibility for thwarting the revolutionary possibilities of May 68. It had connived in the return to bourgeois rule. Althusser, in his response to the events had connived in its reaction and offered a justification of Order.  In his own shift towards the class struggle in philosophy around the defence of materialism, he had retreated to authorised, or at least permitted, intellectual disputes between ‘idealism and materialism’. (Lénine et la philosophie. 1972) The claim to wage the “ class struggle in theory” masked the inability to fight the class struggle when it happened in practice. For Rancière Althusser had rationalised traditional education. He had ended up by boiling down the class struggle to the clash between true (Marxist) ideas and false (bourgeois) ones. Rancière asked if such intellectuals, placing themselves on the side of a party apparatuses, talk about class struggle on behalf of the workers and the oppressed? Had there ever been in the corridors of the ENS a kind of revolutionary university of Yenan operated by his former mentor?

Rancière included a text (Pour Mémoire, 1969) that asked why Althusser has not considered the institution as one of the “appareils idéologiques” of the state.  Althusser’s 1970s drift into defending the “class struggle in theory”, and his pallid (since, top-down) view of Ideological State Apparatuses skirted around the topic. However it was inside the ‘knowledge’ taught that probably that La Leçon made the most telling points. Althusser’s version of ‘Marxism Leninism’ lacked, Rancière continued, an account of how the original Bolshevik party strategy and the apparatus with which it ruled the USSR, may have contributed to the “reconstitution des formes capitalists de la division du travail”.

Today’s readers would observe that the suggestion that the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao in 1966 offered another path, a “left critique” of Stalinism in practice looked thin then, and thinner now. Rancière’s own attack on this use of Mao, which halted at the description of the USSR as “social fascist”, were equally skeletal. The positive lessons that the Cultural Revolution offered for a challenge to the division of labour are seldom evoked today.  (6)

Althusser took note of Rancière’s  “acerbic” book. In L’avenir dure longtemps (1992) he remarked that the bone of contention was about his wish to remain inside the PCF. He respected the decision of his ‘disciples’ to go directly to the workers, and create a new independent body, the Union des Jeunesses Communiste marxistes-léninistes (UJCm-l).Yet the Communists had real ties with the proletariat, not just in elections, but also through the mass membership of the PCF aligned CGT union federation who had been amongst the few workers to go to the Sorbonne to support the students. (7)

La Gauche Prolétarienne.

Rancière, while he was in ‘Marxist-Leninist’ circle around Althusser, along with Macherey and Balibar, was of different cohort to those, like Robert Linhart and Benny Lévy who did not just split into a propaganda group outside the Party. They tried to engage directly in mass politics. Many of them became full-time activists. With hindsight one might say that May 68 showed not just the PCF’s fear of an uncontrolled uprising, and its unforeseeable consequences. It indicated equally the inability of the left, and (one could add) particularly this left to mobilise enough support to pose a genuine revolutionary challenge. La Gauche Prolétarienne (GP) founded in 1969 was at the time of the publication of La Leçon (1974) in the after-shock of self-dissolution, (November 1973) after some spectacular stunts.

People radicalised by the experience of May 68 led the GP, the result of a link-up between the ‘M-L’ current and some individuals from the broader ‘anti-authoritarian’ leftism that had emerged, such as the Movement Mars-22. From promoting the “all powerful” theory of Marxism-Leninism against Revisionism, it went outwards to the people. The GP was an effort to reach out to the anti-authoritarian spirit of students and young workers in revolt against trade union bureaucracy. Its project was to move with the spontaneous revolt of the masses (hence the nickname, Mao-spontex) but to harness it in a more coherent form.  Was it a Leninist organisation, knit together by democratic centralism, rested on a vertical chain of command?  The GP, tried, it is said, to break this division of political labour through its own practice. Rancière skirts around this issue. His attitude in La Leçon d’Althusser towards the GP’s efforts could be summarised as while the project was “abstract” “at least they tried to do something”. It was an experience from which those involved could look at their politics and culture while the “great unifying syntheses” of leftism on the wider political scene were collapsing.

For all its marginality the short history of the GP is as ample an object in the resilience of traditional hierarchy as Althusser’s Theory. Rancière, it is said, had had links but was not directly involved in the group. Yet he could have asked about the efforts to combat the “division of labour” in the GP. Accounts indicate that it was an intense and pronounced failure. The decision to dissolve the group was made from the top. The unpleasant internal regime and political misjudgements of the GP are widely seen to have contributed to the distaste for left-wing activism that condensed in the 1970s “anti-totalitarian moment”. Famously in Tigre en papier (2002) Olivier Rolin (former head of their proto-armed wing) described the leader of the Gauche Prolétarienne, known as Pierre Victor – that is, Benny Lévy – as the Grand Dirigent, Gédéon, He had “un pouvoir littéralement hypnotique.” There are many tales about clashes around this Authority, and within the central leadership. One of the most contentious arose during divisions over “popular justice”. This confronted the issue of what Rancière would later call the Police, not just in the ordinary sense of the word, but to what he considers to be the wider order-forming elements of society. It would be of interest to hear of his views on “tribunaux populaires” that would carry out class justice, and offer a direct “populist” challenge up to “prosecution” and punishment, not excluding executions. (8)

Althusser did go onto ask questions about the party apparatus. In Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le Parti communiste (1977). Much of this intervention relates to the conflicts inside the PCF over the 1970s Union de la gaach,. Of more lasting significance, Althusser expressed deep doubts about the PCF’s ‘vertical’ structure of the PCF which partitioned ordinary members from one another and reproduced the leadership’s omnipotence and its  ‘religious conception of the Truth’ that reigned in the Politburo.”  It needs hardly underlining that taking this stand against the leadership of a party still scoring up to 20% of the vote took some genuine political courage. (9)

Rancière’s own questioning of Leninist political structures was more diffuse. As a bystander increasingly remote from activism, in La Leçon he had asked,  “How could we discuss the “ expression autonome de la révolte “ without being trapped in the distance and authority of theory? These issues, of how revolutionary groups could function democratically, or not, remains one of importance for all left political parties. Nevertheless is egalitarian ‘discussion’, the open to all those who speak, the knot from which oppositional politics are born? Is the entire mechanism of “representation”, from the Marxist party’s claim to stand “for” the workers, to the ‘bourgeois’ practice of election through the isolation of the voting booth (the ‘isoloir’ in French) substitutes for democracy?

These thoughts were never followed up by a call for a new form of left political organisation. Nor was there any serious consideration of parties as a crucial focus for politics. Indeed one could say that Rancière’s career, right up till the present moment, is marked by an avoidance and condemnation of organised politics. But what is there beyond the “autonomy of revolt” if not some kind of political body?

Les Révoltes Logiques.

Rancière, Althusser observed, went on to write some “remarkable” works on the dreams and projects of early workers’ movement. Named Les Révoltes Logiques (LRL), Rimbaud’s poetic cry against the rationalist ‘Democratic order’ imposed after the crushing of the Paris Commune, it published papers about popular struggles.   For some LRL intended to parallel the Maoist practice of sending members to work in factories (les Établis). The Review is said to have paid attention to revolts themselves and at first sight looks marked by “spontanéisme”. This angle, in opposition to the gradualism and tranquillity of the evolution of mentalities advanced by the Annals school, was interlaced with the denial that any Party any Official Voice, even one purporting to represent the labour movement, could speak for the people’s diversity. « il n’y a pas de voix du peuple. Il y a des voix éclatées, polémiques, divisant à chaque fois l’identité qu’elles mettent en scène » In this sense  it was neither Maoist, nor a search for a new subject – a unified « plèbe » that replaced the proletariat . The collective lasted from 1975 – 1985, although the review stopped appearing in 1981.  (10)

This voyage into the continent of History discarded the Marxist pretension to uncover the hidden mechanisms that create classes. It was not out to discover workers on the Royal road to modern socialist politics. Rancière’s (un-translated) Louis Gabriel Gauny. Le philosophe plébéien (1983) is one of its results. These fragments from the ‘memory of the people’ rescue works of a Plebeian Socrates. They include  “Opuscules cénobitiques” (a reference to early Christian ‘communist’ communities). They include reflections on the Prison of the Workplace run by “conseils de vampires”. Reflections on industrial production recall Michel Foucault’s Panopticon nightmare, not least because Gauny talked of a  “centre panoptique” while discussing the workers who build prison cells. Gauny also discourses on the “palingenesis (rebirth) of souls”. We are invited to discard the condescension of distance. Yet it is not easy to see the spirit of the enlightenment in Gauny’s theosophical vision of Diogenus and Jean the Baptist glimpsing the “cité future”. In short, the ideas offered by Gauny, and his striving to be somebody outside of his labouring existence, will strike most readers as strange and barely readable.  (11)

Proletarian Nights.

La nuit des prolétaires (1981), which features Gauny amongst a cast of toilers dreaming of emancipation, has found a larger audience. This was, it was asserted, the fruit of a break with both official ‘positivist’ labour history, and the rising Parti Socialiste endorsed (Mitterrand came to power in 1981) version of the left and labour movement. It aimed to explore the fringes of life, independent friendships and associations, snatches of out of work dreams and hopes where the embers of revolt burned What this meant is far from clear, but it appears to have signalled that Rancière aimed for something more than facts, to rescue from oblivion forgotten narratives of rebellion. Admirers claim that it was a voyage into the in-between, the borderlands, where the experience of exploitation and oppression led to attempts to build a better life.

One might expect a fresh look at ‘history from below’ in at odds with the dominant tradition of leftist writing to break the mould of our received perceptions. But if the above remarks have not already forewarned the reader, anybody anticipating a contribution to the ‘making of the French working class’ in La nuit des prolétaires (1981) will be disappointed Of hard-fought strikes, political campaigns, or, to use the words of E.P.Thompson, the poetry and labour of those “working people” who had “nourished…with incomparable fortitude, the Liberty Tree”, there is little sound.  A few glimpses into how worker organisations worked only appear after careful reading. The book, the result of some research in the archives, recounts the afterthoughts, the dreams of special group of toilers, writings and activities of 19th century Saint Simonian adepts of the Proto-socialist New Christianity and Icarian ‘communist’ workers.

Sutar Misha describes this, “instead of a social history of changing forms of work, organisations, or cultural practices, (it is) a history of the collision of arguments and fantasies that occupied a few hundred workers between 1830 and 1851.” To these reveries, and some engagement in associative life, the historical background, the 1848 Second Republic and the aftermath of Louis Bonaparte, is only legible by reference to a chronology attached at the end of the book.  Although there is an effort to avoid the retrospective condescension towards the ideas of the time, if the “principle of organisation” is discussed, it is sketchy. And, always given, in terms of these visionaries readiness to breach the borders between the “ proletariat “ and “bourgeois” utopian speculation.

If Nights of Labour shrivels when compared with the masterpieces of labour history, then this “extra labour” account of nights of non-labour of weary workers was never intended to enter the lists of traditional labour history radical or not. What is it? It is equally not without faults proper to its execution, and in terms of its own ‘egalitarian’ claims to present a new dimension of the past smothered by previous interpretations.. The book has been – abundantly – criticised for failing to distinguish between what the workers said, and Rancière’s own, abundant, opinions. Perhaps one might consider it a roman, a work of imaginative literature?A literary defence that it was written in a “style indirect libre” gives us little hope for greater clarity.  Had Rancière, in this and other ventures of the period, offered a breakthrough in ‘non-positivist’ mode – the word is certainly appropriate, ‘workerist’ history to stand on its own right?  Few, if any,  have followed its direction. Perhaps somebody could seek out  traces of this work.

Le Maître Ignorant.

Rancière’s next effort in the history of 19th century radicalism came with his free rendering of the work and opinions of the pedagogue Joseph Jacotot (1770 – 1840) offered perhaps his most celebrated template for real democratic practice. To Rancière the “méthode Jacotot” grounded on the equality of intelligence, both tried to emancipate minds, and to challenge authority beyond the schoolroom or lecture hall. (Le Maître Ignorant Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, 1987)

A supporter of the French Revolution, and an educator under both the Directory and the Empire, Jacotot, lecturer in physics and Chemistry, moved to Belgium under the Second Restoration. Working as a teacher of French literature at the State University of Louvain the  Frenchman was faced with Dutch speaking students. He began his course, helped by the presence of an interpreter,  with a bilingual edition of the 18th century novel Télémaque by Fénelon, an appealing (and syntactically uncomplicated) fantasy full of ancient Greek mythology. Without explanations they proceeded to translate and comment on the text. whose description of the utopian kingdom (a « communist monarchy , if marked by ..slavery and a strict hierarchy of functions) of Salente (chapter X) was an early Enlightenment favourite. Rancière asserted in Les nuits that it remained a manual amongst 1820 and 1830s philanthropists and autodidacts, wishing to instruct the proletariat. Although about the only thing most of us know about the context of the short novel is that it was a veiled criticism of Louis the XIV it not endured as classic of subversion. No doubt some British workers read Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)  which has more political merit, and is more widely acknowledged a source of communist thinking, though that also imagines a society with slaves and draconian punishment. (13)

These considerations (not discussed) apart, the novices’ apparent success, on Jacot’s own account, demonstrated the equality of intelligence. But the lesson was not that he had found a new means of teasing out people’s inner talents through a (rather presumptive) exercise in the Socratic – maieutic – method. It all began with a recognition that everyone can learn on their own – and a heavy dose of repetition. For Rancière, it is a stage on the way to indicate that, “L’égalité ne se donne ni ne se revendique, elle se pratique, elle se vérifie” This may be freely translated as Equality is not something given, nor is it something that is demanded, it is something that is proved in practice (14)

For many writers on Rancière, le Maître was a crucial moment in his thought. David Panagia states that, “Jacotot matters to Rancière in the same way that he mattered to the Communards of the Paris Commune: he matters because Jacotot develops an account of equality that refuses the propriety of judgment as a condition of political participation by refusing a priori common standards, including the common standard that to be an eligible participant in politics one must have a faculty of judgment.” But what conclusions can one draw from this? Anders Fjeld in Jacques Rancière Pratiquer l’eqalité (2018) suggests that at first sight the conceptual framework developed in the Maitre Ignorant could serve as a template for Rancière’s political work. But…intellectual and political emancipation are not the same.  (15)

This leads us to our  next section: from Le Philosophe et ses pauvresLa Mésentente La Haine de la démocratie,  and beyond…….



References :


  1. Page 53. Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, Fayard 1987.
  2.  “I know English people who I consider advanced, intellectual people, who say they are rather pleased that it was a Leave vote. I think you absolutely cannot simply reduce the Remain side to progress and universalism and the Leave side to backwardness. I think that you have to understand that with this type of vote there are lots of reasons why people might have voted for it. There is a reaction against foreigners because they are foreigners, but then again there are two very different aspects to the European question. There is the part that is about European power, the excessive power that is accountable to no one. We can speak of a denial of democracy, a denial which the European bureaucracy itself embodies. Then there is the aspect that is about relating to the other, relations with foreigners. So I think that in this situation there are two totally different kinds of question. I think that having this kind of referendum is to mix these questions up, in a rather systematic way. But of course it was not the people from below but the government and Mr. Cameron who did that, trying to divert, we might say, a democratic aspiration into an identitarian one.”  Europe: The Return of the People, or of Populism?  See Claude Lefort Essais sur le politique : xixe et xxe siècles, Paris, Seuil, 1986 (Collection Points. 2001) On Foucault and the Police “The ‘police apparatus’ is linked to the ‘state apparatus’; to the ‘centre of political sovereignty’, it works within the ambit of ‘disciplinary power’ and is a productive as well as a limiting apparatus. As early as in Madness and CivilisationFoucault defines police as “the totality of measures which make work possible and necessary for all those who would not live without it . . .” (p. 46). Again “Down to the end of the ancient regime, the term ‘police’ does not signify at least not exclusively the institution of police in the modern sense; ‘police’ is the ensemble of mechanisms serving to ensure order, the properly channelled growth of wealth and the conditions of preservation of health in general’ (Power/Knowledge p. 170). Thus police has as its main function the production and protection of wealth and protection of general conditions of health (which is obviously related to the first two functions). The production of wealth function includes all kinds of “economic regulation (the circulation of commodities, manufacturing processes, the obligations of trades people both to one another and to there clientele)”. The protection of wealth function is constituted of the ” ‘measures of public order’ (surveillance of dangerous individuals, expulsion of vagabonds and if necessary beggars and the pursuit of criminals” (ibid. p. 170). The production and protection of health function includes the “general rules of hygiene (checks on the quality of foodstuffs sold, the water supply and the cleanliness of streets)” [ibid. pp. 170-171].Police function…
  3. The use of rhetoric in Rancière’s writing a waits if Roland Barthes, but a simply glance through four pages (85 – 89) devoted to populism and the 2005 French EU Constitution referendum in 2005 in La Haine de la démocratie. Jacques Rancière. La Fabrique. 2005) Permanence du théologico-politique (1981) In Claude Lefort, Essais sur le politique. XIXe – XXe siècles. Editions du Seuil.  1986.
  4. The Lesson of Rancière. Slavoj Žižek. In: The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible. Jacques Rancière. Continuum. 2005. The following is influenced by the invaluable framework offered to introduce his writings in Rancière: Pratiquer l’égalité. Anders Fjeld.   Éditer. 2018
  5. See Pages 223 – 226. La leçon d’althusser. Gallimard. 1974 See the account, of the theoretical issues at stake and biographical intersection of Rancière and Althusser, in The Detour of Theory. Gregory Elliott. Brill. 2006. Pages 22 and 25. Althusser’s Solicitude. George Elliott. In The Althusserian legacy. Edited by E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Spinker. Verso 1993.  More widely Conditions, limites et conséquences de l’intervention philosophique dans la conjoncture Althusser à l’épreuve de Rancière Eva Mancuso. 2013. More widely see the dossier in Radical Philosophy: The Althusser–Rancière Controversy Archive.
  6. Pages 271 and 191. La Leçon d’Althusser. Was Rancière the originator of the Althusserian theory of Ideological State Apparatuses? He has stated this and it  is reflected in Reviewing Rancière. Or, the persistence of discrepancies Bruno Bosteels. Radical Philosophy. 170. 211. Perhaps the most obvious point is that while there may be some relation between the ideas, Rancière had no picture of “Interpellation” or sense of how and why these institutions “reproduce” social relations. Rancière’s principal claims, about ideological struggle during the Great Cultural Revolution, have not worn well, unless of course one considers mass bureaucratic violence and repression to be beneficial forms of socialist ideological struggle. For Balibar’s view on the mixture of motives behind Reading Capital see Page 15: Étienne Balibar, L’Illimitation démocratique. Martian Deleixhe. Michalon. 2014.
  7. The whole of chapter 5 of The Detour of Theory. Gregory Elliott. Is devoted to this issue. He notably stated, “ a concrete critique, one which exists in the facts, in the struggle, in the line, in the practices, their principles and their forms, of the Chinese Revolution. A silent critique, which speaks through its actions, the result of the political and ideological struggles of the Revolution, from the Long March to the Cultural Revolution and its results. A critique from afar. A critique from ‘behind the scenes’” (Althusser cited, Page 231) Elliott charitably remarked that, “For over a decade, Althusser was caught up in the Parisian illusion of the epoch.” (Page 353) Amongst “post-Althusserian” theorists Alain Badiou still holds to such Noble Lies about the Cultural Revolutions. Rancière could criticise Althusser’s use of Mao, and his avoidance of looking at the nature of the USSR, but not ask whether the “verbiage” of human rights could have applied to the Cultural Revolution. Pages 196 – 7 La Leçon op cit.
  8. Pages 221 – 225. L’avenir dure longtemps Louis Althusser. Stock/IMEC. 1992.
  9. Page 42. Olivier Rolin Tigre en Papier. Seuil, 2002 Of the voluminous literature on the GP and popular justice Pages 237 – 8. Les Maoistes. Christophe Bourseiller. Plon. 2008. If it necessary  I should point out that the  writer of the present article comes from a very different ‘gauchiste’ tradition. Some details on the workings of the inner circles of the GP and its leader’s bizarre political trajectory, from Mao to the Torah in this fine study: Philippe Lardinois, De Pierre Victor à Benny Levy, de Mao à Moïse ?, Luc Pire, 2008
  10. See Althusser. The Detour of Theory. Gregory Elliott. New Left Review.
  11. On RL see: David Amalric & Benjamin Faure. Réappropriation des savoirs et subjectivations politiques: Jacques Rancière après Mai 68. Dissensus. 2011. « a) « Ni conscience d’une avant garde instruite par la science ni systématisation des idées nées de la pratique des masses. b)Ni l’un ni le multiple : un sujet unifié de l’histoire (la classe ouvrière) ou la multiplicité irréductible des luttes. c) Ni le plein ni le vide : la pleine positivité théorique et sociologique de la classe ouvrière ou la négativité destructrice de la subjectivité rebelle. » In A Thorn in the Side of Social History: Jacques Rancière and Les Révoltes logiques Mischa Suter. Research Centre for Economic and Social History, Zurich. 2012. it is suggested that “établissement and enquête”, the Maoist practice of establishing members as workers and “inquiry” marked the journal. “Au « on a raison de se révolter » de la Gauche prolétarienne, la revue substitue l’attention portée à la révolte, « Nous aurons la philosophie féroce ». In Révoltes logiques, 1975-1981 Vincent Chambarlhac.
  12. Page 73. Louis Gabriel Gauny. Le philosophe plébéien La-Découverte-Maspero. 1983.
  13. Jacques Rancière. La nuit des prolétaries. Plurielle. 2012 Paperback
  14. Page 40 Jacques Rancière. La nuit des prolétaires.Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, Fayard 1987 More on this study: Sur « Le maitre ignorant »
    It goes without saying that this tale of instant learning is not widely accepted. See French Wikipedia entry for links on this: Le Maître ignorant. 

  15. Page 7. Rancière’s Sentiments. David Panagia Duke University Press. 2018. Page 53. Jacques Rancière. Pratiquer l’égalitie Anders Fjeld. Michalon.. 2018.

Written by Andrew Coates

October 9, 2018 at 1:21 pm

The Anti-68 (La Pensée anti-68 amongst others)…

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Quarante ans de contre-révolution triomphante en Occident nous ont affligés de deux tares jumelles, également néfastes, mais qui forment ensemble un dispositif impitoyable: le pacifisme et le radicalisme.”

“Forty years of triumphant counterrevolution in the West has left us with twin defects, equally deadly, but which together form an implacable apparatus: non-violence and radicalism.”

À Nos amis. Le Comité Invisible. 2014.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, is now “well liked” in Germany and “loved” in France – part of the national DNA (1968: Power to the Imagination. NYRB). Our happiness at this recognition – perhaps one day to be extended to our national treasure, Tariq Ali – inspires us to reflections on the uprisings that made the Green leader’s fame.  The 50th anniversary of the événements has been, and will be, greeted in France with a flood of articles, books, radio, television programmes and, what one might call “teach-ins”. There is a lesser, but audible, interest in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. In homage, the tête de cortège on this year’s Paris May Day promised in a communiqué, in tribute to the enragés of the Mouvement du 22 Mars  a re-enactment of the May riots in the Quartier Latin. Those promoted by the friends of Le Comité Invisible ended up with a little smashing up of the nearest MacDonald’s and some bus shelters.

For some commentators on the legacy of 68, from the left, Cohn-Bendit stands out not just as a sign of middle-aged mellowing into the political mainstream, and a warning about the transience of elfin cuteness. The Franco-German politician represents the capture of its radical forces by Capital. Others, from more centrists position, state that what remains of the far-left has been “absorbed” by the French political system, the latest stage being Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise which pitches its objectives not at creating communism, or socialism, but a left populism aiming at a Sixth Republic.

A more thorough-going stand is to claim, in common with parts of the right, that 68 was a wrong turning in the first place. That it was the rise of the Me (too?) Generation in alliance with cosmopolitan capital which has sapped the sovereign rights of the People…or the Nation.

The “liberal-libertarianism” of the cherished contestataire and his ecological current already dominant in Die Grünen is in close communication with the “right and left” modernisers now assembled behind President Macron. Is this just their choice? For some Cohen-Bendit’s career is concomitant with post-Fordist culture, supple politics in the mould of the diversity of flexible production. In promoting, in his fashion, the politics of the right to be different and the cultural needs of identity, with liberal  economics, Danny le Rouge has assumed his role in “turning the entire social field into commodities. “

The many readers of Régis Debray’s repetitions of forty years will recognise this theme. Danny le rouge was one of the litter born in the “cradle of a new bourgeois society”. “Capital’s development strategy required the cultural revolution of May”. May 68, dubbed a “demand for identity” was a “marketable object”. He “communion of egos on the barricades becoming generalised egocentrism, the gift of self, the cult of me, the exaltation of liberties, the enshrinement of inequalities…” (1)

Debray has never abandoned this refrain, edging ever closer to nationalism as he ribs against the process of “Americanisation”, the global marketplace, and the vogue for “sans-frontiérisme” (Éloge de frontiers 2010). Perhaps he is haunted by the melancholy mercantile state, Orsenna, pictured by his favourite author, Julien Gracq in Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951). The encirclement never ends…..

Guy Debord, from the Situationists, celebrated post-facto in the 68 events, to whom the Tête de Cortege owe some debt, wrote of the victory of the “integrated spectacle”, and also of the “Americanisation of the world”. It is dominated by secret societies manipulated by nameless ‘elites” (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. 1988)

More modestly, and accurately Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in the New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), described how everything from managerial ‘science’ to cultural production has used themes of autonomy and choice in capturing a new post-68 public for companies and the market. There is equally,  no doubt something more still to say about ‘post-modernism’ and the post-68 development of capitalism.

La Pensée anti-68.

The theme that ‘68’ has been absorbed by capitalism, energised into forms of ‘liberalism’, is as well known, as it is coterminous with the events themselves. It is tackled in Audier’s indispensable La Pensée anti-68. (2009) Audier has little trouble pointing out that it was the most conservative section of the Parti Communiste français (PCF) which declared that the student revolutionaries were playing the bosses’ game.

The critique of individualism, Audier points out, appeared in France in a variety of forms. Many, from both right and left, were influenced by Christopher Lasch’s 1979 Culture of Narcissism (from a certain US left), and a host of overtly right-wing writers out to defend the Nation and a cohesive society against the egotism of marketisation. An ‘anti-68’ cast of thought has developed. This extends from the obvious targets on the right, pessimistic cultural commentators such as Alain Finkielkraut (the list of others in this vein is long, very long), to the ‘anti-liberal’ admirer of George Orwell’s ‘common decency” another critic of the ‘doublethink’ of the “society of the spectacle”, Jean-Claude Michéa (La double pensée. 2008).

He is less convincing when attacking the theorist of ‘menaces’ against collective identity, Pierre-André Taguieff, also a former Situationist. Subsequently Taguieff has attempted to explain populism and the appeal of the far-right, not to support it (La revanche du nationalisme. 2015). The treatment of other writers, such as Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, who constructed a ‘geology’ of 68 ideas, including well-known names such as Foucault, Bourdieu and Althusser, only retrospectively connected with the events is better framed. But Audier ignores some of their well-targeted shafts against the ‘research’ that went into Madness and Civilisation’s account of the incarceration of the insane, the banality and circulatory of Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘cultural capital’ in social reproduction, and Althusser’s ‘anti-humanism’ taken to ethical conclusions – above all his failure to begin to tackle the issue of Stalinism.

La Pensée 68 is, above all, remarkable for its account of the complexities of liberal thought. This does not just include ‘neo-liberalism’ but a sceptical and democratic strain represented by Raymond Aron (he indicates – far from opposed to ‘68’ en bloc) to the various forms of American progressivism, such as John Dewey with which I suspect many of us in Europe are less than familiar with. He puts his finger on the real issues behind ‘neo-conservatism’ and neoliberalism. This is far from a far from a 68 ‘permissive;’ ideology. Stuart Hall, called Thatcherism ‘authoritarian populism’ and the first word has real weight. Cultural liberalism, against Michéa, and a host of others, is not reducible to the ‘market’. We should not lightly reject the liberal value of tolerance, as opposed to such authoritarianism as the libertarian left.

The principal argument of La Pensée anti-68, then, which has worn well since the publication of La Pensée a decade ago, is that the hatred of the symbolic moment of 68 should be understood as more than a reaction. It is denial of what he calls, citing Claude Lefort celebrated 1980 essay on human rights, the opening up of new terrains of social affirmation. (2) In this sense it was not the grass roots May comités d’action, documented in an accessible form in Loyer’s book, which were harbingers of the political future. Particular forms of struggle may change, but the expansion of the political terrain for humanist self-assertion which is the enduring legacy of May 68.

Gauchisme Culturel. 

The counter-culture, or, more broadly, the wish to live ‘differently’ without repression, affirming autonomy and creativity, might be seen as a the ground for longer-lasting changes To Jean-Pierre Le Goff in his Postscript to Mai 68, l’héritage impossible (2002), the counter-cultural “liberation of désir”, the critique of authority, a wish for self-development and sexual freedom, cultural leftism “gauchisme culturel”, is the most important legacy of the time. While political leftism, attempts to make a real revolution, failed, the diverse ‘social movements’, as they used to be known, for women’s rights, gay rights, green politics, and what is today called “intersectionality” did not only have a cultural impact.

Perhaps, regrettably, Le Goff has joined the ‘anti-68ers’. From the 1980s, onwards Le Goff argues in the essays collected in La gauche à l’agonie? they have served as a mask, or a radical substitute, for the governing French left’s adoption of neo-liberal economics. The final articles are denunciations of a further 68 inheritance, multi-culturalism, a Third Worldism that’s become, “islamogauchisme” and efforts to “understand” Jihadism by the French equivalents of Giles Fraser.

One would listen to Le Goff’s catchphrases if he managed to reaffirm internationalist universalism. Does he stand like a rock with the leftists, democrats and liberals fighting Islamism in Muslim countries? He does not. In place of such commitment Le Goff ruminates over the managerial use of the youthful creativity, in a pseudo-68 liberation, the debris of French republican nationalism, and the narcissism ( a word one wishes vaporisation in the next edition of Newspeak) of those who declare themselves citizens of the world.

In the absence of history’s ability to repeat its experiments it is hard to disprove the view that May 68 played a part in regenerating capitalism. More pressing, as Serge Audier states in Le Monde this March, is the persistence and radicalisation of the anti-68 reaction ( Le discours anti-68 s’est radicalisé ).

The importance that its alternative, whether disguised as the Republic or not, the Nation, or National Sovereignty, the ultimate Identity, has taken hold of political debate in France and most of the West cannot be underestimated.

In Britain as the editors of New Left Review giggled at the result, a number of leftists have joined in the ‘anti-68’ Carnival or Reaction that has followed Brexit, and found merit in les anglais de souche who supported the anti-European break (55 Arguments for Lexit). La France insoumise drapes itself in the Tricolor, and chants the Marseillaise. Give me the cosmopolitan sans-frontières with their universal human rights any day.



(1) A Modest Contribution to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary. Régis Debray. New Left Review (First series). No 115. 1979.

(2) The Politics of Human Rights in. The Political Forms of Modern Society Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism Claude Lefort. Edited and Introduced by John B. Thompson. The Politics of Human Rights. MIT Press. See also Les droits de l’homme et l’Etat providence. Reprinted in Claude Lefort essays sur le politique. Seuil. 1986.


L’événement 68. Emmanuelle Loyer. Champs histoire. 2008/2018.

La Pensée anti-68. Serge Audier. La Découverte/Poche. 2009.

La gauche à l’agonie? 1968 – 2017. Jean-Pierre Le Goff. Perrin 2017.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 10, 2018 at 12:45 pm

From French Trotskyism to Social Democracy. “68, et Après. Les héritages égarés. Benjamin Stora” Review.

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68, et Après. Les héritages égarés. Benjamin Stora. Stock. 2018.

The present wave of strikes and student protests in France have drawn comparisons with the stoppages and protests against the 1995 ‘Plan Juppé”. This reform of state health and retirement insurance, including the railway workers’ pensions, struck at the heart of the French welfare state. There is a strong resemblance between this social movement and the opposition of public sector workers and undergraduates to President Macron’s efforts to ‘modernise’ the French rail system and Universities, (Le Monde 28.3.18).

Others, notably in the English-speaking left, have evoked the spirit of ’68. Some on the French ultra-left, who might be considered to inherit a fragment of the soul of that year’s revolts, state in Lundimatin, that they “do not give a toss” (on s’en fout) about the anniversary of the May events. (Nicolas Truong. Le Monde 15.3.18) Rather than commemorate, or organising Occupy or Nuit Debout style alternatives, they will be busy tearing into Macron, speaking truth for the Coming Insurrection. (1)

That section of the far-left is, of course embroiled in the continuation of the Tarnac trial. Others from a close milieu are involved in resisting the clearing of the last self-organised squats at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

Benjamin Stora’s 68, et Après is written from a standpoint both familiar internationally, the fall out from the crushing defeat of the French left in last year’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections, and one far less well-known, the history of a section of Gallic Trotskyism, the ‘Lambertists’.

It is also an autobiography, from his origins in as a North African Jews, his education, his many years of activism, and university career. Stora  has produced important studies of French Algeria, the war of liberation, and post-independence Algerian history, including the exile of its Jewish population. There is a finely handled account of the tragic death of his daughter in 1992. Stora’s commitment to study the Maghreb did not wholly override political commitment. Opposition to the Jihadists – and be it said, the Military – during the 1990s civil war in Algeria – led to Islamist intimidation. After a small coffin inscribed with words from the Qur’an, and a death threat addressed to Unbelievers, Jews and Communists arrived at his home the historian was forced to leave France and spend time in Vietnam, the occasion for further fruitful reflection on post-colonial societies.

Generation 68

Stora argues that the notion of a 68 ‘generation’ (popularised in Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman’s landmark 1987 book of the same name) is misleading. He notes the two volumes lack of attention to his own tradition. A full-time activist in the 1970s the former Lambertist suggests, notably, that his own tendency, whose internal regime and (to put in terms this reviewer, whose background is amongst its left-wing rivals) stifling narrow-minded morality (up to hostility towards feminism and gays), was also part of the post-68 radical movement. This is indeed the case, although not many beyond their circles had a taste for denunciations of “petty bourgeois deviations” and ritual revolutionary socialism. (Page 31) Those familiar with the history will suspect the reason for their absence (one Index reference to Lambert) in Génération. That is, the Lambertists’ call during one of the most celebrated moments of 68, for students to disperse from the Boulevard Saint-Michel rendered, “Non aux barricades” and to go to the workers at Renault, Michel (Night of 10-11th of May). (2)

The history of this highly disciplined current, around the figure of Pierre Lambert (real name Boussel) in 68 known as the Organisation communiste internationaliste (OCI) is long and, to say the least controversial. But their imprint is not confined to the fringes. Lambertists have played an important part in the recently governing Parti Socialiste (PS). Amongst one-time members are the former Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and the ex-Socialist  leader of La France insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Stora, like PS General Secretary until last year, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, was part of a several hundred strong Lambertist faction which joined the PS in 1986. Cambadélis, in his most recent book, Chronique d’une débâcle (2017) makes passing reference to a Trotskyist past (his ability to spot sectarian manoeuvres is undiminished). L’après 68 gives an extensive account of the organisation, from weekly cell meetings, whose minutes were rigorously kept and transmitted to the party HQ, to their exploits in the student unions and ‘mutuals’, friendly societies which play an important part in assuring student health and other forms of insurance.

Stora’s La Dernière Génération d’Octobre (2003) covers, he remarks, the post-68 culture and politics of his time in the OCI. The present volume gives probably more attention to the way in which his faction from this generation moved from full-time Lambertist activism, often paid for by one of the fractured French student unions, the UNEF-ID, in some cases by Teachers’ unions) into the late 1980s Parti Socialiste. Going from a clandestine fraction, led principally by Cambadélis, suspicious of surveillance by a group whose way of dealing with dissidence was not too far off the British WRP’s, they broke with Leninism. This was not just in opposition to the vertical internal regime, and the reliance on the “transitional programme” but, as they saw it, to establish a left-wing force within the democratic socialist spectrum represented in the post Epinay PS.  

A deal reached with Boussel, to avoid the violence and rancour traditionally associated with splits, was soon behind them. Despite the author’s best efforts it fails to disperse the suspicion, which those of us who are, let’s just say, not greatly fond of their tradition, had that some kind of arrangement also took place between Lambert and the PS itself over their entry into the party. (3) 

Inside the Parti Socialiste.

An organised PS current, Convergences socialistes, with all the self-importance that afflicts parts of the French left and academics, they numbered around 400 members. Of these a few moved into open professional politics. As a coherent body it is hard to find much trace of them in the shifting alliances within the PS, although one may find some remaining allies of Cambadélis as he clambered  up the party hierarchy. 

Just how adept former Lambertists could be in the PS game is registered by Stora’s portrait of an individual who had joined the PS some years before, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The present chief of La France insoumise, with a seat in the senate’s august halls, shared a wish create a new vanguard with his own tendency, the ‘Gauche socialiste’. He was equally  marked by burgeoning admiration for François Mitterrand. This did not go down well. Stora recalled the President’s role in the repression of Algerian insurgents…(Page 49 – 50). In a critique of Mélenchon’s present politics, Stora draws comparisons with the old Communist Party’s wish to impose its hegemony on the left, and keep its activists preoccupied by frenetic activism (Pages 150 – 153).

The root cause of the present  débâcle is  Parliamentary left lost touch with the people, part of an autonomous political sphere. The history of how a section of the radical left made the transfer from revolutionary full-timers to PS MPs and functionaries (and a galaxy of dependent positions) is not unique. It could be paralleled on a smaller scale by the career of the UK Socialist Action in Ken Livingstone’s London Mayor administration. The insulated, amply rewarded, lives of politicians, is, it is often said, one of the causes of the break down of the traditional French parties of right and left. Stora does not neglect his own current’s involvement in the student mutual, MNEF, corruption scandals, (Page 129). Whatever remains of the difference between ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘reformists’ fades into the distance faced with a managerial-bureaucratisation enveloping the current. The same processes, born of their reliance on union positions and opaque funding are not without effects on the remaining loyal Lamberists in the le Parti ouvrier indépendant (POI) , and their split,  the Parti ouvrier indépendant démocratique (POID).

After 68?

Après 68 is above all is a rousing condemnation of the “neo-nationalism” grounded on French “identity” and fear of “decline”. This, from the 2005 European Constitution Referendum (which divided the French left including, Stora notes, some on his section of the radical left)  dominates French politics, left and right, up to its presence in the ‘synthesis’ offered by President Macron. French political space, he observes, no longer dominated by the Parti Socialiste, is open. From 1968, writes both the historian and left winger he keeps two passions, for History (the source of his productive career) and the internationalist defence of those without rights, the desire for a common human civilisation. Staying hopeful that hopes for a new world have not been extinguished, L’après 68 is full of important messages from an old one.


(1) See: A nos Amis. 2014. Le Comité Invisible 2014. Page 64. “Voilà ce qu’il faut opposer à la « souveraineté » des assemblées générales, aux bavardages des Parlements : la redécouverte de la charge affective liée à la parole, à la parole vraie. Le contraire de la démocratie, ce n’est pas la dictature, c’est la vérité. C’est justement parce qu’elles sont des moments de vérité, où le pouvoir est nu, que les insurrections ne sont jamais démocratiques.”

(2) Pages 467– 469. Les Trotskyistes, Christophe Nick. Fayard. 2002.

(3)See for example, the series in le Monde by Nathaniel Herzberg in 1999 on the subject commented on here:  De la « génération » comme argument de vente… A propos d’une série d’articles sur la « génération MNEF ».