Modernity Gone Awry: Lefort on Totalitarian and Democratic Self-representation

Critical Horizons 13 (1):74 - 93 (2012)
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This essay starts by reviewing Claude Lefort’s writings on totalitarianism, a theme that runs like a red thread through his oeuvre and plays a key role in the different stages of his intellectual development. The analysis of the USSR is a central interest of Lefort and his colleagues at Socialisme ou Barbarie (and inspires them to adopt an explicitly “political” approach against the “economism” of their fellow Marxists); the problem of totalitarianism features prominently in Lefort’s theory of democracy and human rights (where it functions as the “flipside” of democracy); and the theme holds Lefort’s attention well after the events of 1989. The emphasis of this essay, however, is not on the chronology of Lefort’s trajectory, but on the methodological role of totalitarianism in his theoretical framework. Lefort’s account of totalitarianism serves him as a tool to dissect the symbolic fabric of modern society. In Arendt’s view, totalitarian rule reveals something of the essence of modernity, as a movement towards ever increasing technical mastery. For Lefort, by contrast, totalitarian tendencies arise as an attempt to close off the experience of indeterminacy that has been opened up by political modernity. He shows that the totalitarian “imaginary” (which he dissects in psychoanalytic terms) presupposes yet deliberately inverts the very ideas that sparked the democratic revolution and that are central to the self-representation of democratic societies. In consequence, democracy is continuously at risk of degenerating into totalitarianism. Importantly, the totalitarian threat, which Lefort believes to be the main threat to modern society, only becomes visible by adopting a specifically “political” perspective. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we continue to understand and to interpret our society in “political” terms, that is, in reference to the symbolic constellation of collective power



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The Philosophy of Claude Lefort. Interpreting the Political.Bernard Flynn - 2006 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 68 (4):835-837.
The Marxian legacy.Dick Howard - 1977 - London: Macmillan.
Machiavelli in the making.Claude Lefort - 2012 - Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Edited by Michael B. Smith.

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