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Rethinking Marx

Claude Lefort is a French political theorist and philosopher. He is best known as an interpreter of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and as one of the founding members, together with Cornelius Castoriadis, of the small left-wing group, Socialisme ou Barbarie, which throughout the 1950s published a journal bearing that name. The volume under review, prefaced by a lucid introductory essay by the editor John Thompson, consists of ten essays, the earliest dating from the late 1940s and the latest extending through to work done in the early 1980s. The editor has divided the book up into three parts: part I, ‘Problems of politics and bureaucracy’; part II, ‘History, ideology and the social imaginary’; and part III, ‘Democracy and totalitarianism’. This selection of essays is, evidently, directed to political analysts and theorists; none the less, Lefort’s work, including that presented in this volume, should be of interest to a much wider audience. Almost from its beginning, Lefort’s work has been preoccupied with the problem of totalitarianism-with, that is, the significance and fate of socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe; and it is from the outcome of these researches that he has analysed Western capitalism. At the centre of Lefort’s analyses of the Soviet Union are two denials. First, he denies Trotsky’s conception of the Soviet bureaucracy as a parasitical caste doomed to be ousted by either revolutionary insurrection or the restoration of capitalism. Second, he denies that totalitarianism can be understood either as a specific political regime or as a contingent joining of an assortment of various political institutions. These two denials together entail that it is a mistake to regard totalitarianism as a contingent historical or sociological phenomenon-that is, as a contingent empirical deformation of an existing state of affairs whose ‘deformed’ character can be traced directly through straightforward historical and sociological analysis. Rather than regarding totalitarianism as simply a monstrous outgrowth of political power, as is usually done, it should be seen as ‘a metamorphosis of society itself in which the political ceases to exist as a separate sphere’ (P. 79).