Claude Lefort’s Machiavelli
Amidst the enthusiasm marking the five hundredth anniversary of Machiavelli’s composition of The Prince in 1513, there is one recent publication that risks being overlooked. Last year saw the belated appearance in English of the French political philosopher Claude Lefort’s most substantial work, his 1972 doctoral thesis: Le travail de l’œuvre Machiavel. This volume, abridged in English and retitled Machiavelli in the Making,1 would turn out to be the only major monograph of Lefort’s publishing career, but the impact of its translation on the wider world of Machiavelli scholarship is likely to be minimal given its prohibitively technical quality and relentlessly phenomenological idiom. Proustian is indeed the polite term for its style, and the one Lefort says his doctoral adviser Raymond Aron used to describe it – ‘by no means a compliment’ (ix). If its fortunes among Machiavelli’s enthusiasts and detractors remain to be determined, what is already clear is that consulting Lefort’s study, and historically situating it alongside comparable engagements with Machiavelli, yields insights into the project of a philosopher whose influence on contemporary French political thought remains at once evident, obscure and contested. Although the book was prepared under Aron, the sociologist and liberal political philosopher, its main intellectual influence was no doubt Lefort’s mentor Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty had died suddenly of a heart attack shortly after beginning his tenure at the Collège de France in 1961, and Lefort took it upon himself to bring Merleau-Ponty’s posthumous publications to order.2 This scholarly work followed upon a period of spirited political activism that began during the Second World War when Lefort joined up with Trotskyist elements of the French Resistance, and lasted through the 1950s when Lefort served as the co-leader with Cornelius Castoriadis of the leftist group Socialisme ou Barbarie. Over the course of the 1960s, Lefort, like many, would become disillusioned not simply with the travesty of really existing socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but with what he viewed as the authoritarian style of left politics more generally. Disillusion with Trotskyism followed, as did a more general rejection of the party form and the revolutionary agenda.
If the last years of Merleau-Ponty’s career witnessed an increasingly robust critique of his own erstwhile Communist sympathies, a critique which took the form of a phenomenological rejection of all totalizing ontologies, Lefort’s intellectual project continued Merleau-Ponty’s effort to no small degree, seeking to develop the consequences for political philosophy of Merleau-Ponty’s naturalist and anti-holistic ontology.3 Clues towards the direction such an inquiry might take were left behind by Merleau-Ponty himself in one of the most enigmatic texts of an oracular corpus, his 1949 ‘Note on Machiavelli’. Composed in the interval between his apologia for Stalin’s show trials, Humanism and Terror (1947), and his indictment of ‘ultra-bolshevism’ in Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), Merleau-Ponty’s note defended Machiavelli against his detractors and reinscribed him in the legacy of Renaissance humanism, albeit a humanism now bearing the traces of a distinctly phenomenological concern for notions of political community:
If by humanism we mean a philosophy of the inner man which finds no difficulty in principle in his relationships with others, no opacity whatsoever in the functioning of society, and which replaces political cultivation by moral exhortation, Machiavelli is not a humanist. But if by humanism we mean a philosophy which confronts the relationship of man to man and the constitution of a common situation and a common history between men as a problem, then we have to say that Machiavelli formulated some of the conditions of any serious humanism.4
Presenting the notion of humanity as a problem, and the ‘common’ as a site of contestation, Merleau-Ponty saw in Machiavelli the contours of an ontological conception of politics that squared with his own efforts to exit a Marxist paradigm that too often took politics for granted rather than for the existential ground of modern history. What Merleau-Ponty’s note provided was a schematic of the renascent visibility of this ground; what it didn’t provide was an argument.
The argument at the core of Lefort’s book on Machiavelli is the argument that would identify him as a leading philosopher of France’s ‘anti-totalitarian moment’ of the 1970s and the Republican turn in …