On Claude Lefort’s “Proletarian Experience”

Renault factory, Boulogne-Billancourt (René-Jacques, 1951).
Renault factory, Boulogne-Billancourt (René-Jacques, 1951).

The schema that ordered Socialisme ou Barbarie’s conception of revolution relied upon the close examination of working-class experience.1 This put the group in little-explored territory. Even though traditional Marxism placed the proletariat at the conceptual and political center of its concerns, its treatment of the working class as the embodied expression of abstract economic forces foreclosed close analysis of concrete relations of production. It also evacuated questions of how the proletariat could act as a revolutionary agent by conceiving of revolution as a quasi-automatic result of contradictions that played out at the level of “objective forces.”2 French “human sciences” had not yet begun producing researchers who took the French working class as a legitimate object of study. Through the 1950s, anthropology was dominated on the one hand by research on the “exotic,” and on the other by the conflict between structural anthropology and philosophy over which discipline “owned” epistemology.3 Sociology, for the most part, operated in a zone of inquiry that hovered between politics and the university. While students of Georges Friedman, like Alain Touraine, produced studies of the French working class in modes quite distinct from American-style industrial sociology, it was only with the failure of the workers to oppose the Gaullist Fifth Republic in 1958 that the academic discipline—represented notably by Touraine, Serge Mallet and Michel Crozier—concerned itself with the “fate” of the French working class.4 Only industrial relations and industrial sociology took the problem of shop-floor experience seriously. However, the field was dominated by American researchers who, in the main, viewed industrial conflict as the social expression of psychological deviance. This epistemological position was the direct recoding of the political worldview particular to the Capitalists who employed them.5

Even Marx’s early writings offered little in the way of a historically specific approach to working-class experience. Lefort argues that this follows from the double image of the proletariat in Marx. The proletariat is a creation of capitalism, positioned at the leading edge of technological and organizational development. It operates simultaneously inside the dominant bourgeois rationality by virtue of its socialization and outside by virtue of the experience of the reality of exploitation that the dominant rationality legitimates and conceals at once. This unique situation is what enables the proletariat to develop a rationality that goes beyond that of the bourgeoisie, and to become the historical agent that brings about socialism. This position is juxtaposed with another in which ruthless exploitation and wholesale alienation have reduced workers to a less-than-human status. Lefort argues that this second image is symmetrical with a notion of revolution as explosion, and of a socialism that requires no internal articulations at the level of theory because it would simply replace capitalism “as a negative to a positive.”6 This is the image of the proletariat that came to be dominant in Marx.7

Working against this predominance, Lefort takes up a version of the first but positions it in the specific context of post-1945 capitalism. His approach is conditioned by the assumption that alienation is a tendency rather than an accomplishment. This assumption is rooted in Socialisme ou Barbarie’s view of the basic contradiction of bureaucratic capitalism, according to which capitalist managerial ideology and practice tends to exclude workers from creative interaction with their work while, at the same time, that creative interaction is continually required in order to solve the myriad problems that arise in the course of production. If workers were completely alienated, not only would revolutionary action be impossible, but capitalist production itself would grind to a halt.8 Implicit in the use of the concept of bureaucratic capitalism is the more basic claim that modalities of exploitation, conflict, and creativity are variable and historically specific. The situation in bureaucratic capitalist enterprises is different from that of enterprises in earlier periods and experience at the point of production is particular not only to this type of organization, but also to the specific situation of the workers’ movement.9 Even if there were a fully articulated approach to this register of working-class experience in the early Marx, it could serve only as a template. The problems of analysis would still have to be posed again.

“Proletarian Experience” emphasizes the radical creativity of the working class and the historically contingent character of that creativity. Following in part from his position on revolutionary organization, Lefort argues that only workers can know and write about their experience: revolutionary theory must be confined to analyzing and interpreting what they write.10 Using Paul Romano’s “The American Worker” and Eric Albert’s “Témoinage: La vie en usine” as points of departure, Lefort outlines a program for the investigation of “the proletarian standpoint” that would isolate and describe the significations that structure proletarian comportment. These analyses would be supplemented with critical accounts of autonomous worker actions which would function as statements of political horizon, and as broadly synthetic analyses of contemporary capitalism. Lefort also imagines the collection of these narratives as the basis for a wide-ranging working-class sociology “from the inside” that would include all aspects of worker interaction with the dominant culture and be centered on the question of whether there was a specific “mentalité ouvrier” and what it might look like. Worker narratives would be part of an ongoing dialogue between the group and the worker avant-garde that was to be the center of Socialisme ou Barbarie’s activity as Lefort envisioned it. But it never became the model for the group or as the journal because, despite the solicitation for writings which frequently appeared in Socialisme ou Barbarie (as well as in related projects like Tribune Ouvrière), workers simply did not write.

Lefort’s emphasis on second-order descriptions and interpretation follows from his position elaborated in recurrent debates within Socialisme ou Barbarie on “the organization question.” A point of consensus within the group was the vision of revolution as the culmination of a process whereby the working class, acting autonomously, would consciously assume the direction of production and, by extension, of society. Positioning themselves broadly within in the tradition of the general strike, members of SB emphasized the content of socialism rather than the modalities of transition. With this, the group put aside the more militarized conceptions of revolution that emerged within the Marxian tradition in response to the violent suppression of the Paris Commune, which served as the logical basis for Leninism. The move was in significant measure a result of the group’s shared preoccupation with the historical fate of Leninism. There was little disagreement over the basic analysis. The Vanguard Party was a military organization that, in its division between Party and Masses, recapitulated the division of intellectual labor characteristic of bureaucratic capitalism in general which separated dirigeant from exécutant, thinking from doing, those who conceptualize from those who carry out orders. It was this, and not questions of ownership, that shaped the outcomes of the revolutionary movement. The consequences were apparent in the trajectory taken by the USSR.11

While there was agreement about the critique of Leninism, Socialisme ou Barbarie was not of one mind about how best to avoid repetition of the problem of the Vanguard Party in their own activities. Cornelius Castoriadis argued that the group should be an organization that generates revolutionary theory aimed at empowering the worker avant-garde and not be worried about appearing to recapitulate the Leninist split between theorists (those who think) and masses (those who follow instructions). Theory developed in a dialogue with the worker avant-garde: it represented a complementary, but not separate, form of activity. Social relations within the organization could be seen as a kind of laboratory for revolutionary sociability unfolding in its own, particular register. For Lefort, the problem of bureaucratization was paramount. Not only was a revolutionary organization in itself a problem, but theoretical production had to avoid falling into the trap of telling the workers what they were “really doing.” For Castoriadis, this would make political work impossible because one or another version of this relation was built into the nature of theory itself. “Proletarian Experience”can be read as Lefort’s attempt to address this practical impasse. The project outlined was revolutionary action.12 We will see in the second part of this article that this desire to not tell the workers what they are really doing had consequences for the selection of texts that would constitute “proletarian documentary literature.”

As we have seen, following Marx, Lefort (and the group more generally) saw the proletariat as a creation of capitalism positioned at the leading edge of technological and organizational development. The proletariat is simultaneously inside the dominant rationality by virtue of socialization and outside it by virtue of the experience at the point of production of the realities of exploitation and irrationality that the dominant rationality legitimates and conceals. Conflicts at the point of production would, in theory, make of workers the source of an alternate rationality that might inform socialism—but because they are also participants in the dominant rationality, the elements of this rationality would be fragmentary and workers erratic in their abilities to recognize them. The same problem repeats in an exacerbated form in the theorist, whose capacity to generate theory presupposes certain training and skills that come tied to precisely the rationality that theory works to overthrow. Individual narratives written by workers that detail experience at the point of production provide militants access to these conflicts and the industrial realities that condition them. A phenomenology of these narratives would use a comparative approach, based on the idea of the eidetic reduction, to produce second-order descriptions of structuring characteristics of worker experience in general. These second-order descriptions would point to the latent content of that experience, disengaging universal substructures with revolutionary political potentials from the contingency of the particular and feeding them back to the worker avant-garde through the medium of the journal.

This relation to worker-writers, and, by extension, to the worker avant-garde constituted revolutionary action in part because, following on the ways in which he was sensitive to the problems of objectifying the working class, Lefort tended not to differentiate within it. This effectively eliminated any space for militant action: there were no tasks to be performed by militants within the working class.13 One had to be either with the workers, which was good, or to be outside, which was bad. One could either be a worker or a militant, but not both. The generally phenomenological approach to worker narratives was symmetrical with this view: revolutionary militants could gather worker narratives and create interpretations of those narratives as their part of an ongoing dialogue with the worker avant-garde. But that role, and the dialogue along with it, would be progressively effaced by the unfolding of the proletariat’s capacities to direct, manifested in revolutionary action.

Throughout “Proletarian Experience,” Lefort argues that the analysis of the proletarian standpoint has to be thoroughly historical. It cannot generate transcendental claims or reify worker experience. The results of analysis must account for everyday experience at the point of production in terms of its specific historical determinants. He outlines what is at stake by referring to Marx’s theory of social change using the well-known schema of the transition from feudal to bourgeois domination outlined in The Communist Manifesto, and the more elaborated version in The German Ideology, as points of departure. Perhaps one reason the revolution will not be televised is that revolution cannot be understood through the analysis of discrete events. Rather, revolution of the sort that replaces one historical form with another is a result of the progressive unfolding of potentials that are being worked out in the previous social-historical formation14:

Marx does not say, but allows to be said, that, from its origin, the bourgeoisie is what it will be, an exploiting class, underprivileged at first to be sure, but possessing from the outset all the traits that its history only developed. The development of the proletariat is entirely different; reduced to its economic function alone, it represents a category that does not yet possess its class-meaning/direction [sens], the meaning/direction that constitutes its original comportment, which is, in its definitive form, struggle in all class-specific forms within society against adversarial strata. This is not to say that the role of the class in production should be neglected—on the contrary, we will see that the role workers play in society, and that they are called on to play in making themselves its masters, is directly based on their role as producers—but the essential thing is that this role does not give them any actual power, but only an increasingly strong capacity to direct [production and society].15

Lefort’s opening line reproduces a problem in Marxism that Socialisme ou Barbarie elsewhere criticized at length: the treatment of the bourgeoisie as if it were incapable of creativity or transformation.16Such a view constructs the bourgeoisie in the image of its rationality and then shifts to the claim that the bourgeoisie was always, in its essence, what it would become once it was dominant. History changed nothing except its position.17 But Lefort’s point does not center on this schematic analysis of the bourgeoisie and its rise to power; rather, it provides both a backdrop against which he begins to set up the problem of understanding the nature of the working class, and a shorthand way of staging the present as conditioned by bourgeois domination.

Lefort’s lines make explicit the assumptions about class formation that run through much of Socialisme ou Barbarie’s collective evaluations of autonomous worker actions. As a class in itself, the proletariat occupies a common position in the production process, which sells its labor-power for a wage, engages in certain types of conflict at the point of production, and so on. The shift into reflexivity, into a class for-itself, is predicated on recognition of what links the people who occupy a common position in the production process and the conflicts that arise there, as well as the interests and political projects that arise from that recognition. In a strict sense, both registers are historical so both forms can be understood as endowed with certain meanings and/or a sense of direction (sens).18 But, following on the logic above, that of the class in-itself is circumscribed by its immediate situation. The possibilities for a shift into a class for-itself and would be fragmentary and scattered. For Lefort, the transition of the working class into a class for itself hinges on its assimilation of an overarching telos—its “increasing capacity to direct production.” Both the telos and process of assimilation are conditioned by the types of conflict characteristic of bureaucratic capitalism. So there is a level of directedness that may unfold through everyday experience and conflict and another, linked but not identical, that follows from the same experiences reprocessed through different significations.19 The relation between these registers echoes Vico’s conception of social development, with history understood as a spiral, a circular motion spread out temporally, and in principle progressively, that allows for both repetition and change. Struggle acquires its meaning relative to an overall (revolutionary) project (here, a synonym for direction), and the overall project is, in turn, continually inflected by particular struggles. The role for revolutionary militants in feeding back descriptions and interpretations of the commonalities that link worker experience, based on the close reading of worker writings, is to facilitate the shift into this kind of collective self-awareness. And in line with his critique of deductivism20, Lefort argues that this propels analysis toward close scrutiny of what social-historical conditions shape and inform worker experience, and away from the heady aether of the dialectic.

For revolutionary militants to access this experience, they would need to position themselves “inside” it, but are prevented from doing so by their social positions. From this follows the centrality of narratives written by working people about their experiences at the point of production. As noted before, what militants can bring to the dialogue that links them to the worker avant-garde (for which worker-writers stand in) is the comparative analyses of the narratives that would provide a coherent description of workers’ “spontaneous comportments” in the context of industrial work, the precondition for apprehension of the “proletarian standpoint” specific to a particular period. What this phenomenology consists in should by now be clear. It would use comparative readings, informed by revolutionary theory, to isolate and interpret types of conflicts, practices, or other patterns that emerge as universal (and politically coherent) from within accounts of proletarian experience. The usage of methods drawn from transcendental phenomenology would be loose, but the assumptions are similar. The reductions as Husserl developed them were a method for isolating universal aspects of meaning attached to a concept from within the shifting terrain of usage. The reductions move through a series of steps of comparing exemplars in order to produce intersubjectively verifiable sets of necessary predicates clustered around a “determinable x.”21 But there is a fundamental difference between objects and social groups or processes as objects of knowledge. Phenomenology transposed empirical objects to transcendental objects in a quest for certainty. For Lefort, the goal of comparative reading is the delineation, transformation, and (revolutionary) politicization of what Castoriadis would later term the social-imaginary significations that shape worker experience.

These premises come together in the analysis of what Lefort called a “reconsideration of the subjective element of class formation.” This issue was crucial in the early Marx but remained underdeveloped, because the reduction of history to the play of objective forces rendered it epiphenomenal.22 For Socialisme ou Barbarie, it was a basic analytic and political matter. Revolution does not simply happen. Revolution is made by people who consciously and collectively assume control over their lives, their surroundings, and the society in which they live. They can only do so on the basis of their experience. Here, experience refers to the explicit content of experience processed through a re-imagining of what is, at the level of the worker narratives at least, their latent political content. A subjectively oriented restatement of the transformation from a class in itself to a class for itself, the re-imagining of this latent dimension provides workers with the forestructure(s) of revolutionary consciousness, the condition(s) of possibility for revolutionary agency. The “subjective” therefore had a central place in revolutionary theory.23The term “subjective” is used in a specific sense:

If it is true that no class can ever be reduced to its economic function alone [… ] it is even more so that the proletariat requires an approach that enables one to attend to its subjective development. With some reservations as to the implications of the term, it nonetheless summarizes better than any other the dominant trait of the proletariat. It is subjective in the sense that its comportment is not the simple consequence of the conditions [that objectively shape its] existence, or, more profoundly, the conditions that require of it a constant struggle for transformation. [One cannot define the working class by] constantly distinguishing its short-term fate. [Rather, the] struggle to elucidate the ideological [preconditions] that enable this distinguishing constitutes an experience through which the class constitutes itself.24

The subjective designates that which is eliminated by the reduction of the working class to a simple economic category entirely shaped by the position it occupies within industry, the ways in which the workers accommodates their situation and struggle to transform it. For Lefort, the subjective is the domain within which the bases for a working-class “for itself” are practically elaborated. Again, this class for-itself is the forestructure of a revolutionary “for itself” that would institute socialism. The analysis of this subjective domain posed a methodological problem of isolating the particular dimensions of everyday experience on the shop floor to be analyzed. It also posed a problem of data.

The everyday experience that concerned Socialisme ou Barbarie took place within informal collectives that formed by shop and by shift in modern industry. The collectives are the scenes out of which a given “spontaneous comportment in the face of industrial work” or horizon structure emerges. The analysis of these collective comporments extends the rethinking of intentionality begun by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception, particularly in the section “The Body as Expression and Speech.”25 Merleau-Ponty transposed the Husserlian framework directly onto the problem of subjective orientation in the social-historical.26 For Merleau-Ponty, Husserl’s transcendental subject becomes a historically situated, embodied subject that moves through and constitutes a meaningful world. Intentionality, directedness toward/constitution of the world, is mapped onto the body as the source of spatial orientation, and the site upon which cultural meanings are written. This places intentionality between the personal and the social. By the seminars of the mid-1950s, in the context of a more general shift away from subject-centered thinking, Merleau-Ponty made intentionality explicitly social by reworking it through the notion of institution.27 A subject is instituted in that it articulates itself and its world by way of specific pre-existing forms of rule-governed activity; a subject is instituting in that such an engagement is never simply a passive acceptance but is at once an operationalizing of the rules and a creative bringing-into-being of the environment circumscribed by them.28 The characteristics of what came to count as proletarian documentary literature mirror this in the preference for a sense of an embodied narrator who uses a suitably working-class language in the present tense, capturing sightlines and a sense of movement through the spaces that are staged.

Lefort regarded the working class “for itself” as a practical creation elaborated on a continual basis through the play of general patterns of assimilation and conflict characteristic of experience at the point of production under bureaucratic capitalism. The notion that the “sens” of working-class experience was its “ever increasing capacity to direct” served as a premise and a sort of filter that enabled Lefort to order experience as an analytic problem. Lefort argues that the particular working-class “for itself” manifests itself as a viewpoint linked directly to particular practices. The notion of practice can be broken into two components: a narrow or immanent level and another, implicit level that unifies practices and gives them a direction. At the more immanent level, it refers to the actual working at a machine, the repertoire of motions and decisions required to perform a given task. This immanent level is situated in a larger ensemble of social relations and practices that socially and informally regulate, inform, and organize both relations among workers and the performance of work. These practices shape the deployment of skill as a collective attribute, the pace of work and so forth. This same register of practice shapes relations between workers and the representatives of factory management: foremen, time-motion men (chronos), and industrial organization generally.29 Central to the acquisition of these practices was the process of socialization that shaped the relationships of workers to each other, to production and to politics. Workers who operate in environments shaped by these patterns of socialization and circumscribed by these practices occupy an instituted and instituting “proletarian standpoint.”

The other, latent register of worker experience is given its coherence in part by the degree of familiarity on the part of workers (or, more precisely, of worker-writers) with the history of the workers’ movement, which stands in for familiarity with the Marxist discourse that oriented this history as a political project.30 This broader history stands in contrast to the instituted manifestations of a version of that history in the (bureaucratic) trade unions and main political organizations that use versions of that same discourse—the PCF and CGT in particular in the French context. Familiarity with this broader tradition provides space for alternate “activations” of a heavily sedimented language that, by its sedimentation, provides a sense of legitimation. An example of this is the role played in the 1953 East Berlin June Days by the study circles devoted to reading Marx and Lenin directly rather than as mediated through official catechisms. In the analyses published in Socialisme ou Barbarie, these collective readings formed a horizon of instituted signifiers that enabled the articulation of political positions in revolutionary language outside the purview of the main bureaucratic organizations. Insofar as Socialisme ou Barbarie was concerned the reappropriation of this language was a condition of possibility for autonomous worker action, and an indication of the extent to which at this time the group understood it as a natural horizon against which these actions could take shape. Autonomous worker actions, then, instituted alternate interpretations of the language that structured the history of the workers’ movement. In this, they were Socialisme ou Barbarie’s proletarian doubles.

Socialisme ou Barbarie never explicitly said who these workers were: we will return to this point in the second part of this article. However, it is clear that when Socialisme ou Barbarie referred to the working class, they had in mind primarily semi-skilled workers like machinists and lathe operators.31In a context dominated by assembly-line production, these workers were under sustained attack. Semi-skilled workers worked in collectives, and not in the individuated image of Fordism. They retained some autonomy in the conception and execution of their work, though the extent of this autonomy varied considerably from factory to factory, and within the same factory as a function of the shop’s place in the factory hierarchy. This autonomy enabled these shops to develop types of sociability that were for the most part tied to the transmission of skill. However, as French heavy industry, led by Renault, increasingly adopted American industrial organization during the 1950s, the struggles of these workers to retain their autonomy and skill became more acute. The explosions engendered by this struggle were among the most intense and violent of the decade.32

These conflicts over the autonomy of semi-skilled workers within mass production were a continuation of what Benjamin Coriat called Fordism’s war on skill, which he argues was the defining feature of its mode of industrial organization. The genius of Henry Ford, from a capitalist viewpoint, was his reconceptualization of skill as a block on accumulation. Ford’s methods did not develop in isolation, but rather appear as a condensed expression of experiments in organization that arose with monopoly capitalism. Previously, skill had been monopolized by workers. This monopoly lay at the heart of a contractual relation between them and employers: employers were beholden to workers as the actual source of wealth, and workers were beholden to employers as providers of the means to exercise their skills.33 The automobile industry, a product of monopoly capitalism, played a crucial role in developing the mechanisms by means of which the assault on skill was carried out. Henry Ford led the way in this domain with his aim of producing a low-cost automobile. Standardization of product enabled standardization of production process, which in turn made possible the assembly line. The assembly line initiated a massive transfer of initiative away from workers into management and wiped out previously sacrosanct limits to the rationalization of production.34 Most indicative of this pattern was the fact that Fordist industrial organization encouraged the spatial separation of research and development from production, putting them into different buildings, and often in different towns, as a function of the more general trend of vertical integration.35

Technological developments closely tracked these organizational innovations in delimiting the situation of semi-skilled workers under Fordism. Machine tools were increasingly designed as variations on the lathe. Having learned to turn, a worker could with relative ease shift to another machine and pick up the necessary movements.36 In hindsight, it is clear that the standardization of tool design was a first step in the both the standardization and routinization of tasks.37 In French heavy industry of the mid-1950s, implementation of industrial Fordism rapidly changed overall production design; in the introduction of management; and in the imposition of a new division of labor that separated intellectual and manual work.Changes in tool design facilitated the atomization of the factory itself into isolated units concerned with maximum rationalization of what were initially component parts of the larger production process. The standardization of tasks and increased specialization of technology reopened the politics of wage rates and production speed. It also sparked, with more political variability, a move to integrate and depoliticize trade unions through the mechanism of collective bargaining. In these larger contexts, the fate of the machinists played a small, but symbolically important part.

Socialisme ou Barbarie collectively believed the relative professional autonomy of semi-skilled workers enabled them to develop the type of informal shop-floor culture presupposed by any revolutionary project that did not assume the intervention of a Vanguard Party. Therefore, when the group inquired into worker experience, they referred to semi-skilled workers in the context of Fordist mass production, the most advanced form of industrial organization of the period. In this, they conformed to a general tendency of the French Left. Les métallos were, for the most part, French, and were highly politicized and volatile.38 French heavy industry recruited and increasingly relied upon an immigrant workforce on the assembly-line. This policy set up political, cultural and professional fractures within the factory that Socialisme ou Barbarie member Daniel Mothé (Jacques Gautrat) wrote about candidly in 1956.39 For Socialisme ou Barbarie, it was in general more significant that assembly-line work was unskilled. The lack of skill and collective life in the context of production as well as the nature of line work itself were more important than the plurality of ethnicities, nationalities and languages in preventing these workers from acting collectively. Like most French Left organizations, Socialisme ou Barbarie did not focus on the unskilled OS workers on the line.40

On Worker Narratives and Proletarian Experience

Text means Tissue; but whereas hitherto we have always taken this tissue as a product, a ready-made veil, behind which lies, more or less hidden, meaning (truth), we are now emphasizing, in the tissue, the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue–this texture–the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web. Were we fond of neologisms, we might define the theory of the text as a hypology (hyphos is the tissue and the spider’s web).41

The worker narratives that Socialisme ou Barbarie envisioned collecting would combine first person observation of shop-floor experience with an anthropological perspective on the processes that shaped that experience and a sociological view of industrial organization. The worker/writer of such narratives had to be both involved with, and detached from, the experience described. The narratives were to be autobiographical and descriptive of worker experience generally. The descriptions provided by any one narrative would have obvious limitations with respect to completeness and universality.42 Many narratives gathered together might overcome these limitations. A phenomenology of these texts would provide the general structure of worker comportments at the point of production as reproduced in these narratives and shaped by their genre. What Socialisme ou Barbarie wanted was a window onto factory experience that would enable them to see how workers processed structural conditions as horizons. Further, Socialisme ou Barbarie wanted access to the interaction of appropriation and resistance constitutive of the proletarian standpoint. The analysis would acquire its significance from the larger revolutionary project.

In “Proletarian Experience”, Lefort argues that a feature of the “radical originality of the proletariat” is that it can only be known by itself. Consequently, others may understand the working class only on its terms and in its language. From this premise follows the necessity of interpreting worker writing. However, these texts were not without problems:

This does not mean that we will claim to define what the proletariat is in its reality from this angle, after having rejected all other representations that have been made of its condition, which view it either through the deforming prism of bourgeois society or that of the Parties that claim to represent it. A worker testimony, no matter how evocative, symbolic and spontaneous it might be, remains conditioned by the situation of its source. We are not alluding to the deformation that can come from an individual interpretation, but to that which narration necessarily imposes on its author. Telling is necessarily not acting, and even supposes a break with action that transforms its meaning. Making a narrative about a strike is entirely different from participating in a strike, if only because one then knows the outcome, and the simple distance of reflection enables one to evaluate what had not, in the moment, yet become fixed in its meaning. In fact, this is much more than a simple change of opinion: it is a change of attitude, that is to say a transformation in the manner of reacting to situations in which one finds oneself. To this must be added that narrative places the individual in an isolated position which is not natural to him either […] Critique of a testimony must precisely enable one to see in the individual’s attitudes that which implies the comportment of the group. However, in the last analysis, the former does not coincide exactly with the latter, and we have access only to incomplete knowledge.43

For Lefort, the basic issue is not defining what the proletariat is or substituting a new, better representation for existing ones, because the class cannot be an object of this type of knowledge. He argues that “knowing” the working class is more “being-with.” It is an imaginative transformation, carried out through reading and critique. Knowing the working class transforms the reader into a specular “participant observer.”44

A vicarious “acquisition” of the proletarian standpoint and its constituent practices is hindered by the necessary incompleteness of any given narrative. Such incompleteness is a result of perspectivalism and of the suspension of the “natural attitude” implicit in the act of writing. To paraphrase from the quoted passage above: “Writing about an action is not to act within it and presupposes a break with acting that transforms its meaning.” For a worker to adopt an anthropological relation to his own experience as worker places him inside and outside that experience at the same time. The writer retrospectively orders experience by writing it: experience is no longer an open-ended relation to a context on the part of an embedded subject who interprets and makes judgments about it based on incomplete information.45 The consequence of this retrospective character is to render contingent aspects of human experience as necessary elements by giving experience a dramatic or narrative form. Doing so eliminates the space for creativity.46Not only is writing necessarily retrospective, but it re-orders and spatializes the environment in particular ways and re-temporalizes experience according to criteria internal to the process of narration and the type of narrative being produced. While Lefort acknowledges these mediations, the real question for him does not concern the gap that might be thereby instituted between text and experience. Rather, the main problem facing the critic/reader is in recognizing and bridging the divide that separates the “unnaturally isolated” writing worker from the necessarily social character of that which is described. The role of phenomenological analysis is to search for traces of the collective comportments within individual, fragmentary accounts.

For Lefort, the worker-writer is the phenomenologist’s accomplice who sorts out, compares and reduces. He (almost always he) transforms experience into data from which a second order critique can derive fragments of “authentic” experience. At the same time the worker-writer remains a worker, writing like a worker, describing factory conditions in a recognizably “prolo” manner. The worker-writer is the critic’s double: the critic watches the worker watching; the critic appropriates what the worker describes.47 The writing worker is a vehicle for the militant/critic’s identification with the workers, an identification given content through the discovery of their practices, the adoption of their standpoint and the theorization of their self-production. Haunted by the fear of reverting to a form of Leninism, Lefort confines the revolutionary militant to the role of phenomenological observer. However, this same identification is encouraged and exacerbated by the formal characteristics of the narratives that Lefort treats as primary evidence. To show how this part of the circuit operates, we take up the two texts that Lefort considered exemplary: Paul Romano’s 1947 “The American Worker” and Eric Albert’s 1952 “Témoignage: la vie en usine.”

Socialisme ou Barbarie member Philippe Guillaume introduced his translation of Paul Romano’s “The American Worker” with: “We present here an unprecedented document of great value about the lives of American workers.” The pamphlet’s value, Guillaume argues, lay first of all in its demolition of the “Hollywood and Readers’ Digest” illusion that the American worker, rich and without class consciousness, is a living example of the benefits of class collaboration. More than this, Guillaume argues that Romano has produced the first example of a new “proletarian documentary literature.” This documentary literature holds a mirror up to workers that reflects (politically) significant elements within their experience back to them in their own language. The pamphlet addresses the reader by soliciting recognition. Guillaume repeats this gesture, and it is repeated a number of times thereafter, before Romano’s narrative actually begins. Guillaume writes:

Every worker, regardless of “his nationality” of exploitation, will find in it the image of his own existence as proletarian. There are, in fact, deep and consistent characteristics of proletarian alienation that know neither frontiers nor regimes… The translator of this small pamphlet himself has worked several years in the factory. He was struck by the accuracy and the important implications of every line. It is impossible for a worker to remain indifferent to this reading. In our eyes, it is not by accident that such a sample of proletarian documentary literature comes to us from America, and it is also not by accident that it is, in some of its deepest aspects, the first of the genre.48

Near the end of this quote, Guillaume repeats the Marxist axiom that the most advanced industrial setting will produce the most advanced forms of worker resistance. These advanced forms of opposition, and their potentials for new modes of class consciousness, are reflected in the creation of a new form of written expression.49This new form of expression is itself reflective of the transition within the industrial working class away from more traditional types of political (revolutionary) action which amounts to postulating that a new revolutionary avant-garde is developing out of worker experience of technology, conventional political parties, trade unions, and so on, at the point of production. All this is implicit in Guillaume’s statement but it is made explicit in Ria Stone’s “The Reconstruction of Society,” the extended theoretical essay that accompanied Romano’s narrative in its original American edition.50

From the outset, Romano is presented as a part of a new “revolutionary tide” rising within the American working class. The elision of the particular into the general is made all the more attractive by his use of a pseudonym or “war name.” These names were normal amongst the anti-Stalinist Left in both the U.S. and France. Within Socialisme ou Barbarie, adoption of an alias was simply a matter of tactical necessity. It should be kept in mind that revolutionary political activity amongst intellectuals occurred in a semi-clandestine zone. Groups were subject to surveillance by the political arm of the Parisian Police, the “Renseignements Généraux.” Socialisme ou Barbarie included a number of foreigners who were actively engaged in a type of political activity that could get them deported, like Castoriadis and Alberto Maso (Véga).51 These groups were also subject to surveillance and repression from the PCF. Anti-Stalinist politics in a PCF-dominated environment, like Renault’s Billancourt factory, could pose real physical and career dangers to those who engaged in it.52These pressures affected different people in different ways, and Lefort is interesting in this regard. A philosophy professor during the day, he initially published in Socialisme ou Barbarie under the name C. Montal. He began to use his real name more frequently after leaving Les Temps Modernes in 1952, and exclusively after 1956.

The names take on another, quite independent function in the reading of these narratives. Scant information was provided about Paul Romano, the pamphlet’s author. Even in 1972, in a preface to a new edition of the pamphlet, Martin Glaberman would only say that Romano was active in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, and worked at a General Motors factory in New Jersey that employed about 800 production workers.53 The Introduction to the first edition, signed J.H., describes Romano as:

himself a factory worker, [who] has contributed greatly to such understanding [of “what the workers are thinking and doing while actually at work on the bench or on the line”] by his description, based on years of study and observation of the lives of workers in modem mass production. The profundity of Romano’s contribution lies not in making any new discovery but rather in seeing the obvious-the constant and daily raging of the workers against the degrading and oppressive conditions of their life in the factory; and at the same time, their creative and elemental drive to reconstruct society on a new and higher level.54

Romano’s own opening paragraphs repeat this operation in a somewhat more complex manner:

I am a young worker in my late 20s. The past several years have found me in the productive apparatus of the most highly industrialized country in the world. Most of my working years have been spent in mass production industries among hundreds and thousands of other workers. Their feelings, anxieties, exhilaration, boredom, exhaustion, anger, have all been mine to one extent or another. By “their feelings” I mean those which are the direct reactions to modern high-speed production. The present finds me still in a factory – one of the giant corporations in the country.

This pamphlet is addressed to the rank and file worker and its intention is to express those innermost thoughts which the worker rarely talks about even to his fellow-workers. In keeping a diary, so to speak, of the day-to-day factory life I hoped to uncover the reasons for the worker’s deep dissatisfaction which has reached its peak in recent years and has expressed itself in the latest strikes and spontaneous walkouts.

The rough draft of this pamphlet was given to workers across the country. Their reactions were as one. They were surprised and gratified to see in print the experiences and thoughts which they have rarely put into words. Workers arrive home from the factory too exhausted to read more than the daily comics. Yet most of the workers who read the pamphlet stayed up well into the night to finish the reading once they had started.55

The first three sentences contain all the particular information we are given. From this point on, the individual is blurred into the collective, and vice-versa. For example, Romano claims to describe “the innermost thoughts which the worker rarely talks about even to his fellow workers.” The accuracy of such description is, in Husserlian language, intersubjectively verified, established quasi-scientifically, by means of a straw-poll of “workers around the country” who stayed up late to read it because they (who? where?) recognized themselves in the writing. “Paul Romano” itself is a nearly arbitrary name, a proper name that does not signify, that does not limit, that does not help establish some reference point around which to stabilize the shifting border between experience and writing about experience. The author, Paul Romano, is an empty function that generates propositions in the form “the worker feels x…”; “the workers see y…every day.” We are presented with a claim to a sort of “lateral verification.” The workers stayed up late to read these propositions.

Romano delimits his intended audience in another way through the paragraphs on intellectuals.56 The pamphlet is a conversation between workers: intellectuals “so removed from the daily experience of the laboring masses” could not be sympathetic to its content. Romano argues that: “They felt cheated” because there was “too much dirt and noise.” This characterization places the phenomenologist-cum-revolutionary militant, who in all probability has a romantic attachment to the idea of dirt and noise, in an ambiguous position. He seems to approximate an eavesdropper listening in on a telephone conversation between two others during which they begin to make disparaging remarks that could be about the silent third party. There is a certain voyeurism that attends looking at the “elemental drive” of the working class in process through the act of reading. At the same time, the reader is encouraged to side with the workers, to embark on a voyage accompanied by a trusted native informant.

The war name functions to turn the author into a contentless variable, an observing machine that generates a trail of propositions about factory life. I have argued above that there is a structural doubling of the militant/critic in the writing worker, and powerful political reasons for the former to project himself into the position made available within the narratives by the latter. The arbitrariness of the proper name in this context removes any brake that might otherwise have been set up on this identification by information on the empirical life of the author.57 This identification, staged at the level of relation between militant/critic as phenomenologist and the worker-writer, is furthered by the narrative’s use of “prolo” language. Philippe Guillaume touched on this issue again in his brief translator’s preface, and on some of the problems he encountered while translating Romano’s English:

It is impossible for a worker to remain indifferent to this reading. It is even more impossible to translate such a text in an indifferent, or even routine, manner. At several junctures, it was necessary to take a considerable distance from the letter of the English text to provide a really faithful translation. Some American popular expressions have an exact correspondent in French, but embedded in different imagery. Even in his descriptive style, Romano uses a proletarian optic.58

 The translation problem in moving from popular American to a parallel French while not dissolving Romano’s “proletarian optic” was resolved in such a way as to make the version published in Socialisme ou Barbarie an interesting primer in “prolo” French for an American reader. It also functions as a second order legitimation of Romano’s status as worker, something which go without saying were the pamphlet were actually being transmitted worker to worker. For whom need a “proletarian optic” be defined?

The various prefaces and introductions to Romano’s pamphlet are important because they make explicit what usually left unsaid in these narratives and is worked out at the level of style and through the manipulation of certain conventions. Once past these introductions, we encounter Romano’s narrative proper. Here we shift to a more structural analysis, reading Romano along with Eric Albert’s “Témoignage: la vie en usine,” published in the July 1952 issue of Les Temps Modernes, to isolate several common features that operate as genre markers informing/shaping “proletarian documentary literature” as collected or generated by Socialisme ou Barbarie.59

In several ways, Albert’s narrative is quite different from that of Romano. It was written for a different audience—the educated, progressive bourgeois readership of Les Temps Modernes. A journalistic expose of conditions inside the newer types of factories, combined with elements of a travel narrative it documents Albert’s experience as an O.S. (an unskilled worker). Albert worked in two different factories owned by the same cable manufacturing company near Paris. The first, in which Albert learns his job, is older, roughly on the order of Billancourt; the second is a more recent building and an example of Fordist organization on the order of Flins.

The point of Albert’s narrative emerges through the contrast between his experiences in the two factories, which are staged as emblematic of the past and future of factory design. The former allowed a margin for worker autonomy, and thereby the creation of the types of informal shop and shift-specific collectivities that are the focus of Romano’s writing. The latter offers no such margin. Its layout is entirely subordinated to what Albert calls the “geometrical requirements of the machinery.”60 Albert uses his experience to reveal the inhumanity, and the political danger for the Left, of Fordist factory design from the vantage point of an unskilled worker. Romano’s narrative, on the other hand, consists mostly of detailed descriptions of informal shop-floor communities from the viewpoint of a semi-skilled worker (who would be in the range of a P1-P3 according to the French professional hierarchy). Romano uses these descriptions to winnow out the political implications of their collective life.

There are thus significant divergences between the two narratives that Lefort takes as exemplary in “Proletarian Experience.” There was an enormous gulf that separated the experience of an O.S. from that of a P1-P3 worker. The accounts were written for different assumed audiences. There is also a political difference between the two. It is difficult to pinpoint Albert’s political viewpoint. He appears at times to be an old-style anarcho-syndicalist whose politics come from the pre-World War II period, and who is still attached to the traditions of the “worker aristocracy.” At other times, he appears to have simply read a lot of material like Michel Collinet’s 1950 Esprit du syndicalisme.61 Romano’s affiliation with “Correspondence” would position him closer to Socialisme ou Barbarie.62

That said, the narratives nonetheless share a number of formal characteristics, though each deploys these features in a different order. This variation can serve as an index of the writer’s political affiliation or aspirations. For example, consider the location of the initiation scene. Romano’s narrative begins:

The factory worker lives and breathes dirt and oil. As machines are speeded up, the noise becomes greater, the strain greater, the labor greater, even though the process is simplified. Most steel cutting and grinding machines of today require a lubricant to facilitate machining the material. It is commonplace to put on a clean set of clothes in the morning and by noon to be soaked, literally, with oil. Most workers in my department have oil pimples, rashes and sores on their arms and legs. The shoes become soaked and the result is a steady case of athlete’s foot. Blackheads fill the pores. it is an extremely aggravating set of effects. We speak often of sitting and soaking in a hot tub of water to loosen the dirt and ease the infectious blackheads.

In most factories the worker freezes in the winter, sweats in the summer and often does not have hot water to wash the day’s grime from his body…63

This paragraph introduces two fundamental characteristics of Romano’s narrative, and of these narratives in general. The universal and the particular are intertwined in a complex manner. The universal appears through the propositional form “the worker lives…”; “most workers in my department have oil pimples…”; “we speak often…” The particular appears through Romano’s evocation of pain. This usage of pain is a bit surprising, given its extreme particularity, its incommunicability, its tendency to “unmake the world” available to the subject by forcing the body (roughly following Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body as social and spatial orientation for a subject) back onto itself. Another’s pain is most distant from oneself.64

The collective first-person pronouns function in Romano’s text to shift identification onto a very immediate level. The reader/militant/critic is encouraged to project himself into the empty space outlined by the author as generator of propositions, but left empty because of the arbitrariness of the proper name. The tone of the descriptions is on the order of: you and I know the extreme noise, the stress induced by machine speed-ups; the rashes and pimples caused by inadequate facilities and poor ventilation. The reader is squarely on the shop floor. Albert’s narrative opens with a structurally similar “reduction of the subject.” Because the piece is not designed as explicitly to draw the reader into the experience being described, though it is not without its vivid moments, the reader’s initiation into the Textual Factory can be more abstract. Albert’s experience is presented as universal in a rather different way: I ran out of money. I had to get a job. I got hired at this place. Here is what happened: “When one no longer knows what, to do to make a living, all that remains is finding a job as an O.S.. That is why I found myself one day on a street outside the large door of a cable-making plant, along with about twenty other men…”65

The intertwining of the universal and particular is repeated at the level of framing information. Romano’s text features extremely detailed accounts of worker responses to concrete problems (using steel pipe to smash closed windows that should be open to provide ventilation) and resistance (the informally organized slow-downs accompanying the arrival of the time-study men, chronos in French, because everyone knows that working up to or over speed is self- defeating and results only in increased production quotas and cadences). In the section “Why Such Inefficiency?” Romano provides descriptions of the shop-floor view of overall industrial organization. These accounts are situated within a “shop floor” that is itself decontextualized. The reader is provided with no information about where these acts occur, either within the geography of the factory (workers simply do this) or in the world (not a word).66

However, the shop floor is situated rather carefully with respect to the Abstract Factory that is produced within or by the text. The Abstract Factory is elaborated along one of two general lines. In the writings of Albert and Vivier, a sociologizing gaze surveys the entirety of the Factory from top to bottom and generates a typology of worker strata and various personality types.67 In the other pattern, the Abstract Factory is described from the standpoint of a particular shop. For Romano and Mothé, the Abstract Factory functions to legitimate and give content to the “proletarian standpoint,” which is a narrative position. The Factory environment locates the reader on the shop floor. The presentation of other workers from this narrative viewpoint is also presentation of types, but one that serves to fill out the reader’s experience of the textual shop-floor. In his texts published in Socialisme ou Barbarie several years later, Mothé was able to take this much further than Romano, as will be seen in the next parts of this dissertation, because the prominence of Billancourt for Parisian Left politics enabled him to avoid having to stage the entirety of the Abstract Factory and because his writings appeared as a series of articles that frequently involved the same shop and characters. Mothe’s readers become almost comfortable with them: they constitute something of a repertoire company.

The point where the worker enters the effective life of the shop floor is also the moment the reader enters the “interior.” The initiation scene in “The American Worker” is retrospective, and is staged as an account of relations between a neophyte and the political culture of the shop:

The Workers’ Organization

I arrived in the plant several weeks after the “Big Strike” had ended. Things were tense for several weeks. Newcomers were eyed with suspicion by both workers and company so soon after the strike. My first day in the plant found me waiting in one of the departments for the foreman. A worker sauntered over to me. In a very brief discussion, he tried to determine my attitude toward unions. I shook him off and he walked away. His speech made it clear that he was anti-union. Union men made themselves conspicuous by their avoidance of newcomers.68

Romano only stays on this threshold for a paragraph: having passed an initial test, he is soon integrated into the political structure of the shop. This is a crucial passage in the pamphlet, as it marks more than Romano’s passage into the interior of shop-floor life. The section of which this is the opening quickly turns to a detailed discussion of the gap that separates the union hierarchy from the shop-floor, it is also a demonstration of, and argument for, the existence of a class perspective tied to this shop life and independent of union organization and ideology. Only after establishing this perspective does Romano undertake his survey of the Abstract Factory: the function of this survey is the legitimation of the viewpoint from which it is carried out. The political implications of the position of the initiation scene can be seen by counterpoising Romano to Albert. Albert’s narrative conforms much more explicitly to the conventions of a travel narrative: the encounter, the threshold moment, the unanticipated test and passage into the interior all happen at the beginning. This passage into the interior is explicitly linked with the acquisition of skill, where this link remains a pervasive assumption only made explicit in Romano’s final pages.69

At this point, by way of a conclusion, a recapitulation. Lefort’s essay is fundamental to understanding Socialisme ou Barbarie’s efforts to gain access to and think about worker experience as the basis for a type of political work that did not subordinate this experience to the Higher Historical wisdom of the Party. Lefort’s approach to worker narratives, and his phenomenology of worker experience that frames it, would have combined the careful gathering and collating of texts with a sophisticated theory of reading. His theoretical framework was also shot through with problems of uncontrolled identification/projection. Efforts to control for this projection were impeded by the narrowness of the sample the group was able to collect. This small data set meant that, while the phenomenological apparatus was in place, the reductions themselves really could not be undertaken. The possibility remains that a more detailed phenomenological description of the “proletarian standpoint,” based on reductions performed with a larger data set, could have significantly reduced, or eliminated, the space for projection. Because Socialisme ou Barbarie’s project belongs to the past, we cannot know.

Lefort’s approach to the question of interpreting worker narratives as windows onto shop floor experience took as central the problem of knowledge about social-historical phenomena, understood as spatially and temporally imbricated processes that entail or produce meaning-structures or what Castoriadis would later call social-imaginary significations. Lefort’s use of phenomenology to analyze these texts cut two ways. By focusing on them in terms shaped by the situation of their production, it allowed for the development of some interesting and fruitful conceptualizations, particularly in thinking about practice, which was the domain Socialisme ou Barbarie wanted to analyze as the everyday “ground” of its revolutionary project. The situating of practice and how it unfolds within both the immanent and (potentially) revolutionary contexts at once clarifies the orientation of revolutionary theory with respect to the present. At the same time, Lefort’s focus on the conditions of their production and indications of worker creativity, patterns of self-organization and orientations toward the future entailed a curious neglect of these texts as texts, and of the experience of being a reader of them. At the same time as it enabled an isolation of potentials for revolutionary creativity, the phenomenology of worker narratives formalized a projective relation between analyst/critic/militant and worker. This projective relationship repeated within the texts, in the gaps that separated their extreme precision about concrete shop-floor experience and its presentation in a decontextualized, abstract manner, that is in precisely the way these narratives gave Socialisme ou Barbarie, as a community of readers (like ourselves), access to the shop floor, the proletarian standpoint, and the “games” in the context of which that standpoint was instituted.

Lefort’s phenomenology of worker narratives approach bracketed from the outset the possibility that this type of self-reflexive writing was as much a literary construction (a set of genre rules and expectations) as an account of actual experience. By treating these narratives as phenomenological data for a series of reductions that never get underway, Lefort’s approach sets Socialisme ou Barbarie up for a wholesale confusion of the signified of the narratives’ discourse with the referent, taking for “objective” history that which is highly mediated and processed through certain linguistic and generic conventions. The signified would be the internal world of the narrative, the Abstract Factory, the decontextualized shop floor, the Workers as types or as individual atoms, the upsurging revolutionary wave sweeping across the American working class, the formation of a class consciousness closely linked to the production of significations on the shop floor outside of and in direct opposition to the existing workers’ movement. The referent would be the actual factory experience of Paul Romano or Eric Albert. The relation between the two would be difficult enough to establish even were Romano and Albert present in Socialisme ou Barbarie, as will be seen by way of Gautrat/Mothé. Here, the relation is undecidable. That Socialisme ou Barbarie took these narratives as direct accounts of experience, whose constructed character is simply a function of the temporal gap that separated the worker within a specific situation from that same worker writing about that situation testifies to the power of what Roland Barthes called the “realism effect” of these narratives.70


  1. This is a version of a chapter that will appear in my Looking for the Working Class: Socialisme ou Barbarie, Correspondence and the Problem of Worker Writing through the Historical Materialism Series at Brill in early 2014. Many thanks are owed to Kelly Grotke and David Ames Curtis for their help with preparing this piece. 

  2. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” Socialisme ou Barbarie 11 (1952), 1-19. Reprinted as Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris: Gallimard, 1979). Reference here is to Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 74. 

  3. See François Dosse, L’Histoire du structuralisme t. 1: le champs du signe (Paris: Le Découverte, 1991). 

  4. See Alain Touraine, L’Evolution du travail ouvrier aux usines Renault (Paris: CNRS, 1955). Arguments no. 12/13 is an important compilation of texts on 1958 and the French working class. I will return to the interaction of revolutionary politics and the nascent “sociologie du travail” in my Looking for the Working Class: Socialisme ou Barbarie, Correspondence and the Problem of Worker Writing

  5. This is not to say that the work of people like Elton Mayo was without utility: see the extensive, critical use made of Mayo in Cornelius Castoriadis, “On the Content of Socialism III: Worker’s Struggles against the Organization of Capitalist Enterprise” in Political and Social Writings v.2, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1988). Donald Roy’s work, which represented a marginal, more explicitly Left/critical variant of industrial sociology, is fundamental to Castoriadis’ 1958 text. See pp. 184-188, Political and Social Writings v.2, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1988). 

  6. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 74. 

  7. This miserabalist conception of the working class, which emphasizes its exploitation to the near exclusion of other aspect of working-class life, is evident in Engels On the Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844 and in the (quite remarkable) analysis of the English working class of 1860 in volume one of Capital. By contrast, see, for example, E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vantage, 1966). 

  8. Cornelius Castoriadis, “Socialisme ou Barbarie,” in Political and Social Writings v.1, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1988). 

  9. This refers primarily to the configuration of trade unions and political parties dominant at a given time and the possibilities that may or may not exist for autonomous action. On this, see further on in this section. 

  10. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, passim. 

  11. See Chapter 2 in my forthcoming Looking for the Proletariat

  12. See the debate on revolutionary organization published in Socialisme ou Barbarie 10 (July-August, 1952): Chaulieu, Pierre, “La direction prolétarienne,” 10-18 and Montal, Claude, “Le prolétariat et le problème de la direction révolutionnaire,” 18-27. The reference here is to Montal’s (Lefort), 27: There is no need for a revolutionary organization at all. 

  13. This point emerges from a reading of the exchange between Lefort and Jean Paul Sartre that resulted in Lefort’s departure from Les Temps Modemes in 1954. Particularly important is Castoriadis’ “contribution” to the debate which, in the context of a general defense, criticizes Lefort on precisely this point. See the first two parts of Sartre’s “Communists and Peace” originally published in TM no. 81, July 1952 and 84-85, November 1952; reprinted in Jean-Paul Sartre, Situations VI (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). Lefort’s “Le marxisme et Sartre” originally in TM no. 89, April 1953 along with Sartre’s response, “Réponse a Claude Lefort”. Lefort’s article is reprinted in Claude Lefort, Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie. Sartre’s two essays are translated as Jean-Paul Sartre, The Communists and Peace (New York: George Braziller, 1968). Castoriadis, “Sartre, le stalinisme et les ouvriers,” Socialisme ou Barbarie, 12: 63–88 is a response to Sartre’s attack on Lefort. It was reprinted in Castoriadis, L’experience du mouvement ouvrier 1: Comment lutter (Paris: 10/18, 1974) and is translated in Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings v.1, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1988), pp. 207-241. See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism,” in Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston: Northwestern, 1973). 

  14. This point could be much more fully developed, particularly since it addresses one of the more common charges leveled at Marx(ists) concerning the problem of periodicity and, by extension, of accounting for changes leading up to capitalism. Lefort’s arguments can be found in Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 4-5. See also Lefort 1978, originally published in Les Temps Modernes no. 78. 

  15. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” Socialisme ou Barbarie 11: 4- 5. 

  16. For the most fully worked out statement of this critique of Marx, see “L’expérience de l’histoire du mouvement ouvrier” in Castoriadis, L’experience du mouvement ouvrier 1: Comment lutter (Paris: 10/18, 1974), translated as “On the Experience of the History of the Workers’ Movement” in Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Question of the History of the Workers’ Movement,” in Political and Social Writings v.2, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1993). 

  17. See Cornelius Castoriadis, L’experience du mouvement ouvrier 1: Comment lutter (Paris: 10/18, 1974). 

  18. A term taken, along with the problems in translating it, from Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  

  19. The language of social-imaginary significations is taken from the later philosophical work of Cornelius Castoriadis. While it appears throughout this article, it operates primarily as a heuristic rather than as an explicit analytic category. Here refers to the revolutionary project and its reconfiguration of elements of everyday experience in terms shape by an understanding of socialism as direct democratic. 

  20. The position that bourgeois thought in general is characterized by an effort to derive reality from the concepts used to think about/order that reality, a position common to Marx, Nietzsche, and others. 

  21. See paragraph 87 of Edmund Husserl, Ideas (New York: Collier, 1962), for the distinction between the object in itself and the noematic, and on the function of inverted commas in restricting meaning to the noematic. 

  22. The opening pages of Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, expend considerable energy to define and defend this domain from within the Marxist tradition. 

  23. S ou B used phrases like this in a quite different sense than is current largely in interest group-based politics fashionable on American campuses. its usage has nothing to do with the “post-modern” notion that subject positions are constituted discursively to such an extent that one can simply pick one out that best corresponds to the structure of affect—a variant of shopping in a “free market” where “rational actors” calculate their interests and buy (into) a politics off the rack. Such shopping need never call into question the system of distribution that supplies particular options to the exclusion of others, any more than one would be led to think about transnational capitalism by roaming the Gap. For S ou B, the goal was rather autonomy: the revolutionary project aspired to institute direct democracy, the political form within which autonomy might be operationally possible. 

  24. The last sentence is quite difficult to translate. It appears to try replacing a more Trotskyist mode of analyzing worker struggles in terms of short-term prospects with a more abstract form of interrogation into the political or ideological preconditions that enabled Trotskyism—and others—to assess the “meaning” of worker struggle. This reflexive, properly philosophical and open-ended mode of interrogation is posited here as the experience through which the class might develop, Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” Socialisme ou Barbarie 11: 6. 

  25. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1965), Chapter 6. 

  26. From Merleau-Ponty’s viewpoint, Heidegger’s effort to push the inquiry about the nature of the copula into a single general question of Being could be viewed as itself an effort to institute a transcendental philosophy of finitude. On how difficult it is to separate what philosophy says from what it does institutionally, see François Dosse, L’Histoire du structuralisme t. 1: le champs du signe (Paris: Le Découverte, 1991) and Vincent Descombes, Le même et l’autre (Paris: Minuit, 1979). Both detail the consequences of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking as opening the field for structuralist anthropology to take over the position formerly occupied by philosophy. 

  27. The notion of institution as used by Merleau-Ponty derives from a reading of Edmund Husserl, “The Origin of Geometry,” in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology translated by David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern, 1970). See Merleau-Ponty, “Institution in Personal and Public History,” in Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France (Evanston: Northwestern, 1970). The seminars on the notion of institution have since been published as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours sur L’origine de la géométrie de Husserl (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998). See also Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 167. 

  28. The notion of rules in relation to particular language games is an important theme explored in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which could be profitably cross-voiced with Merleau-Ponty’s thinking in this regard. 

  29. This distinction between practices narrowly construed and that which unifies them, gives them a direction (a sens), the domain out of which they emerge and relative to which they acquire meaning has been elaborated in various ways. Merleau-Ponty does so in “Cezanne’s Doubt” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-sense, translated by Hubert Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, (Evanston: Northwestern, 1964), or on Matisse in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964) through his notion of “l’oeuvre.” Lefort later took up the same issue in his work on Machiavelli (l’oeuvre of Machiavelli is the creation of the political). Developing in a separate direction, Castoriadis, following Freud, refers to this dimension of social practice as signification, that which brings into relation. The production and deployment of such significations is what the social-historical does. 

  30. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 91-92. 

  31. On the French salary scale, occupying the rankings of P1-P3. 

  32. The shipyard strikes in St. Nazaire and Nantes during the summer of 1955, for example, were triggered by Penhoët (and the state’s) efforts to increase cadences by redesigning production in such a way as to tie together the wages and functions of workers involved with various stages of welding despite some operations being simpler and faster than others. See Louis Oury, Les Prolos (Paris: DeNoël, 1973) and the accounts of the strikes published in Socialisme ou Barbarie no. 18 (Jan-Mar 1956). 

  33. Benjamin Coriat, L’atelier et le chronomètre (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1979), 16ff. 

  34. On the role of the automobile industry as leading edge of technological, organizational and demand changes in the 20th century, see Jean-Pierre Bardou, The Automobile Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 1982). For a litany of preconditions that allowed the American automobile industry to shape this revolution in industrial organization, see Chapter 6. 

  35. On this process at Renault, see Michel Freyssenet, La siderurgie francaise, 1945-1979: L’histoire d’une faillite: les solutions qui s’affrontent (Savelli, 1979). 

  36. See Paul Romano, The American Worker (Detroit: Bewick, 1972), 40. See also Alain Touraine, L’Evolution du travail ouvrier aux usines Renault for a more detailed version of the same argument in the context of Renault’s Billancourt factory. 

  37. This was often more true on paper than in actual factories. By the time covered in Touraine’s book on work at Billancourt, it had become an awkward combination of advanced design and heavily modified older machinery that required an unusually large section of machinists simply to maintain—rather like the Boston MTA does today. A more thoroughgoing Fordisation of production could not be adapted to such conditions: it was therefore cheaper and easier simply to build a new factory at Flins based on newer conceptions and employing more up-to- date equipment. When Flins opened in 1952, the writing was in a sense already on the wall for Billancourt. Demonstration that transitions take time: Billancourt, the closing of which was announced in 1980, closed in 1992, the same week EuroDisney opened. 

  38. For the French Left, the métallo was the quintessential revolutionary militant. 

  39. Daniel Mothé, “Les ouvriers français et les nord africains,” Socialisme ou Barbarie 21 (1958): 146ff. 

  40. These would only later be targeted by Maoist “établis” after 1968. Les etablis were Maoist students who got jobs on factory assembly lines in order to be with the workers in the period following May 1968. See Robert Linhardt, L’établi (Paris: Minuit, 1978). Nicolas Dubost, Flins sans fin (Paris: Maspero, 1979) provides an interesting and oddly moving account of the conditions among immigrant workers on the line at Flins and of the disastrous mistakes the Maoists made while trying to organize them. 

  41. Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text, edited and translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). 

  42. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 87-88. 

  43. Claude Lefort, “L’experience prolétarienne,” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, 90. 

  44. The classic statement on participant observer sociology is William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). More recent examples include David Simons and Edward Burns: The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood (New York: Random House (Broadway), 1998). Loïc Wacquant, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) is a lovely demonstration of what can be done with this form. 

  45. This is the peril of the instituting. On this theme, see Cornelius Castoriadis, “Marxism and Revolutionary Theory,” reprinted in The Imaginary Institution of Society translated by Kathleen Blamey, Cambridge: MIT, 1998), passim. 

  46. Consider the difference between a musical improvisation and a recording of an improvisation. See also Merleau-Ponty “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964) on the gap which separates Matisse painting from a film of Matisse painting and the wholesale transformations of meanings that accompany the passage from open-ended creative work to the representation of open-ended creative work. 

  47. I think the motif of doubling was inspired by Jacques Rancière, La nuit des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier (Paris: Fayard, 1981).  

  48. Philippe Guillaume, “L’ouvrier américain,” Socialisme ou Barbarie 1 (1949): 78. 

  49. Ibid. 

  50. Originally published along with Paul Romano, The American Worker (Detroit: Bewick, 1972). It was translated by Guillaume and published in Socialise ou Barbarie nos. 7 and 8 (1950-1951). See the pamphlet’s final flourishes.  

  51. Interviews with most members of S ou B, Véga in particular. This theme of the war name recurs in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming Looking for the Proletariat more extensively. 

  52. Interview with Pierre Blachier. 

  53. Martin Glaberman, Introduction to Paul Romano, The American Worker, v. 

  54. J.H. Preface to The American Worker, viii. 

  55. The American Worker, 1. We return to this shortly. 

  56. Ibid. 

  57. Roland Barthes, “L’effet du réel,” Communications 11 (1968): 11.  

  58. Philippe Guillaume, “L’ouvrier américain.” 

  59. Eric Albert “La vie dans une usine,” Les Temps Modernes 81 (1952): 95–130. 

  60. Ibid., 98-101. This section in Albert is an exact mirroring of a similar section in Georges Navels 1945 autobiography Travaux, which recounts his experiences in factories on either side of World War I. On Navel, see the section on proletarian literature in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming Looking for the Proletariat

  61. I know nothing about Eric Albert. The possibility of being an anarcho-syndicalist comes from page l25ff: Albert discusses what he considers to be the significant political tradition lost to younger workers in anarchist writers like Proudhon, Bakunin, Jules Vallès, Collinet and Friedmann. He also outlines an anarchist take on the Popular Front on page 117. 

  62. See Chapter 5 of my forthcoming Looking for the Proletariat for an extended discussion of Correspondence

  63. Paul Romano, The American Worker, 3. 

  64. This discussion leans heavily on Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985). 

  65. Eric Albert, “La vie dans une usine,” 98-100. 

  66. Paul Romano, The American Worker,14-15. 

  67. Albert’s typological chapters are entitled “Les anciens,” “Les jeunes” etc. Vivier follows much the same model. That Viver’s narrative is relatively ignored in subsequent development is indicative, I think, of S ou B’s collective relation to this type of writing. See Eric Albert, “La vie dans une usine,” 118-126. 

  68. Paul Romano, The American Worker, 21. 

  69. Ibid., 34-41. 

  70. See Roland Barthes, “The Discourse of History,” translated by Stephen Bann, Comparative Criticism 3: 7–20. 

Author of the article

lives by a salt marsh in Essex, Massachusetts where he makes constraints, works with prepared piano and writes entertainments of various kinds. His short fictions have appeared in Sleepingfish, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere. He has a Ph.D in Modern European History from Cornell University. His book, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Question of Worker Writing, will be published in the Spring of 2014 from Brill as part of the Historical Materialism series.