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Democracy between Disenchantment and Political Theology: French Post-Marxism and the Return of Religion Author(s): Warren
Democracy between Disenchantment and Political Theology: French Post-Marxism and the Return of Religion Author(s): Warren

Democracy between Disenchantment and Political Theology: French Post-Marxism and the Return of Religion Author(s): Warren Breckman Source: New German Critique, No. 94, Secularization and Disenchantment (Winter, 2005), pp.


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DemocracyBetweenDisenchantmentand Political Theology. FrenchPost-Marxism and theReturnofReligion1


"Where there are no gods, phantoms rule."

- Novalis, Christianity or Europe

"On the Jewish Question" is where Karl Marx declared the liberal state, the "atheistic state, the democratic state," to be the pure essence of the Christian state. Considering the American republic, the most advanced model available, Marx claimed that the state stands over society as heaven does earth;the sovereignty of the citizen rests on a Christian logic of incarnationthat separates the individual from human species-being; the abstract universality of rights displaces the concrete universality of man's participation in collective social life. Marx regarded communism as the last great act in the history of secularization, returning the transcendent political state to its immanent place in society and removing the final obstacle to man's recovery of his alienated humanity.2 The salto mortale was to be surpassed by the leap into the kingdom of freedom; but in our

1. Thisarticle originated as a lecture given at CambridgeUniversity in July 2001. I

am especiallygrateful to the participants of theNew YorkAreaSeminarin Intellectualand

Cultural History for theirfeedbackon a completed versionin April2002. Giventhe long

delay in bringing this issue to press, I have updated the bibliography. A version of the paper was first published in Germanin AllgemeineZeitschrift fiir Philosophie30.3 (2005).

2. I discuss this in some detail in Marx,the YoungHegelians, and the Originsof

RadicalSocial Theory.Dethroning theSelf(New York: CambridgeUP, 1999), ch. 7.


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period, it is liberaldemocracythat has leapfrogged over communism. One of the ironiesin the history of communismis thatMarx'sseculariz- ing impulse has been almost fully eclipsedby the judgment thatcommu- nismwas itselfa religion,albeita secularcollectivistreligion.


messianism, even in post-1945 France,where, despite the widespread infatuationwith Bolshevism,AlbertCamusdenouncedcommunismas a

myth of this-worldlysalvationand RaymondAron attackedit as the opium of the intellectuals.This conceit persists in FrangoisFuret'sfinal book, ThePassing of an Illusion. TheIdea of Communismin the Twenti- eth Century, a title thatalludesto Freudandsituatesthe analysisof com- munism in the frameworkof the critique of religion. Furet concludes thatthe collapse of socialist expectations undida coverttheologicalcode with which the twentiethcentury had sought historicalcertainty.As he writes, "At the end of the twentiethcentury,deprived of God, we have seen the foundationsof deified historycrumbling." What distinguishes Furetfromearlieranticommunistslike CamusandAronis his belief that

with the apparenttriumph of liberaldemocracy,"history has

tunnel that we enter in darkness,not knowing where our actions will

lead, uncertainof our destiny."A democracystripped bare of illusions

proves itself to be an object of anxiety -

chantedcondition"tooaustereand contrary to the spirit of modernsoci- eties to last."Democracy needs utopia, "a worldbeyondthe bourgeoisie and Capital,a world in which a genuinehumancommunitycan flour- ish."3 Furet's book ends with the ambiguoussuggestion that neither democracy's inventivenessnor its susceptibility to dreamsof historical redemptionis at an end. If the exit fromcommunistillusionhas proven terminable,thendemocracy's own exit fromreligionseemsinterminable. The mix of triumphalism and apprehensionin Furet's treatmentof democracyafterthe fall of the Soviet Union, in fact, echoes the ambiva- lence towarddemocracyalready evidentin his pathbreaking workon the FrenchRevolutionfromthe late 1970s.Indeed,it is an ambivalencecom-

mon to manyFrenchintellectualsin the late 1970s and early 1980s, and indicative of the so-called "antitotalitarianmoment"when Marxism's grip on Frenchintellectuallife definitivelybrokeand many leading left- ist intellectualsturnedtowarda democratic politics of a decidedly more

There is nothing new in the idea that communismis a

become a

Furet judges this disen-

3. Francois Furet,Passingof an Illusion. TheIdea of Communismin the Twentieth

Century,trans.DeborahFuret(Chicago:U ChicagoP, 1999)502.

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74 FrenchPost-Marxismand theReturn of Religion

pluralistic,quotidian,andnon-utopiansort.OlivierMongindescribesthis crucialturningpoint in recent Frenchintellectual history as a "bizarre period," when "intellectualsincreasinglydistancethemselvesfrom their self-image as proprietors of history and discoverdemocracyat the same momentwhen democracy is the object of increasing doubt."4 Mongin's commentspeaksdirectly to the fact thatthe turnof Frenchintellectuals towarddemocracy coincidedwith a periodof intensifyingcritiqueof the very foundationaldiscoursesand meta-narrativesthathad served as the grounds forliberaldemocraticandrevolutionarysocialist politics alike. The collapse of those foundations - whethertranscendentalethics,

naturallaw, or rationality of the historicalprocess -

one of the strikingaspects of the general democraticreorientationof Frenchintellectualsin the 1980s,the returnof religion.In 1988, Marcel

Gauchet and PierreNora

problematic" as one of the "most spectacular"trendsin recent French intellectuallife.5 In a culturewhere almost all the dominantintellectu-

als, whether underthe sway of Robespierre,Marx, or Nietzsche, had

dead letter,this was indeed a surprising

long dismissed religion as a

development. One could multiply the dimensionsof religion's returnin the 1980s:the entry of religious motifs into the texts of the New Philos-

ophers, the revivalof concernfor religiosityamongFrenchJewishintel- lectuals, the 'return' of Islam sensationallymarked by the Iranian revolution,the Catholicdimensionof Polish Solidarity, and the ethical turn in Frenchphilosophy, a turnthat dovetailedwith the explosion of interestin EmmanuelLevinas.To these phenomena must be addedone that bore directly on the democraticreorientationof the French Left, namely, the resurgence of the theologico-politicalproblem in French thought.Indeed,a Frenchhistorianof the Germansecularizationdebate recentlydescribedthis as the thirdgreat wave of the theologico-political in the twentiethcentury,precededby Carl Schmitt'silliberalpolitical theology in the Weimarperiod and German progressivepolitical theol- ogy and LatinAmericanliberationtheology in the 1960s and 1970s.6 In

helps to explain

identifiedthe "rehabilitationof the religious

4. Olivier Mongin, Face au scepticisme(1976-1993). Les mutationsdu paysage

intellectuelou l 'inventionde l 'intellectueldemocratique(Paris:EditionsLa D~couverte,

1994) 17.

5. PierreNoraandMarcelGauchet,"Aujourd'hui," Le ddbat50 (May-Aug.1988):


6. Jean-ClaudeMonod, "Le 'probl~me thdologico-politique au XXe siicle,"

Esprit,no. 250 (Feb. 1999): 179-92.

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contrastto those earliermoments,it mustbe emphasized thatthe French resurgence did not aim to reasserta theologicallanguageas a political strategy.Rather,Gauchetand Nora signaledthe specific natureof this resurgence when they spoke of "the return of religionas a centralobject

of social theory and a legitimateobject of laic reflection."7 For laic thinkers,the goal was to assess the place of religion in the genealogy of political modemrnity. Yet this was more than an analyticalquestion.For the theologico-politicalquestionspoke directlyto the paradoxicalsitua- tion in which French intellectualsturned to democracy at the same momentthat they perceiveddemocracy'sloss of substanceand founda- tion. A centuryanda half afterMarxhaddetecteda politicaltheology at the core of liberaldemocracy andcalled for the final, radicalseculariza-

tion of politics, French post-Marxist intellectuals tumrned to political

democracy as the only possible vehicle for emancipatorypolitics; but they returned with less confidence regarding the question of democ-

racy'srelationshipto theultimatefigure of otherness. I want to look at the intersectionof theology and politics in three

post-Marxistphilosophers of the Left who played a centralrole in the

democratic reorientationof

ClaudeLefort,and MarcelGauchet.My aim is twofold. My first con- cern is historical.Castoriadisand Lefort,both bomrn in the 1920s, exer- cised a significant influence upon the course of political thought in Francethat intellectualhistoriansare only now beginning to explore. Gauchet,a generationyounger and currentlyone of the most prominent philosophers in France, drew inspiration from both Castoriadisand Lefort. Michael Scott Christofferson,the historianof the 'antitotalitar- ian moment'in Frenchthought of the 1970s and 1980s, presentsCasto- riadis, Lefort, and Gauchetas united in the antitotalitariancampaign.8

Certainly,these figures were bound together by personal history and shared milieux; but behind the common front of anticommunism, Gauchet,Lefort,and Castoriadisactuallyrepresentway stations in the collapse of revolutionarypolitics in France. The theologico-political problem became a crucial vehicle for the articulationof substantially differentresponses to the challengeof rethinkingdemocraticpolitics. My second concern is more theoretical,because, in the context of

French thought, Cornelius Castoriadis,

7. Le ddbat 50; 147.

8. MichaelScottChristofferson,FrenchIntellectuals Against the Left. TheAntito-

talitarianMomentof the 1970s (New York: BerghahnBooks,2004).

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76 FrenchPost-MarxismandtheReturnof Religion

1980s France,the exploration of the relationship between democracy

and religion represents an importantchapterin the long philosophical debate about secularization,with the collapse of Marxismgiving this episode its specificvalence.

So long as Marxism'ssocial andeconomicmodel prevailed,the polit-

ical domaincould always be exposed as epiphenomenal,while political philosophy could be dismissed as idealist. If, as Jacques Derrida recently remindedus, Marxbelieved that "'Christianityhas no history whatsoever', no history of its own," then we must add that for Marx politics has no history of its own, and for exactly the same reason.9 However,with the collapse of Marxism'sclaim for the determinantrole of the economic base, the field was clearedfor figures like Castoriadis, the theorist of the 'social imaginary,' and Claude Lefort, the philoso- pher of the 'symbolic dimension'of politics, both of whom recognize


the social world. Withinsuch a constructionist perspective, both poli-

tics and religion could reemergeas irreduciblesystems of meaning that generate, and not only reflectsocial-historicallife. Yetthatalso brought these two symbolic systems into competition. To statethe issue bluntly:

If we consider democracyas the domainof humanself-determination and religion as the domain of human dependence, can democracy escape from its long entanglement in religion and quasi-religions and establish its own autonomy as the self-institutingactivity of human communities?Or must democracyrely on the othemess of religion to discover the meaning of democracy?Finally,with a view toward the historicalrelationship between the democraticimpulse and the twenti- eth-century's totalitarianexperiences, does democracy need religious othernessas a limiting forceon the exerciseof democraticpower?

creativeand constructiverole of cultural representations in creating

A final point must be made before proceeding.Many readerswill

immediatelyrecognizeparallels betweenthese questionsand the interro- gation of the conceptof secularizationopenedby HansBlumenberg's Die Legitimitait der Neuzeit [TheLegitimacyof the ModernAge]. Remark- ably, the Frenchpost-Marxist discussiontracedhere developedwithout any apparentknowledge of Blumenberg'scritique of Karl L6with and CarlSchmitt.Indeed,when Blumenberg'smagnumopus finallyappeared in Frenchtranslationin 1999,Denis Trierweilercharacterizedthe absence

9. JacquesDerrida,Spectersof Marx.TheState of theDebt,the Work of Mourning

& theNew International,trans. PeggyKamuf(NewYork:Routledge,1994) 122.

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of Blumenbergin Franceas an "autismof reception."'0 The fact thatthis Frenchdiscussionunfoldedwithoutreferenceto the importantGerman

secularizationdebate lends furtherinterestto the retumrn of

theological problem in France.I will returnat the end of the

some thoughts about Blumenberg andtheFrenchdebate.

the politico-

essay to

TheReturnof the Political

Frenchintellectuallife in the late 1970s and 1980s was markedby so

many announcementsof

caughtin a Parisiantrafficcircle. In 1976, a special issue of the journal Esprit announcedwhat was surely one of the most significant: the

"return of the political." Of course,politics had never gone away, least

"turns"and "returns"thatone sometimesfeels

of all in the formof the philosopheengagd.However,in the

therewere indicationsof a revivalof politics as an object of serioushis- toricaland philosophical reflection.Numerousthinkerswho had earlier viewed politics as an epiphenomenonof the social base now looked to the 'political' as a field of "power and law, state and nation, equality

and justice, identity and difference,citizenshipand civility."11 In this revival, Comrnelius Castoriadisand ClaudeLefort playedmajor roles. As the co-foundersof the militant group and journal Socialismeou Barba- rie in 1948, Lefort and Castoriadishad stakedout a unique groundin French political culture.12They opposed with great vigor the Soviet Union, the Parti CommunisteFrangaise,the Parti Socialiste, French Trotskyism, and fellow-traveling intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre. Although they distancedthemselves from all the main tendencies of Frenchmilitant politics, Castoriadisand Lefortremainedstaunchcritics



westerncapitalism,whichthey denouncedfor its bureaucratizedmodes


dominationandexploitation. In opposition to the Fordist capitalism of

A propos de la traductionde La

Lcgitimite des Temps modernesde Hans Blumenberg en France,"Esprit, no. 7 (Jul.2000):

51-62. This situationhas been furtherremedied by Jean-ClaudeMonod's majorstudy, La

Querelle de la Secularisation. Theologiepolitiqueetphilosophies de l 'histoirede Hegel a



LegonInauguralefaitelejeudi 28 mars2002 (Paris:

12. On the group'shistory, see PhilippeGouttraux,'Socialismeou Barbarie'. Un

10. Trierweiler,"Un autismede la reception -

11. PierreRosanvallon,Chaired'histoiremoderneet contemporainedu


de France,Seuil, 2003) 11.

engagementpolitique et intellectueldansla Francede I 'apres-guerre(Lausanne:Editions PayotLausanne,1997);Dick Howard,TheMarxian Legacy(Minneapolis:U MinnesotaP, 1988);and StephenHastings-King, "Onthe MarxistImaginaryandthe Problemof Prac-

tice: Socialismeou Barbarie,1952-6,"ThesisEleven49 (1997): 69-84.

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78 FrenchPost-Marxismand theReturn of Religion

the West and the organized "state capitalism" of the East, they pio- neered a politics based on worker self-management[autogestion] and direct democracy. Lefort left Socialismeou Barbaric in 1958 when he and Castoriadisfell into disagreementover the form of the group, and Castoriadisdisbandedit in 1966 afterhis decisive rejectionof Marxism produced intractabledivisionsamongthe members. Importantas Socialisme ou Barbarie may look in retrospect,its his- tory played out at the margins of Frenchintellectuallife. That changed when new circumstancescreateda receptive audience for their ideas. For one thing, the events of 1968 loosenedthe hold of the FrenchCom- munistPartyand produced a fragmentedLeft, including the short-lived Maoist Gauche Prolktarienneand the so-called Deuxikme Gauche, which subscribedto the politicalgoal of autogestionthathad been artic- ulated by Socialisme ou Barbarie.For another,the "Common Pro- gram," the 1972 electoralalliancebetweenthe FrenchCommunistParty and the Socialist Party, drove many noncommunistleftist intellectuals furtheraway fromthe majorleft-wingparties.Further,the Frenchpubli- cation of AlexanderSolzenitsyn'sGulagArchipelagogenerated a shock that jolted leftist intellectuals. The "Gulag Effect" produced some thoughtfulmeditations,includingClaude Lefort's Un hommeen trop, but it also spawned the media savvy New Philosophers, who combined

a hair-shirtand ashes rejection of their formerleftism with bald asser- tions that all forms of power corruptequally. The New Philosophers tried to claim affiliationwith Castoriadisand Lefort,but both strenu- ously refused the tribute.Though the New Philosophersshared little with the older men beyond the word "totalitarian,"the wave of antito- talitarianrhetoricundoubtedlydid help renew interestin three decades of serious philosophical andpoliticalwritingby LefortandCastoriadis. The ideologicalconjuncture thatthrustpoliticalphilosophy, and more specifically, sustainedreflectionupon the experience of moderndemoc- racy and its Doppelganger,totalitarianism,intothe centerof Frenchdis- cussion may be traced in the sociology and institutionalhistory of Parisianintellectuallife. Between 1971 and 1980, Lefortand Castoria-

dis participated in the founding of two new

and Libre, along with Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Clastres, and Miguel Abinsour.Gauchet,who had been Lefort'sstudentat the University of Caen in the 1960s, authoredthe article "L'expdrience totalitaireet la pens~e de la politique,"[The TotalitarianExperienceand the Thought

politicaljournals, Textures

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of the Political]which dominatedthe 1976 specialissue of Espriton the returnof politics. Further,in 1980, Gauchetcollaboratedwith Pierre Nora on foundingthe journal Le DLbat, which quicklyestablisheditself as the most influentialParisian periodical in the 1980s. FrangoisFuret's historical writings on the French Revolution broke with the Marxist school and explored the Revolutionas modernity's first experimentwith democracy;and underFuret'spresidency,the Ecole des HautesEtudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) became the epicenter of this revival of politicalphilosophy.UnderFuret's patronage, Lefortin 1976 and Casto- riadis in 1980 were elected Directeursd'6tudes [directorsof studies]. PierreRosanvallonwritesthattheirelections gave an "alan ddcisif" to political studies at the Ecole.13A monthly seminaron politics, history of political thought, and political philosophy began at the Ecole in 1977. As Rosanvallonremembers,"Whatmade this group special is that it linked togethertwo differentgenerations. Therewas the genera- tion of FrangoisFuret,ClaudeLefort,CorneliusCastoriadis,Krzysztof Pomian,but therewere also, fromthe very beginning, MarcelGauchet, BernardManin,PierreManent,and myself."l4 In 1985, this same group foundedthe InstitutRaymond Aron.This institutionalinitiativewas fol- lowed in the 1990s by the creationof numerousjournalscommittedto politicalphilosophyandthe historyof politicalthought.'5 Although Furetwas the not-so-grayeminencebehind most of these developments,including LefortandCastoriadis'selectionsto the EHESS, it would be a mistake simply to identifythem with Furet'sefforts to


tics. While Furetbelievedthatthe FrenchRevolution'ssearchfor "pure democracy" formednothingless thanthematrixof totalitarianism,Castori- adischampioned directdemocracyuntilhis deathin 1997.AlthoughLefort was closer politicallyto Furet,nonethelesshe criticizedFuret'sneo-Toc- quevillean associationof the Revolutionwith totalitarianism,and instead emphasized the Revolution'srole in inaugurating the indeterminate,open

Ecole in his image.Indeed,both divergedfrom Furet's poli-

13. PierreRosanvallon,"Le politique," Unedcole pour les

sciences sociales. De la

Ve section

l'Ecole des Hautes Etudesen Sciences Sociales, ed. Jacques Revel and


NathanWachtel(Paris:Editionsdu at CERF,Editionsde l'Ecole des hautesetudes en

ences sociales, 1996)300.

14. Pierre Rosanvallon,cited in Andrew Jainchill and Samuel Moyn, "French

Democracy between Totalitarianismand Solidarity:PierreRosanvallonand Revisionist

Historiography," Journalof ModernHistory76.1 (Mar.2004): 107-54.

15. JeremyJennings, "TheReturnof the Political?New FrenchJournalsin the His-

tory of Political Thought,"Historyof Political Thought 18.1(Spring1997): 148-156.

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80 FrenchPost-Marxism andtheReturnof Religion

social experience of democracy.WhereFuret's politics centeredon


need for stablerepresentativeinstitutions,Lefortgave his support to the pluralistic activismof the new socialmovementsthatemergedafter1968. Gauchet,by contrast,hascommentedrecentlythatbetweenFuretandhim- self, there existed "thatmysteriousthing that is a deeply spontaneous accord."16 Gauchet,who was a generationyounger thanFuret,Lefortand Castoriadis,was indeedperceived as Furet's protege. In fact,Furet'soppo- nentsblockedGauchet'selectionto the icole until 1990,when Furetstra- tegically withdrewhis supportforhis candidacy. Gauchetwill returnin the final sectionsof the paper, wherewe shallsee how his deploymentof the theologico-politicalquestion in themid-1980sintersectedwithFuret'spoli- tics.Forthemoment,letus turnto Castoriadis.

Castoriadisand ReligiousHeteronomy Castoriadis'scommitmentto radicaldirectdemocracy led him into a sharply antagonisticrelationship to religion. Equatingautonomywith the breakthrough of humanself-assertion,Castoriadisviewed religionas absolute heteronomy."Autonomy"is the key term of the social and political theory thatCastoriadisdevelopedafterhis 1963 announcement thatradicalsnow faced the choice of remaining eitherMarxistsor revo- lutionaries.Fromthen until his death,he defendedthese redefinedradi- cal politics thathe termedthe "project of autonomy."He conceivedof it as bothan individualanda socialproject. On the individuallevel, it is an ongoing project thatdevelopsthe capacity for reflectiveself-understand- ing and deliberateactivitythatallows "thesubject or humansubjectivity properlyspeaking"to put social boundariesandeven itself into question. As a collective politicaltask, wrote Castoriadisin 1972, the project of autonomy is a struggle for a "new relationof society to its institutions, for the instaurationof a new state of affairsin which man as a social being is able andwilling to regard the institutionsthatrulehis life as his own collectivecreations,andhenceis ableandwillingto transformthem each time he has the need or the desire."17This uncompromising vision of directdemocracydrawshistoricalsustenancefromthe exampleof the ancientGreekpolis as well as the real advancesthatdemocraticself-rule

16. MarcelGauchet,"De Texturesau Dibat ou la revue comme creusetde la vie

intellectuelle,"La ConditionHistorique. Entretiensavec Francois Azouviet Sylvain Piron (Paris:Stock,2003) 167.

17. CorneliusCastoriadis,Political and Social Writings, Volume1, trans. David

Ames Curtis(Minneapolis: U MinnesotaP, 1988)31.

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had madein the modemworld;andit is builtfroma uniquesynthesisof Kantian,Fichtean,Freudianand phenomenological elements. In his effort to rethinkradical politics as a liberatingpraxis and an activity of imaginativecreation,Castoriadislinkedthe projectof auton- omy to a deepeningcritique of the deterministtendenciesembeddedin western conceptions of being and knowledge. According to him, the "inherited logic-ontology" of this traditionis dominated by rationalist categories that reduce all beings to the criterionthat, in Kant'swords, "to be is to be determined."In place of this deeply rooted ontological orientation toward the determinateand the determined, Castoriadis introduceda new ontological hypothesis and argued for a "hitherto

unsuspected type of stratification [of being]

.] an organization of

layersthat in partadheretogether, in termsof an endless succession in depth of layers of being that are always organized, but never com- pletely, always articulatedtogether,but never fully."18Being, he specu- lates, is locally organizable or determinable,but overall, being is

"chaos,""abyss,"and "groundlessness."All living

coursehumans,are possible becausethey exist in a parasitizing or onto-

logical symbiosis with a stratumof total being that is locally organiz-

able.19Westernthought has focused on organization and understoodit as being

expense of coveringover the chaos thatis also in being. This ontologi- cal understandinghas restrictedour cognitionof the naturalworld, and

it has obscuredwhat is ontologicallyuniqueaboutthe social-historical world.In place of inheritedthought'srationalisticimpulseto subjectthe social and historicalto deterministiclogic, Castoriadisemphasizescon- tingency, creation, and "radicalalterity,"the ex nihilo emergence of novel forms of social life. In one of his most distinctivereformulations

of social

all being formed by the 'social imaginary', the creative powerby which a

society drawson a 'magma' of significationsand representations to insti- tute itself as a specific mode and type of humancoexistence. Though Castoriadisemphasizes thatex nihilocreationdoes not occuroutsideof a concrete context, no model of causality can exhaustivelyexplain the

beings, including of

this level of local lending or as such, but it is only at the

thought, he describesthe social-historicalas thatregionof over-

18. Cornelius Castoriadis, "Modern Science and Philosophical Interroga-

tion,"Crossroadsin theLabyrinth,trans.KateSoperandMartinH. Ryle(Cambridge,MA:

MITP, 1984) 172.

19. CorneliusCastoriadis,"TheLogic of Magmasandthe Questionof Autonomy,"

TheCastoriadisReader,ed. DavidAmes Curtis(Cambridge, MA:Blackwell, 1997)307.

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82 FrenchPost-Marxismand theReturn of Religion

imaginativeacts wherebya collectivity creates meaningand 'material- izes' these significations in institutions. Every society is instituted by humancreation,Castoriadis argues,but at only two times in humanhistory have societies acknowledged -

however incompletely -

mationof social institutions:once in the ancientGreekdemocraciesand

againin Europefromthe lateMiddle Ages onward.More typically, soci- eties occult this self-creationby imputing it to an extra-socialsource. Hence, the characteristicmodalityof humanity'srelationto the chaos that surroundsand is partof itself is a doublemovementof annuncia- tion and denunciation,institutionand occultation.Castoriadis'smost extensive analysis of the tensionbetweeninstitutionandoccultationwas writtenbetween 1978 and 1980 in his essay "TheInstitutionof Society and Religion." In it, religion becomes synonymouswith heteronomy, concealing the humanact of significationwherebysocial life is given form. Attributingthe origin of the social institutionto a transcendent extra-socialsourcestabilizesthe enigma of humanself-creation,assign- ing it an origin,foundation,andcauseoutsideof society itself. Although religion recognizes contingency and creation,it also veils them, inas- muchas "social imaginarysignificationsalwaysprovidefor the Abyss a

Simulacrum,a Figure, an Image -

which 're-present' it and which are its instituted presentation: the Sacred."20The significationof the Sacredbrings the Abyss back into society as an immanentpresence, as a space anda ritualizedpractice,but it remainsthe Otherthatconfersmeaninguponsociety fromthe outside. Religion is thus a doublemisrecognition,of the Abyss and of society's own creationand creativity. In contrastto the heteronomyof religion, autonomyrequires a recoveryof the institutingpowerandthe lucid rec- ognitionof ourselvesas the originof ourlaw.Castoriadisdoes not mean this to imply the masteryof the outside,but ratherwhat he calls "the permanentopening of the abyssalquestion:'Whatcan be the measureof society if no extra-socialstandardexists, what can and what should be the law if no externalnorm can serve for it as a term of comparison, what can be life over the Abyss once it is understoodthatit is absurdto assign to the Abyss a precisefigure, be it thatof an Idea,a Value,or a

the role of the creative imagination in the for-

at the limit, a Name or a Word -

20. CorneliusCastoriadis,"Institutionof Society and Religion," Worldin Frag-

ments. Writings on Politics, Society,Psychoanalysis,and the Imagination, ed. and trans. DavidAmes Curtis(Stanford:StanfordUP, 1997)324.

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Meaningdeterminedonce andfor all?"'21Translatedintopoliticalterms, this vision of interminablequestioningassumes an unbridgeablegap between religion as closureand democracyas opennessto contingency and humanself-creation.22Indeed,autonomy demandsa kind of heroic assumption of responsibility,but also a chastening sense of our finitude, once it is recognized thatno extra-socialstandardexists. The absence of such standardsmeans that democracy is the "regime of historicalrisk,"a "tragicregime." A democracymustbe a "regime of self-limitation,"and this means that democracymust have institutions of self-limitation. Significantly, in a 1983 discussion of the ancient Atheniandemocracy,Castoriadisidentified tragedy as one such institu- tion of self-limitation.Where many interpretershave read Athenian tragedy as an outgrowthof the cultic practicesof Greek religion, Casto- riadis emphasizes its "cardinal political dimension,"namely its presen- tation of the chaos of Being and the "absenceof orderfor man More than that,tragedyshows not only that we are not mastersof the consequences of our actions,but that we are not even mastersof their meaning."From this perspective, Castoriadisreads Antigone not as a play about the supremacyof divine law over humanor as the insur- mountableconflict between these two principles, as Hegel had. The play does not warn against Creon's insistence on the human law, but againstthe hubrisof Creon's"adamantwill to applythe norms"of the city withoutany cautionarysense of the uncertainty of the situation,the impurity of motives, or the inconclusivecharacterof the reasoningupon which political decisions rest. When Creon's son, Aimon, acknowl- edges that he cannot prove his father wrong, but begs him not to "monosphronein, 'not to be wise alone'," Sophocles "formulatesthe fundamentalmaxim of democraticpolitics."23On one level, Castoria- dis agrees with HannahArendt,who sees the political art par excel- lence in tragedy as far as it develops political judgment through its capacityto represent a process of recognitionand foster the ability of citizens to see things from the perspective of their fellow citizens. Yet Castoriadisextends that point by arguingthat tragedy intensifies the commitment to autonomy by representing not the positivity of the


21. Castoriadis,"Institutionof Society and Religion" 329.

22. See also CorneliusCastoriadis,"TheRevolutionBeforethe Theologians: Fora

Critical/PoliticalReflectionon Our History," Worldin Fragments 72.

23. CorneliusCastoriadis,"TheGreek Polls andtheCreationof Democracy," Philos-

ophy,Politics,Autonomy,trans.DavidAmes Curtis(New York:OxfordUP, 1991) 119-20.

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84 FrenchPost-Marxismand theReturn of Religion

foundation,as in religion,but,rather,society'slackof foundation.Where Arendt emphasizes the power of tragedyto incite citizens to "self-dis- play andagonisticstriving,"Castoriadisarguesfroma participatorydem- ocraticperspectivethattragedy'smetaphysicaldisclosures encouraged a spirit of mutuality,collectivedeliberation,andself-limitation.24 Castoriadis'sdiscussion of tragedy is just one example of his insis- tence on the impossibilityof ever mastering eitherthe psyche or soci- ety. Nonetheless, numerous critics have taxed him with harboring dreamsof transparency.ClaudeLefort,for one, believedthathe perpetu- ated a myth rooted in Marxismof "a society able to master its own development and to communicatewith all its parts,a society able in a

way to see itself"25NotwithstandingCastoriadis'sdisavowals,his the- ory of autonomydoes expose itself to this criticism,insofaras he some- times speaks rather imprecisely of society as if it were a coherententity

or, even worse, an agent.

ety" itself has produced the ironic consequencethat despite his con- scious effortto position himselfat the farthestremovefromany positive relationto religion,he has been attackedfor covertlyreinstatinga theo- logical mode of thought. This is the core of Jtirgen Habermas'scritique of Castoriadis.AfterpraisingCastoriadis'sattempt to "think through the

liberatingmediationof history,society,externalandinternalnatureonce again as praxis"as one of the most originalcontributionsto postwarrad- ical thought,Habermascharges thathis social imaginaryis a "language-

His tendency to affirmthe creativity of "soci-

creating, world-projecting, world-devouring

.] social demiurge."26

Habermas'smisgivings are repeatedby his studentAxel Honnethand

much amplified by one of his followers,

detects an exact parallelbetweenthe role of God in traditionalphiloso-


and signifier,law-giver,meaning-creator, thatfromwhich all stems and to which all returns,the alpha and the omega."27 Ldvenichgoes so far

as to labelthe socialimaginary a new theology, a new myth. The scope of Castoriadis'seffort to rethinkautonomyas a personal

Friedhelm L6venich, who

and the radicalimaginary in Castoriadis:"origin,source, signified

24. On Arendt,see RobertC. Pirro,HannahArendtand the Politics of Tragedy

(DeKalb, IL:NorthernIllinoisUP,2001) esp. 153-86.

25. "AnInterviewwithClaudeLefort,"Telos30 (1976-77): 185.

26. JiirgenHabermas,ThePhilosophical Discourseof ModernityTwelveLectures,

trans.FrederickG.Lawrence(Cambridge, MA:MITP, 1991)327

27. Axel Honneth,"Rescuing the Revolutionwith an Ontology: On CorneliusCas-

toriadis'sTheory of Society," TheFragmented World of the Social. Essays in Social and Political Philosophy, ed. C.W.Wright(Albany:SUNY, 1995) 168-83;FriedhelmLiven- ich, "Heiligsprechung des Imaginfiren. Das Imaginitre in CorneliusCastoriadis'Gesell- schaftstheorie,"TheSocial Horizonof Knowledge,ed. PiotrBuczkowski(Amsterdam:

RodoDi, 1991) 165.

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and political project did lead him onto terraintraditionallyoccupied by theology. Importantcategoriesof his philosophyresonatewith residual theologicalmeaning,most notablycreatioex nihilo. It sometimesseems as if his theory of the creativity of the social imaginary reinstatesa monotheistic logic, a peril not unknownto theoristsof radicaldemoc- racy since Rousseaufirstmodeledthe general will on divine potency.28 Conversely,were it the aim of this paper to do so, there are various ways to challenge the charges of Habermas, L6venich, and Honneth. The assertionthatthe imaginaryis "world-projecting"neglects Castoria-

dis's two-sideddescription of the worldas lendingitself to signification

and as an "inexhaustiblesupply of otherness and an

challengeto every establishedsignification.29The claim thatthe imagi- nary is a demiurgic force runs contrary to Castoriadis'semphasis on praxis understoodas the undertakingsof finite subjects in specific con- texts or his insistencethatby "autonomy" he meansthe effective auton- omy of effectivemen and women. His rejection of "Sartreanfreedom, the lightning strokewithoutdensity or attachment,"indicatesa general rejection of the dreamof absoluteautonomyand revelatoryeruptionsin history.30 More broadly, an adequateresponse to the Habermasians

would requirean explorationof the place of metaphorin modernphilo- sophical discourse.Castoriadishimself believed that all theoreticallan- guage is necessarilymetaphorical,and he sometimescautionedthat he was speaking metaphorically, as when he claims that societies pose "questions"and find "answers"or when he raises the question of ori- gins. Hans Blumenberg'sefforts to develop a "metaphorology" of the metaphorical dimensionof essentiallyunanswerablequestionsthat can- not, however, be eliminated,might provide an appropriateavenue for pursuing this problem.31Particularlyrelevantare Blumenberg'sinsights into the "reoccupation of [theological] answerpositionsthathad become vacantand whose correspondingquestions could not be eliminated."32 It

.] irreducible

28. See

PatrickRiley, TheGeneralWill before Rousseau:The Transformationof the

Divine intothe Civic(Princeton:PrincetonUP, 1986).

29. CorneliusCastoriadis,The Imaginary Institutionof Society, trans. Kathleen

Blamrney (Cambridge, MA:MIT,1987)371.

30. CorneliusCastoriadis,"TheEthicists'New Clothes,"Worldin Fragments 122.

31. Hans Blumenberg,"Paradigmen zu

einer Metaphorologie," Archivfiir Begriffs-

geschichte, Bd.

menberg, Asthetische und metaphorologische Schriften, ed.


15,(Bonn:BouvierVerlag H. Grundmann,1983)285-315;andHansBlu-



32. Hans Blumenberg,Legitimacyof the Modern Age, trans. RobertM. Wallace

(Cambridge, MA:MITP, 1983)65.

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86 FrenchPost-MarxismandtheReturnof Religion

would, of course,remainto be determinedwhetherCastoriadisinstanti- ates Blumenberg's claimthatmodernthoughthas been overburdened by its willingnessto takeon the debtof prescribedquestionsinheritedfrom its theologicalpast.

Lefort and DemocraticDisembodiment Claude Lefort's assertionthat his erstwhile Socialisme ou Barbarie

comrade remainedtied to a revolutionarydream of social transpar- ency directly contrastswith his own insistence that the social is con- stituted by a continual exchange between the 'visible' and the 'invisible'. This phrasing suggests a certain openness in Lefort's thinking to the lessons of religion; but in the first instance, it reveals the profound influence of Maurice Merleau-Ponty,who was Lefort's teacher in the 1940s and remainedLefort's closest intellectual inter- locutor until his sudden death in 1961. In The Visibleand the Invisi- ble, Merleau-Pontypresents the 'invisible' as the "lining" and the "inexhaustible depth" of the visible, the necessary and constitutive relationship between figure and ground, surface and depth, presence

and absence. According to Merleau-Ponty, these

chiasmaticexchanges in which the visible and the invisible intertwine and reverse.Nor is the invisiblethe non-visibleor the "absoluteinvisi- ble, which would have nothingto do with the visible. Rather,it is the invisible of this world, that which inhabitsthis world, sustains it, and renders it visible, its own and interiorpossibility, the Being of this being."33Together,visible and invisible formthe "flesh of the world," Merleau-Ponty'skey phrasedesignating the world as a horizonof gen- eralvisibilityin whichthehumanis embeddedas bothseerandseen. Lefort,who edited The Visibleand theInvisibleafterMerleau-Ponty's death,took over the notionof 'flesh' as a central category in his politi- cal philosophy. The "fleshof the social"signifies thepolitical principle of general social visibility. Whereas modem social science has taken

the political, the social, the private, the public, the economic, the reli- gious, as so many distinct objects, Lefort searches for the "originary

arenot staticratios,but

form," the "politicalform," by which the social acquires its


dimensionality."34Lefortopens his Essais sur le politique by invoking

33. MauriceMerleau-Ponty, The Visibleand the Invisible,ed. ClaudeLefort,trans.

AlphonsoLingis(Evanston:NorthwesternUP, 1968) 151.

34. Lefort,cited in Bernard Flynn, Political Philosophy at the ClosureofMetaphys-

ics (AtlanticHighlands, NJ:HumanitiesPress,1992) 178.

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the concept of politeia or regime. "The word is worth retaining," he writes, "only if we give it all the resonanceit has when used in the expression 'the ancienregime'."In thatsense, regimecombinesthe idea of a "type of constitution,"understoodin the broadsense of "formof government" and"structureof power,"anda "styleof existenceor mode of life."35The investigationof differencesbetweenregimesprohibitsthe designation of politics as a particular sector of social life. Rather,the political is a formative principle of the social experienceitself, not a his- toricaldevelopmentimposedon a pre-existing socialorder. Where Castoriadisdefines politics as an "explicitcollective activity that aims at being lucid (reflectiveand deliberate)and whose object is the institutionof society as such," Lefort defines the political as the principles that generate a society as a specific form of human life. Lefort calls the political "a hidden part of social life, namely the pro-

cesses which make people consent to a given regime -

more forcefully, which determinetheir mannerof being in society - and which guarantee that this regime or mode of society has a perma- nence in time, regardlessof the variousevents thatmay affect it."36In brief,the 'political' is Lefort'stranslationof the 'visible' andthe 'invis- ible' into political terms. Marcel Gauchet,who was in turn strongly influencedby Lefort,formulatesthis even more clearlywhen he writes, "the political constitutesthe most encompassinglevel of the organiza- tion [of society],not a subterraneanlevel, butveiled in thevisible."37 Given these phenomenological assumptions about the chiasmatic exchangebetweenthe nearandthe remote,betweensocial visibility and its invisible lining, Lefort perceives a point of contactbetween politics and religion. This is the case not only because both are constitutedby specific forms of exchange between the visible and the invisible, but becausethroughouttheirmutualhistory,they have been intertwinedchi- asmatically as the visible and invisible of each other.The interrogative title of Lefort's majoressay on religion and politics, "ThePermanence of the Theologico-Political?"(1981), suggests this relationship of mutual inherence.Indeed, one of the main arguments of the essay is thatreligionrevealssomethingfundamentalaboutthe political.Or more

or, to put it

35. ClaudeLefort,Democracy andPolitical Theory,trans.David Macey(Minneap-

olis: U MinnesotaP, 1988)2-3.

36. Lefort, "Permanenceof the Theologico-Political?"Democracy and Political

Theory 215-16.

37. Gauchet,Le ddbat 50 (1988): 168-9.

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88 French Post-Marxism and the Return of Religion

precisely, religion reveals an insight that philosophical thought should try to preserve, namely the

experience of a differencewhich goes beyonddifferencesof opinion[.

the experienceof a differencewhich is not at the disposal of

humanbeings, whose adventdoes not take place within humanhis- tory,andwhichcannotbe abolishedtherein;the experienceof a differ- ence whichrelateshuman beings to their humanity,andwhich mea