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This English translation copyright © Polity Press 198K
First published as Essais sur Ie poliliqul? copyright © Editions du Seuil 1986.

First puhlished in English 1988 by Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell.

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Lefort, Claude
Democracy and PQiiticai theory
1. Democracy
I. Title II. Essais sur Ie politique.
English
321.8 JC423

ISBN 0-74SfHl437-4

Typeset in Times 10 on 12 pt
by Photo' graphics. Honiton. Devon

Printed in Great Britain by Billing & Sons Ltd, Worcester

Translator:s Note
Introduction

Contents

Part I On Modern Democracy

I The Question of Democracy
2 Human Rights and the Welfare State
3 Hannah Arendt and the Question of the Political

Part II On Revolution

vii
1

7

9
21
45

57

4 The Revolutionary Terror 59
5 Interpreting Revolution within the French Revolution 89
6 Edgar Quinet: The Revolution That Failed 115
7 The Revolution as Principle and as Individual 135
8 Rereading The Communist Manifesto 149

Part III On Freedom 163

9 Reversibility
Political Freedom and the Freedom of the Individual 165

10 'From Equality to Freedom
Fragments of an Interpretation of Democracy in America 183

Part IV On the Irreducible Element

1 I The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?
12 The Death of Immortality?

Notes
Index

211

213
256

283
289

Page 73

146 all Revolutioll

'inspires love before it massacres its enemies; towards the middle of
the eighteenth century, the Revolution was haunting the courts and
was caressing people; a few years later it turned to killing' (ibid). It
is absurd to credit the Prince with having the ability to 'displace
centres, wealth and men'; the Revolution, on the other hand, does
indeed have that ability.

Our author obviously understands the question· formulated at the
beginning of The Prince - 'How to win and retain power' - to be no
more than an introduction to a discussion of the art of success. He
has of course explored the whole of Machiavelli's work, and reads it
with subtlety. But he wishes to restrict the discussion to this one
question. He has been seduced by the representation of a field of force
which is objectified by the gaze of the individual who holds the most
power, or who aspires to doing so. He falls under the spell of the
sequence of hypotheses and choices which reveals the brilliance of the
actor. But he refuses to explore the basis of power, or the institution
and exercise of power. In his view, the distinction between the republic
and the monarchy has no pertinence within the framework of
Machiavelli's theory; it is, he believes, only the individual Florentine
who prefers the former to the latter. He is therefore unable to
understand that it is because of his meditations upon the nature of
society that Machiavelli can take the view that, in certain circumstances,
the role of a prince is preferable to that of a republic; that, when a
ruling class is at its most corrupt, the effects of inequality can be
curbed only by royal or quasi-royal authority; and that. for the very
same reason, a republic is still the best regime because only a republic
can, when conditions are favourable, allow the energies of the people
to be mobilized. We said that Ferrari refuses to understand this, but
the comparison drawn between different regimes in the Discorsi does
not in fact escape his notice. He does, however, fail to recognize its
import because he cannot grasp the idea that any political society is
organized around a central division between the people and the great,
between the desire to command and to oppress, and the desire not to
be commanded, not to be oppressed. It is the thought of this division
which sometimes leads Machiavelli to express the view that the
oppression of a ruling dass in a republic may be more onerous than
the oppression of a prince, because a prince can curb the insolence of
the nobility. In more general terms, it is the idea of this division and
the critique of the naive belief that a community of interests and
aspirations can be embodied in a good government that leads him to
look at the various modes of power's insertion into the social whole.
Ferrari says nothing about these meditations, about the need for the
prince to have a popular base, or about the possibility of an alliance
between the prince's desire to dominate, which can only be realized
at the expense of the Great, and the people's desire for liberty, which
can never be satisfied, but which represents a response to the oppression
of the Great. He views Machiavelli's considerations as to the qualities

Revolution as Principle and Individual 147

of the prince simply as a lesson addressed to an individual. without
seeing that the wiles of the prince are a response to the wiles which
constitute power and the social space, because the prince cannot satisfy
the people's desire for liberty and at the same time embody the cause
of the public good, and because, being unable to dominate without
ceasing to be the people, the people are doomed to be deceived. A
similar veil is cast over the foundations of princely power and the
foundations of the republic. Ferrari regards the model of the Roman
Republic as a retrograde utopia. He therefore cannot appreciate the
boldness of an analysis which discredits the notions of concord, stability
and good government, and which sees social conflict, plebeian uprisings
and the demand for liberty as the source of the grandeur of Rome;
which destroys the place that is traditionally assigned to the law-giver
- the place of an individual who is believed to possess political
knowledge; and which reveals the virtues of a power which is
challenged, which is condemned to an endless search for its own
legitimacy.

This part of Machiavelli'S discourse remains opaque to him because
of the goal he has set himself. How could he invest the Revolution
with the power of the prince, and how could he promote the Revolution
to the status of absolute master, if he had to address the question of
social division, if he had to accept the idea that power is always
implicated in the division it overcomes? The only division Ferrari
recognizes is a division between two principles, and he places the stage
of history under the sign of their antagonism - an antagonism whose
outcome is, moreover, known in advance, as the principle of the
Revolution is the principle of modernity itself, the conquering principle
in which the truth of the future resides.

What is even more striking is that, from this perspective, the question
of the content of the principle tends to vanish. Yet Ferrari is most
certainly interested in its content. He hints at the advent of a free
society, at the disappearance not only of the old monarchical order
but also of the inequalities to which modern capitalism gives rise; at
the advent of political and social democracy, at its extension beyond
the bourgeoisie, and at the completion of the work begun by the
proclamation of the rights of man. But a distinction is then introduced
betewen the meaning of the Revolution and the idea of its action, and
it is this that makes the reconstruction of post- 1789 history so curious.
Events are judged in terms of the criterion of the principle's success,
but its ends and its means are not compared. We thus have, for
example, not an apologia for the Terror, but a cold evocation of the
Terror as an operation that can be deduced from the RevolutIOn, and
no discussion of the contradiction between Jacobin oppression and the
ideal of liberty. At a more general level, this gives rise to the idea of
an inevitable process in the course of which men are crushed by the
principle because they cannot serve it to the very end, or because
circumstances restrict the choices available to them. In the course of

Page 74

148 011 Revoilltioll

his reconstruction, Ferrari sometimes goes beyond the limitations of
his theory, and it would therefore be wrong to restrict discussion to
that level. The pages he devotes to describing how the French
Revolution always had to be begun anew, and how the Italian
Revolution was always blocked are amongst the finest in his work,
and they alone justify its interest. He is one of the very few writers
to see the sequence of revolutions and coups d'etat which began in
1789 as a single historical adventure and to look into its future. Taking
his inspiration from Machiavelli, he admirably reveals both the
contradictions in which the actors became entangled and their inability
to see the ultimate consequences of the choices they made. By silently
adopting the very approach he claims to be discrediting, he ironically
unveils the misery of a world in which people can be 'neither totall y
good nor totally evil'. One senses that, having been struck by the
mediocrity of Louis-Philippe, he sees the juste milieu as a key notion
which can be related to that of the via media, which Machiavelli
denounces so roundly; and that it is this that inspires both Ferrari and
his model to make such a corrosive analysis of regimes which cannot
find any base in the people. A critique which pursues the historical
actors into their own territory in order to pinpoint the moment when
their understanding of necessity fails them can therefore eventually be
combined with an image of the present as being unable to provide an
answer to the problem of democracy, and with the condemnation of
both voluntarism and activism in politics. But it is of course because
of his outrageous theory that the Revolution dispels all doubts that
Ferrari captures our attention so compellingly.

The paradox of a history which is played out behind the backs of
human beings and yet still gives them their liberty, the mythology of
an invisible power which causes the visible edifices of power to crumble,
the transfiguration of the cruelty, stupidity and fear to which the heroes
of the Revolution are ultimately condemned into so many signs of the
passage of the Revolution, the proud resolve to enter into a pact with
the evils of the day - these are elements in an aesthetics of politics
which will haunt the modern imagination for a long time to come. It
will be recalled that Baudelaire was one of Ferrari's few admirers.
Baudelaire thought momentarily of devoting a chapter in his projected
essay on literary dandyism to him. That in itself reveals the modernity
of a theorist who saw the Revolution as a great individual.

8

Rereading The Communist
Manifesto

Is is still possible to read Marx? Is it possible to read him without
adopting the historian's approach? Is it still possible to find in his
writings a stimulus to thought, to establish a dialogue with him, and
do the questions he derived from the experience of his time enrich the
questions which the experience of our time forces us to address? In
my view, there is no doubt as to the answer. The almost incontrovertible
fact that Marxism is now in a state of decay does not, as certain
frivolous critics believe, mean that Marx's work no longer has anything
to say to us. The truth is that his theses are less important than the
road he travelled in his attempt to break with the various currents of
tradition and to try to understand the new world that was taking shape
in nineteenth-century Europe; less important than his attempt to see
beyond economic and political institutions, beyond philosophical,
religious and moral representations, to grasp the meaning of the
practices on which they are based, the principle of their genesis, and,
at the same time, to acquire a general understanding of social relations
and historical development. There is certainly good reason to believe
that the undertaking became embroiled in certain contradictions, and
that it gave birth to illusions which later fuelled a totalitarian ideology.
But we cannot therefore conclude that the task was undertaken in vain
or that only its failure is instructive. Even if it were true that Marx
could do no more than oscillate between rationalism and irrationalism,
voluntarism and fatalism, extreme subjectivism and extreme objectiv­
ism, we would still be faced with the task of assessing his intentions
and of discovering how he attempts to overcome those oppositions -
and the task is all the more legitimate in that others who came after
him also tried to find a formula that could transcend them, and in that
we are still looking for it. Even if it were true that he did not succeed
in conceptualizing both the specificity of the human world and its
implication in the world of nature, or in elaborating a distinction
between the real and the imaginary that does not divorce one from
the other, we would still have to admit that his work of interpretation

Page 146

292 Index

humanism 4
and immortality 270- 1 . 272. 275.

277-8
and the monarchy 254
and the theologico-politico 254. 255

Husser!. E. 46

ideology. and the French Revol­
ution 93. 94. 106. 107. 1 1 3

immortality 256-82
independence

and democracy. in Tocqueville 206.
208

and equality. in Tocqueville 201
individual. the

in Arendt 52
and the French Revolution 107. 1 12.

1 13
in Saint-Simon 176
in Tocqueville 15. 26-7. 175. 1 76-8,

17&-9, 180-2, 204, 209
individual freedom

in Constant 171
in Tocqueville 169-70, 17S-:9

individualism
in Arendt 53, 55
in Tocqueville 198, 199, 200, 203,

206
Inquisition, the, and the French Rev­

olution 1 18, 120, 131
intellectuals

and Arendt 47
left-wing, and political philosophy

1 0- 1 1
Italian Renaissance

in Ferrari 138, 139-41 , 143-4
and immortality 269--70, 272-3

Jacobinism, in Cochin 1 1 I . 1 12, 1 13
Jaspers, Kar! 46

Kantorowicz, Ernst 244, 250. 253
kings see monarchy
knowledge

and democracy IS, 19, 34. 43, 179,
226. 227, 228, 233

and event-bound history 90
and totalitarianism 55

La Boetie. Etienne de 76. 179
Lamartine, A. 1 15
Latin America 22

law
and democracy 18, 19, 34, 39, 43,

179, 226, 227, 228, 233
and the Revolutionary Terror 82
in Tocqueville 15
and totalitarianism. 39. 48, 49, 55

Lefebvre, Georges 70
Legendre, Louis 60, 62
Leroux, Pierre 96, 135. 139, 214, 249 .

and immortality 256. 257, 263, 281
Levi-Strauss, c: 10, 95
liberalism

and democracy 41
and human rights 22, 23-5
neo-liberalism, and rights 42 '
and public opinion 35

liberty
in Ferrari 147
and the French Revolution 106. 1 2 1 ,

122, 123
and Machiavelli 139, 146
in Quinet 130
and the Revolutionary Terror 68,

'

7 1 , 72, 73, 74. 76, 77-8, 79,
127

Louis XVI, King of France 244-7, 250
Louis-Philippe. King of France 135,

148, 214
Louvet. Jean Baptiste 86

Machiavelli, Niccoli> 5. 130
Ferrari on 136-7, J.3S, 139-48
and immortality 272-3

Maistre, J. de 139. 214
Manent, Pierre 30, 33, 34, 35
Manuel, Eugene 125
Marat, Jean Paul 68, 83, 86. 125
Marx. Karl IS, 3S, 105, 21S

and bourgeois society 35
and the Comnzunist Manifesto 1 .

149--62. 276
and Ferrari 137
and philosophy 5 1-2
and rationalism 45--6
and the rights of man 23, 32. 33-4

Marxism
and the French Revolution 98, 99,

100-2
and history 5
and Marx 149. 150. 1 5 1 . 152
and political philosophy 3-4. 12
and politics 91

Index 293

and totalitarianism to
materialism. in Tocqueville 250--60
Mer!eau-Ponty, Maurice 20, 47, 152.

218, 233
Michelet. Jules 34, 4 1 , 1 2 1 , 133, 134.

214, 23 1 , 272
and the French Revolution 96-7,

1 15-16, 1 17-20
and immortality 268, 276
and the theologico-political 236-49.

254, 255
Mignet, F. 231
militants, revolutionary 106
Mirabeau, H. 109
modernity, and democracy 55
monarchy 237

in Buchez 1 1 6
and Chateaubriand 27&-9
and democracy 16-18, 27
and equality 188
and the French Revolution 97, 100,

102, 103. 1 10, l l l . 1 12, 1 14,
1 16, 1 17 , 120

and immortality 26&-9
priestly conception of 23&-9. 242,

243-S. 250-4
and the Revolutionary Terror 7 1 ,

78. 79
and the rights of man 30. 3 1

Montesquieu, C . 5 , 24, 193, 241
Moses 129

Nabakov, Vladimir 282
Napoleon Bonaparte 141-2
Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon) 137-8
nation, the

and sovereignty 30-1
and the theologico-political 231-2

Natural Right and History
(Strauss) 12

natural rights 30,31
Nazism

and Arendt 46, 47
and philosophers 20, 233

nihilism 54

On Revolution (Arendt) 267
On the Jewish Question (Mmx) 30,

32, 33
opinion

differences of 222
freedom of 23. 32, 33, 35

and the French Revolution 109,
1 10-1 1

and rights 42
in Tocqueville 198, 205
see also public opinion

order, and the French Revolution 122
Ost, Fran,ois 22

Pachet, Pierre 44
Peguy, Charles Pierre 33
people, the

and the French Revolution 79,
107-8, I l l , 132-4

in Tocqueville 205, 206. 208
Petion, J. 63, 65
Peyrefitte, Alain 44
philosophical societies, and the French

Revolution 1 1 1-12, 1 13
philosophy

in Arendt 5 1
, critique of religion 223-4

see also political philosophy
Plato 2, 3, 6, 5 1 , 55
plot. the. and the French Revolution

107, lOS
political, the

in Arendt 6, 45-55, 265
defining I , 10-1 1 , 216-18

political freedom
in Constant 17 1-2
in Saint-Simon 175
in Tocqueville 165-Q, 168, 170,

17&-9, 195. 201
political philosophy 2. 3-6, 9--20. 150,

217
and political science 2 1 9-21 , 225
and religion 22S-9

political science 2, 3. 10-12, 21&-19
political sociology 2 . 1 0- 1 1
power

Communism as 152
in Constant 1 7 1
and democracy 17-18, 19. 39, 225-8
and democracy . in Tocqueville

203, 205, 206-7, 20&-9
despotic, and· the Revolutionary

Terror 75--6
as an empty place 232. 233
in Ferrari 147
and the French Revolution 102. 106.

107-12. 122
in Furet 9 1 , 92

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