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.