By Farhang Erfani

Farhang Erfani, Villanova University


It seems strange to me that most of our contemporaries have no sense of how much philosophy owes to the democratic experience, that they do not explore its matrix or take it as a theme for their reflections, that they fail to recognize it as the matrix of their investigations (Claude Lefort, “Question” 20).[1]


The events of September 11, 2001 have reinforced in most people’s minds, including many intellectuals, the belief that there is a gap—an essential one[2]separating democracy from its enemies, in this case from terror and totalitarianism. Totalitarianism as a political regime is well- known and its opposition to democracy is easily understood, since much of the twentieth century was characterized by the opposition between western liberal democracies and totalitarian regimes of all sorts–-fascist, communist, religious, etc. But terror is a new beast, a new foe for democracy, and one that it barely understands. It is not that terrorism is new in itself but it was always associated with totalitarianism, with a state. As an evil act, it belonged to evil countries. My goal here is not to contest the legitimacy of democracy or to dispute the evilness of terror; I am interested in the relationship between the two.

There has been a rather minor debate in the aftermath of 9/11 about the role of America in the world and especially about its presence in the Middle Eastern politics. Those very few in the United States who have asked such questions have faced harsh criticism and “warnings” from their neighbors, peers, and the government. It is unsettling that the government has not recognized the need for and the validity of such questions as essential to the welfare of democracy itself, but people’s anger is somehow understandable. First, it seems that by examining America’s role in these events we would be blaming the victims, which would indeed be wrong. Second, many are outraged that we could associate those capable of committing such horrendous crimes with the duly elected  officials of a democratic society. This is not the place to explore the actual issues and the ramifications of 9/11. In this paper, without dwelling on or denying the gravity of this specific case, I hope to pursue the connection between democracy and terror at a philosophical level. In my view, there is a very fine line separating democracy from terror.

Through the analysis of the French political philosopher Claude Lefort, I hope to show that there is an uncanny proximity between terror and democracy. In his work, Lefort went back to the origins of modern democracy, which for him is the condition of the possibility of modern politics in general. In Lefort’s view, political power of any kind rests on the contingency and the groundlessness that politics has experienced since the French Revolution. The Revolution divorced power from the divine and made it a human affair. No longer was politics a site with privileged access–-to use his expression, power became an “empty place” that no one could permanently claim. I will try to carefully retrace his analysis of power in this paper, but it is important to notice that for Lefort all forms of power struggle must be understood within this paradigm of political contingency. Lefort dedicated his life to studying totalitarianism and to showing that totalitarianism could come only after the democratic turn. I will extend his analysis and try to account for terrorism, the kind that we experienced on 9/11, as another struggle that must be understood and fought through democracy.

Lefort and the Failure of Marxism

Among contemporary French philosophers, Claude Lefort is very little known outside of France. To the English-speaking audience, his name is mostly associated with Merleau-Ponty who, after his death, left his writings to Lefort to be edited. To others, he was Sartre’s strongest critic regarding support of the Soviet regime. In a way, we could say that he remains unknown for his own work because he does not belong to any school of thought, and because he has not tried to leave a “doctrine” behind. He has always been a thorough analyst of our contemporary conditions and a careful reader of the political traditions that precede us. But if we were to force him into the intellectual map of twentieth-century France, we would have to place him between phenomenology and Marxism. Although Merleau-Ponty was his high school philosophy teacher and their friendship led Lefort to appreciate phenomenology, he cannot be considered the typical, mainstream phenomenologist. Nor was he ever an orthodox Marxist, unlike most of his fellow colleagues and intellectuals. Lefort’s intellectual career has been an honest interrogation of his century; without blindly sticking to an agenda or protecting a party, Lefort began as a revolutionary Trotskyite and became a staunch defender of the democratic revolution, keeping at heart his commitment to the leftist project of emancipation and liberty.[3]Although the task of this essay is to focus on Lefort’s analysis of democracy and terror, given how little he is known in the English-speaking world, some background knowledge of his work is needed to place him in historical, social, and political context.

Lefort, born in 1924, was only sixteen years old when the Germans occupied Paris during World War II. Too young to be part of the Résistance, he nevertheless grew up in the strange environment of Paris amid the pessimisms of the time as well as the messianic tone of the intellectuals promising the possibility of a better future. Despite the war, a number of newspapers and journals were created calling for radical changes, for a Revolution following la Résistance.[4]The general consensus was that if la Résistance were to be fruitful in the long run, more had to be done than just to defeat the Nazis. The old ways of the French Republic, the ways that allowed the rise of fascism, had to be changed; a return to the bourgeois hegemony seemed futile and Marxism appeared to many as the logical path to follow.[5]Certainly, the kind of camaraderie that the Résistance had created resonated well with Marxist ambitions. In a nutshell, “the theme of revolution was in the air of the time and the adhesion of a young man to a revolutionary project and organization was in the order of things.”[6]Even though Lefort would be no exception, he was never a diehard Marxist despite his youth.[7]With the same admiration and suspicion with which Merleau- Ponty had approached Husserl, we could say that Lefort worked “[w]ith Marx, against Marx.”[8]To fully appreciate his democratic commitment requires us to grasp this aporia in his work.

Lefort was barely eighteen years old when Merleau-Ponty, then his high school philosophy teacher, asked him about his political inclinations and whether he followed the French Communist Party (P.C.F.). Surprised by the young man’s “repugnance” vis-à-vis “the Party,” Merleau-Ponty directed him toward Trotskyism.[9]Although it is difficult to summarize a life-long struggle in a few words, we could say that Lefort’s reluctance, or even “repugnance”, was twofold–-political and philosophical. In the first place, before being able to articulate his misgivings in philosophical terms, Lefort objected to the Soviet regime’s political practices. Whereas intellectuals of the time, including Sartre, preferred to look away and disregard Stalin’s gulags and the oppression of dissidence, Lefort always insisted that “prisons and [concentration] camps should not blind us. There, oppression is condensed, but it reigns over the entire society.”[10]This very basic condemnation prevented him from ever fitting in with the Left. Increasingly isolated, his criticisms of the Soviet Union almost pushed him out of the Trotskyite party, but it was perhaps meeting the young Cornelius Castoriadis that launched his career. Together, they created a new journal, the famous Socialisme ou Barbarie, which Lefort co-edited for ten years.[11]During that time, he regularly contributed to a number of journals, including Les Temps Modernes, founded by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. As it turned out, history proved him right; the Soviet Union’s regime was an irretrievable project and regardless of the fervor of its admirers and reformers, very little was there to salvage. But this realization was no relief in itself. In the late fifties, Lefort realized that his career as an activist had not solved the difficulties facing Marxism and that there was a philosophical knot that had to be untangled.

From the beginning, Lefort was under the impression that Marxism and Communism were suffering from a philosophical blunder that their own categories could not understand; it was finally through phenomenology that Lefort learned to see it.[12]To put it in a nutshell, when a theory “intends” the world, when it reduces the world to a formula, phenomenology reminds us of “the impossibility of a complete reduction.”[13]The world is too thick and any theory is only a perspective from and within the world and it can never overcome this finitude. Traditional metaphysics had disregarded this perspectivist insight and had allowed itself to search for an Archimedean point from which all could be seen and explained. Marx too was a “metaphysical” theoretician in this sense; he had hoped to reduce all processes of the world, all events and all possibilities to one axiom, to dialectical materialism leading to the proletarian revolution–-in Lefort’s own words, Marxism “reduced the creativity of history to that of the proletariat.”[14]So it is no surprise that Lefort regarded Stalinism as dangerous, not because it was a mistake but because it was the most obvious symptom of ailing Communism: in his view, Stalinism was not a “direct deviation from Marxism, but a deviation from a path, which… was moving away from… revolutionary politics.”[15]Given his rejection of “totalizing” theories, Lefort never sought a god-like perspective on history and he never tried to simplify all human events to one thought.[16]The basic lesson of phenomenology is that what emerges from such metaphysical attitudes is too mechanistic, too inhuman, too deterministic.[17]As we will see, such perspective is necessarily “totalitarian.”

In all fairness, it must be said that Marxism is not the only theory plagued by this obsession with finding a first principle; this is modernity par excellence, from Descartes to Leibniz, from Hegel to Marx and Freud. Merleau-Ponty had already dealt with these issues and proven the inadequacy of such theoretical attitudes,[18]barring Lefort from taking political theory’s traditional path. For Lefort to think about politics meant more than finding another political first principle—it meant exploring the phenomenon of politics in itself, which led him to study primitive societies and their political structures. Whereas Merleau-Ponty, exploring the questions of the self and of human agency, relied on contemporary research in psychology, Lefort based his observations on 1950s research in anthropology, especially the work of Marcel Mauss and Claude Levi-Strauss. What he sought in his anthropological work was not the fundamental difference between primitive societies and “us.” On the contrary, by refuting causal explanations,[19]he had hoped to find what made such societies cohesive and political. Primitive societies, as well the modern ones, share at least one common trait: they cannot be reduced to one aspect. They are, as Lefort uses the term, “articulated totalities;”[20]we cannot define and delimit what is political in them, for as long as they are societies they are political entities. [21]Primitive societies were more than the forces of production; Marxists had oversimplified history to make it fit their philosophy. So by the end of the 1950s, Claude Lefort’s theoretical and militant paths had led him to the same conclusion: traditional Marxism was mistaken in analyzing politics and history only in terms of materialism. Such analysis left no room for human agency; there was no need for us to call for the revolution. Following this thought to its logical conclusion, we would have nothing to do but wait–-a sort of Heideggerian waiting for the last god. Though certain Marxists were resigned to waiting, we must admit that quietism cannot account for the totalitarian phenomenon of our time, nor could it explain the forms of domination experienced in both communist and capitalist countries. What was needed was a new way of understanding our historical conditions, an account that would explain struggles and conflicts instead of denying their existence or waiting for them to be solved by historical inevitability. What was needed, in short, was to bring politics back into the debate.

Let us be clear that (a) by distancing himself from Marxism, Lefort was not abandoning its questions, nor was he becoming a capitalist or a liberal.[22]Since Marxism could not explain the role of political agency in history, it is our task to rediscover what it means to live in a political society, what it means to live through conflicts and to figure out what kind of society is best suited for conflictual politics. And (b) his basic misgiving about Marxism was true about liberal-capitalism too. In those societies, other forms of totalities are in play and a suffocating alienation is easily discerned. The question goes therefore beyond the Marxist-Liberalism debate: why is it that modern societies experience domination? In his own words, “why is totalitarianism a major event of our time, why does it require us to probe into the nature of modern society?”[23]The issue, for Lefort, had to be shifted from historical dialectical materialism to the question of political struggle in general, to an analysis of power and domination in politics. It was through Machiavelli that he found his entry.

Lefort and the Rediscovery of Power in Politics

Merleau-Ponty had written an important essay on Machiavelli,[24]which no doubt encouraged Lefort in the direction of considering the analysis of power and domination in politics, but the result was not easy to come by. It took fifteen years of research and careful readings of Machiavelli and his commentators for Lefort to come to terms with the nature of the political,[25]resulting in his yet un- translated book Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel. Machiavelli’s influence on Lefort’s work cannot be neglected, for in many ways it was his reading of Machiavelli that turned him to democracy. What Lefort needed from Machiavelli was another way of understanding a polity, a way that was not couched in material conditions alone. Lefort tells us that the “discourse of Machiavelli proceeds to a slow and methodical destruction of the teachings of traditional politics.”[26]What Machiavelli destroyed is the pretense of a rational and peaceful politics—the kind that Marxism promised after the revolution. In Lefort’s view, this kind of vision goes hand in hand with the modern

philosophical approach, but politics was not always conceived in this way. “Whereas ancient political philosophy is primarily an analysis of the experience of the Greek city, modern political philosophy is primarily, in theoretical terms, a hypothesis.[27]It is “hypothetical” thought–or what we called “metaphysical thought” earlier–-that Machiavelli rejected. In imagining a peaceful and reconciled society, modern political theorists take politics—the art of facing contentions and ruling over differences—out of political thought. Machiavelli’s merit lies in his attempt to keep this unruly, yet indispensable, side of political life alive. While running the risk of doing injustice to his fifteen years of research, we could say that this is the fundamental lesson that Lefort retained from reading the Florentine: politics’ goal is not to go back to a “natural” peace because social divisions and conflicts are unavoidable. In a key passage of The Prince, Machiavelli tells us that

I would point out that there are two ways to…power: the support of the populace or the favor of the elite. For in every city one finds these two opposed classes. They are at odds because the populace do not want to be ordered about or oppressed by the elite; and the elite want to order about and oppress the populace. The conflict between these two [ambitions is] irreconcilable.[28]

To which Lefort adds that “reflections on The Prince are inseparable from the discovery of an originary division of the social body. But in order to appreciate fully what this means, it must be said that this division resists all attempts at nullifying it.”[29]Modern political philosophy, after Machiavelli, sought to resolve or even ignore this inherent conflict by imagining a rational order in which all conflicts can and ought to be resolved. Whether it was through force with Hobbes or Hegel, through material distribution with Marx or Locke, or even through the authority of reason with Rousseau or Rawls, modern political philosophy aims at reconciling what Machiavelli calls irreconcilable. With such a model, “legitimate dissent would have [to be] eradicated from the public sphere.”[30]Chantal Mouffe has pushed this issue much further than Lefort, though she acknowledges her debt to him. In her view, modern society is inescapably and structurally plural and “democratic theory should renounce… escapism and face the challenge that the recognition of the pluralism of values entails.”[31]She, like Lefort, certainly understands the need for a peaceful society in which there is an absence of continual violent strife and a “certain amount of consensus,” but she believes that if all differences are “eradicated,” another form of violence is in place. We need a democratic society in which there is no “antagonism,” which she sees as a struggle between enemies, but an “agonistic model” which is a struggle between adversaries.[32]

What Lefort retains from this analysis is the origin and the nature of power, which without conflicts would not exist.[33]It is not the case that a dominant class, through power, has come to cherish different interests from others with whom it is fundamentally at odds–-power is only the “third party” that emerges because of the irreconcilability of interests.[34]Power, for Lefort, is the articulation of conflicts and not their source; it has “no truth in itself”[35]—it only exists as a mediation between political differences. If there is no conflict, then there is no power and therefore no politics, which would not be undesirable if it were possible and if conflicts could be reconciled once for all.

Lefort and Democracy as an “Empty Place”

But are we saying that because power is an inherent political factor that there is no difference between kinds of power? Are we equating the power of a king, the elite and the populace? Is there a preference? If so, what is the criterion? Better yet, how can we explain power in other terms than economics? Living in a liberal democracy (France) and being a Marxist at heart, Lefort had to face such questions—are we to choose between the power of the party and the power of corporations? Why is Stalin’s exercise of power so “repugnant?” If there is no society without an exercise of power, then why should we reject totalitarian regimes? The underlying issue here is totalitarianism and its difference with democracy, which seems rather obvious in the beginning. Democracy represents political freedom and “in the history of domination, [totalitarianism] manifests a radically new form in that it aims at nothing less than effacing the political condition of men.”[36]It is true that a comparative study will yield some interesting results but it still would not explain totalitarianism and its “unheard of” power. This is why Lefort insists that the “rise of totalitarianism, both in its fascist variant… and its communist variant… obliges us to reexamine democracy” itself.[37]From that point on, his research moves from Machiavelli to the origins of democracy and totalitarianism.

There is what I would call an “uncanny” proximity between totalitarianism and democracy that Lefort detects from the start[38]–-democracy and totalitarianism have the same political foundation in the French Revolution. What demarcates them is the way they take up the legacy of the Revolution. Lefort shows that the Revolution made room for modern democracy, which, once corrupted and abused, allowed for the first instance of totalitarian life under Robespierre. There are, of course, great differences between these two political systems: when speaking of a totalitarian regime, we have in mind a political entity that goes unchecked and has no real limit; democracies, however, are kept in check by regular elections as well as institutional balances of power. A totalitarian regime follows its own instincts and its purpose is self-pleasing; a democratic government has a limited purpose, a definite mandate, serving the people. But according to Lefort, this very “indeterminacy” and openness of democracy is what allows for a totalitarian regime to take power and to terrorize people.[39]Both kinds of regime are rooted in the demise of the Ancien Régime. In “The Question of Democracy,” which is perhaps his most important contribution to this issue, Lefort tells us

Under the monarchy, power was embodied in the person of the prince. This does not mean that he held unlimited power. The regime was not despotic. The prince was a mediator between mortals and gods or, as political activity became secularized and laicized, between the mortals and the transcontinental agencies represented by a sovereign Justice and a sovereign Reason. Being at once subject to the law and placed above laws, he condensed in his body, which is at once mortal and immortal, the principle that generated the order of the kingdom. His power pointed towards an unconditional, otherworldly pole, while at the same time he was, in his own person, the guarantor and representative of the unity of the kingdom. The kingdom itself was represented as a body, as a substantial unity, in such a way that the hierarchy of its members, the distinction between ranks and orders appeared to rest upon this unconditional basis.[40]

It is rather odd, some could object, to say that the Ancien Régime was not despotic. What Lefort is trying to separate here is life under the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and life under the King. Without expressing a preference, Lefort is pointing to the fact that power, under the King’s reign, was limited and could not be as invasive and dominating as, say, under Stalin’s regime. The difference in domination does not lie in the difference of technology, for instance. The reason that totalitarianism is so radically powerful is because it came aftermodern democracy. Only after the democratic revolution could we have had Stalin or Hitler. This revolution that Lefort, following Tocqueville, equates with the French Revolution opened up the site of power in a new way–-if power “was embodied in the prince” it was the decapitation of the King that loosened the seat of power.

This model reveals the revolutionary and the unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place. There is no need to dwell on the details of the institutional apparatus. The important point is that this apparatus prevents governments from appropriating power for their own ends, from incorporating it into themselves. The exercise of power is subject to procedures of periodical redistributions. It represents the outcome of a controlled contest with permanent rules. This phenomenon implies an institutionalization of conflict. The locus of power is an empty place, it cannot be occupied–-it is such that no individual and no group can be consubstantial with it–-and it cannot be represented.[41]

“At the same time that the transcendental foundation of certitude disappears, so does the belief in the existence of a determined order;”[42]power becomes mutable, changeable and therefore uncontainable. As Lefort puts it, “democracy is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty,[43]meaning that democracy is left to itself. Does this mean that democracy has no ground for certainty and that this “indeterminacy” that we spoke of dooms it to failure? “I am not suggesting,” Lefort says, “that [democracy] has no unity or no definite identity; on the contrary, the disappearance of natural determination, which was once linked to the person of the prince … leads to the emergence of a purely social society in which the people… take on the status of universal entities [but not] substantial identities.”[44]In other words, the “emptiness” to which Lefort refers is only the lack of “substance” in the philosophical sense of the term, meaning that whoever occupies the place of power–-and so long as there is a government there is at least a partial occupation–- cannot claim to have the essential or substantial privilege of being in charge. Modern democracy became possible only when the transcendental source of power, the King, was removed and that no one was allowed to have an otherworldly power. Once political legitimacy is put in human terms alone, it becomes automatically limited and can be held accountable. Speaking concretely, when a democratic regime functions properly, it occupies this seat of power only momentarily and with a specific mandate approved by the people. “The originality of democracy is therefore the institution of this ‘empty place’ of power where society projects its antagonisms, test its divisions and understands itself as a divided society. At the origin of modern democracy, there is the instauration of a right with limited power.”[45]Since no one in this model has a divine authority, disagreements and conflicts become not only acceptable but in fact necessary. “Political conflict is now legitimate on its own grounds. Free of the determinate identity of the prince or aristocracy, a new set of political actors enter the political stage without requiring substantive identities.”[46]This claim of “democratic indeterminacy” is not new in itself–-Rousseau, Tocqueville, and others had noticed it before. The originality of Lefort’s contribution lies in his couching of this event in history, as well as his observed links between democracy and totalitarianism, for the latter “does not come out of nowhere.”[47]

What does this analysis entail for totalitarianism? In a nutshell, if democracy’s “virtue,” as Lefort calls it, is that power “belongs to no one,”[48]we could say that totalitarianism is nothing but a perversion of this virtue–-it is possession of full power.

Let us now consider [the] two moments of the totalitarian project, two moments which are, in fact, inseparable: the abolition of the signs of division between state and society and the signs of internal social division. They imply a de-differentiation of the agencies that govern the constitution of a political society. There are no longer ultimate criteria of law or of knowledge which are beyond the reach of power. This observation best enables us to identify the uniqueness of totalitarianism. For, without even speaking of European absolute monarchy, which quite clearly always involved a limit on the power of the prince–-a limit bound up with the recognition of rights acquired by the nobility and by the cities, but even more fundamentally governed by the image of a Justice of divine origin–-despotism… never appeared as a power that drew from itself the principle of law and the principle of knowledge. For such as event to take place, all reference to supernatural powers or to an order of the world would have to be abolished and power would have to be distinguished as purely social power.[49]
This last sentence encapsulates Lefort’s position very well–-it is only after the democratic revolution and after democracy opens the field of power to contention that it can be appropriated without limit, in its totality. The pre-democracy monarch’s power was held in check, according to Lefort, by his duties and social role as well as its pretense to divinity. But because democracy has “naturalized” the field, power can be seized without limit. This is why Lefort believes that “totalitarianism is a major fact of our time”–-we live in the age of democracy and only a very small “change in the economy of power is required [for a] totalitarian form of society to arise.”[50]

We must remember that the social field is always constituted by conflictual antagonisms and that it is indeterminate because it is “purely social” (or human instead of divine). Given this, no totalitarian regime could in fact succeed in occupying the field and in determining its limits. To use Merleau-Ponty’s favorite image, Lefort says that a “democratic society is instituted as a society without a body, as a society which undermines the representation of an organic totality.”[51]Totalitarianism needs to recreate, in “image” only, the body of the decapitated prince—as did Stalin[52]–in order to keep a tight rein on democracy, but because it is only an image, it needs force to be legitimized. Thus, at least to pretend that the political field is owned, in its totality, by a single governing body, totalitarian governments have recourse to terror.[53]“Terror” in Lefort’s analysis–- and I will come back to the more current use of the term, especially since 9/11–-is the forced “de- differentiation” of the people into the People-as-One, which is nothing but a “fantasy.”[54]“Any edifice of totalitarian politics,” adds Poltier, “relies on the phantasm of a society that would have overcome its internal divisions.”[55]

It is this image which is at the source of the totalitarian ambition to overcome the divisions which keep the real unity of the community open to question–-to realize the democratic fantasy of the people-as-one in a symbolic series of identifications of the people with the proletariat and the proletariat with the party.[56]

The road from modern democracy to totalitarianism and terror is short; a mere “shift” of power could change a democratically governed country into a totalitarian one. Sadly enough, such shifts are often made in the name of the people, in the name of the people-as-one. The sort of patriotism that has emerged since September 11 certainly calls for a unity, a One-ness of the people that suffocates dissent and borders on a sort of terror. I would certainly not say that 9/11 has made America into a totalitarian regime, but it has shown the fragility of democracy. Lefort rightly asks, “may not totalitarianism be conceived as a response to the questions raised by democracy, as an attempt to resolve its paradoxes?”[57]In other words, to paraphrase Milan Kundera, it is the “unbearable lightness” of democracy and the anxiety that comes with such groundlessness that lets democracy slip and become totalitarian.

From Democracy to Terror (and Back)

Lefort’s analysis has much merit, especially in the light of today’s political and international arena. He is right, in my view, in insisting that democracy precedes, if not always chronologically, then at least structurally, totalitarianism. Where his analysis fails, at least for our concerns after the terrorist attacks of 2001, is in understanding the reality of terror in itself. Could his theory be somehow adapted to this new form of terror? Given that he couched his entire intellectual path in historical developments, it would be no betrayal on our part to see how we could answer these pressing questions through his work. In fact, the rest of my analysis will follow his advice: I will here take democracy as the “matrix” of my analysis and see how terrorism can be understood through democracy.

So what is terrorism? Since George W. Bush’s promise to wage war against terror, properly defining terrorism has become a crucial issue. Many contend that the definition is relative–-the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist depends on one’s political inclination. Lefort’s definition of terror is tangential to his work on totalitarianism–-it does not explain Timothy McVeigh or al Quaeda. The violence committed in these cases is not state-sponsored and is directed against a state (in both cases, the American state) whereas Lefort’s definition of terror was centered on totalitarian forms of domination. I propose to define terrorism in terms of democracy–-terrorism should be understood as violence perpetrated against a state which is accused of depriving the perpetrators and their fellows of their autonomy and their right to self-determination.[58]My definition of terrorism therefore encompasses al Quaeda and McVeigh, despite their considerable differences. It is noteworthy that (a) both claim that the American government has made it impossible for them to lead their lives as they choose and (b) they carry out their violent acts on behalf of their people. Even Bin Laden, whose terrorism is grounded in religion, needs and seeks popular support. Bin Laden pretends that he represents the majority of Muslims around the world who are threatened by western, especially American, presence in Muslim lives and politics. It is striking in my view that he needs to justify his actions in the name of the people, and not just religion or god–-Bin Laden too is shaped by the democratic revolution. He too lives after the decapitation of the French king–-he cannot say that “l’Etat c’est moi”—or to be more accurate, he cannot pretend to be all Muslims or to embody Islam. He claims to be their representative.

Seeing terrorism against the democratic backdrop has many advantages. It allows us to differentiate terrorism from other forms of violence and to assess the validity of that violence–-some groups are freedom fighters when they truly represent the people. But it simply is not the case that Bin Laden is fighting in the name of all Muslims, or even their majority–-if that were the case, we would be on the brink of a world war. It is not even the case that most Muslims are violent or seek the annihilation of westerners, despite the shameless diabolization of the West by the middle-eastern state-controlled media, scapegoating internal political failures. But there is an even greater advantage in understanding terrorism through the democratic revolution: it allows us to combat it democratically.

To fight terrorism with democracy does not mean that elections will disarm terrorists. Terrorist acts can be fought through democratically supported courts and treaties. More importantly, however, the spread of democracy can prevent future terrorism. We must make sure that the “silent majority” does not support it. Without that basic support, terrorism becomes simply a criminal activity and its success will be as unsuccessful as that–-it will have no real political impact. It will lack the network and will be unable to recruit at a large scale. I certainly would not want to romanticize democracy and believe that it will do no wrong once in power. But I believe that it reduces the likelihood of such disasters. As Amartya Sen has remarked, no democracy has ever known a famine– -democracy often exercises a certain check on extremes. The current war on terror will not prevent future terrorist acts as much as the development of local democracies would. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, perhaps the least democratically inclined regime in the region, yet to this day supported and approved by the West, especially by the United States. Saudis have no control over their government, which is an outdated form of hereditary aristocracy. This absolute lack of democratic political control has made the frustrated Saudis into the ideal recruiting ground for terrorism and it will continually be the case until they become more democratic. In fact, we must remember that the Middle East has rarely had a chance to develop true democracies–- because of both internal and external factors. The very few countries that have experienced it, even sporadically, such as Turkey, have become more peaceful and have managed to keep religious fanaticism more and more in check.[59]

Tocqueville used to say that the greatest advantage in a democracy is not that the people make the right choice; they rarely do. But because they make their own laws, because they feel that the political power in place belongs to them, they obey and follow the rules better than in any other form of government known to us so far. This should then be our goal: involving more people and allowing them to exercise democratic control. Claude Lefort is the first to admit that autonomy “is a resounding word and it requires some elucidation.” He adds, “autonomy, it has to be said at once, can only be relative. But we must recognize that it is also pointless to wish to fix or to efface its limits” once for all.[60]After all, defining what autonomy means–-and it is no accident that Claude Lefort has dedicated so much of his research to human rights which would be nothing without autonomy–-is itself a political question that needs to be posed in the indeterminate terrain of democracy. We need to expand what Tocqueville called the “democratic revolution.” Terror in its current form finds popular support among those who feel that the “empty place” is no longer empty, that it is occupied by those who work against them, and, even worse, that they could never occupy it. We can resist this form of terror the same way Lefort envisaged resisting totalitarianism, i.e., “incorporating individuals into the legitimate groups,” by giving them hope.[61]

We can certainly work at keeping democracy more “empty” or more open–-here and abroad—so that fewer citizens and non-citizens feel alienated. Even many sectors of liberal democratic societies that fortunately are not violent feel nevertheless disillusioned and un- represented.[62]By giving more voice to the excluded and the oppressed, democracy may be able to assimilate them; for if the claim of such people is a lack of autonomy, democracy is the system that should be able to allow them to exercise power. And with this exercise of autonomy comes a certain respect for others as well as for the very institution that makes room for it:

In affirming the absence of any divine or otherwise incontestable grounds of power in society and insisting on the right of all to critically contest the legitimacy of every exercise of power, an inherent respect for the right of all to critically contest the legitimacy of every aspect of the institution of society is recognized. A right to question and dissent from one another is acknowledged which gives rise to a sense of mutual respect which can be sacrificed only at the cost of losing the project of democratic autonomy itself.[63]

In the same way that the democratic process leads to respect, exclusion from it leads to contempt. As Mouffe says, “the result can be the crystallization of collective passions around issues which cannot be managed by the democratic process and an explosion of antagonisms that can tear up the very basis of civility.”[64]Those alienated from the process lose faith in it and seek to affirm their autonomy in other ways that “democracy cannot manage.” The current war on terror keeps in place the very conditions that created terror from the start. It supports dictators; it angers local populations by proposing or making “regime changes” favorable to the West and not the people. A true war on terror would empower people through democracy and not disenfranchise them further.


[1]1 Claude Lefort’s books, with the exception of Le Travail de l’Oeuvre Machiavel, are only collections of articles and I will refer to the article instead of the book title. Wherever possible, I cite the English translation and all subsequent translations from French are my own.

[2]The difference between totalitarianism/terror and democracy is seen as “essential” in so far that democracies consider their enemies to be fundamentally and radically different in kind–-as if the two sides were made of two incompatible essences. I will here follow Claude Lefort’s lead and contend that not only there is no essential difference but there is a surprising and an uncanny proximity between democracy and its enemies. See Lefort’s seminal essay on this issue “Totalitarianism without Stalin” where he asks, “How can [the bourgeoisie] go on dreaming of an essential difference between the western capitalisms and the USSR?” (54, my emphasis).

[3]Poltier, “La pensée.”

[4]For instance, Camus, 1528. He is only one case here. See Poltier, Passion 21-30.

[5]See Mark Poster’s Existential Marxism in Postwar France for a more detailed account of this environment.

[6]Poltier, Passion 28.

[7]Lefort, “Image of the Body” 295-297.

[8]Howard, 186.

[9]Poltier, Passion 22.

[10]Lefort, “Dissidents” 180.

[11]Poltier, Passion 33-37.

[12]McKinlay, 489.

[13]Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology xiv.

[14]Lefort, “Image of the Body” 294.

[15]Lefort, “Staline et le Stalinisme” 113.

[16]Howard 203-208.

[17]Lefort, “Totalitarianism without Stalin” 58.

[18]For instance, Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology154-173.

[19]Lefort, Travail 187.

[20]Lefort, Formes 16.

[21]Much more needs to be said about Lefort’s work in this area and it should be the subject of another essay. Here, my aim in laying out Lefort’s earlier research is to draw attention to Lefort’s questioning of all forms of societies in order to understand the theoretical and political failure of Marxism. Others, especially Poltier in Passion and Howard, have worked on Lefort’s anthropological work.

[22]Lefort, “Politics and Human Rights” 271.

[23]Lefort, “Image of the Body” 297.

[24]Lefort, Signs 211-213.

[25]Lefort distinguishes between the political (le politique) and politics (la politique). Politics is the science of government but the political is about power and conflictual relationships, beyond (but including) the sphere of government. For more on this, see Poltier, La découverte 49-59 and Jean-Pierre Marcos’s excellent article.

[26]Lefort, Travail 399.

[27]Manent 175.

[28]Machiavelli, 31 (my emphasis).

[29]Lefort, Travail 721.

[30]Mouffe 30.

[31]Mouffe 93.

[32]Mouffe 101-103.

[33]See also Miguel Abensour La démocratie contre l’Etat for a similar treatment of Machiavelli, coming from the Marxist perspective.

[34]Lefort, Travail 366-398.

[35]Lefort, Travail 426.

[36]Abensour “Les deux interpretations” 80. Abensour’s essay is perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of Lefort’s account of totalitarianism. Though it is only available in French, it merits attention.

[37]Lefort, “Question” 12.

[38]Lefort, “Question” 16.

[39]McKinlay 492.

[40]Lefort, “Question” 17.

[41]Lefort, “Question” 17.

[42]Poltier, La découverte 78.

[43]Lefort, “Question” 19.

[44]Lefort, “Question” 18, my emphasis.

[45]Klepec, “Le totalitarisme aujourd’hui” 20.

[46]McKinlay 493.

[47]Lefort, “Image of the Body” 301.

[48]Lefort, “Human Rights and the Welfare State” 41.

[49]Lefort, “The Logic of Totalitarianism” 286. See also Tocqueville’s “Introduction” in Democracy in America, especially 7-13.

[50]Lefort, “Question” 20.

[51]Lefort, “Question” 18.

[52]Lefort, “Totalitarianism without Stalin” 55. Poltier in La découverte (95) rightly reminds us that no totalitarian government has ever managed to embody the totality of a society. The task in itself is impossible and is nothing but a chimera. Lefort also admits that we must speak about totalitarianism “not because dictatorship has attained its greatest strength” for it never really can and we must go deeper than just “empirical description” to appreciate its terror (“The Logic of Totalitarianism” 284).

[53]Lefort, “Totalitarianism without Stalin” 71.

[54]Lefort, “Image of the Body” 297 and 304. For more on the people-as-one, see Jean-Pierre Marco’s article “Les catégories du politique” (esp. 96-102).

[55]Poltier, La découverte 91-92.

[56]Hendley 177.

[57]Lefort, “Image of the Body” 305.

[58]I would therefore exclude acts of violence, against the state or individuals, that do not claim to represent a greater majority than the gang of perpetrators. Such acts could be seen as simply criminal or delinquent. It is the underlying claim to self-determination and the validity of such claim that should guide our definition of terrorism.

[59]The relationship between democracy and religion will always be thorny; modern democracy, as Lefort shows, rests on a groundless and contingent foundation but religion has a claim to an otherworldly truth. Their coexistence, however difficult, is possible.

[60]Lefort, “Politics and Human Rights” 267.

[61]Lefort, “The Logic of Totalitarianism” 289-290.

[62]Mouffe 7.

[63]Hendley 174, my emphasis.

[64]Mouffe 104.

I wish to thank John Cavalho for helping me with an earlier draft of this paper, but more importantly for the occasion to wrestle philosophically with the questions of terror and political violence.


Works Cited

Abensour, Miguel. La démocratie contre l’Etat: Marx et le moment machiavélien. Paris: PUF, 1997.
_____. “Réflexions sur les deux interpretations du totalitarianisme chez Claude Lefort”. La

démocratie à l’oeuvre. Autour de Claude Lefort. Ed. Claude Habib. Paris: Esprit, 1993.
Camus, Albert. Essais. Paris: Gallimard, 1965.
Hendley, Steven. “Reconsidering the Limits of Democracy with Castoriadis and Lefort.”

Reinterpreting the Political. Ed. Lenore Langsdorf. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998.
Howard, Dick. The Marxian Legacy. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
Klepec, Peter. “Le totalitarianisme aujourd’hui.” Filozofski Vestnik. Special Issue on Claude Lefort

21(2) 2000: 19-33.
Lefort, Claude. “Les dissidents soviétiques et nous.” L’invention democratique: Les limites de la domination

totalitaire.Paris: Fayard, 1981.
_____. “Human Rights and the Welfare State.” Democracy and Political Theory. Minneapolis, MN: U of

Minnesota P, 1988: 22-45.
_____. “The Image of the Body and Totalitarianism.” The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy,

Democracy, Totalitarianism. Ed. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986: 292-

_____. “The Logic of Totalitarianism.” The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy,

Totalitarianism. Ed. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986: 273-291.
_____. “Politics and Human Rights.” The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy,

TotalitarianismEd. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986: 239-273.
_____. “The Question of Democracy.” Democracy and Political Theory. Minneapolis, MN: U of

Minnesota P, 1988: 9-21.
_____. “Staline et le Stalinisme.”L’invention democratique: Les limites de la domination totalitaire. Paris:

Fayard, 1981
_____. “Totalitarianism without Stalin.” The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy,

Totalitarianism. Ed. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986: 52-89.
_____. Le Travail de l’Oeuvre Machiavel. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. Selected Political Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994.
Manent, Pierre, “Vers l’oeuvre et le monde: le Machiavel de Claude Lefort.” La démocratie à l’oeuvre.

Autour de Claude Lefort. Ed. Claude Habib. Paris: Esprit, 1993.

Marcos, Jean-Pierre. “Les catégories du politique.” Filozofski Vestnik. Special Issue on Claude Lefort 21(2) 2000: 83-126.

McKinlay, Patrick. “Postmodernism and Democracy: Learning from Lyotard and Lefort.” The Journal of Politics 60:2 (1998): 481-502.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. NY: Routledge, 1962 _____. Signs. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 1964.
Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox. London, U.K.: Verso, 2000. Poltier, Hugues. La découverte du politique. Paris: Michalon, 1997.

_____. “La pensée de du politique de Claude Lefort, une pensée de la liberté” La démocratie à l’oeuvre. Autour de Claude Lefort. Ed. Claude Habib. Paris: Esprit, 1993.

_____.Passion du politique: La pensée de Claude Lefort. Geneva, Switzerland: Labor et Fides, 1998. Poster, Mark. Existential Marxism in Postward France. From Sartre to Althusser. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

UP, 1975.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Chicago, Ill: U of Chicago P, 2000.


Farhang Erfani

Farhang Erfani is an instructor at Villanova University. His research interests include contemporary French philosophy and political philosophy. He is currently finishing his dissertation on democracy and utopia.