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Castoriadis, Lefort, Abensour: Another Imaginary in French political thought

Lecturer: Sergio Mariscal

Originally Taught: Summer School 2014

Is contemporary French political thought limited to varieties of Marxism, disenchanted post-modernism or late found liberalism? This appears to be the case if one follows the phases of Anglo-American engagement with French theory in the last century. A first one would focus on the reading of thinkers from the communist orbit linked to Sartre or Althusser and often members of the Communist Party. Once real existing socialism began to unravel another phase came about whereby attention turned to theorists such as Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze who, in the shadow of Nietzsche, developed a critique of power in its multiple forms. By the 1980s, fellow-travellers in the Angloamerican world who had made the transition from Marxism to liberalism could turn to French counterparts who had followed a similar trajectory: Pierre Manent, Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, etc. Finally, in a new phase that appears to echo the oft repeated statement by Marx: “History repeats itself, first as farce…” , the pendulum has swung back towards a French radicalism that exhales a conservative nostalgia for the ideas of totality, communism and revolution.

Much less dealt with is a current of thought that, taking cue from Merleau Ponty’s critique of Marxism, has moved political thought in a different direction. Thinkers in this current include Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort and Miguel Abensour. They have consistently refused to accept the dichotomy between liberalism and orthodox marxism; a dichotomy that has only impoverished the contemporary debate. They have offered devastating critiques not only of Marx but also of Marxism in its different incarnations. Crucially, they have always refused to identify utopia with the final overcoming of contradictions. Instead, utopia is reinterpreted in terms of an excess of social creativity over and beyond the current condition of society. Critical distance from Marxism has not meant that thinkers grouped in this current have thrown themselves into the arms of either liberalism or neoconservatism whose short-comings they continue to make evident. They  refuse to identify the idea of utopia with terror as those who proclaim the end of history and the end of ideology still tend to do. Furthermore, they also refuse to think human rights as a fixed foundation for modernity, understanding rights instead as a field of permanent contestation. Contestation and conflict are the central elements in the conception of politics these thinkers develop, each one in their own particular way. Politics here is not equivalent to the sphere of the state nor is it collapsed with the ideas of power or domination. In their account, power and domination are anathema to politics and only signify its erosion. Furthermore, politics is defined against the background of the political, that is, the self-interpretation of society as a unified body which is never actualised and can only work at an imaginary level. Corresponding to this, meaning is related to action and the emergence of the new as opposed to the workings of language or the bounds of reason.

The ontological commitment common to these thinkers is for the continuous alterity of being. They have a working philosophical anthropology that understands the human as the point of indeterminacy making possible the movement beyond the actual and towards the new. They preserve their radicality by moving from the idea of revolution as the realisation of heaven on earth to the idea of the indeterminacy of the political and the openendedness of politics. In this subject we explore not only these common threads but also the points of divergence among Castoriadis, Lefort and Abensour as of course, they do not share each other’s positions completely.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Introduction: From Socialisme ou Barbarie to post-Marxism. Castoriadis I: The social historical - Legein and Teukhein.

Week 2: Castoriadis II: - From Aeschylus to Sophocles - The radical Imagination -From Marx to Aristotle, Value and phantasia - Social imaginary significations.

Week 3: Lefort I: Working through Machiavelli - The body of the king and its afterlife - The empty place of power.

Week 4: Lefort II: Modernity and Ideology - The concept of Totalitarianism - Savage Democracy and indeterminacy.

Week 5: Abensour:  Marx against Marxism - The Machiavellian moment - Insurgent democracy and the principle of Anarchy - Levinas and utopia.

Recommended Reading

Our starting point is Castoriadis’ ontology and his conception of social imaginary significations.We also look at Castoriadis’ anthropological image with emphasis on the radical imagination. We end with an examination of his idea of the social historical which deals with the relationship between instituted and instituting society.

Selected readings from:

  • The Imaginary Institution of Society (trans.: Kathleen Blamey), MIT Press, Cambridge 1998 [1987].
  • The Castoriadis Reader (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) Blackwell Publisher, Oxford 1997.
  • World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 1997.
  • Political and Social Writings. Volume 3: 1961–1979. Recommencing the Revolution: From Socialism to the Autonomous Society. (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1993.
  • Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political Philosophy. (ed. David Ames Curtis) Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford 1991.
  • On Plato's Statesman. (trans.: David Ames Curtis) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2002. 227 pp.
  • Figures of the Thinkable. (trans.: Helen Arnold) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2007. 304 pp.

Beginning with Lefort’s distinction between “politics” and “the political” we look at his idea of “the empty place of power.” We also explore his studies of modern political forms: totalitarianism as the attempt to reincorporate the space of power and democracy as a “savage” mode of politics.

Selected readings from:

  • The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism (MIT Press, 1986)
  • Democracy and Political Theory (MIT Press, 1989)
  • Writing: The Political Test (Duke University Press, 2000)
  • Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007)
  • Machiavelli in the Making (Northwestern University Press, 2012)

We look at how Abensour employs the notion of “The Machiavellian Moment” in order to read Marx against Marxism. We also look at Abensour’s reconstruction of the principle of anarchy against the anarchist tradition in his notion of “insurgent democracy.” Finally, we explore how, by way of his sustained engagement with Levinas, he recasts the notion of utopia as a politics of indeterminacy .

Selected readings from:

  • Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Moment, Polity Press, 2011
  • Miguel Abensour (2008). Persistent Utopia. Constellations 15 (3): 406-421.
  • Miguel Abensour (2002). Savage Democracy and Principle of Anarchy. Philosophy and Social Criticism 28 (6):703-726.
  • Miguel Abensour (1998). To Think Utopia Otherwise. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 20 (2/1):251-279.

Note: Although relatively little of Miguel Abensour’s work has been translated so far, the 2011 translation of Democracy Against the State makes it possible to get a pretty good understanding of this particular thinker’s central themes.

Level of Difficulty: Introductory