Political Forms of Modern Society – Claude Lefort
The question that Claude Lefort is trying to address in this reading is the question
of “whether human rights belong in the political sphere?”
Lefort attempts to answer this question by giving the example of the Soviet
Union and the action they took against dissidents:
At this time Marxism began to change; it took on a liberal phraseology. This
change came from the discovery of the concentration camps in the Soviet Union and
the efforts of dissidents throughout socialist states. These events all had an impact on
human rights and the demand for respect. These rights that people were fighting for
embodied the struggle against oppression.
The actions of the dissidents gave rise to a re-evaluation of human rights:
The dissidents had no political ambition, they were fighting for the guarantees in
force that democratic nations had. However, the rights they were demanding were
incompatible to a totalitarian system which automatically forced the issue into the
political sphere. This is because the rights that they were fighting for were connected to
the idea of society, which the totalitarian system is against.
- Through the fights of the dissidents a new state model that recognized human
rights emerged. Human rights therefore, became the enemy of power for a
totalitarian regime because it was an opposition against the coercive methods of
a totalitarian model.
However, the Communists defended themselves in the trials against the dissidents
by claiming that they the actions they took were, “in defence of a regime presented as
positive in the overall sense”. Therefore, there is a general indifference to violation of
rights by political figures because it is accepted that they will use any means necessary
to defend their position. This protects the Communists from these criticisms. The only
problem with this is how the state can accommodate human rights while still being able
to preserve itself. This raises the question of whether the coercive methods that they
used were used because they needed to preserve the political system or whether those
methods went beyond that were just used for oppression.
This was a realist point of view, because the Communists argued that the violation of
human rights is a violation of individual rights which are not political, therefore,
violations of human rights do not call the state into question because the
government is just following the laws which the individuals are subjected to. Marx’s Critique of Human Rights:
In this reading Lefort examines On the Jewish Question, where Marx presented his
framework of human rights.
- Marx believes that the rights of man are distinct from the rights of a citizen. The
rights of a citizen are the same as the rights of a member of civil society aka of
the egoistic man separated from other men and from the community.
From this he derives his views on...
- Opinion: this is legitimate at the moment when it seems to be a spiritual
equivalent of private property
- Liberty: which is defined as the individual’s right to do everything that harms no
one else, and presupposes that everyone is an isolated monad, withdrawn into
- Property: this is defined legally as each citizen’s rights to enjoy and dispose as
he wishes of his property, income, fruits of his labour and industry; it makes
everyman see in other men not the realization of their own freedom but the
barrier to their own freedom.
- Equality: is a new version of the theory of the monad (what is this?)
- Security: which is the highest social concept of civil society, it is the idea that
the whole society exists to guarantee each of its members the preservation of his
person, his rights, and his property (“insurance of his egoism”)
He takes many of these ideas from the Declaration of 1791 and 1793.
Lefort presents Marx’s theory of human emancipation to help the reader
understand his view of human rights:
- From the bourgeois revolution came political emancipation (the delimitation of a
sphere of politics as a sphere of the universal, leaving society reduced to a
combination of particular interests and individual existences)
- Marx regards political emancipation as a transitory phase to human emancipation
- Political emancipation is when the state is free from something (i.e.: religion
which Marx discussed in “On the Jewish Question”). - Human emancipation is when a man has taken back into himself the abstract
citizen and recognizes his own powers as social powers so that social force is no
longer separated from him as a political power.
This means that he sees politics and the rights of man are the same illusion.
Lefort believes that Marx’s framework of politics and human rights is flawed;
Marx is not flawed in his ideas of the rights but rather of what he is unable to find
- He is blinded by the ideological version of rights found in the Declarations of
1791 and 1793 and did not examine how the rights would work in practice.
Lefort has a few criticisms of Marx:
First, he criticizes Marx’s view onliberty . Marx’s view is that man can do everything
that does not harm another man, this right turns man into a monad and it is based on
separation of man from man.
- The flaw in this is that Marx did not take into account that every action whether
done in the private or public sphere links men together.
Another criticism Lefort has of Marx is that he ignores the practical significance of
the Declaration, mainly concerning the two articles of freedom which he did
not even address.
- The two articles he ignores are Article 10 (that no man may be challenged in his
right to hold opinions) and Article 11 (that the free communication of thoughts