By Duncan Stuart
“Is history a succession of disconnected and incomprehensible happenings?” asks Daniel Singer in his book, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968. Singer’s question is rhetorical and provocative but is meant to capture the radical nature of both May 1968 and what came after. The term “May 1968” designates a month and a half in France between May and June 1968, when millions took to the streets and enacted a general strike. The protests, catalyzed by students, sparked intense debates about the spontaneity of revolt and revolution and the role of the proletariat in radical politics. In the wake of May 1968, many French philosophers and theorists developed an intense interest in ideas of breaks, ruptures, and the unforeseen.
In the pantheon of post-68 French thinkers, there is one in particular who took the disconnected and incomprehensible nature of these events to heart and fashioned a unique and mind-bending theory of politics. If the name Sylvain Lazarus sounds familiar, it is most likely because of his association with the more well-known Alain Badiou. Lazarus and Badiou were militant activists in various French Marxist and Post-Marxist organizations throughout the 70s and 80s: such as the Union of French Marxist-Leninist Communists (L’Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste; UCFML) and L’Organization Politique. Badiou would go on to become known for his dense philosophical system—articulated across the three volumes Being and Event, Logics of Worlds, and The Immanence of Truths—which utilized set theory to build a system that made room for the radical breaks instituted by politics (as well as love, art, and science). Lazarus went a different way, fashioning a specific approach to discontinuity and radical politics that he terms an “anthropology of the name.” Lazarus’ work has not been studied as intensively and widely as Badiou’s, but there remain nonetheless a small handful of scholars for whom his work plays a central role, including Asad Haider, Michael Neocosmos, Ernst Wamba dia Wamba, Antonio Calcagno, and Bryan Doniger.
First published in France in 1996, Lazarus’ Anthropology of The Name (Fr. Anthropologie du Nom) articulates a theory of politics where politics is comprehensible precisely because it is discontinuous. For Lazarus, all politics stems from the claim that people think. The way he understands and operationalizes this claim divides politics into two modes. The first, which Lazarus calls “politics in exteriority,” is a politics familiar to many. This is the politics of the State, of elections and the parliamentary floor, of unions and strikes, of competing interests and disputes. This politics requires that people think, but people’s thought always comes up against a constraint. That might be the economic situation, ideas of good or bad governance or a legal framework. This is the politics we are used to, of “it’s a nice idea, but…”
Lazarus’ work investigates how we can understand the statement “people think” outside of the state, or as he terms it, “at a distance from the state.” Just as there is politics in exteriority, there is politics in interiority, where people’s thought takes on its full dimensions. This means freeing it from constraints like those listed above, separating the objective and the subjective. As Michael Neocosmos writes: “[Lazarus] is interested in theorizing the subjective and the objective, not only as distinct, but as at a distance from each other. Not only is there no ‘correspondence’ between the two, but there is in many cases a distinct distance between them. In such cases the possibility exists that people’s subjectivities—thought—can assert something different from what is, an alternative to the existing” (13). Politics in interiority aligns with the subjective and the new, such as moments of rupture and political invention. Lazarus’ key examples are The French Revolution and The Russian Revolution.
Lazarus’ work places intellectual equality and subjectivity at the heart of emancipatory politics. To do so, it develops a unique set of terms and ideas. In Anthropologie du Nom, Lazarus introduces the reader to the historical modes of politics, the categories of intellectuality and historicity, the two statements and two processes, and a bold attempt to wrest politics away from the positivistically-inclined social sciences.
The heart of Lazarus’ system lies in what he terms the two statements. They are: 1) Les Gens Pensent (“People Think”) and 2) La Pensée est rapport du réel (“Thought is a relation of the Real”) (54). The semantic differences between English and French help us understand Lazarus’ way of proceeding. Les Gens in French roughly translates to “people,” but it is not le peuple; a term that would translate the same but in French has a whole series of connotations. Les gens is more open-ended and does not suggest the people of a nation or a political body as le peuple does. Rather, les gens is closer to the English “folks” or “guys,” informal and indeterminate. The people of “people think” is ill-defined on purpose. This first statement suggests that we should discover, in each moment of politics, who these people are and what they think. This way of proceeding avoids the moment of constraint mentioned above.
In order for Lazarus to investigate a statement like “people think” in its full force, he needs an account of how the subjective and the objective relate. His second statement, “thought is a relation of the real,” sets out to do this. Here, Réel in French indicates not Lacan’s real but reality and actuality. The trick of that statement lies in the word “of.” A relation to the real is in the domain of the objective. In the domain of the subjective the relation is different, one that is not to but of the real.
What could all this possibly mean? It will help here to take a step back and focus on the historical impetus for Lazarus’ work. Looming large is what he calls “the Caesura of May 1968” (9). For Lazarus, May 1968 is important because of the way the French Communist Party (Fr. Parti Communiste Français, PCF) responded to what began as a student-led protest.
From the beginning of the protests, relations between student protestors and the PCF were hostile (234). In the early days of May ‘68, L’Humanité, the official newspaper organ of the PCF, published an invective against the students after several of them were arrested during a violent confrontation with the police. The newspaper proclaimed that “already now, the great mass of students, including, we are sure, many of those who were led astray, can measure the serious consequences to which political adventurism inevitably leads, even if it is concealed behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases” (Cited by Singer, 122-123).
That said, May ‘68 was not any other student-led protest. It was the closest the Western world had come to a general strike after World War II. At the height of May ‘68, roughly nine million workers in France were on strike, making it the perfect time for a communist party to cry revolution and join the fray (8). Despite this political climate, throughout the events of May ‘68, the PCF pushed for reconciliation and cooperation with the institutions of the French Parliament. For the PCF, better wages and earlier retirement age were more important outcomes than total social transformation.
One might naturally expect this behavior from a conventional political party. However, the PCF presented itself as the radical party of the workers, forged in the afterglow of the Russian Revolution. Instead of following its principles, the PCF backed then-President Charles De Gaulle’s calls for an election. The PCF went to the election, where they lost to De Gaulle’s party by a tremendous margin.
In theory, the French communist party aspired to be a vehicle for revolution. However, the promise of an electoral victory eventually turned out more important to it than the revolution. For this reason, Lazarus believed that May ‘68 proved not merely the possibility of rupture but the limits of party politics.
After May ‘68, Lazarus concluded that the PCF had made a fatal mistake by assuming it knew better than the people it was supposed to represent. As the party, they had a grasp on the reality and meaning of ‘68, which was that it was not a radical moment. Against a notion like “people think,” the party had asserted that “the party thinks.” As Lazarus puts it, “The PCF set itself up as a precondition to the co-thinkability of thought and practice” (15). They believed all thought must go through the party.
Therefore, the principal question for Lazarus became: what could an approach to politics and thinking politics look like that would avoid these pitfalls? It would first have to be open-ended, willing to embrace moments of rupture and change. Here, we can see why Lazarus opts for les gens over le peuple. Even the part of the statement “think” must remain ill-defined. Lazarus suggests that the first statement is regulated by the first process, “there is thought” (54). Importantly, this statement avoids content: it is purely identificatory.
Here, we enter another crucial aspect of Lazarus’ theory. To honor the occurrence of a new political moment and thought, we must maintain an understanding of it in subjectivity, or what Lazarus calls “interiority.” The anthropology of the name, from which Lazarus titles his book, is thus a method for investigating politics in interiority.
In moments of rupture, newness and possibility are dominate terms. For this relationship to be maintained, one cannot collapse into an objectivist discourse in which one knows, through inductive reasons and established methodological tools, what is to be done. One can understand the PCF’s action in this way: they had a theory of politics tested against the record of history. The party based its viewpoint on a science of political action; as such, it was ill-equipped to respond to a moment of rupture.
To avoid this collapse into objectivist discourse, or what Lazarus calls “scientism” (55), politics needs to be investigated in specific way. This approach starts with the vagueness of “people think.” Avoiding clear definitions, sticking with identification only – e.g., “there is thought” – allows to avoid treating both the “people” and their thought in a scientific manner. One should wait and see how this group identifies itself: what it has to say on its own behalf.
This way of proceeding leads us into the second statement: “thought is a relation of the real.” This statement designates, once again, a particular form of investigation. Lazarus contends that every investigation has its own “real,” that is, its own reality and referents. This is not quite the postmodern claim it appears to be. An investigation normally begins by proposing that an object exists and can be studied in a specific way. It then proceeds with the investigation of whose success is the proof of the initial assumption or proposition. We begin by defining a reality; a set of terms and referents, and a theory of interconnection.
The second statement, then, can be read as proposing such a reality, one which pertains to an anthropology of the name. Lazarus says that this real is non-definitional and non-total: “In the expression relation of the real, of the real refers to knowledge as non-total and non-totalizable, dynamic and singular” (Anthropology of the Name, 64). Perplexing. What he means is that this real is never fully knowable. The second statement sets out another process: the thought of the thought. If the first statement—“People Think”—and first process catalyze an identification, the second statement—“Thought is a relation of the Real”—and second process describe an inquiry. That said, if this inquiry captured the total knowledge of the thought identified in the first statement and first process, one would collapse back into scientific discourse, cease to investigate the subjectivity of politics, and return to a world in which the PCF was right; at least in theory.
If, however, the thought remains non-total, then the space of possibility opens. Because I can never fully grasp the thought that people think—which is not the same as not knowing anything about it—the statement can iterate itself in new situations and become an ongoing process of varying political subjectivations. We can say then that thought and politics are singular, and pursue new problematics, new possibilities in each of their iterations. Politics is thus discontinuous. Having deconstructed Lazarus’ two statements, we can now fully grasp the idea that people think and fully articulate the field of politics. For people’s thought to be a proper category, it must be free from external constraints: it must be understood one its own terms. It is this “understanding on its own terms” that Lazarus’ anthropology of the name achieves.
In a 1985 essay called Can Politics be Thought In Interiority? (Fr. Peut-on penser la politique en intériorité?) Lazarus articulates the consequences of his vision of politics. He disavows the party and the state, and proposes a new political organization, L’Organisation Politique:
We reiterate, it necessitates a new approach to politics, and demands, from the very beginning, no longer centering or focusing politics on the State, and beyond that, on the statist form of power. A new politics will be at a distance from the State. The failure of socialism is not simply the failure of its program—the disappearance of classes and the wasting away of the State—it is the failure of a general centering of politics on the State. The objectival vision of politics is also, today and in France, that there is no politics except that of the State apparatus and from the interior of its logics such as they formulate themselves: i.e., to do politics is to enter into parliamentarianism…. A materialist rupture demands that we create, against parliamentarianism, a non-parliamentary politics. The name of this creation is: Organisation politique (“Can Politics be Thought in Interiority?”, 130).
Lazarus’ work is a robust attempt to defend and redefine radical egalitarianism and emancipatory politics after the political upheavals of the twentieth century. In his view, May 1968 had shown the weakness of the party form with respect to radical politics. Yet this failure was itself in tension with a politics concerned with the state. If we wished to understand politics in all its manifestations, we would need to move into the realm of politics in interiority, of the subjectivist politics defined by the statement “people think.” For this reason, categories such as indeterminacy, discontinuity, and singularity can be useful for a truly new and egalitarian politics to be comprehensible, to adhere to the statement “People Think.”
Duncan Stuart is an Australian writer. He writes about ecology, history, emancipation, French theory and literature. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from The New School. He reluctantly tweets at @DuncanAStuart.
Edited by Kelby Bibler and Artur Banaszewski
Featured Image: The night of riots in Place du Capitole in Paris, 11 or 12 June 1968. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.