Michel Maffesoli: Serious Maverick

by Michael Tyldesley
Vol.1, No.1, Spring 2012

Part I: Marxism and Beyond

Maffesoli was in his mid-20s when les évenements engulfed France in 1968. In his article ‘Dionysus and the Ideals of 1968’ in the book The Disobedient Generation, in which he gives some recollections of the period, he notes that while staying at a “hiding place” of some of his comrades in the German SDS [Socialist Students’ League] in Heidelberg, along with his professor Lucian Braun he attended Martin Heidegger’s last lecture. This suggests radical contacts, but also perhaps interests extending beyond the normal range of leftist students at this time. At this stage Maffesoli was indeed a leftist, but not one of the usual type; certainly he was a Marxist, as can be seen in his early publications, but he was a council communist or councilist rather than a Leninist of any sort (orthodox Communist, Trotskyist, Maoist). As his partner Hélène Strohl-Maffesoli notes in her contribution to the Festschrift, Dérive Dutour de l’Oeuvre de Michel Maffesoli, which includes some reminiscences of 1968, Maffesoli was at that time part of a small group that produced a single edition (no. 0) of a journal, Conseilliste, [Councilist], published in 1970 in Strasbourg.

To be a council communist in France in 1968 and in the aftermath of the events of that year was not particularly out of the ordinary; one thinks of the likes of the Cohn-Bendit brothers, the Situationists around Debord, and of Castoriadis, Lefort and the whole diaspora of the former Socialisme ou Barbarie group – all in the councilist milieu. That said, it was certainly not a common choice, as compared with the Trotskyism of the then Ligue Communiste or Lutte Ouvrier, or the neo-Maoism of the Gauche Proletarienne and the other “Marxist-Leninist” parties, and certainly not by comparison to the then powerful orthodox Communism of the Parti Communiste Française.

Put crudely, council communism wished to build a society based on workers’ councils directly elected by, and responsible to, the workers in the factories, offices and other places of work. These councils would own the means of production, they would federate and they would run a communist society. This may not sound too far removed from the vision of Bolshevism (‘All power to the Soviets!’), but the council communists as a tendency split from international Communism shortly after the Russian Revolution, partly due to their perception that all power was not, in fact, in the hands of the workers’ councils (‘soviets’), but rather in the hands of the Bolshevik Party. Council communism as a tendency on the radical left is unremitting in its hostility to Bolshevism, which it sees as wishing to usurp the role of the working class in the communist revolution and setting up regimes that exploit the workers every bit as much as capitalism by means of a party dictatorship. (The Leninist notion of the ‘vanguard party’ is hence severely contested by the councilists). For the council communists the ‘traditional’ workers’ movements such as the trade unions, Social Democratic or Labour Parties, Communist, Maoist and Trotskyist Parties, are all an obstacle on the path to working class self-emancipation. Indeed, the extent to which they are factors in a real workers’ movement is questioned by councilists; they are often simply seen as the ‘left wing of the bourgeoisie’. The councilist trend can accordingly be understood as the ‘ultra-left’, a label it wears with pride. It had its intellectuals, among whom we might name Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, Karl Korsch and Otto Rühle, four figures of significant standing as Marxist theorists in the early twentieth century, and indeed its early intellectual figureheads were among the main targets of Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, an InfantileDisorder. It actually established a Fourth (Communist Workers’) International in 1921, more than a decade before Trotsky’s attempt to do something similar.

Councilism had thus had a long history[i] by the time Maffesoli was promoting it in the 1960s, and throughout this history it faced a massive, and fairly obvious question: what was the role of the councilist organisation? If it was to actually propagate its own ideas and policies among the workers, what was to stop it becoming a new type of vanguard, and thereby putting itself on the road to becoming a ruling elite in a new form of exploitative society? On the other hand, if the revolution was to be a spontaneous event in which political programmes were of little significance, what was the point of bothering with political organisation at all? The revolution would happen – or not – despite the efforts of the councilists. These positions would be argued out in the ranks of councilism[ii], and their echoes arguably reverberate through some of Maffesoli’s later and longstanding formulations. Whatever the arguments within the councilist trend, however, all would agree with Otto Rühle’s proclamation that ‘The Revolution is no party matter!’ The political tendency would also concur with the title of another of his writings: The struggle against Fascism begins with the struggle against Bolshevism.

This was the trend to which Maffesoli belonged. An examination of some of his writings from the 1970s (and indeed some of those of his partner Hélène Strohl) bears testimony to the impact of councilism on his thought at this time. In this connection we may contrast two books Maffesoli produced as a young academic in the 1970s – Logique de la Domination, published in 1976, and La Violence Totalitaire, published in 1979 – both of which were published by Presses Universitaires de France in Georges Balandier’s series Sociologie d’Aujourd’Hui.

It is arguable that Logique de la Domination is a Marxist book. It is a very specific kind of Marxist book, however, and indeed it perhaps cruises the very outer limits of what a Marxist book could be. In his conclusion Maffesoli notes:

“It is this demand which led to a choice of a rooting in the Marxist perspective, which takes into account and goes beyond the specialisms. This intellectual choice is explained by the adequacy of the method for its object understood as social form in its logic and development. This choice is in line with – as has been often underlined or shown in deed – what one considers to be the living tradition of marxism, which is to say what one might call “western marxism” (Lukacs, Korsch, Pannekoek), and which can go towards – as witnessed by Baudrillard – a reflection for and against Marx” (Logique, pp. 197-198.)

The western Marxist tradition is identified here in large measure with the councilist trend, but this is not to say that the contents of Logique represent a straightforward application of Marxist principles. To pick one among several possible examples, a section on “Le modèle productiviste” (The Productivist Model) – which draws heavily on Max Weber and Frankfurt school thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and uses a term which becomes important in Maffesoli’s later writings, namely ‘devoir-être’ (‘should-be’) – is pushing at the edges of Marxist thinking, and perhaps hints at things to come. This can be no surprise when we see that Maffesoli noted that he was attempting to “utiliser Marx contre Marx” (‘use Marx against Marx’) (Logique, p162).

In the 1979 book La Violence Totalitaire, Marxism – and indeed socialism in general – are strongly criticised. Early on in the text the key questionable point in Marxist analysis is noted; namely, the desire to schematise domination as (presumably primarily economic) exploitation. Councilism is still seen as the most important aspect of Marxism, but now this assertion is qualified significantly. Writing of the assumption of the statist perspective by some in the First International and then in European Social Democracy, Maffesoli notes “This moment refers to the councilist perspective which, in our opinion (without approving it or otherwise) is the most important element in the Marxian proceedings” (p.34). Later in the book Maffesoli develops an interesting critique of Marxism and socialism that forms part of his general critique of what he saw as the totalitarian tendencies of the period. At the root of his critique of Marx is the notion that he (Marx) essentially shares the individualism of classical economic discourse. “It seems to us established” Maffesoli writes, “along the lines indicated here, that Marxist theory is fit completely into the individualist perspective of the economistic thematic” (p.226).

Certainly, as a political thinker Marx understood the social nature of humanity – see his work on the Paris Commune for example – but as a ‘scientific’ thinker “he privileges, through production and work, the individual agent as master of a nature that has the potential to be exploited” (p.226). Developing this line of critique, Maffesoli further arrives at a conclusion about socialism in general: “Issuing from the revolutionary ideology of the 18th and 19th centuries, socialism is only a variant, and perhaps the end point, of economic individualism, the culmination of which we will need to assess from a distance”(Violence, p.227-8). He indeed goes further, and referring to the work of two renegade Trotskyist writers – James Burnham and Bruno Rizzi – argues that what is happening at the social level is the emergence of a “managerial society” (société directoriale) as the conjunction and outcome of capitalism corrected by socialism. Going beyond the alternatives of capitalism or socialism, or socialism or barbarism, this managerial society was developing throughout the world, and not only in the obvious examples (fascism, Maoism, Stalinism).

Note that this is all happening for the best of reasons on the part of those political actors responsible for such developments, and not out of any malevolence on their part. We return here to a point noted earlier in reference to Logique:

“However, […] this search for an original or final purity, this quest for a ‘best way of being’ (mieux-être) which is always expressed by the imposition of a ‘should-be’ (devoir-être), leads inescapably to totalitarianism” (Violence, p.250.)

Having shown that socialism is inextricably linked to a process of introducing a ‘managerial society’, and that with its stress on a ‘devoir-être’ this society will have totalitarian tendencies, Maffesoli moves on to argue that socialism in all its forms is inevitably statist, since it is “structurally linked to the economic conception of the social” (Violence, p263). The comments he makes in developing this idea show that he is including the socialism of Kautsky and Bernstein (unsurprisingly), that of Lenin, with his state of the transition (again unsurprisingly), but also the socialism of Marx, with his apparent vision of a state that would no longer be political, but simply administrative. Although he does not say it, can we take this comment on Marx a fortiori as a realisation that his erstwhile councilist mentors were also leading in this direction?

To wrap up our consideration of this settling of accounts with socialism, let us note a comment that provides an insight into just what Maffesoli felt society might be moving towards. In characterising socialism as a phase in the bureaucratisation of the world (an epithet recalling the title of one of Bruno Rizzi’s books), he notes that this phase was ineluctably putting into place mechanisms of planning that would make of social life a “perpetual submission” (perpétuelle soumise, Violence, p.274). He continues: “So, to fight the weakness that arises from atomisation, statism replaces collective solidarity with a constant and, we think, abstract securisation (sécurisation) which makes everyone the bleating sheep of a lonely gregariousness,” (Violence, p.274.) This ‘securisation’ has the knock-on effect of allowing the whole of life to be planned for citizens – work, time outside of work, whatever – and for it all to be under constant surveillance.

It should be emphasised that this vision of a bureaucratised world cannot really be seen in terms of a sort of French equivalent of the English speaking ‘New Right’, or ‘neo-liberalism’ that has rooted itself in the thought of the likes of Hayek and his co-thinkers[iii]. Maffesoli’s thought does not sit comfortably with neo-liberalism, for reasons that should be fairly clear. The root of the problem with Marxian thought was identified as its methodological individualism and its connections and continuities with the economic thought that it aspired to go beyond. From that analysis a jump to free-market solutions whether grounded in ‘neo-classical’ or ‘Austrian’ New Right thought would be a difficult move to make. In Maffesoli’s recent books we still find him attacking epistemological individualism (see e.g. Le rythme de la vie, 2004,p.129.)

La Violence Totalitairewas published at a time when the whole issue of totalitarianism had become a major one for French intellectuals, especially of the left. This was, after all, the period of the “nouveaux philosophes”, and the meteoric rise of Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann and others. In the face of the possible assumption of power by the French Communist Party (in alliance with Francois Mitterrand’s Socialists and some other centre left groupings), some French leftist intellectuals discovered Solzhenytsyn’s The GulagArchipelago and other evidence of Stalinist terror, and began to raise concerns about some of the very issues that Maffesoli was writing about in La Violence Totalitaire. And yet, in Michael Scott Christofferson’s exhaustive study of the 1970s French ‘antitotalitarian’ movement, French IntellectualsAgainst the Left, Maffesoli does not merit a single mention.

This may reflect the fact that this was not Maffesoli’s ‘breakthrough’ point. Maffesoli has since become a public intellectual in something like the manner that Lévy and Glucksmann did in the late 1970s, but this came much later. Nevertheless, reading Christofferson’s account one might well arrive at the view that La Violence Totalitaire is of an intellectual quality that marks it off from some of the briefly famous productions of the period which he examines, and that Maffesoli’s work might sit legitimately alongside that of the more enduring, important and interesting figures noted in Christofferson’s study (Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis spring inevitably to mind). Maffesoli quoted from Lévy’s Barbarie a la visagehumain in his book, but as a former councilist he would have had no illusions about the French Communist Party, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao or the whole Maoist phenomenon. He didn’t need to have the truth about Soviet Russia told to him by Solzhenytsyn. (Indeed, it appears, from Hélène Strohl-Maffesoli’s piece in Dérive that he pointed out a few of these home truths himself in May 1981 in article entitled “Gardons les distances”).

A second point to be made about La Violence Totalitaireis to point out that there are considerable obvious similarities (and, it should be said, some equally obvious dissimilarities) between the critique of Marxism Maffesoli constructs and that made by the late Murray Bookchin in his article “Marxism as Bourgeois Sociology”. (The most accessible version of this article, which originally appeared in a magazine called Comment,is the one in Bookchin’s collection Toward an Ecological Society.) It would be taking us too far from the theme of this article to develop an exposition in detail of these similarities and dissimilarities, but it is interesting to note that Bookchin’s essay is dated February 1979. In other words, it appeared around the same time as Maffesoli’s book.

* * *

The two ‘early’ books we have considered here also bear the traces of another episode of engaged writing on Maffesoli’s part. This was an involvement in ‘post-situationist’ political activity in the mid-1970s. Maffesoli had connections with a journal called Errata. This was published in Paris, and had at least two significant former members of the Situationist International involve; “Toni Arno”, the nom-de-plume of Anton Harstein, and Mario Perniola. Arno was not – at least initially – the nominal editor of the journal, but appears to have been the driving force behind it, and was apparently involved with it until its disappearance following its edition of October 1991. Although not a ‘classical’ councilist movement, deriving from the thought of, say, Pannekoek, it is no surprise that the bibliography at the end of Conseilliste includes references to at least one Situationist pamphlet and to the journal of the International, along with its address in Paris. The move from councilism to post-situationism was not necessarily a seismic shift. (As an aside, it ranks as a sort of perverse achievement that neither Errata, nor its mainspring Toni Arno get a mention in Christophe Bourseiller’s book on the history of the ultra-left. Given the fact that the magazine persisted into the 1990s and that it had editions published in Italian and German at one stage, it seems strange that Bourseiller overlooked this grouping. Although Bourseiller may have missed Errata, it has not been completely forgotten: Amalia Verzola has recently published a piece about it entitled “Toni Arno ed. «Errata»”, which appeared in the Italian journal Ágalma).

Maffesoli wrote for the journal under the pen name of Michel Naphta. In edition 3 (October 1974) he contributed “Notes sur l’indifférence”, and in edition 4 (December 1974) he published a piece on “La prose de la vie courante”. This latter edition also featured a little piece about Grenoble, discussing the magazine’s “amis de Grenoble”, and reproducing a wall poster they had printed and distributed called “La Grégaire solitude” (“gregarious solitude”) This was, in fact, written by Maffesoli. The phrase reappears in Maffesoli’s later academic writing.

Maffesoli’s involvement in Errata is especially notable for two reasons. The first is that the two early books referred to – La Violence Totalitaire and Logiquede la domination – contain references to material from the journal. More important, though, is that the material in the journal foreshadows in interesting ways some themes that we will find in the ‘mature’ Maffesoli. In particular, the concept of “Sociality” is notably present in Errata. Edition number 4 had a piece on “Socialité et pouvoir” by Perniola (now Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Rome). By edition 11 (March 1977) it had the slogan “La Socialité Critique” (Critical Sociality) as a sort of masthead for the journal. An article by Perniola cited by Maffesoli in both La violenceand Logique, “Prolétarisation et Différence” contained the following paragraph, interesting in the light of Maffesoli’s critique of socialism just considered:

SocialismandSociality. Socialism is the desire for a great, divine mansion in which one would finally find oneself at home, in the recognition of the common identity of the future. Sociality is the experience, lived in the limits of the cramped terrestrial house, of the presence of other individuals who are different and irreducible.” (Errata, 2, p.14.)

Interesting perhaps both for its similarities and differences with what was later to come from Maffesoli’s pen. Also, perhaps, foreshadowing things to come, was the title page of Errata 4; simply: “On the crumbling of all politics”.

Following La Violence Totalitaire Maffesoli published La conquête du present (which did not quote from Errata, though it did use work by Perniola). He has described this as “my first positive book, my first attempt at ‘contradictory thought’”, and noted that it “set a course I will never abandon. Its message: no more waiting for pleasure, no more of tomorrow’s promises, but instead invest in the present instant of everyday life”. (“Dionysus”, p. 199).

A last point here would be to note that elements of all three of these early works appeared between 1974 and 1977 in the academic sociology journal L’homme et lasociété.[iv] Whilst clearly a journal of high academic repute, it is evident as well simply by looking at the contributors and the topics they dealt with that at this point in time, certainly this was a journal where Marxist and Marxisant intellectuals were welcome and where their concerns were fully aired. It is no surprise to see Maffesoli in its pages in the mid-70s, but the final contribution – . Ch 5 of La conquête, published in 45/6 Juillet-Dec 1977 – does seem to be moving away from the milieu it finds itself in.

Let us now move on, having looked at what might be called the political background to Maffesoli’s work. Before we do so, it is worth noting that in his subsequent writings, whilst Maffesoli, as we will see, refers to the situationists on a number of occasions, he only looked back to the councilists on two occasions. The first was in Essais sur la violence banale et fondatrice, published in 1984. There he noted that “In a certain way, the ultra-left of the workers’ movement expressed this social divinity through the theory of the spontaneity of the masses.” (pp. 143-4.) He mentions them again in a footnote in The Time of the Tribes, which appeared in French in 1988. Interestingly, we find this mistranslated in the English version as “workers’ councils” (The Time, p.164, note 7). In the French the phrase used is “les conseillistes”. (Le Temps des tribus, p. 320, note 7.)

We can perhaps summarise the development of Maffesoli’s thought in the 1970s by referring to an interview he gave for the magazine Technikart in early 2006. In it Maffesoli notes that, while working in Grenoble in 1976 on what was to become Logique de la domination, he had what his interviewer Philippe Nassif describes in the piece as his first ‘Eureka’ moment:

“I asked myself if the problem needed to be reversed. To ask why, despite the alienating mechanisms, there was still life. I developed one of my fundamental ideas, that of duplicity: there are forms of submission, but it is a mask which at base allows for resistance. You can’t revolt all the time without being killed. To live, you have to advance masked. As a result, I abandoned the thematic of alienation and thus of emancipation.” (technikart, 39, p. 39.)

To be continued….


[i] Perhaps the best source on the council communist movement, aside from the works of its later advocate Paul Mattick, is Serge Bricanier’s book Pannekoekand the Workers’ Councils. The 1969 French edition of this book – published in Paris by EDI, and reprinted by them in 1977 – is cited by Maffesoli, though he omits Bricanier’s name from the reference. From the point of view of Councilism in France, Richard Gombin’s book The origins of modern leftism, is an extremely important source. Unusually for this field of study it appears to be a piece of orthodox political science, though by someone who had been involved in the milieu it describes. Interestingly it makes reference to the journal Conseilliste. More recently a non-academic, but none-engaged work has examined this part of the political spectrum. This is Christophe Bourseiller’s Histoire Généralede l’Ultra Gauche, published in 2003. In Bourseiller’s book, the participation of Richard Gombin in one of the more important ultra-left groups examined in both Bourseiller’s and Gombin’s books is noted.

[ii] The organisation/spontaneity debate was notably important in the arguments between the French group Socialisme ou barbarie and its splinter Informations et Correspondances Ouvriers; see Origins, pp.97-117 for an extremely well informed and detailed account of this debate. See also chapter IV – Les ‘sociaux-barbares’- of Bourseiller’s book.

[iii] The term New Right has a very different meaning in France, where it refers primarily to Alain de Benoist and his ostensibly post-fascist GRECE grouping. Whatever else it is, this tendency in political thought is not neo-liberal in the way the English speaking New Right is. My formulation here is simply a way of flagging up to the reader that de Benoist and his school are controversial and not to imply any judgment. Serious considerations of the French New Right can be found in Roger Eatwell’s Fascism, a history, pp. 312-315, and more theoretically, Roger Griffin’s article “Between metapolitics and apoliteia: the Nouvelle Droite’s strategy for conserving the fascist vision in the ‘interregnum’”.

[iv] Chapter II of Logiquewas published in No 31/2, Jan-Mars 1974, Ch V appearing in 35/6 Jan-Juin 1975, and Ch VII, section C in 37/8 Juillet-Dec. 1975. Ch II section I of Violenceappeared in 43/4, Jan-Juin 1977. Ch 5 of La conquêteends this sequence with its appearance in 45/6 Juillet-Dec 1977.