He had a robust theory of bureaucracy and he worked throughout his life to conceptualize the fundamental disconnect between democracy and totalitarianism. He is perhaps most famous for his book on Machiavelli (Le Travail de L’Oeuvre Machiavel) which tried to recuperate the political theory from the secular image of “machiavellianism” as scheming or manipulation; in particular, he argued that Machiavelli’s concerns with glory can be most readily understood as an attempt to introduce the question of representation in a non-democratic regime. Lefort owed a lot to Leo Strauss, and contemporary Continental political thinkers owe a lot more to Lefort than they do to avowed masters like Derrida or Sartre. Here is a review essay of a major collection of his recent work, and Bernard Flynn’s book is superb.
Lefort wrote a few essays (collected in Writing: The Political Test) that have helped me steer a course in my own scholarship. This passage is from my favorite essay, “The Idea of Humanity and the Project of Universal Peace”:
Mindful not to succumb to utopian thinking and careful to take into account the exigencies of the contemporary world, let us not confuse the cause of peace with an unprincipled pacifism. But, mindful of reality, let us not succumb, either, to the dizzying spectacle of current conflicts. Let us recognize, rather, that the sovereigns do not decide alone the fate of humanity, as Rousseau supposed, and that, far from being futile, the silent work of rapprochement among men, which takes place with the aid of increased mutual knowledge of mores and mentalities, progress in education, the spread of information, and the rise of the idea of human rights, can engender decisive effects of a political order heading in the direction of peace. The question still remains: Will these hopes be disappointed? But if they were to be disappointed, rather than concluding, with Rousseau, that it was folly to have wanted to be wise in the midst of fools, it would be better to note soberly, with Freud, that in the incessant struggle that opposes Eros to the death instinct, the latter has decidedly revealed itself to be more powerful.
Here’s a research program worth pursuing: to think the foundations of an unlikely peace within and against the institutions that have thus far failed to achieve or even conceive it.