Marx in France. The Self-Determination of French Theory (1945–1995)

Since the end of World War II, the convoluted, often contradictory reception of Marx in France has repeatedly provided decisive impulses for a sustained, unprecedented preoccupation with the problem of self-determination. The question of the meaning and purpose of theory and of the role of intellectuals in and for society seems to have been omnipresent in the debates of the period. However, this was by no means an after-the-fact, ‘metatheoretical,’ or descriptive definition of theory. Rather, the problem of self-determination itself became the first question, thus raising the issue of the autonomy or heteronomy of thought. In order to reconstruct fifty years of French theoretical history, the research project takes as its starting point the reception Marx received in France—the implicit and explicit affirmation, reading, transformation, and rejection of his ideas and writings.

A theory that strives to change the world can only be determined based on the changing political, social, institutional, and scientific reality. The self-determination (understood as both self-definition and autonomy) of French theory thus did not take place in a vacuum. On the contrary, it was closely linked to the historical ruptures of the epoch—the Algerian War, the founding of the Fifth Republic, the events of May 68, the assassination of Hélène Rytmann and its aftermath, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, a history of the political interventions arising from this self-determination can only be written as the specific history of intellectual circles, academic and non-academic institutions, publishing houses, book series, and journals.

The research project not only seeks to trace this eventful history, but wants to identify its characteristic, unifying traits. As the reception of Marx’s thinking challenged notions of a philosophia perennis as well as the philosopho-centrism of tradition, theory could no longer be defined either as a form of speculation detached from the world, or as the highest possibility of human existence, or the absolute moment of history. Engaging with tangible, chaotic history, it must rather tell stories itself. Beginning with Sartre, theory has been in dialogue with the literary, the autobiographical, and psychoanalysis, and since the early interventions of Lévi-Strauss, it has been continually confronted with the fundamental problem of philosophical Eurocentrism. The project follows these decentering movements in order to find out whether a common style of thinking emerges from this history—a ‘politics’ in the broadest sense of the word that encompasses the strategic and ideological differences and could also be put to use in the here and now.


Fig. above: French Communist Party Headquarters, Paris, by Oscar Niemeyer, © Lauren Manning, CC BY 2.0.

since 2021
Head researcher(s): Oliver Precht


Oliver Precht