From the Cult of the People to the Cult of Rancière

By Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts, 2 July 2012
Image: Honoré Daumier, At the Theater (The Melodrama), c. 1860-64

A radical social historian as well as philosopher, Jacques Rancière has spent many years rescuing vivid fragments of proletarian life and thought from the  vested interests that claim to speak for them. But in thwarting the instrumentality of intellectuals, he also risks obscuring the material he cherishes and the energies it carries – write Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts


Jacques Rancière is recognised today as an important aesthetic theorist and philosopher, but here we will argue that his greatest contribution is to social history. A stronger than usual emphasis will be therefore placed on Rancière’s relation to the tradition of writing ‘history from below’, which is enjoying some degree of exposure and rediscovery at a time of renewed global revolt and struggle. In this light, it is worth considering Rancière’s critical investigations of the way conceptions of the ‘people’ and of classes are constructed, and whose interests these constructions serve.i


Of the three books we discuss, Proletarian Nights is the best known. This book, which first brought Rancière widespread acknowledgement in the US and Europe, was published in French in 1981 and in English in 1989. Long out of print, it is republished this year alongside two collections of his work with the journal and research collective Les Révoltes Logiques. With the English translation of Rancière’s first book, Althusser’s Lesson, appearing last year, the constellation of these works allows English readers at last to read Rancière backwards, in the sense that the formative thoughts and arguments he subsequently refined over the course of 30 years are contained in these volumes.


From the Cult of Althusser to the Cult of Rancière


In discussing these books, it’s necessary to situate them in relation to Rancière’s participation in the French left of the ’60s and ’70s. The key reference point for Rancière’s work is Louis Althusser, a thinker who came to dominate French Marxist thought in the early 1960s. Rancière was a pupil of Althusser at the elite École normale supérieure, part of the seminar that assembled Reading Capital. His loyalty to Althusser was such that his contribution to this book has been cited as an example of the limits to which his master’s philosophy can be taken.ii Yet the overbearing dynamic by which he later characterised Althusser’s thinking is one Rancière went on to elaborate and resist throughout the course of his work:


The idea that the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant of the laws of domination. Eventually [for intellectuals] this exalted task dissolves into a pure thought of resentment which declares the inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions, and hence the inability of the masses to take charge of their own destiny.iii


Rancière’s initial split with his master was prompted by Althusser’s loyalty to the Parti Communiste Francaise (PCF) during the events of 1968. Returning to Althusser’s theory later, Rancière worked to widen the breach that May ’68 had thrown open.iv Henceforth, Rancière follows, in the most minute detail, the mediations which surround the subaltern subject, the proletarian or worker. The problem of theory, of Marxist science and the condescension of the intellectual to his subject, is raised to a general principle traceable back from the perspective of the present through the entire history of the left.v


The break of which Rancière was a part in 1968 mirrors the break of UK historians with the Communist Party of Great Britain after the invasion of Hungary by Russian troops in 1956, yet this delay is perhaps significant. During this period much of the European left distanced itself from Stalinist policy, but the primacy of the PCF in France softened this break, arguably helping to defer, and effectively trigger, what in ’68 became an open revolt against the party.


After ’68


After 1968 and the split with Althusser, Rancière became associated with the group Gauche Proletariane (GP) – partly made up of former Althusserians and Maoists who, inspired by China’s cultural revolution, rebelled against the PCF and threw themselves into the class struggle as militants during May ’68, and as ‘etabli’ in the months that followed the cessation of the strike wave in


The breach of ’68 completely shook up the former separation of intellectuals and workers. As well as rejecting Althusser (the party intellectual), those around the GP became self-critical about not having engaged in the May revolt earlier. They had waited for the industrial workers to get involved – held back by their fetishisation of a pure working class, from which they had excluded students. As GP’s pursuit of class struggle developed, they tried to overcome this division through the figure of the etabli. Rancière contributed to these debates within GP, criticising the placement of the etabli for providing a privileged situation from which to represent the working class to the activist class, thus creating a dynamic of mutually reassuring distance which retained workers as mute, romanticised others. In crisis under the pressure of this debate, state repression and the sense that workers themselves were beginning to take control of the direction of their own struggle, GP began to fall apart.vii The situation was formative for Rancière: in activism he again met the problem of the intellectual’s mediating role between the exploited, their exploitation and its overthrow. Rancière began to turn to social history to uncover the complex origins of this relationship.viii


La Pensée d’en Bas


In 1975 Rancière joined a group of philosophers and historians, including many ex-GP militants, to research a television series on The Meaning of Revolt in the Twentieth Century. The series never transpired because the state-owned channel Antennae 0, withdrew backing on the advice of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. But the group developed its research in a journal, Les Révoltes Logiques, based at the philosophy department of the University of Paris VIII. Inspired by a line from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem ‘Democratie', and addressed to both an academic and general readership, LRL was intended as a ‘purposefully inconclusive problematisation of the history of the workers’ and women’s movements.’ix Rather than retrieving a continuity of revolt, of invariant class antagonism, the group was more focused on the discursive content of working class articulation and the manifold means by which it has been stifled.

In a kind of manifesto, printed on the inside back cover of the first issue of the journal, the LRL group vowed to:


listen again to [reentendre] the findings of social history and to re-establish thought from below [la pensée d’en bas] and the issues which were debated therein.x


French social history has, for Rancière, a specific lineage which he began to explore within the LRL group.xi This is reflected in their collective work which was as interested in historiography as history itself and spent as much energy criticising other historical accounts as writing history. This is particularly evident in the extensive intra-left critiques assembled in Volume II of Staging the People, but the vituperative and polemical context is somewhat elided here through the extraction of Rancière’s own writing from the collective output amongst which it first appeared.


The collective waged a struggle which churned up the landscape of left history. As much against history as it had been told as against how it was being made in their present; against the tradition of left militancy from which they had come. For LRL this meant opening ‘a battle on several fronts’ confronting dogmatisms of all kinds, including purely empirical history but also the anti-historical diminishment of empirical fact by activists.xii It was against ‘la mode retro’ – a nostalgic and sycophantic relation to the past. Against the ‘strict proletarian of Marxist Science’ but also its post-Marxist opposite – the heroic plebs who would resist all authoritarianism; the ‘noisy and colourful people’ which became the ‘imaginary correlate of the socialist intelligentsia [...] about to take power in 1981’.xiii


Les Révoltes Logiques [questioned] the practices of identification common to the discourse of both activist vanguards and academic historians [...] It was not a history of voices from below against one of discourse from above, [...] It was a history that questioned the very functioning of these pairs of opposites, and also those that opposed realities to representations.xiv


LRL sought to complicate the framework of post-WWII left history by philosophically developing the trend of turning away from party representation and towards the complex of identification, beliefs and solidarities which made up the (pre-industrial) working class. This general trend, begun after 1956, was compounded by the events of 1968. The strategic response of many left historians in Britain, France and elsewhere, even if they remained complicit with pro-Stalinist parties, had been to steer away from 20th century history; away from battles, revolutionary events, and towards writing and thinking through the minor, and pre-capitalist histories of the proto-working class or early workers’ movement.


In France, this work had been monopolised by historians working around the journal Annales (known as the Annales school), who had developed microscopic analyses of statistics, and the interactions of the material, environmental and ideological frameworks structuring action, culture and economic change over the long term.xv However, Rancière developed strong criticisms of the Annales group, situating them in a left tradition established by pioneers such as Jules Michelet who, as Rancière saw it, founded social history on conditions which constructed and perpetuated the left historian’s mediating role between people and their own history.xvi For LRL, Annales historians indulged a particular contemporary spirit of nostalgia and through their ultra-localist view, stressed continuity at the expense of revolutionary rupture.xvii


Yet, in some ways this drew LRL and Rancière closer to the studies developed by peers of the UK Communist Historians Group working on ‘history from below’ (who themselves had been heavily influenced by Annales). The groundbreaking post-WWII studies of C.L.R. James, E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill had flowed into and been modified by the ’60s and ’70s culture of the new left which no longer bracketed off questions of race, sex and class from revolutionary politics.


Rancière shares some affinities with the English historiography of ‘history from below’, especially in the emphasis on agency over structure. Both affirm some autonomy, in everyday life and self-perception, in the formation of popular consciousness; both perceive and animate the space for people to think differently with and against the forces determining them.


However in LRL there is a sharper awareness of both the authority of the historian, and of the forms of domination that are enacted within dominated groups. Equally, LRL’s constant sniping at the self-serving nostalgia or revisionism of left intellectuals and historians was an attempt to follow and critically derail the development of left thought as it headed into the relativist impasses of postmodernism.xviii


Image: Artificial flower makers, live exhibits at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, 1867


Commonalities with the UK movement extended to participation in a debate on people’s history and socialist theory organised by History Workshop, a group founded in 1967 which, sought, like Révoltes Logiques, to span and connect discussions between professional historians, workers' and feminist movements. However, Rancière also caused friction within the History Workshop. The editorial board of its journal is said to have refused to publish some translations of Rancière’s articles in 1979 because they ‘insulted the working class’.xix


‘Le Social’ and French history


In an essay published in a History Workshop anthology, People’s History and Socialist Theory, Rancière traced the expansion of French social history in the 1880s as developed by civil servants (who were often former trade unionists) within the Labour Office of the Republican government to ‘effect a conciliation between the Republic, the state and the working classes.’xx This role for social history, according to Rancière, was further developed by anti-communist and anti-anarchist aspects of the trade union movement, and later the Socialist Party (following a split between socialist and communist parties after 1914-18). Rancière argues that as far as Marxists or the communist party were interested in history, it was not a history of the working class, but the history of revolution – the revolution of 1789 – which lent them legitimacy as the party of national democracy. Therefore, up to WWII, working class history in France continued to develop as a discussion between the workers’ movement, trade unions and the State within the framework of ‘industrial democracy’. This sustained the close relationship between aspects of the working class movement and the generation of its own history, but the tradition suffered a ‘material loss’ after WWII as its political goals had close proximity to those of the corporate state of Petain, Vichy and the Nazis. The controversial traffic of workers’ ideals is discussed in Rancière’s essay, ‘From Pelloutier to Hitler’ in Staging the People Volume I. It describes the relationships by which advocates of an image of the people mobilised this image in a unilateral dialogue with the State.


The power of projections and models of ‘the people’ is in their capacity to be appropriated by hostile interests. This is evident in the way an emphasis on working class autonomy in left history has recently been co-opted to fit the UK coalition government’s austerity agenda. Phillip Blond, author of Red Tory and director of ResPublica, who was initially seen as an ideologist for the renewal of the Tory Party, draws directly upon an unqualified reading which credits E.P. Thompson’s narrative of working class agency in The Making of the English Working Class to justify the dismantling of public services:


The welfare state, I believe, began the destruction of the independent life of the British working class[...] making the populace a supplicant citizenry dependent on the state rather than themselves.xxi


Blond disingenuously characterises welfare as the invention of a ‘middle-class elite’ partly to ‘deprive the poor of their irritating habit of autonomous organisation’. His model of social solidarity is drawn up not in the interests of working people, but of capital: if the working class can look after itself, it can act as a caretaker for the effects of neoliberalism.


As Rancière shows us, partisans of working class autonomy frequently turn out to be apologists of the worst abuses of the state and capital. In the lost tradition of ‘le social’ – a term which specifically emphasises the link between social history, the social question of labour and capital’s reciprocal antagonism, and social movements – he recovers a marker of the false separation between the proper revolutionary destiny of the working class and an intimate self-understanding of the class in its contradictory identifications and interactions with bourgeois culture. Rancière has put tremendous efforts into tracing this division through archives to show the particular forms it takes in discrete historical moments.


Staging the People


Rancière’s writing for Les Révoltes Logiques are translated from a French collection which appeared in one volume entitled Les scènes du peuple in 2003. The English version is split into two volumes and titled respectively, Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double, 2011 and The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People Volume 2, 2012.xxii Three longer essays collected in Volume I of these writings for LRL particularly stand out as original and concrete contributions to the contentious historical vicissitudes of working-class thought and culture. These build a dynamic bridging analysis between the 19th and 20th centuries which is revisited and enriched across Rancière’s oeuvre. An exemplary essay in the deployment of this technique is ‘Off to the Exhibition’ which assesses reports made by trade delegations to the Exposition Universelle of 1867; a spectacle, Rancière insists, ‘the workers perceive [...] as a product of their dispossession’. Rancière presents the reports as an example of the very juncture of politics, economics and ideology which bourgeois thought would rather keep separate. It is a key example of Rancière’s delicate juxtaposition of fragments of proletarian self-articulation and historical hindsight. Through them he examines a meeting point of ‘class and domestic power’ which is both significant and somewhat self-defeating.


The workers' reports remonstrate against employers’ deployment of machines as a tool against their class which is accompanied by an attack on the employers’ efforts to introduce women into the workplace. Machines are attacked because they deskill the worker rather than freeing him from work time, therefore removing from the worker his power over his own production – his craft and intelligence ‘in order to produce a bit more, to produce regardless.’xxiii The introduction of women into the workplace is attacked by male workers for threatening to remove the worker from his power over his domestic situation. This is not only a matter of scandal judged by contemporary attitudes to gender equality in the workplace, but could already at the time be understood as an outmoded attitude: only a few years later the Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded recognised attempts to discriminate against female workers as the defence of privilege and sought to abolish all competition between male and female workers.xxiv


Rancière’s presentation of these reports is sympathetic. Here, workers (albeit elite ones) pass judgement on their own conditions, in terms which correspond closely to Karl Marx’s analysis of the introduction of machines, thus challenging the emerging power of employers to reorganise work, catalyse competition and force downward pressure on the wage across all industries.xxv The reports grasp the machine not as a ‘cold-blooded monster to be destroyed’ but rather, as Rancière’s presentation goes to lengths to show, imagine a moral and social ‘collective appropriation of the machines’.xxvi Nonetheless, Rancière also gives due attention to a contradiction: here the retort to one particular division of labour production marks a second division in the social reproduction of the class itself.


While Rancière identifies this moment as a transition from ‘corporative thinking’ or ‘Bonapartiste “socialism”’ to a ‘new revolutionary working-class ideal’, a contradiction in the class is not resolved, but rather carried over. In Rancière’s somewhat reductive formulation, the foundation of this split is ‘the power of the working man over his wife’. If the way forward is for the working class movement to retract from the compact with bosses and move to open struggle over the means of production, towards either a revolutionary state or workers’ control, this trajectory of productivism leaves these two powers – at work and at home – separated and unexamined parts of a never-to-be-whole.


The 1975 essay marks a crucial development in Rancière’s thinking. Initially sympathetic to the threats to working class autonomy, he latterly recognised this as a problematic example by which proletarian resistance and power can be formed at the expense of other denigrated subjects, i.e. women.xxvii Henceforth, it will become impossible for the workers to affirm themselves as workers – for their gains will also be their losses, unless the workers’ movement becomes only the movement of those who identify and wield power over other parties as men. The anti-work ethos which Rancière situates elsewhere on more individualistic terms finds, here, a structural rapport.


‘From Pelloutier to Hitler’ for which the shorter essay, ‘Links in the Chain’ provides a theoretical prelude and ally, examines the way certain forms of workerism and productivism were absorbed by Petain’s collaborationist State leading to collusion between pro-Nazis and trade unionist elements in France. It is a powerful reminder to social historians that the Nazi movement drew its origins from the Left and closer examination might find painful proximities in the history of any territory. Even more controversially, it is a powerful rebuke to those in France who would like to imagine, without complication, a glorious continuum of socialist history cemented by the victory over Nazism.


The opportunity is not missed to hammer home the reactionary character of idealist forms of anticapitalism: alternative currencies, reformism (e.g. workplace hygiene), democratic negotiation between bosses and workers, even workers’ autonomy. During this brief period all these measures were recommended by trade unions or militants in favour of collaboration and found some approval from the Vichy powers. These workers’ advocates greatest treason lay in the way they sought to organise workers’ needs in order to better direct them via the State. Rancière conveys well the complex context through which such arguments unfolded, found material motivation, were contorted and contested. Moreover, the attempt to mobilise heroic socialist traditions of hard work, loyalty and dignity in the service of collaboration lends great power to his thorough questioning of whether these ideals were native to the working class at all. In the context of the PCF’s debates over the relationship between workers and intellectuals this research had the function of authorising GP’s ultra-leftism and discrediting the more distanced and economistic approach of the party. However, the celebration of ‘workers against work’ could equally end up on the opposite pole of the political spectrum by affirming tendencies to work less for more outside of any revolutionary perspective.xxviii


‘Good Times, or, Pleasure at the Barrière’ details the interactions between state censors, the organised left and theatre managers, singers, actors and revellers who took their pleasures beyond the limits set by censorious authorities. It is the companion piece to the essay collected in volume II, ‘The People’s Theatre: A Long Drawn-Out Affair’. This essay lends its theme of Staging the People to both volumes. In it, Rancière revisits the 150-year long persistence of an idea: the people’s theatre, and its moralising role. It is here that Rancière first posited a socialist tradition which understood ‘theatocracy’ as coeval with democracy and thus a defining framework of ‘self-representation’ through which the people ‘could view their own actions.’xxix However, in each case the course advised by the people’s champions is none too distant from the use of theatre the State’s advisors recommended to itself, albeit for different reasons. In ‘Good Times’ the problematic is situated in the ideal of a worker’s culture untainted by bourgeois mediation:


[...] the definition of a workers’ morality of labour and devotion reflects the desire to free workers’ initiative from bourgeois tutelage. But at the same time, the image of the worker is asserted as a cornerstone of the system of dependence to which the proletarians are reduced [...] it is in this way […] that the demands of the working-class elite take up a position parallel to those of the discourse of the


In Rancière’s hands these parallels unravel – between the left and its ‘image of the worker’ and the workers themselves; between the left and the state; and between the subversions of underground culture and the state censors. Whilst the puritanism of the left and the state mirror each other in the grapple for limitation or control over working class bodies and minds, it is a fun-loving anti-politics which escapes to entertain:


A plague on politics!

To make a song

my simple muse

takes up a Bacchic chorus.

Long live the gurgle of bottles

And the sweet kisses of lovely girlsxxxi


It is by such heresies that left guardians of the period felt most threatened, but Rancière does not celebrate these occasions as simply unmediated. Rather, he is compelled to develop the problematic mediations of such retorts and their echoes in the present.xxxii However impure, it is the tenacious escapes from the controlling discourses from above, be it left condescension or state paternalism, which interest Rancière and it is to them that he entrusts working class agency.


Yet Rancière, having turned over this question of the relationship of the intellectual to ‘his people’ from the break with Althusser and realisation that the class won’t do the intellectual’s bidding, to his own forays into rewriting history from below, still finds himself in need of an image of the people. He deposes a classical proletariat as negation in favour of the figure of the declassé, sometimes artisan, sometimes refusenik wage-slave who abandons the divisions forced upon body and mind.


The genuinely dangerous classes were perhaps less those savages supposedly undermining the basement of society than the migrants who moved on the boundaries between classesxxxiii


It is this declassé subject – or subtraction from an ideal subject – foreshadowed in this earlier work for LRL which Rancière put at the forefront of his ambitious study, Proletarian Nights.


Proletarian Nights


Proletarian Nights, developed from Rancière’s research for his doctoral thesis and first published in English under the more suggestive title Nights of Labour, is a hefty study of a relatively small group of Paris artisans who were active in writing poetry, prose, polemics, letters and diaries outside of working hours, under the July Monarchy (approximately 1830-1848).xxxiv The book has a three-part structure. The first follows the writings of joiner Gabriel Gauny, and through them, his attitudes to his work, his nocturnal explorations and those of his friends. The second explores the relationships between the Saint Simonians (a group of utopian socialists), and those workers whom they recruited. The third section analyses the way moral conceptions of the working class were constructed in contemporary workers’ journals such as L’Atelier and through the Icarians, followers of Etienne Cabet’s communitarian movement much influenced by Owenism.xxxv


Taken together, Rancière’s project in Proletarian Nights is to bring into tension the ambitions of the worker intellectuals and their construction as political subjects. He seeks to problematise conceptions of both the ideological separation between workers and intellectuals, and perceived unities of class identities, experiences and demands.


Image: Honoré Daumier, Intermission at the Comedie-Francaise, circa 1858


While seeking to avoid ventriloquism, the book might partly function as a veiled allegory of the dynamics of the post-’68 French left, particularly in Volume II wherein Rancière hints at echoes between the Saint Simonians and the etabli of the 1970s, only in reverse. Those workers disposed to join the Saint Simonians were more or less ambivalent about their ideology, finding instead the ‘possibility of another world’ which led them to begin to occupy the symbolic spaces of the intellectuals.


In making use of their night hours to pursue this ‘other world’, Rancière argues that the worker-poets’ activities were ‘entirely material and entirely intellectual at the same time.’ The artisans not only appropriated languages and discourses, but also the material conditions which facilitate intellectual activity:


Emancipation for those workers [...] was the attempt to conquer the useless, to conquer the language of the poet [...] the leisure of the loiterer. It is the attempt to take the time that they have not. To go to the places where they are not supposed to have anything to do.xxxvi


This entails a triple mastery: of time; of the effects of work on the body and mind; and also of the symbolic space of literature itself.

The logic of appropriation is central to Rancière’s concept of emancipation. He suggests that ‘the power of a mode of thinking has to do above all with its capacity to be displaced’. Rancière draws upon a text by Gauny about a fictional floorlayer who temporarily makes himself at home working alone and unwatched in unfinished bourgeois houses:


Believing himself at home [...] he loves the arrangement of a room, so long as he has not yet finished laying the floor. If the window opens out onto a garden or commands a view of a picturesque horizon, he stops his arms and glides in imagination toward the spacious view to enjoy it better than the possessors of the neighbouring residences.xxxvii


Making oneself at home where one supposedly ‘does not belong’, might be a precondition for radical change. Rancière certainly floats this possibility throughout Proletarian Nights. Elsewhere he has suggested of the floorlayer’s tale that ‘what is at stake in emancipation [is] getting out of the ordinary ways of sensory experience. This thought has been important for my idea of politics, not being about the relations of power but being about the framing of the sensory world itself.’xxxviii


Rancière foregrounds the individual aspirations of the artisans in a complex, dialectical way as producing a form of agency which is not incompatible, indeed feeds into collective action and structural change. However the development between the worker’s encounter with the symbolic space of poetry and philosophy, and concrete practices of emancipation, is often only hinted at in Proletarian Nights. Rancière suggests that the ‘night-time socialisation of vanities’ contributed towards opening up a much broader space of possibilities for the working class, a ‘general movement of people getting out of their condition’ and ‘prepared for’ the July revolution of 1830. They may well have had a motivating effect, but the specific ways in which they did are sadly not adequately explored in the text.


Rancière shifts between analysis of the relative status and dispositions of the artisans, and empathetic passages in which he chooses to write with their accounts. Emphasising a literary trajectory against tendencies in French historiography to treat history as science, Rancière refuses separation from his sources, except as an arguing consciousness alongside them. His work on them coincides with proliferation and amplifications of the questions within them. Irritatingly obfuscating perhaps, but this is joined to Rancière’s own refusal to separate philosophy from history or literary creation from both.


Rancière’s choice of worker intellectuals as his subjects attests to a common investment in literature as a means of transformation and agency by philosopher and artisans. He initially presented a smaller selection of the material revisited in Proletarian Nights in a book, written with Alain Faure, collecting the writings (including brochures, letters, poems, articles and posters) of workers of the 19th century across two key revolutionary periods 1830-34 and 1848-51.xxxix However while The Voice of the People presented the worker poets as an exceptional contribution broadening the range of ‘voices of the people’, they assume an exemplary position in Proletarian Nights. It goes without saying, but it’s important to add given the reception of Rancière in the culture industry, that literature offers significant forms of political agency and enriches broader movements, but culture is not the only terrain of struggles.


It is clear that Rancière himself harbours a strong identification with the worker intellectuals. The 2012 edition of Proletarian Nights receives a new preface in which he suggests that the experiences of the precarious workers of the present day may come to resemble those of the artisans of his 19th century. However, it is not clear how Rancière’s celebration of the subversion of the separation of work and play by the 19th century artisan translates into contemporary terms, given that capital has by now ‘subverted’ and enclosed both domains. The relative ease with which today’s proletarianised academic or student reading Proletarian Nights may identify themselves with its heroes risks flattening not just the past, but the present too.


The Voice of Truth


Rancière’s truths emerge through writing and thinking alongside workers’ thought and speech. Shifts in what it is possible to say or to imagine under a particular set of historical relations take precedence, and surface with the contradictions which allow us to experience the distance from our own present and from a future we might hope for. Rancière is able to move from the image of class as unitary to the continuous intervention into debates in order to complexify the situation and destabilise its certainties, thereby exposing the polysemy, intelligence and fragmentation through which the working classes found ways to act, and express their condition.xl There is a determined self-criticism of the historian’s traditional authorial power in this ongoing non-distinction between subject and historian – a refusal to become or pretend the ‘voice of truth’. Rancière appears uninterested in acquiring the stable mastery of historians who engage in haughty professionalised combat with each other at a safe remove from the situation from which they draw their historical source material. But whilst Rancière gestures towards another form of history writing, one inseparable from the activity of its subjects, he has not, other than rhetorically, attempted to close this gap.


Rancière’s prose undermines its own authority by being deliberately inconclusive, but this can often amount to a certain vagueness. Although Proletarian Nights is more rigorous, in the other volumes under review Rancière almost never gives away complete sources or references for the material he works on. We cannot easily squabble over footnotes, re-read and re-present the same material in a different and contradictory light.


Though the books under review are peppered with insightful and poetic fragments of speech emanating from working class voices, it is Rancière’s contrarian circumbendibus voice which determines the route. A route which, whilst it holds open the prospect for violent rupture and the overturning of routine perspectives – the very potentiality of revolt – mostly meanders off and then back onto the familiar road of the intellectual and his subject. He worries, pauses and reflects upon this relationship over and over, but never overcomes it.


Rancière neither wishes to ignore the formation of class in its complexity, nor totally abandon the revolutionary trajectory of ‘the class’ as the agent of its own abolition. But his grip upon this second axiom loosens over time. On the one hand a singular idea of the worker restricted, in the discourse of the employer, to his métier and on the other hand restricted, in Marxist discourse, to the task of revolution is opened up to a plurality of possibilities and as yet unknown capacities. But does writing history in a way which is both provisional and densely resistant to misappropriation preclude appropriation by ‘a people who are missing’, those who might transform it through struggle?


Rancière argues that a book inherently travels wherever it can; at the point of availability, anyone might pick it up and make use of the ideas contained in it, regardless of its intended audience. But Ranciere’s evasiveness, his latter-day lack of real critical friction and tendency to waffle inconclusively might be said to limit his audience and thus the potential uses of his ideas.


Perhaps because he foregrounds the traction of symbolic transformation on material change, Rancière’s work has been most readily absorbed into contemporary art discourse. The problem lies in allowing symbolic transformation to take precedence over the material change to which it should be intimately joined.  The power of Rancière’s contribution is in his assumption of equal capacity and his celebration of the imaginative transgressions against ideologies that might wittingly or unwittingly contribute towards ‘keeping each to his or her place’. But to advocate the potential universality of ideas whilst at the same time leaving structural and material inequality intact, is simply another way of keeping everybody in their place.



Anthony Iles <anthony AT> is Assistant Editor of Mute. Tom Roberts <to_mroberts AT> is a writer and artist. They are co-authors of the pamphlet All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal, due to be revised and reissued by Strickland Distribution in Autumn 2012



Books Reviewed: Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights, London: Verso, 2012; Jacques Rancière, Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double, London: Verso, 2011 (Staging the People, Vol.I); and Jacques Rancière, The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People, London: Verso, 2012 (Staging the People, Vol II).



i For more on the development of ‘history from below’ see Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts, All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal, published as part of the alt.SPACE festival, July 2007.

ii Donald Reid, Introduction to Proletarian Nights, London: Verso, 2012, p.xiv.

iii Jacques Rancière, Althusser’s Lesson, London: Continuum, 2011, p.xvi.

iv Althusser’s Lesson was first published in 1974.

v Anglophone commentators frequently invoke Rancière as a critic of Marxist economic determinism, yet he is less a critic of Marx than the critic of Althusser who leaves the latter’s interpretation of Marx’s largely intact.

vi Etabli or ‘establishment’ was a tactic by which activists, often students or intellectuals, were clandestinely placed in factories to promote worker agitation with the support of militant left groups. Rancière discusses the phenomenon in the article, ‘Factory Nostalgia’ in The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People Volume 2, London: Verso, 2012. In which, among other books, he reviews Robert Linhart’s novel, L’etabli.

vii In 1973 an occupation at the LIP factory in Besançon led to worker self-management. See: Jacques Rancière, Althusser’s Lesson, pp.119-120 and for a more critical account; ‘Lip and the Self-Managed Counter-Revolution’ in Negation, No. 3, 1973,

viii Introduction to Proletarian Nights, 2012, p.xix

ix Oliver Davis, Jacques Rancière, London: Polity, p.40.

x Les Révoltes Logiques 1 (Winter 1975), quoted in Oliver Davis, op.cit., p.40.

xi This is explored in Jacques Rancière, ‘“Le Social”: The Lost Tradition in French Labour History’, in Raphael Samuel (Ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory, London: Routledge, 1981; and later in further detail in Jacques Rancière, The Names of History, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994.

xii Jacques Rancière, Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double, (Staging the People, Vol.I), London: Verso, 2011, p.9 and p.11.

xiii Ibid., p.8.

xiv Ibid., p.13.

xv During its appropriately long history, the journal has used four titles: Annales d’histoire économique et sociale (1929-39); Annales d’histoire sociale (1939-42, 1945); Mélanges d’histoire sociale (1942-4); Annales: économies, sociétiés, civilisations (1946-1994); and presently: Annales: Histoire, Sciences sociales (1994-). See: Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929-89, Malden MA / Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990 and Lynn Hunt and Jacques Revel (eds), Histories: French Constructions of the Past, New York: The New Press. 1994.

xvi See footnote 11.

xvii See Oliver Davis, op.cit., p.42.

xviii This is explored in greatest detail in the second volume of Rancière’s collected writings for Les Révoltes Logiques. Attacks are directed at Rancière’s former comrades from the GP, particularly André Glucksmann and the ‘New Philosophers’. The revisionism of which Rancière accuses ex-GP militants is easily mapped onto Anglophone cultural theory of the 1980s which let go of the certainty of the mass worker in order to pursue the non-worker as identity, and all the better to justify the continuation of the intellectual’s metier. Rancière’s response to this love of labour lost is best summed up thus: ‘[...] the disappointed love of the political activist cannot be satisfied with the sociological positivity of this proletariat fallen from its pedestal.’ Jacques Rancière, ‘The Factory of Nostalgia’, in The Intellectual and His People, Verso, London, 2012, p.136.

xix Adrian Rifkin, then a member of History Workshop’s editorial collective, speculates that Rancière’s exploration of hybridity was incompatible with what he saw as History Workshop’s cast-iron conception of class consciousness. Adrian Rifkin, ‘JR Cinéphile, or the Philosopher Who Loved Things’, Parallax vol. 15 Issue 3, 2009.

xx Jacques Rancière, ‘“Le Social”: The Lost Tradition in French Labour History’, op.cit., p.269.

xxi Philip Blond, Red Tory, London: Faber & Faber, 2010, p.15.

xxii For the sake of simplicity and in reference to the order of publication, we will refer to Staging the People, Vol.I and Staging the People, Vol.II.

xxiii Shoemakers’ report cited in ‘Off to the Exhibition: The Worker, His Wife and the Machines’, in Staging the People, Vol.I, p.68.

xxiv See: Adrian Rifkin and Roger Thomas (eds.), Voices of the People, New York: Routledge, 1988, p.14.

xxv Karl Marx, Capital Vol.I Chapter 15.

xxvi Staging the People, Vol.I, p.73.

xxvii Introduction to Proletarian Nights, op.cit., pp.xxv-xxvi.

xxviii See footnote 18 and Michael Seidman, Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts, Berkeley: California University Press, 1991.

xxix Jacques Rancière, ‘The People’s Theatre: A Long Drawn-Out Affair’, in Staging the People, Vol.II, p.10.

xxx Jacques Rancière, Staging the People, Vol.I, p.201.

xxxi Unknown street singer quoted in the workers’ newspaper, L’Atelier, in Staging the People, Vol.I, p.43.

xxxii The essay, ‘The Cultural Historic Compromise’, in Staging the People, Vol.II, documents misunderstandings between a group of gauchist painters who tried to take their paintings to the workers, the activists who encouraged them and the local communist party officials who censored them.

xxxiii Staging the People, Vol.I, pp.181-182. The full quote continues: ‘– individuals and groups who developed within themselves abilities that were useless for the improvement of their material life, but suited to make them despise this.’

xxxiv Although most of the subjects in Rancière’s book live in this period the latter half of the book follows their legacy into the 1890s.

xxxv The Icarians, who generally attracted skilled and literate artisans, went on to found communes in Texas and Illinois.

xxxvi Jaques Rancière, ‘Revisiting Nights of Labour’, lecture at Sarai 6th February 2009

xxxvii Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights, p.81.

xxxviii Jacques Rancière ‘Art is Going Elsewhere and Politics has to Catch it’, Krisis, 2008, Issue 1, (English), and available atère/articles/art-is-going-elsewhere-and-politics-has-to-catch-it/ 2010, p.40

xxxix Alain Faure & Jacques Rancière, La Parole Ouvriere 1830-1851, 1976. See: Adrian Rifkin and Roger Thomas (eds.), Voices of the People, op. cit., p.8.

xl ‘[…] there is no single ‘voice of the people’. There are broken, polemical voices, each time dividing the identity they present.’ Staging The People, Vol.I, p.12.