»… better to own one’s time than to own one’s tools or workshop.«

Vor kurzem hatte ich erwähnt, dass zwar die wichtigsten Werke Jacques Rancières auf Deutsch vorliegen, eines aber nicht: »La Nuit des Proletaires« (1981), das Schlüsselwerk seines Anti-Strukturalismus’ und seines Bekenntnisses zur (Arbeiter-)Autonomie. Das Werk ist sehr voraussetzungsvoll, natürlich ausschließlich auf französische Verhältnisse bezogen, es dürften also nicht nur (wissenschafts)politische Gründe sein, weswegen es keine Übersetzung gibt. Gleichwohl liegt seit 1987 eine englische vor, und um einen Einblick zu geben, was wir an dem Werk hätten, wenn wir es lesen würden, bringe ich hier eine recht ausführliche, klare, insgesamt sehr positive Kritik des amerikanischen Historikers Gary Gerstle, der selbst einige interessante Bücher zum New Deal und zur amerikanischen Arbeiterbewegung im 20. Jahrhundert vorgelegt hat.

»The Nights of Labor: The Workers‘ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France« by Jacques Rancière; John Drury (translator) / Review by: Gary Gerstle / The Oral History Review, Vol. 20, No. 1/2 (Apr. 1, 1992), pp. 123-126

Rancière’s brilliant book, originally published in France as »La Nuit des Proletaires« in 1981, locates the nineteenth-century origins of European socialism not in the noble desire of artisans to control their own labor but in the utopian visions of working-class poets who wanted to be free of labor altogether. Rancière wants not only to rescue these poets and their dreams from obscurity, but also to explain how their socialism – and, by extension, all socialisms since the late nineteenth century – came to glorify the single-minded devotion to work they themselves so loathed. Rancière’s painstaking textual analyses, his elaborate philosophical meditations on the possibility of freedom in the modern world, and his extended experiments with the metaphorical, narrative, and historical uses of language demand a great deal from readers. But those who persevere will find themselves engaged by a most imaginative and provocative argument. Oral historians, whose task it is to reveal what is concealed in the complex stories told to them, will be particularly intrigued by how Rancière retrieves, from the records of nineteenth-century working-class movements, a vision of freedom very different from the one remembered by generations of French labor militants and left intellectuals.

»La Nuit des Proletaires« was born of Rancière’s frustration with the French Left, especially with its failure to anticipate, direct, or ultimately benefit from the revolutionary ferment of May 1968. A committed leftist himself – an Althusserian in philosophy, a Maoist communist in politics – Rancière, in the wake of 1968, subjected the »truths« of his politics to relentless critique. He targeted those beliefs the Left held most dear: that »man« was a homer faber for whom satisfaction would come through self-directed labor; that emancipation could be achieved through the rational, collective action of workers organized into unions and political parties; that revolutionary movements required avanguard of intellectuals or labor militants distinguished by their clairvoyance, courage, and selfless dedication to the cause.

An adequate critique of these beliefs, Rancière soon concluded, could not come from within philosophy, his own discipline. Reliance on conventional forms of philosophical discourse – rationalist, esoteric, elitist – would implicate him in the production of precisely the kind of privileged knowledge that for too long had legitimated a vanguard role for intellectuals; worse, it would deny him the fresh perspective on human essence and aspiration that he desperately needed. Rancière’s desire for an epistemological break led him to history, specifically to the history of French workers in the twenty years preceding the revolution of 1848, a period in which class conflict was sharpening but had yet to assume its modern organizational and discursive forms. Here Rancière saw an opportunity to recover authentic working-class voices, voices not yet subsumed into myths about the nobility of labor and the emancipatory power of the working class that socialists would later elaborate. The voices on which Rancière focuses belonged to a few hundred Parisian working-class men, most of them artisans or workshop workers of one sort or another, who took little pride in their craft, despised the discipline, boredom, and servitude of their work, and longed for the night – when they could read, write, drink, and there by achieve an aestheticized release from the interminable, grinding hardship of their days of labor.

These are Rancière’s working-class heroes. He affectionately analyzes (and John Drury, the translator, ably renders in English) the dreams, metaphors, and meanings that animate their poetry and prose. What makes these radicals distinctive is neither their place in the class or occupational structure nor their cultural background, but rather their determination to position themselves at real and metaphorical boundaries: between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, materialism and aestheticism, work and leisure. They long for circumstances – even economically harsh ones – that will release them from the deadening weight of routine. Better to be an itinerant, underemployed tradesman than a secure, respectable craftsman; better to own one’s time than to own one’s tools or workshop. In a scene reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s »On the Road«, Rancière recounts how one of his unemployed worker-poets transforms his search for work into a joyous celebration of the sights and sounds of city life. It is in these »dead times of no work, on the roads and squares of the space allotted to the possession of all,« through chance encounters with »individual members of the working class« (120), that happiness will be achieved and the human spirit satisfied.

Kerouac comes to mind repeatedly as a latter day example of the kind of worker-poet Rancière so admires. Like Kerouac, Rancière’s worker-poets were truly radical figures whose penchant for trespassing constantly threatened to expose the artificiality of social boundaries, the dark desires that the bourgeoisie and workers alike had repressed, and the disciplinary devices society erected simply to perpetuate itself.

Rancière’s depiction of nineteenth-century artisanal revolutionaries as eccentric poets can be interpreted as a frontal assault on a powerful Euro-American historiographical school that has represented these same individuals as »labor-loving« and »honor-craving« craftsmen. Rancière certainly wants to unsettle the certitude of this school and to alert its members to the oppositions, silences, and exclusions inscribed in nineteenth-century artisanal testaments to the glory of work. But discrediting this school is not Rancière’s major aim, and he would probably admit that its larger claims – especially the centrality of craftsmen and the free labor ideal to anticapitalist agitation – cannot be shoved aside without a far more systematic analysis of the economics and politics of the urban trades than the one he has prepared for this book.

His major aim is, rather, to challenge the Left’s sacred belief that man, by nature, is a homer faber who finds freedom and spiritual nourishment through self-directed labor. Speaking through his worker-poets, Rancière insists to the contrary that freedom, defined as the opportunity to experience truth and beauty, cannot come through work or through any social arrangement oriented toward stability, order, or rationality; it can only erupt spontaneously at the unpoliced, unregulated boundaries that separate organized realms of social interaction.

If these are the conditions of freedom, how is it that socialism, for Rancière the grandest movement for freedom in modern times, came to define itself through its commitment to »unfreedom,« through what Rancière calls »the objectification of the kingdom of work« (415)? This question, more than any other, has unsettled Rancière’s nights, and it haunts his long, sad chronicle of the worker-poets‘ political fate. Unlike Kerouac, who believed that freedom was too unpredictable and fragile ever to be encased in a political ideology or organization, Rancière’s poets enthusiastically inscribed their revolutionary message into a series of working-class movements – St. Simonianism, Fourierism, the revolution of 1848, utopian communism – only to experience bitter failure and disillusionment.

To a certain extent, Rancière ascribes these failures to political compromises forced on the radicals by their desire to align themselves with the Parisian masses. But ultimately, he argues, the radicals were done in by contradictions internal to their own emancipatory programs. He brilliantly deconstructs a series of radical political experiments to reveal the destabilizing oppositions intrinsic to them: anticapitalism warred with petty capitalism in the worker cooperatives of 1848; selfless dedication vied with boundless egotism in the Icarian utopian communities of Texas and Louisiana. The radicals expressly committed themselves only to the first element in these oppositions, Rancière argues, and were usually unaware of the silent, subversive work of the second. But awareness would not have altered the fate of their radical experiments for, in truth, the contradictions allowed no escape. There was, and there is, no solution to what Rancière ultimately calls »the impossible problem of communism, the problem of getting the progress of production and the progress of human spirits to coincide in a flash« (416). This impossibility explains why noble dreams of emancipation hatched in the freedom of working-class nights metamorphosed over the next century into a series of Foucaultian disciplinary nightmares.

This is a powerful, piercing, and radical argument; it is not always easy to grasp, but it is never easy to dismiss. Rancière has merged his philosophical and historical interests into a profound commentary on the possibilities of human freedom and of the violence done to those possibilities in freedom’s name; it is a commentary, moreover, that helps to explain the fury of eastern Europeans not only at their former socialist rulers but at the very notion that socialism is, or can be, a philosophy of freedom.