Lucien Sève: the Death of a Great Marxist Philosopher

The philosopher Lucien Sève has just died of Covid-19 at the age of 93. Roger Martelli, historian and editorial director of the French newspaper Regards, remembers the resistance fighter, politician and intellectual and gives an overview on his most recent works.

It took the small beast that is paralysing our societies to bring down this man that no one had been able to intimidate. He was an eminent figure in the history of communism and critical thinking, although he did not receive the full recognition he deserved.

Few people have counted as much in my intellectual and activist life as he did. He was one of those who, along with the great historian of the French Revolution Albert Soboul, provided an intellectual foundation for my political choice of communism during the great shock of 1968. He was admired by myriads of people. Several generations of students, teachers, researchers, and activists were in awe of his meticulousness, his consummate scholarship and profound knowledge of Marx and Marxism, and his biting criticism.

Lucien’s career could have been both tranquil and brilliant. But he chose a different path. A student at the École normale supérieure, he became a professor in the fall of 1949 but was dismissed in May 1950 from a prestigious post at the Lycée Français de Bruxelles. He completed his military service like all young French people, but he did so in Algeria within the ‘Bat’ d’Af’, a successor of the highly disciplined Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa. A communist and union activist, he was subjected to numerous administrative transfers until he landed at the Lycée Saint-Charles in Marseille, where he remained until the end of his teaching career in 1970.

Science and struggle: the two facets of the quest for human emancipation

Affected by war memories and immersed in the ideological battles of the Cold War, he was one of those intellectuals who thought that science and struggle were two integral facets of the great quest for human emancipation. Like his friend Louis Althusser, and like so many others, he was an unreluctant Stalinist intellectual ‘in his niche’ [1]. Very early on, he became a scholarly authority on Marx in the original version, as he was of Lenin, thanks to his wife Françoise, who perfectly mastered Russian.[2]

It was not easy for his generation to rid itself of the blot of Stalinism. In 1956, while glimpsing the tragedy of an era, Lucien was among those who first felt, like Maurice Thorez and Mao Zedong, that there was a difference between criticising and recanting. He, therefore, believed, like the vast majority of his PCF (Parti communiste français/ French Communist Party) comrades, that the main danger was opportunism.

He waged the first major public battle of his life against readings of Marx by Roger Garaudy, then commonly seen as the official philosopher of the PCF. Like Althusser, Sève perceived in Garaudy’s approach an alteration of Marxism which would ultimately lead to disavowal. Yet, unlike Althusser, he combined his rigour – sometimes bordering on stiffness – with a desire for a more open approach along with the PCF, which from 1962 was adopting a more open approach and, from 1975 to 1978, considered the possibility of embracing aspects of Eurocommunism.

The choice of the Communist Party

In 1970, Sève chose to become a part of the Communist Party’s leadership cadre. The decision was not without formidable consequences: in the eyes of most, above all in the eyes of intellectuals, whoever chooses to be a professional revolutionary aligns himself with ‘the interest of the communist party’ instead of ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’. It prevented him from being acknowledged as the tremendous intellectual he was despite the scope and quality of his work. Admittedly, committing fully to a party, which was simultaneously the object of a conscious choice, a passion, and an apparatus, proved to be a constraint on his life, his public speaking, and his writing. But for Sève, his respect for the integrated activist group did not imply an absolute obedience to the faith. He was a party employee and also a member of the Central Committee since 1961 (at the age of 35). In practice, he was regarded as an official philosopher, however much he kept distancing himself from this designation. Still, he never was admitted to the sacrosanct Political Bureau. Appointed director of the PCF’s publications in 1970, he voluntarily gave up this position in 1982 as he felt he no longer had the decision-making autonomy that was essential to him. Eventually, in June 1984, at the height of his fame within the party, he began distancing himself, becoming a refounder in 1989. For a while, he was then even seen as the heart and soul of a plot against the party. Lucien knew what it cost to stray from the line – he paid the price.

This indefatigable activist left behind an incredibly vast work. I have been an avid reader of it, but am not entitled to assess the contribution of this above all philosophical work. I can only say that I admired his research for its intellectual asceticism, based on his conviction that there is no science without argument, awed at what appeared to me as brilliant intuitions. If I had to single out some of them, it would be particularly these: abolishing capitalism means nothing if one does not contemplate the supersession of capitalism, that is, the process leading to its transcendence; history is not a science of general laws, on the contrary it is a science of the individual — Marx said that the emancipation of every individual was the condition for the emancipation of all, not the contrary; there is no point in opposing form and content, or form and structure, rather we have to reflect on formation, that is to say on the process of constructing form, content, and structure at the same time. Without Lucien Sève, I would have failed to discern all this, and so much more.

A major figure of Marxist thought

In the Communist Party and its leadership, I had the opportunity and the honour to rub shoulders with some legendary figures, such as Henri Rol-Tanguy or Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, to name just two. I am also proud to have known Lucien Sève and enjoyed his friendship. We were not of the same generation, did not share the same intellectual background, and we disagreed on some points. While I have never dared to look up at him as a role model, I have since 1969 continuously seen him as a tutelary figure. And I loved him deeply and now grieve his loss which creates a void that nothing can fill.

In 2020, the PCF celebrates the centenary of its birth but without Lucien Sève. If history shuts many doors, death closes another one. But Lucien taught us that since communism was not born in the 20th century, there was no reason why it should end with it.  

Among the recent works of Lucien Sève

(none of which have yet appeared in English translation)

Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui [Thinking with Marx today], Tome I. Marx et nous, La Dispute, 2004. (Vol. 1)

Qu’est-ce que la personne humaine ? Bioéthique et démocratie [What is the human person? Bioethics and Democracy], La Dispute, 2006.

Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui [Thinking with Marx today]. Volume II. L’homme? (Humankind?), La Dispute, 2008.

Aliénation et émancipation [Alienation and emancipation], La Dispute, 2012.

Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui [Thinking with Marx today]. Volume III. La philosophie ?, La Dispute, 2014.

Pour une science de la biographie, suivi de ‘Formes historiques d’individualité’ [For a Science of Biography, followed by ‘Historical Forms of Individuality’], Éditions sociales, 2015.

Octobre 1917.Une lecture très critique de l’historiographie dominante, suivi d’un choix de textes de Lénine [A Very Critical Reading of the Dominant Historiography, followed by a choice of texts by Lenin], Éditions sociales, 2017.

Capitalexit ou catastrophe. Entretiens avec Jean Sève [Capitalexit or Disaster. An interview with Jean Sève], La Dispute, 2018.

Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui [Thinking with Marx Today], Volume IV. Communisme?, Part One.

[1] In French ‘à son créneau’, which is a reference to André Fougeron’s famous 1948 article Le peintre à son créneau about new realism in painting.

[2] Among other things, she helped him access the works of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose main works – Pensée et langage [Thought and Language] (1985) and Histoire du développement des fonctions psychiques supérieures [History of the Development of Higher psychological functions] (2014) – she translated.

on the author:

Roger Martelli

Historian, editorial director of Regards, his recent co-edited publications include the correspondence of Louis Althusser and Lucien Sève between 1949-1987 (Éditions sociales in 2018). Also in 2018, Une dispute communiste: le Comité central d’Argenteuil sur la culture (A Communist Dispute: the Argenteuil Central Committee on Culture), Éditions sociales; Lucien Sève was, with Louis Althusser and Roger Garaudy, one of the protagonists of the debates surrounding this session of the Central Committee.

Originally published at