Andre Gorz

Iconoclastic philosopher and critic
Click to follow

André Gorz, philosopher and social critic: born Vienna February 1923; married; died Vosnon, France 24 September 2007.

The philosopher and social critic André Gorz, a close friend and colleague of Jean-Paul Sartre, was an idiosyncratic commentator on the French left in the second half of the 20th century and a co-founder of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. He was a significant figure in the student and worker uprising in Paris in 1968 and subsequently, following the demise of the 1968 movement, a flag-bearer for the fusion of socialist and ecological politics.

Gorz was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of a Jewish businessman and a Catholic secretary. After an unhappy childhood – exposed in his audacious semi-autobiography Le Traître (1958; translated as The Traitor, 1960) – Gorz became fascinated with political and social philosophy. In Lausanne in 1946 he met Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who were impressed by his knowledge of existentialism and political philosophy. Later he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist at Paris-Presse and then at L'Express (publishing mainly under the pseudonym Michel Bosquet). Gorz became a seminal figure in and astute commentator on the travails of the French left in the post-war years.

In the 1950s Gorz witnessed the tense relationship between the existentialists and the French Communist Party (PCF), focused primarily around the critique of Stalinism. In the early years of the 1950s there was something of a rapprochement as the left coalesced around opposition to the Korean War and a prevailing anti-Americanism. This was a short-lived closing of the ranks which exploded in 1956 after the invasion of Hungary and the escalation of the conflict in Algeria.

Influenced by thinkers in the Italian Communist movement, Gorz focused his attention on workers' control and self-management in the 1960s. He came to broader political prominence following the publication of Stratégie ouvrière et *éocapitalisme (Strategy for Labor), in 1964, the same year he helped found Le Nouvel Observateur weekly. Although couched in fairly orthodox Marxist-Leninist language, this book highlighted what would be the enduring feature of Gorz's thought for the rest of his career – the critique of work and paid labour in Western capitalist societies.

Not surprisingly, given his opposition to "workerism", Gorz was a prominent figure in the 1968 student uprising in Paris, although he was stung by its failure and, in particular, the unwillingness of the parties on the left and the trade unions to seize the moment and support the student movement.

This event provided the backdrop to Gorz's work on new social movements in the 1970s and his advocacy of increased collaboration between socialist and ecological movements. The tensions in this relationship notwithstanding, Gorz would promote a fusion of red and green politics in most of his subsequent work. This was highlighted in his 1975 book, Ecologie et politique (translated in 1980 as Ecology as Politic) and later texts such as Capitalisme, socialisme, écologie (1991; Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, 1994).

It was in 1980 that Gorz attained his greatest notoriety, with the publication of the much-misunderstood Adieux au prolétariat (Farewell to the Working Class). Here he put forward the concept of the neo-proletariat (the "non-class of non-workers") as the defining feature of advanced capitalism and challenged the privileged place of the industrial working class as the agent of history in Marxist theory. As a result, there was a considerable backlash against the book within French Marxism, with scant attention paid to the brilliance with which Gorz was articulating a new direction for leftist politics. Farewell to the Working Class was a book before its time and, along with Les chemins du paradis (1983; Paths to Paradise, 1985), established Gorz as a far-sighted analyst of the direction of Western capitalism especially the development of economic globalisation.

Gorz had established a reputation as a purveyor of exciting ideas that he could communicate to a popular audience as well as a more academic readership. However, the latter group was suspicious of what it saw as his populism until Gorz responded with his seminal book Métamorphoses du travail (1988; Critique of Economic Reason, 1989).

In this authoritative work he analysed the rationality underpinning Western capitalism and, in particular, the neo-liberal hegemony established in the 1980s. Returning again to the theme of the need to liberate people from the shackles of paid labour, he focused on the way in which economic rationality tended to be presented as inevitable rather than a matter of political choice. He also challenged arguments for a guaranteed minimum income (because he felt they did not do enough to facilitate social participation). This criticism was later relinquished as he became a critical supporter of the idea of a basic income in Misères du présent (1997; Reclaiming Work, 1999).

Gorz's work was always within the Utopian tradition – a label he welcomed but which was used pejoratively by his opponents. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that many of the ideas Gorz promoted in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s entered the political agenda (often in a moderated form) in later years. His ideas can be seen as the forerunner of policies of universal welfare like "baby bonds" and the reduced working hours policy of the Jospin government in France in the late 1990s. Additionally, many of his derided early warnings about globalisation and environmental degradation have become commonplace discourses in political debates today. Ultimately, Gorz's Utopianism was expressed in a very practical sense – we never know how far along the road we are if we have no idea of the destination.

For a writer with a reputation for outspoken iconoclasm and a declamatory willingness to take on some of the sacred cows of leftist politics, Gorz was a remarkably humble, understated and generous figure. His willingness to devote his time in correspondence with those interested in his work and to open his home to them was notable. There, Gorz and his English-born wife, Dorine, lived what seemed a rather bucolic life but their political commitment to a more humane society never waned. Neither did their devotion to one another. They committed suicide together, after Dorine's struggle against serious illness.

Adrian Little