André Gorz. Une Vie. Willy Gianinazzi. A Review.

André Gorz. Une Vie. Willy Gianinazzi. La Découverte. 2016.

Over the last few weeks Socialist Party contender for the Presidential ‘primaries’, Benoît Hamon, has raised the idea of a “revenu universal d’existence’ (Basic Income) paid to all. Hearing this many people would have remembered the name of André Gorz. The Vienna born but France based journalist, social theorist, and green socialist activist, whose influence extended far beyond the francophone world, promoted this idea from the 1990s onwards. That is, “a guarantee of sufficient income, independent of the duration of labour (which can only decrease), and perhaps independent of work itself”. (1)

Hamon’s left-wing rival Arnaud Montebourg dismissed the idea as a social “cataplasme” (sticking plaster). The right-wing Manuel Valls It is an unrealistic recipe for a something-for-nothing society. Editorialists pointed to the costs and the seeming acceptance that France was fated to remain a society of high unemployment (le Monde 17.1.17). But the proposal, whose paternity was not directly acknowledged, illustrates how Gorz exploration into the changing economy, the world of work, and non-work, ecology, and social philosophy, remains a fruitful source of reflection about the development of capitalism.

Willy Gianinanzzi, a researcher in far left and labour movement history, has written the first biography of André Gorz (1923–2007). Closely tied to his subject’s concerns the book displays deep affection for its subject and a perceptive guide to his writings and ideas.

André Gorz was Vienna born, as Gerhart Horst, of an authoritarian Jewish father — said to have declared that he “nothing against Hitler except his anti-Semitism” — and a non-Jewish mother. He left for Switzerland in 1939 to avoid conscription in the National Socialist led army. His German validated Baccalaureate passed he studied chemistry at an Engineering school in French speaking Lausanne. Gorz opted, permanently, for the French language — even to the point, Gianinanzzi points out — of refusing to speak German until the last decades of his life.


Gorz developed an interest in Philosophy and writing, recounting his early experiences in fictional form in Le Traître (1958). Immediately after the War’s end, with a developing attraction to existentialism, in 1946 Gorz attended in Lausanne one of the many talks given by Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. He became politically engaged in the pacifist and “minimalist” (world government) movement.

From this time on André Gorz, as he came to name himself, would pursue a career in journalism, closely bound to his political commitments. From the late 50 onwards Gorz wrote for a variety of magazine and journals that existed on the burgeoning French independent, ‘third worldist’ and new left. L’Express (opposed at the time to the Algerian war), France Observateur (forerunner of the Nouvel Observatuer), and was on the Editorial Board of Les Temps Modernes. From this point on Gorz mixed with, or at least met with, many of the central personalities in the 1960s radical left, from Marcuse to Cohn-Bendit as well as centre-left media figures like the editor of the Nouvel Obs’, Jean Daniel.

One of the most interesting sections of Une Vie (L’automation et la nouvelle classe ouvrière Chapter 7) is devoted to the early sixties debate over “neo-capitalism” and the “new working class”, terms associated with the sociologist Alain Touraine, and Serge Mallet. Gorz became a supporter of the idea that automation has transformed ‘Taylorism’ and ‘Fordism’. A new group of qualified workers, technicians, existed who were competent to take over running enterprises. With this social base, classical forms of trade unionism could be extended to demands for ‘autogestion” self-management. In this vein, a vision of realisable set of measures to create “economic sovereignty” as the foundation of democratic socialism, Gorz collaborated with the new left Parti Socialiste Unifié, and wrote Stratégie ouvrière et néocapitalism (1964) and Le Socialisme difficile (1967). Both of these books had an impact beyond the borders of the Hexagone.

Gorz became equally known in the English-speaking world, as translations appeared including sympathetic articles on Sartre. To Gorz the Critique de la Raison Dialectique made history intelligible and offered a picture of the “only true model of ‘voluntary co-operation’ …the fused group”. If this might be considered a paradigm of self-management Gorz was also engaged with the social barriers to such change set out Marx’s theory of ‘alienation. The view that capitalist “heteronomy” — the domination of technical reason external to people’s needs — remained an important part of Gorz’s writing throughout his life.

In the midst of the 68 events Gorz remained committed to “revolutionary transformation of the present society by means of a range of intermediary objectives. In 1972 he discovered ecology, and what Gianinazzi, calls “matérialisme naturaliste.” Gorz published in the French green journal, Le Sauvage and produced Écologie et liberté (1977). Scarcity, as Sartre indicated in his Critique was a natural limit to development. Concerns about the danger of upsetting natural conditions led Gorz to back the green campaign against nuclear power. Pursuing his support for self-management he, like Cornelius Castoriadis extended the principle to wider social autonomy. He became interested in the writings of Ivan Illich, not just on “de-schooling society” but on the ‘abolition of work’. Gianinazzi suggests that the reason for the failure for the two to meet and make common causes lay in an angry exchange in the left press (“la polémique oiseuse” Page 211). One doubts if the founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie would have accepted a debate on the foot of equality with a professional journalist, least of all one advocating “intermediary objectives”.

Farewell to the Working Class.

Gorz’s best-known book is Farewell to the Working Class (1981). A Facebook friend suggests that most people never get beyond the title of this interesting, if contentious, study. It did indeed attack the “cult” of the Worker. But its analysis of the evolution of work is perhaps best seen not in relation to Marx’s theory of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat but to the earlier hopes placed in the self-management capacities of the “new working class”. The end of the traditional socialist project of emancipating the working class, that is its positive capacity to challenge ‘heteronomy’, had, according to Gorz, foundered in this class’s inability to master complex networked “post-industrial” production.

Next to the shirking privileged layer of skilled employees was a growing mass of unemployed and marginalised workers. “This non-class of ‘non-workers’ “has no transcendent mission, no unity beyond the experiences of those who compose it, no prophetic aura, no promise or capacity to reconcile the individual with the social, self and society. It is ‘the possible social subject of the struggle for work-sharing, generalized reduction of work time, gradual abolition of waged work’. In Critique of Economic Reason (1998) Gorz defined the autonomous sphere as the realm of non-commodity activities. (2)

Socialism became part of a wider movement against capitalist rationality. It was entwined with ecology as “Ecosocialism.” He joined with the “décroissance” movement to question the whole basis of economic growth. Yet his social concerns did not fade was. As Gianinazzi illustrates Gorz dropped the hostility he showed to Basic Income in Farewell. In the 1980s he co-operated with Maurice Pagat, the ebullient and — some considered — eccentric founder of the Syndicat des chômeurs (union of the unemployed). He became part of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN). His last work concerned the impact of information technology, and his L’Immatérial. Conassiance, valeur et capital (2003). It was said to be close to the Italian ‘post-autonomist’ theorists Paulo Virno and Tony Negri’s reflections on the Grundrisse and the ‘general intellect.” (Pages 311–312).

Lettre à D.

Une Vie closes with a portrait of Gorz’s final days. The writer’s wife, Dorine, had suffered for many years from great pain. She would never recover her health. Writing in the sublime Lettre à D Gorz described their profound love (Love letter that sealed a death pact). They could not bear to live separated, still less would he wish to follow her hearse to the Crematorium. Faced with this suffering, they had decided to “depart” together.

In September 2007 the couple jointly left the world.

On the final pages Gianinazzi asks us not to cover Gorz with adulation but to consider his works as materials to help create “une civilisation désirable de l’après capitalisme et l’après croissance” (post growth). That is the best testimony to the value of André Gorz that one could give.

André Gorz. Une Vie is highly recommended and will without doubt be translated swiftly.


(1) The New Agenda. André Gorz. New Left Review. 1990.1/81.
(2) Misreading Gorz. Finn Bowring. New Left Review 1/27/ 1996.

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