Andre Gorz, philosopher of freedom, sociologist of work, ecologist and democratic socialist, trade union adviser, journalist and for a time editor of Nouvelle Observateur and Les Tempes Modernes, took his life at 84 on the 24th of September together with his wife Dorine, 83, who was suffering from a degenerative disease. On the 25th he was about to appear on German Television to discuss his latest book, Lettre à D. Histoire d’un amour, published in 2006 — a testament of love to her and their 56 years together.
Gorz was a key mentor of France’s New Left. He took the idea of freedom and equality to areas that his very own mentor Jean-Paul Sartre feared to tread. His vivid writing and analyses became a major influence to most of us in the anti-apartheid and labour movement in South Africa: from Rick Turner to Cyril Ramophosa; from Eddie Webster to Blade Nzimande; from debates of the limits and possibilities of a democratic workplace to an unconditional basic income grant; from a critique of Marxism’s productivism to an ecological communalism; from notions of freedom from drudgery and work to the shortening of the working week, from job-sharing to the meaning of active and emancipated communities.
Gorz was also the celebrated journalist Michel Bosquet, who described in breath-taking detail the miseries of everyday life among working people, immigrants and the poor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But if Bosquet was a pseudonym for Gorz, Gorz was not Gorz at all. That was also a pseudonym for a Vienna-born son of a Catholic and a Jew who fled Austria when the Nazis took control. But in intellectual and literary circles (because he also wrote fiction) Gorz was to remain Gorz.
When I was a graduate student at Wits, the two Websters, Eddie and David, made me read his Division of Labour and his Ecology as Politics line by line, respectively. Delays in translation eliminated the six years (1973-9) between the two texts. The one pulled towards the meaning of a democratic workplace, the other towards an anti-industrial community-sensitive democracy. I learnt to appreciate their stern insistence about understanding this French guy and the contrary emotions of the two books later. My didactic/futuristic novella in 1992 — Etopia — a Week in the Life of a Worker in 2020 (Madiba Press) had his and their mentoring shadow behind each line, even though it described in detail an Inanda and KwaMashu of the future. The last South African to have met Gorz as far as I know was Langa Zita, of the parliamentary committee of economic affairs who almost convinced him to visit South Africa two years ago.
His Farewell to the Working-Class (1980) and Paths to Paradise (1985) were not appreciated at all here: the self-confidence and narcissism of the local scene with a rising and militant trade union movement, the heady days of the UDF, the debates between workerists and populists, all emphasizing the centrality of the working class or the black working class created a rather hostile environment for his ideas. The point of his Farewell was that the working class was not central to a politics of emancipation, that the emphasis on the world of production among Marxists was as problematic as the emphasis of business gurus on work discipline; that freedom presupposed emancipation from work. The “new” way was drafted into his Paths manuscript — a lyrical vision of a society without constraint, domination and control.
By the late 1980s major parts of his work were accepted by the trade union movements of France and Germany: that the 35-hour week and later the 30-hour week were a precondition for not only dealing with unemployment but also a precondition for a better quality of life for their members.
1989 saw the publication of the Critique of Economic Reason a text that has become central to any academic curriculum that deals with the “workplace” and its theorization. It was dense, demanding and uncompromising: it was the least popular book among graduate students of industrial sociology and psychology. A decade later came his Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, which dealt with exactly what the title implied — as one of my students remarked about its core point: “the workplace does not need you, so get a life and create sensible and meaningful work outside it!” — powered by a trenchant critique of neo-liberalism.
I am sure that many thinking people in South Africa will note such a passing with sadness: all humanists, democrats, socialists, communists, anarchists, ecologists, feminists, trade unionists, intellectuals and people troubled by the meaning of freedom in the contemporary world have learnt something from his compassionate engagement. The ageing couple ended their life in and through love at a time when what they believed in is not yet with us in this callous world.
Ari Sitas is a sociologist and a writer. He heads the School of Sociology and Social Studies at UKZN.