An obituary and overview of the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, whose early theoretical writings had a strong influence on the UK Solidarity group, among others.
John Barker is an ex-member of Solidarity and the Angry Brigade.
(By John Barker)
Cornelius Castoriadis, who died the day after Christmas 1997, was a tough and tough-minded intellectual and survivor of revolutionary politics who, more recently, gained considerable academic recognition. He was born in Constantinople and would have been part of the Greek exodus at that time of mutual ethnic cleansing between Greece and Turkey. By his own reckoning he began reading philosophy at the age of 13, an activity soon politicized by taking place under the dictatorship of General Metaxas. He became a member of the Greek Communist Party at the age of 17 but three years later, when the Party was gaining real power through its somewhat tortured relation with the mass resistance organisation EAM-ELAS, he became a Trotskyist. Another 3 years later in 1945, so the bald details go, he fled to Paris on both Fascist and Communist death lists.
Until a proper biography is written that is as far as it goes. In later years, commenting on his break with Trotskyism he talked of its misunderstanding of the nature of Communist parties with specific reference to the fact that the Greek Communist Party had gone for a coup d'etat in 1944. On a personal note, I met him very briefly in 1993 to help do an interview and then in a mad taxi dash to get him to the ICA on time for a debate. He was someone who had helped give me and many other comrades in the late 1960s the confidence to be libertarian socialists, but by 1993 I also knew many Greeks whose fathers and uncles had been murdered as communists by British-backed death squads in the period after 1945. The impression given in novels like Captain Correlli's Mandolin (based very much on the writings of British intelligence officers) had given a uniformly black picture of the communist resistance, but from the other side, Trotskyist writers had tried to rescue it from the Communist party and focussed on Aris Velouchiotis, himself finally murdered by the communists and EAM-ELAS as a mass organisation distrusted by the party for being an overhelmingly peasant organisation. I asked him about this in the taxi but he said it had all, all of it, Velouchiotis too, been Stalinist bullshit, that it was like that long before the return of the psychotic Nikos Zachariades.
I do not know what then it can have meant to be a Trotskyist in 1942-5 Greece, but am sure it would have been quite possible to be on the two death-lists of both sides. In Paris he got a job as an economist with the OECD, and from then on, with a three year break and later as a psychoanalyst, always worked professionally as he put it. At the same time, despite the professional job he did not gain French citizenship until 1970, which meant that in principle he could have been deported at any time with 24 hours notice. I mention this since most Western European revolutionary socialists have not had such experience, and to forestall any jeers or sneers at this man.
His break with Trotskyism in 1948 is well documented. It was occasioned by Tito's break with Stalin and the Trotskyist response to that but went further in its wholescale critique of the bolshevik model. This critique was developed in the group Socialisme ou Barbarie (a phrase I had always thought coined by Rosa Luxemburg rather than Trotsky for whom it is claimed in most accounts) and, looked at from now, was a great achievment in broadening out the critique of bolshevism to expressing a proletarian view of the world. Apart from Pannekoek's work in rescuing the history of workers councils earlier in the century, there was nothing else to go on, the history of the mass anarchist movement in Spain being still buried under a Stalinist blackwash( and of which Castoriadis might well have been sceptical given the ideological prominence of Bakunin, that bolshevik in anarchist clothing).
Writing under the pseudonyms Paul Cardan and Pierre Chalieu (I had no idea until years later that he was Cornelius Castoriadis or that he was Greek, or was living under immigrant status) this work gained practical urgency and material to develop with the uprisings in Berlin and Hungary, in which the working class organised as workers councils against the Communist party governments. The group also looked to wildcat strikes in Detroit for inspiration. The theorizing of these experiences had the great virtue of giving a boost to the working class's confidence in its own abilities. It pointed out that 'places of work had become the primary unit of social life for the vast majority of people' (true at the time) and that although some sociologists studies had shown how much workers self-organisation existed in order for factories to work, this could not be officially recognised since it would undermine managerialism. This surely touches a raw nerve of capitalist self justification (or self-admiration as it now is in an age of the manager as superstar), especially when it argued that this self-organisation was so much needed to deal with process fuck-ups and managerial mistakes.
What is especially impressive is that as early as 1957 he warned against fetishizing 'soviet' or council-type organisations. Constantly revokable delegates OK, but this in itself was no guarantee. "Such organisations," he wrote in characteristic style, "will be a true expression so long as people do what is needed to make it so." It is impressive when looking at the much hipper and well known Situationist International which, some time after this warning (to be followed later again by abuse of Castoriadis by the SI in its more-revolutionary-than-thou voice, as a 'specialized' thinker) discovered workers councils and fetishized them by default. Their acute descriptive analysis had for presecription just one or two paragraphs in which workers councils were baldly presented as the solution.
Socialisme ou Barbarie itself was never more than a small groupescule with two members in car factories, but with links to CLR James also making a break with Trotskyist orthodoxy, and which took a principled pro-Algerian stand from the outset of the national liberation struggle, something which again demanded a tough courage at that time especially given the rotten complicity of the PCF with the French state on the question. It finally split up on the question of whether it should be an activist organisation. Lefort and others thought it should not be, Castoriadis that it should, that otherwise the group would be producers of theory for passive consumers. This argument trickled down some years later into the English and Scottish organisation Solidarity (with close ties to S ou B)which I supported. Without I think putting on a rosy glow from hindsight, the activist West London Solidarity group in its support for the striking Asain workers of Punfield & Barstow (the first successful strike by Asian workers) behaved in exemplary fashion. The support was unconditional, non-recruiting, and tactically shrewd. It did I believe show that such activism was possible. Castoriadis saw it also in terms of responsibility. The group dissolved before the events of 1968 but its ideas for self-management against union and part bureaucracy were surely a part of the self-confidence of strikers and students alike. In 1972, two years after he gained French citizenship and could write as himself, and a year before he began training as a psycho-analyst, he wrote that 1968 marked the end of the historical centrality of the traditional proletariat, factory workers, that many many proletarians did not work and didn't socialize at work.
Apart from some work with Dany Cohn-Bendit to develop an ecological politics in which he remained tough minded, asking an anti-nuclear power meeting in Belguim, 'OK then you don't want nuclear power, what about electricity?', his overtly political engagement seems to have been slowly replaced by his position on an international academic circuit. He did not see his writing and talking in this world as a break with the past however, but kept banging away across a wide range of knowledges (certainly consistent in resisting the dynamic of ever more specialized knowledges) on the themes of autonomy, self-management, and the radical imagination. I would argue that this became somewhat sterile in its abstraction, and that his thinking is coccooned from other fertile developments in socialist autonomy, especially in Italy, and cut off from the daily life contestations he only theorized. I say this not in jeering tone or judgementally. His remark about the disappearing centrality of the traditional proletariat tells only one part of the story, it is part of and continues on from what I would baldly call the defeat of proletarian conscious aspiration in the West some time in the mid-seventies, which went with international capitalist use of the oil crisis (on which Castoriadis is I think naive in his ecological writings), the deliberate move to floating exchange rates, as well as the technological changes in production and shifting global geography of production. About this, what is actually happening in the world, and so well described by Sergio Bologna and Tony Negri for example, he says nothing.
I do not jeer about this because for one thing, unlike so many other theorists faced with this defeat, the displacement activity of his intellectual fight against determinism may I think have been sterile but never becomes soft-headed or romanticized flim-flam like Deleuze or Guattari and their nomads; nor does he rationalise neo-liberalism with mixes of chaos theory and hippy ideology as done by what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron call "The Californian Ideology"; nor shift to the other side and rationalize some third way capitalsim like so many Eurocommunists; nor mind-fuck a generation like Althusser; nor become a media school guru. Finally, sterile or not, he sticks to his guns and to the basic revolutionary tenet, and the one most denied by those with a stake in the way things are, that we are all, everyone, capable of changing the world. We can see this in the mirror of an awfully smug outfit called The Complexity Group and one if its theorists, Gunther Truebner, at a recent LSE conference (June 1997):-
"At a global level, the unpredictable dynamics of autopoiesis argues against the unrealistic view of those like Castoriadis who believe that it is possible to move world society in a desired direction via deliberative global democratic process. Autopoiesis is closer to the 'new polytheism' of Weber which suggests different rationalities have developed their own systems and that people are exposed to these ongoing rationalising processes without being able to control a super-process to control the systems."
It is good to see Castoriadis being singled out by this ideology which, like the Californian Ideology's more upbeat version from Kevin Kelly, happily ignores just how much of the world's resources are controlled by so few hands. As if he had seen Kevin Kelly and his dodgy analogies on the horizon Castoriadis says, "The hive or the herd are not societies." (Done and to be Done, 1989)
In the same essay he shows he is not stuck in anti-bolshevik groove when he attacks the pretensions of neo-liberalism:-
"The population plunges into privatisation, abandoning the public domain to bureaucratic, managerial and financial oligarchies...the public/public sphere is in fact, in its greatest part, private. It certainly is not so legally speaking: the country is not the domain of the monarch, nor the state the entirety of the servants of its 'house'. But on the factual level the essential features of public affairs are still the private affairs of various groups and clans that share effective power, decisions are made behind closed doors, the little that is brought on to the public stage is masked, prefabricated, and belated to the point of irrelevancy."
We see here the 'crony capitalism' of the US government and private finance capital's handling of the South East Asian crisis while it attacked the 'crony capitalism of that region; and we see, to paraphrase Guy Debord, that scandals are always revealed too late.
In short, Castoriadis is not, in judgemental language, a sell-out or a cop-out. He keeps going, but keeps going on the same song, that it is a whole tradition of determinacy that must be confronted. The attack on this tradition comes with his attack on Marxism that is first elaborated in the mid-sixties. Clearly he is right to attack those who have used Marx as a bible, on the dangers and stupidity of such an attitude. Right too on the marxist assumption of the development of the forces of production as a neutral process when technology from the point of view of what and for whom it creates is not so, nor in its impact on the development of production processes. But here his critique remains deaf, not taking on board the similar thrust of Panzieri's work, one also from the working class viewpoint but which is far more fruitful. This deafness, non-acknowledgement of the work of the Italian theorists of autonomy in general is extraordinary, a kind of complacency once he has made a wholescale rejection of Marxist thought which begins with an attack on 'Capital' for not acknowledging working class struggle and resistance as a primary historical force, which is then generalized into an attack on its determinism. The main accusation [being] that the Thesis on Feuerbach, that we are made by history but that we also make it, is betrayed by Marx.
To get there he makes the reasonable and obvious points about the 19th century positivist tone of that work (ironically an historically determined false need for a critique of capitalism to be scientific for it to be taken seriously), and its search for laws, but loads the argument in such a way so that he can, from then on, be once-and-for-all the non-Marxist theorist of self-organisation. The falling rate of profit for example is not a law but a tendency against which counter-tendencies work especially intensity of labour (he does not bother to unpick the ideological concept of productivity which mendaciously merges productiveness and intensity of labour). He simply turns his back on these tools which are especially useful in understanding what is going on in the world at present; does not bother with the emphasis on commodity fetishism that so informs Volume I; nor the relation between land expropriation and capitalist discipline so passionately described in the same Volume; and, when writing of ecological politics simply ignores the essential Marxist understanding of capital as being compelled to accumulate, and that being antithetical to the 'self-limiting' he sees as having become the necessary corollary to self-government in the present period.
Castoriadis greatly admired Kalecki's wonderful essay on discipline being of paramount importance to capital (even at the cost of short term profit losses) but then refuses to use this insight in looking at the state of things since the mid-seventies. Instead proletarian-imposed Keynsianism is seen as the definitively capitalist model despite its abandonment. He can only attack the cretinism of modern capitalist theory for ignoring Keynes, Kalecki and Sraffa. All this seems sad, a turning away from looking at the world as it is. True, the critique of Marx had pre-dated the defeat of the 1970s by ten years, but I can't help feeling that he didn't want to look it in the face or engage with those who from a similar starting point continued to do so, who took on the job of analyzing the new class compositions of a proletariat not defined by work, and their possible forms of self-organisation.
Neither is it just that tradition his later work seems cut off from. In looking at, and rejecting possible 'universals' he makes banal Chomsky's profoundly anti-etilist work that shows we are all capable with language. There is no reference to that whole critique of specialized knowledges (which he does add to) being linked to a tradition of anti-elitism coming from the Scottish Enlightenment. This cut him off from fruitful explorations of the relation between elitism and exploitation. Instead we are left with a bald axis of passivity/activity with much emphasis on the evils of TV, an axis favoured by the professional middle class, modern day jacobin/bolsheviks included.
Castoriadis never became a 'reactionary', and his work remained inspiring for artists creating a new language of spontanaity, witnessed for example by the great Ornette Coleman's admiration for his work which took practical form in designing the covers for his books. He remained acute on the awfulness of bolshevik type organisation in which 'worker comrades' should express only what is pre-occupying the workers in their sector of production. His attack on the bolshevik model whereby developing new ways of everyday living and doing were worthless till the revolution came, have rightly become common practice, created in large part by the feminist movement to which he is generous. His taking apart the fetishistic notion of 'societal collapse' is unmatched; and the argument that we should not be reactively involved to all the ins and outs of daily official politics still germane. But to have this collective self-confidence is not the same as turning your back on this regressive, ever more managerial capitalist world, an avoidance which did, I believe, make his later work schematic and sterile despite its ecelectic range of knowledge and argument.
This all sounds cold and perhaps presumptuous. In that brief hour in his company a few years ago he had extraordinary energy, but was also a very human seventy year old who, on our frantic taxi ride, said he was really in London to see an old friend in hospital, and had got the ICA gig to make a long visit possible. When we had safely got him to the ICA an elderly Greek lady was there, had come to meet him, and then it was him looking after her, making sure she felt comfortable in that super-cool establishment.