C.L.R. James and the Fate of Marxism - Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

A lecture delivered under the auspices of the C.L.R. James Society, the Africana Studies Department, Wellesley College and the Afro-American Studies Department, Harvard University at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 4 April 1992. I thank Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the C.L.R. James Society for giving me the opportunity to address these matters that I think are very important as well as very difficult for all of us.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on April 10, 2023

Although I am of Greek origin and was brought up in Athens, the first person to speak to me about Athenian democracy in relation to today’s problems was C.L.R. James, a black expert on cricket and a revolutionary from Trinidad. Although aspects of the above relation were addressed in Correspondence, it is also a subchapter in our book Facing Reality.1

In order to situate the things I want to say, you must realize the predicament in which people like James and myself, despite twenty years difference in age, and lots of others who joined the revolutionary movement found themselves in the forties and the fifties. I do not know how or when James joined the revolutionary movement, but I joined it during the second half of the thirties, at the age of fifteen, and immediately we found ourselves facing the monstrous deformation of the revolutionary ideas of Marxism itself that was holding sway then in the form of the Communist Party and Stalinism. As you know, Stalinism, a form of state power, was not only able to manipulate people, appear as the realization of socialism, and to lie worldwide, it also killed tens of millions of people inside and outside of Russia. So we found ourselves facing this monster; and rather quickly, at least I think so, the most subversive or the most crazy amongst us felt that we had to break with Stalinism. Once you broke with Stalinism, the first avenue opened to you was Trotskyism and that is the course James and I took. And then at some stage, as James used to say he was a wonderful speaker and his sense of dialectical development was always there and alive when he spoke one began to see that Trotskyism was not all that satisfying and that the theory about the degenerate workers’ state and the unconditional defense of the USSR was not holding water. So one started to criticize Trotskyism, and it is at this point that James and I met. Thus, while James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee formed a group within Max Shachtman’s Workers Party and then went on to James P. Cannon's Socialist Workers Party, our own group, which I founded with comrades from the French Trotskyist Party from which we split in 1948, started producing Socialism or Barbarism and attempting to build a new organization. Despite our differences that remained, we stuck together for a while. However, once we split with Trotskyism, the question arose: What could one do with Marxism itself? This was the most difficult part of the journey, which is over for me. For others, it is not. Yet, even if that stage of the struggle was over, the question remained: what next? If you want to remain active as a revolutionary, if you want a radical transformation of this bloody society with all its inequalities and injustices, nonfreedom and so on, despite the more democratic facade, what next? And there, I think after 1957 or 1958, James and I parted company.

Let me start with what I considered the tragic fate of Marxism, and then I'll say something about James. First of all, what one observed empirically was that after a while Marxism became the pretext for a lot of people for example, the Stalinists and the Social Democrats who, most of the time, proclaimed they were Marxists and the cover for politics and policies that had nothing to do with what generally were the initial potentialities and aims of the working-class movement and also the initial intentions of Marx himself. With that, one started to ask why was this so and how was it possible? The point I reached around 1960, culminating in 1965 with a text about Marxist revolutionary theory that appeared in Socialism or Barbarism (later becoming the first part of The Imaginary Institution of Society), is that from the beginning there was a deep antinomy in Marx’s thought. Perhaps one can formulate this antinomy in the following manner: two elements struggled with each other. At the end, one element took over in the name of Marxism. Up to a point, the influence of these two elements remained active with James, at least up until the moment I was in communication with him in 1958.

Why am I talking about two elements in Marxism? Marx had this fundamental intuition that men, or as we would say today, humans, make their own history, but they make it in given conditions. This is an absolutely correct and unobjectionable idea. However, the problem is to know what these conditions are and how far they only condition or really determine the activity of the people. With this went the first element, what I call the revolutionary element, the extraordinary importance he gave to the self-activity of the people. For instance, in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, one observes the attention Marx gave to the manner in which the French workers would gather in their bistros and talk, and one could see their lives on their faces. In one of his later writings, one sees the famous sentence proclaiming that one concrete step in the effective movement is worth much more than ten thousand programs on paper. So, too, was his recognition of the tremendous importance of the Paris Commune, which he initially condemned, but, when he saw its activities, immediately recognized as what he called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Next, there is the other element: that is, Marx’s contamination by and participation in what I call the capitalist or Occidental imaginary of this period. This is expressed in what one can call Marxist rationalism, in the deprecatory sense of the word, which expresses itself at the economic level the attempt to build a Newtonian mechanics of capitalist economy in Das Kapital, an attempt that does not succeed; in the theory of historical materialism that one can find, for instance, in very closed form in The Preface to the Critique of Political Economy where one gets the final truth about human history in three pages; in the determination of the superstructure by the infrastructure and so on. Also, what I find very important is this belief in the centrality of production and economy in the society. For Marx, the idea of communism and the important historical role of the proletariat is based on the central role of the proletariat in production. Also, his idea of a socialist or communist society is based necessarily upon the idea that it is only when the productive forces of a society reach a certain level that one can speak about the liberation of humankind. I ask, what is this necessary and sufficient level of productive forces? The level of productive forces we have in the 1990s, at least in the developed countries, is a level of which Marx never dreamt. The development of production over the last century was a hundred times more than the development of the productive forces between the paleolithic and Marx’s period. So, what is the necessary and sufficient level of the productive forces to ensure this liberation? To my mind, this is one indication of Marx’s serfdom to the capitalist imaginary, which one can trace back to Western rationalism. For example, if one follows historical materialism, or Engels for instance, one would find what I call the imaginary or the beliefs of precapitalist societies to be primitive nonsense (Engels’s phrase). Why is it that the beliefs of African peoples or of the American Indians are primitive nonsense but Christianity, with its idea about a virgin bearing a child and remaining a virgin even after the birth, or three persons being one and one person being three, is not primitive nonsense? What is behind this? It is a purely rationalistic conception of progressive history whereby people become more and more rational; it is a total misunderstanding of the imaginary creation in human history whereby each society attempts to construct a world, to give meaning to its own existence and to the life of individuals in it, and to make sense of what is going on around. We try to make sense in various ways, which contain a rational component but which in the end hang more or less in the air. Behind all of this there is naive progressivism and also this philosophy called dialectical materialism. By the way, Marx and Lenin never spoke about dialectical materialism; this is a Stalinist invention. When you try to find out what is really materialism in Marx, Engels, or in all materialist philosophers, you end up with the idea that there is something they call matter that is ruled by strict laws. This is the basic tenet.

Now, if one turns to any idealist philosopher who is worth his/her salt, one will find that s/he agrees totally with the notion that everything is ruled by rational laws. The only difference is that at the horizon one speaks about matter without being able to define what matter is; or one shifts the burden of the definition to science, thus continually changing the definition of matter as poor Lenin does in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where he starts by saying matter is what I can touch and then he says that it is electrons because by then the latter were discovered. On the other hand, the idealist Hegel says that the essence of the world is spirit. Now, what is spirit? Neither the former nor the latter could define matter or spirit. But the common point in most traditional metaphysics is the belief in these rational laws that determine how the real develops, evolves, appears, and so on.

However, what is worse in Marxism and even in Marx himself, despite his personal attitude when he noted in a famous sentence that he was not a Marxist, was a strict adherence to his own orthodoxy.2 I think that the catastrophic effect of Marxism, which became apparent already with Social Democracy but mostly with Leninism, was the introduction of this concept of orthodoxy within the working-class movement. What is orthodoxy? Orthodoxy is what is defined in the books. But the books do not speak for themselves and even if one records the books on electronic contraptions and one has a cassette, there will be discourse. Yet the question remains: what is the meaning of this discourse? You have to interpret. Ah, but who interprets? This is a predicament that the Muslims, Christians, and Jews have had for twenty-five hundred years. If everybody can interpret, then everything is lost. To prevent this, we have one instance who is the true interpretative instance, for example the Catholic Church or the Party. If you have orthodoxy and one instituted instance that is the guardian of orthodoxy, then the people who do not agree are heretics. For the salvation of the heretic's sake, for his or her own salvation's sake, you must burn him or her at the stake, because it is the only way to purify his/her soul. So, the revolutionary heretics must be brought in front of the court, confess their crimes, and be killed in the basement of the Lubianka and thereby expiate their crimes. This was the main root of the trouble with the practical effects of the influence of Marxism in the workers’ movement, effects that were reflected in the most cruel and monstrous forms in Leninism and Stalinism. This was also present in social democracy even though as social democracy evolved this tendency started to get watered down but then everything became watered down in social democracy, so it is not worth talking about. Now, we have a socialist party ruling France and when they named the new Prime Minister, Monsieur Pierre Bérégovoy, the immediate effect was that the stock exchange went up, because they were confident that Monsieur Bérégovoy would manage the French economy well and that the value of the franc would remain stable possibly at the cost of another half million unemployed, but that does not matter, of course. The important thing is that our inflation be less than that of the Germans.

Now about James. Let me introduce some autobiographical elements here. In 1947, I came to know of the existence of the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the United States when I was still in the French Trotskyist Party, at a time when we were all preparing for the Second World Congress of the so-called Fourth International. The main item in this Second World Congress was the famous Russian Question, which was really the crux of all the division and discussion in the Trotskyist movement. The questions were asked: What is Russia, and what is the essence of the Russian state? As you know, the classic Trotskyist answer was that it was a degenerate workers' state. In Greece, but especially in France, I had developed a position that Russia had nothing to do with a workers’ state and that the nationalization of property, and the so-called planning, had nothing to do with socialism and with true collective planning but were just instruments of the rule of the bureaucracy. In fact, the bureaucracy had become an exploitative and dominant class. Unknown to us, the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the United States (Johnson was a pseudonym of James, Forest was a pseudonym for Dunayevskaya, and Ria Stone a pseudonym for Lee) were doing the same thing.3 They were producing papers criticizing the official Trotskyist position and advocating the theory of state capitalism. The funny thing is that while we agreed on our criticism of the Trotskyist position and on the essence of the Russian state, we did not agree on the label with which to name the thing. They were talking about state capitalism while I was talking about totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism. Perhaps it is of no interest to enter into a discussion about why we were calling the same phenomenon by different names. However, the main point was that in talking about state capitalism, one was taking into the bargain the obligation, more or less, to show that the Russian economy was functioning along the lines of the capitalist economy, along the presumed laws that Marx had discovered in Das Kapital.

The person in the Johnson-Forest Tendency who was very adamant and insistent about the conception of state capitalism was Dunayevskaya, the economist of the group.4 Her articles in The New International show the weaknesses of her position. For instance, she was trying to find increasing unemployment in Russia. Why? Because in a capitalist economy there must be increasing unemployment. But there was no unemployment to be found. So Dunayevskaya pulled a terrible rabbit from out of her hat and said: But what about the people in the concentration camps? So I said, That's nonsense. The people in the concentration camps are not there to wipe out increasing unemployment. They are there for totally different reasons. Another weakness in the position of the Johnson-Forest Tendency was the attempt to sustain the old Marxist classical economic position about the falling rate of profit which, for me, as a trained economist, was already a sort of Loch Ness monster, a sea serpent. What is the falling rate of profit and how is it grounded? It cannot be determined empirically, one cannot prove it theoretically, and it contradicts the other tenets of Marxist economic theory. Despite these differences and especially through Grace Lee, who stayed almost eight months in Paris during 1947-48, I became acquainted with James and the whole Tendency because we were looking in very much the same way at what appeared to us as the main thing: the self-activity of the working class. I had written two texts in Hegelian jargon – I apologize for mentioning them, but as Stendhal says, that was the crystallization point in a sort of intellectual love affair between Grace and me – in order to explain to Grace Lee where I stood. One was called The Phenomenology of Proletarian Consciousness and the other was The Concentration of Productive Forces. I was trying to show that through some sort of self-development, combined moments of experience, moments of alienation of this experience, and moments of new – what I would now call creation, the proletariat evolved from what it was in the beginning (sheer raw material for exploitation) to become a self-conscious working class. This working class then becomes organized in a party, then is dominated by this party, and it finally breaks away from this party which becomes totally counter-revolutionary of course. I had in mind the Leninist-Stalinist Party to create a true human socialist society. Grace was delirious about the first text and I am sure that she sent it on to James.

This collaboration continued and the material traces of it exist. No text of James’s was published in Socialisme ou Barbarie, but from the first number of the latter there is a translation of The American Worker, a pamphlet that the Johnson-Forest Tendency produced. The first part was an account of the life of Paul Romano, a Detroit automobile worker. As a result, for the first time there was something that was absent totally from the entire Marxist tradition and from Karl Marx himself except in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: that is, the acknowledgment that being a worker does not mean that one is just working or that one is just being exploited. Being a worker means living with workers, being in solidarity with other workers, living in working-class quarters of the city, having women who are either workers themselves or, if they are not, their predicament is the same or even worse than that of the men. But the really tragic aspect of a worker's life appears in the second part, in which Lee speaks about the contradiction in a worker’s life. On the one hand, s/he hates the factory and the work; on the other hand, s/he cannot help being drawn there, not just to earn his or her livelihood but because it is a community and this was their [the Johnson-Forest Tendency] idea of the invading socialist society. The pathetic part of this description comes when Lee speaks about the retired workers, about sixty-five years old or so, who cannot but go back to haunt around the walls of the factory just to smell the atmosphere or to see fellow workers coming out of the factory and to chat with them. We translated The American Worker in the first six numbers of Socialisme ou Barbarie, and then we circulated another pamphlet that Lee and the other women of her group had written, A Woman’s Place, an ironic play on the old jest that a woman’s place is in the kitchen or with the children and so on.

There was a divergence between us in 1948. We, in France, decided to quit the Trotskyist party, but Lee and James were not in agreement with us. They decided to stick with Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party, but two or three years later they left because it proved to be a hopeless enterprise to change the Trotskyists. Then things started to accelerate. We came out of a period of historical gloom whose nadir was the Korean War period. It was a time when nobody was moving. Then there were strikes in France, automobile strikes in the United States (1955), and the dockers’ strikes in Britain. We were talking about all these things and then finally there was Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU.

In 1953 James was deported. I think he went to London before going to Ghana. I went to London to meet him in 1954 or 1955, and we started to discuss things together. We had lively exchanges and agreed on most things. Then James came to France in the spring of 1955 and we had a joint meeting in Boulogne with exposé by James, Lefort, me, and other people in our group. Out of this discussion came number 20 of Socialisme ou Barbarie which is full of material. Nothing in this number is written by James, but then I do not believe in private property in any field (except for toothbrushes) and especially not in the field of ideas. This issue effects a give-and-take there, then, and although there is no James text as such, the ideas certainly bear the mark of this exchange.

Then there was the Hungarian Revolution, and James came to Paris and spoke to our group while I acted as an interpreter both ways. He was a wonderful speaker. I hope you understand the praise I want to give to him. When he rose to speak, it was as though you suddenly had Louis Armstrong himself taking the trumpet and doing a wonderful solo. He was extremely moving, capable, articulate, lively, and he conveyed his message forcefully. After this I went to London to see James. He proposed and I accepted that we produce a pamphlet that ultimately became Facing Reality. Around 1950, I had moved far beyond the Leninist conception of the party. I was absolutely sure that this conception was at the root of the totalitarian revolution in the USSR, but James and Lee were stuck with it. This was the most lively part of our disagreements and discussion in this period. Nonetheless, I contributed pages 90 to 105 of Facing Reality although they were edited a bit and perhaps vulgarized in some sense by James. My contribution contained a criticism of the Leninist vanguard conception, and it advanced the idea that there is no vanguard. Any vanguard is a vanguard at a certain moment. There is no permanent vanguard of which you can say that it is always ahead or that it always has the most important ideas. That controversy represented the end of my relationship with James. I do not remember all the details but he decided to publish the pamphlet in 1958 and I became rather angry with him.5

I think, however, that the antinomy about which I spoke in Marx, though attenuated, still remained in James until the time we parted in 1958. On the one hand he had this wonderful sense of the self-activity of the people, and he was able to translate it in universal terms that were not absolute universals, if I may use this expression. Also, the women’s contribution to his group was very important. Sometimes I used to mock them and tell them that for them the real bearer of the revolutionary project was a black girl working as an unskilled automobile worker in Detroit. They would laugh, but there was the perception of this important point about the woman’s position and the black position in the struggle. And James saw a reflection of this in the strikes in Western European countries, in the Polish and Hungarian events, and in the movement of colonial peoples who, at the time, were intensifying their struggle. I remember the extremely important discussions we had together about Ghana and Kenya. For me, it was a sort of changing point in my way of seeing things, because by virtue of what James had to say about the way the people in Ghana and Kenya were organizing their struggle, I was able to overcome the classical Marxist conception that argued that these people had to go through industrialization, become proletarians, and so forth, before they could contribute to the emancipatory movement. Through this, I was able to see that if there is to be a solution to humanity’s predicament, it could only occur through some sort of genuine synthesis between what people in the rich, developed, industrialized countries have to offer and what people in the so-called backward countries have to offer, especially as community links go, views of solidarity between human beings go, views on what in human life is worth, and so on. This was the kernel of what was extremely important and, to my mind, positive in James’s thought. This sense of the struggle of the people was already there in The Black Jacobins, an important book, and James was able to carry it over when he spoke about modern capitalism.

Yet, remnants of Marxism also were still very much apparent in James’s thought at that time. He insisted, and rightly so, that the most important thing was the workers’ struggle at the point of production. Now, if one takes this point seriously, it completely destroys the Marxian conception of economics and this is what I have done. Excuse me for being modest. If one takes seriously the idea that the important thing is the workers’ struggle at the point of production, then the first thing you see is that labor power is not a commodity. But all of Das Kapital is built on the assumption that labor power is a commodity. Labor power as a commodity is what the capitalist would like it to be and what he tries to do with it (and cannot). He can extract as many calories as technology allows from a ton of coal, but he cannot extract as much surplus labor as he would like from a worker's day because the worker resists, the workers coalesce, and thus emerges an informal organization of the workers who are opposed to the formal organization of the factory according to the management’s plan. This informal organization both allows the workers to limit the actual exploitation and, this is the paradoxical thing, allows capitalist production to go on. The proof of this is that if you want the whole thing to collapse immediately, you just have to have everybody work to rule. If they work to rule, nothing works. If the airline pilots and the airport personnel started working to rule, I would never be in Atlanta tonight as I am planning to be. If you take this seriously, then the whole Marxist position about labor power and economic laws and rising rates of exploitation go down the drain. And that’s true. Or, the other point about the invading socialist society, a very important concept that I remember discussing with James and Lee. The idea is, that elements of socialist relationships are already forming within the capitalist society. We named our group’s periodical, Socialisme ou Barbarie. They said that we should have named it Socialism and Barbarism. And that's the idea behind the invading socialist society.6 In a certain sense the two things go together. There is a part of the truth in it: that is, despite the efforts of capitalism to commodify people, this never succeeds and people resist, although in 1992 perhaps one would be less strongly affirmative about the failure of capitalism's efforts to commodify people. Or, at least, if not to commodify them then to get them stuffed with pseudo-commodities and forget or almost forget anything else. If, therefore, on the other hand you talk about the invading socialist society, then you keep something which is there in Marxism and which is part of what is wrong with Marx. You keep the apocalyptic, messianic streak; the idea that there is a definite end to the road, and unless everything blows up we are going there and we are bound to end there, which is not true.

In relation to the messianic aspect, I want to speak of one more point that you may not like at all. Together with this messianic streak, both in Marx and in James, went the Christian reference of Jesus on the Mountain: blessed be the poor, for to them belongs the kingdom of heaven, that is, the idea that there is a historical privilege of the poor, the downtrodden, and so forth. I do not think this is true. Of course, there is a negative historical privilege of the class whom we can symbolize in the names of George Bush and Lee Iaccoca. There is nothing to expect from them except what they are doing. But for the rest of the society, apart from all the considerations about the developments in the economy which mean that you cannot talk anymore about the proletariat as the hegemonic class, or the subject of history and so on, I believe that democratic politics, revolutionary politics, politics toward an autonomous society must appeal to ninety-five percent of the population in the society today. And these are not necessarily the poorest, or only the poor, or only the downtrodden. They are in all fields. We saw this in France in 1968 when, leaving aside the students, in factories where the workers were on strike and where the Stalinists did not prevent them from occupying the factories, where people were active and mastered the situation, the general assemblies combined, the workers, the technicians, the engineers, and administrative personnel. Only the president director general was not there. Only when all workers in the widest sense of the term get together can they reorganize production so that the products are shared more equitably and production is made more efficient while, at the same time, the toil of people is lessened.

I will end with another provocative streak. Athenian democracy which, as I told you, James was the first to speak about in relation to contemporary society, was started almost twenty-five hundred years ago by the revolutionary reforms of Cleisthenes. Cleisthenes was not a proletarian. He was a member of one of the most powerful and most aristocratic families in Athens. You might impute to him motives that are not pure and say that he introduced democracy in order to outdo the other rival aristocratic families. I do not think this would be true, but at any rate, this revolution would have gone nowhere if the Athenian demos had not been there to support it, to keep it alive, and to carry it forward for more than a century. But still the initiator was an aristocrat. From this analogy, there is something we ought to keep in mind and that is that virtually the whole of humanity should and ought to struggle for a transformation of society so as to make it more human.

Questions and Answers

Winston James: I want to raise a number of questions. I found the presentation very stimulating, very interesting and I am very sympathetic to its overall thesis. But there are certain elements within it which I find rather problematic. The first one is this extrapolation which seems to have taken hold, that of seeing Stalinism and so-called totalitarianism in Eastern Europe as having its roots in Marx. I really think that this is an extremely problematic thesis to argue, and I am not by any means convinced by all of it. I was quite astonished that in your presentation one of the crucial elements which helps to explain the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union was not mentioned at all. And that was the fact that the Russian revolution occurred in Russia. It did not occur in Germany, it did not occur in Britain, it did not occur in France, it did not occur in an advanced capitalist society, even if we stick to relative terms. Yes, there are problems here such as what we mean by developed, etc. But what is very clear is that in 1917, Russia was by no means as advanced in terms of the development of the productive forces as was Germany. And, indeed, they were depending upon Germany to save them from France or Britain. And I think that the material basis and there is a rationale to that type of argument actually conditioned some of the possibilities of that society and created conditions that were more conducive to the development of some of the things that we saw in Russia. And I could elaborate on how that happened, but I just want to make the basic point: I do believe that any serious analysis of Stalinism or totalitarianism in Eastern Europe has got to take that into account. One also has to take into account that the Civil War actually destroyed the cream of the Bolshevik party; some of the most dedicated, the most selfless, the most energetic members of the Bolshevik party sacrificed their lives during the Civil War in trying to defend the country and maintain the revolution. I think those things are crucial elements in understanding the rise of Stalinism.

I agree fundamentally with your argument about rationalism in Marx, and I argued at the James Conference on the logic to which that pushed someone like James in terms of what I would regard as a profound level of Eurocentrism in his argument. On labor power, I'm surprised that you regard the idea that labor power has got this other characteristic to it, this living quality to it, as something of a departure from Marx, because I don't think it is so. It’s there in Marx. That’s precisely the contradiction at the heart of capitalism, the fact that you have a commodity that is alive of course, it is a commodity but it's alive but it is also a commodity. It is something that is bought and sold, but it's alive, it has passions, it has feelings, it has pains, it gets sick, it has joys, and Marx always recognized those aspects. So I don’t see anything particularly new in your formulation and I certainly do not think that is a stick that one should use to beat Marx with.

Rick Roderick7 Since I am more sympathetic to Marx, I will comment on the issue of living labor although I would not do so at length. Harry Cleaver, my favorite economist, has a wonderful account of how, by ignoring other things in Marx which is nothing unusual for a text we enjoy reading, if you wish to one can reconstruct a class struggle-based Marxism which by analogy looks something like various versions of chaos where one can reconstruct many Marxist categories based upon this autonomous workers’ power. But the critique that I think James would share with Cornelius is that official Marxism, including academic Marxism, has totally underestimated the heterogeneous power of workers to defy being commodified, and time and time again that has been overlooked in production. For me, that’s the important insight on which we may agree. I’ll let Cornelius address the Stalinism issue since I am not a Stalinist.

Castoriadis: I'll try to be as brief as possible. Of course, Marx knew that a working day was not like ten kilograms of sugar, but that is not the question. He was no fool. The question is what does he do with this fact in his economic theory. One has to be serious. Labor power is a commodity. Now a commodity has no say about its own price. A hamburger never told me, No! no! no! You can't buy me for one dollar, you must add ten cents. And a commodity has no say about the use-value which you want to extract from it once you’ve acquired it. On these two points, labor power cannot be regarded as a commodity; but it is upon treating labor power as a commodity that all of Marxist economic theory is built.

It is built around the idea that workers have no say about what Marx calls the value of their labor power, and that’s why he has the theory about the rising rate of exploitation. Otherwise where do you draw this from? But there has not been a rising rate of exploitation, at least in advanced capitalist countries, because the working-class struggle raised the value of labor power or the standard of living of the working class and brought down the length of the working day. In Marx’s time, we started with a working week of seventy-two hours or more and now we are at forty. The same thing is true about the use-value of labor power. Without this, we would have an increasing rate of exploitation, and you would have all the other things that follow from this, including the rising organic composition of capital and so on.

As to the first part of your argument, I feel as though I was Rip Van Winkle, coming back to the world forty years after because your arguments are the very arguments that Trotsky developed during the whole of the 1930s. James, Lee, and I thought that we had refuted those arguments as early as 1945, but I will give you a very short rehearsal of our refutation. First of all, I didn’t say that the roots of totalitarianism were in Marx. What I said is that what was catastrophic in Marx was the idea of orthodoxy and this could lead to totalitarianism. The proof that Marx is not the cause of totalitarianism or the condition of it is the fact that one has social democratic governments which, whatever one may think of them, are not totalitarian governments. Lenin is the true creator of totalitarianism, a position he states long before the revolution in 1903. If you take the pamphlet, What is to Be Done, you have the idea of a party which, at the same time, is a small army, a church because of its doctrinal orthodoxy, and a sort of factory because there is a division of labor and everybody obeys what the higher authority says. This is the model that is in Lenin’s head. When 1917 arises, you have this fantastic contradiction that up to October 15 Lenin, in hiding, writes State and Revolution in which you do not find the word party. You will find a utopian description not of an Athenian but of a modern polis where every cook can govern. And then he takes power and who are the groups who govern? Before the Civil War, Lenin and the Central Committee behave in an absolutely dictatorial way, and Lenin says we must purify the Russian land of all this vermin who are the people who don’t agree with us. And that’s there.

With regard to the argument about Russia being a backward country, how do you know what would have happened if Germany had done the revolution in 1919? I tell you that Leninism would have come up stronger, not weaker. Why is it that in France up until ten years ago a majority of the working class followed the Stalinist party? Is France a backward country? And it is not only France. Italy and lots of other countries have a Stalinist party. So, I suggest you look at the literature again, at the exchange of arguments that have been made, and you will find that Trotsky and the Trotskyists were saying that it was impossible for Russia to extend the regime outside of Russia because with the extension of the regime, the isolation of Russia would have broken down and the regime would have collapsed. But they happily installed themselves in Czechoslovakia, which was not a backward country, in Eastern Germany, which was not a backward country, and even Hungary, which was not a backward country; and they remained there until there was a revolution by the population or other reaction.

Paget Henry: I was intrigued by the critique that you articulated and the sense of progressivism associated with it. That has been such a basic part of the dynamics of Western history. I was curious as to how you see history now. As you look ahead, particularly as we see the formation of three capitalist blocs (the Japanese, the European, and the North American), it seems that the power of a rationalized capitalism and the likelihood of the greater commodification of social reality will occur, a possibility that Marx explored when he discussed technology and automation. It seems to me that this side of Marx is on the ascendancy, so I was just curious about what you think history would look like beyond this point.

Roderick: One advantage and one reason I still have trouble dropping the word Marxist from the various things I call myself is that unlike many theorists of the present age, Marx has an account of the reality of commodification just as well as he has an account of the commodification of reality. I think that's a nice dialectical way to state it. For example, J. Baudrillard has one of those accounts but not the other. I think we do need to take seriously the commodification at that level of what might be called the cultural critique of commodities, especially in the advanced countries. I think that's a wide-ranging topic. Marxism isn't the only approach to that topic, but it's a topic that I have been trying to work out so I’ll have to leave you a footnote. This is a topic where a reading of the Grundrisse, based on some new premises, might yield some very nice results. But this seems to me to be an important topic because the commodification of culture from where we draw our meanings and where, after all, we may establish our political personae and identities, if one can imagine a complete commodified limit to that situation, looks bleak indeed. And in that context one feels compelled to quote the first sentence of William Gibson’s novel, The Neuromancer: The sky above the port is the color of television tuned to a dead channel. I don't want to be that pessimistic, but that's the landscape of a commodified culture where the political, not only living labor I was speaking there in the progressive sense of humans, but as consumers and as human beings and many other things if those meanings drop or become simply more goods for sale, that's the part of the critique where I think Marx is still very useful.

Castoriadis: Certainly the problems which our friend raised are very important, serious-looking and threatening. It's not just the commodification of social reality. That’s one thing. The other thing that goes with it is the privatization of individuals. It's the withdrawal of individuals from political and social affairs. It is the waning of social and political struggles, which are not there anymore in the rich countries of the West. There is no political opposition. There are two ruling parties which are the same thing and there are no important workers’ struggles. Of course, there are some struggles in society: the women’s struggle, the struggle of the minorities, and so on. But, in general, one has the impression that these struggles tend to be marginalized and that the ruling strata go along their way in the middle of increasing apathy, cynicism and so on, and a feeling of helplessness on the part of society. And this is our predicament today. I don’t know what history would look like, or looks like, given the present conditions. Whatever happens, we have to struggle against this sort of thing.

I would like to make one final point. Marx was and still is a great thinker. But he’s one among many great thinkers and it would be ridiculous for us, if we call ourselves revolutionaries or whatever, whenever a problem comes up to go to Marx to see if there is a place in which one can find the answer. This is such a ridiculous contradiction in terms. You want to change the world, and you have to find an answer in Marx. It is absolutely incredible. It's a sort of theoretical suicide, a self-condemnation to radical sterility. You get some inspiration from Marx but you can also get some from Hegel, Aristotle, Hobbes, Spinoza and lots of other thinkers and then you go along and try to create ideas which more or less find an encounter with today's reality and which can help us to go further.

Clinton Jean: I have a lot of questions but we don't have enough time. I am very happy that the last speaker raised the question of what your view of contemporary history is. I was thinking that one of the important things about the study of historical materialist conditions or conditions from that approach is that it tended to unify the rise of capitalism with the exploitation of the Third World countries. When I was a younger man and read about nineteenth-century colonialism, I got the impression that these folks left Europe, went to the rest of the world, colonized it, ripped it apart and so on, and I was wondering what people were doing when this was happening. Lately, it has begun to strike me that we are now witnessing a situation where the United Nations has turned into a white man’s club. You've got a bunch of people such as John Major and others who sit there and before them are brought questions as to what to do with General Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein and while these are not my personal heroes, it seems to me that it’s astounding that the head of a state could be arrested by a major power and brought to trial in another country. I was wondering how you put things like that into the picture, and extending your own remarks about the commodification of reality, it seems to me that at the moment, there has developed a kind of strange coincidence of the flow of history between what used to be called the Soviet Union and contemporary American society where Soviet Russia, as it used to be called, which made a mistake in trying to think that a country had to go through socialism or whatever to arrive at some kind of human condition. This was a serious error. It’s not so much that Stalinism grew out of Russian conditions or from the very beginning there was something in Lenin that misdirected them into serious authoritarian overkill and so on. I feel that if you think that to get to a humanist socialist system you need to have an abundance of the basic goods, you were bound to go in the direction that Russia did. It's no wonder that we see this situation where the United Nations does not represent a cultural plurality of world voices. I wonder if you could extend the comment that you made in response to the last question.

Roderick: Let me preface my remarks by saying that I think it's an excellent question and I also agree with what Cornelius said about Marx, that one didn't have to look up everything one had to say in Marx. On colonialism in particular, you would not want to take much comfort from Marx on the British in India, for example. I doubt that's a part of Marx that many of us would want to endorse. In terms of what I see as a kind of global power elite, based in the core and I still want to call them capitalist countries because I am not going to call them utopias, capitalist countries are a sort of white man’s U.N. Club, Bush's New World Order and, in its incipient outlines, it seems to me, that as far as I know we've done about all we can to denounce Stalin and the Soviet Union. I thought they were gone. I’m going to turn the rest of my career towards attacking the pseudo-democracy in this country and the gap between its practices and its promises. I mean, the Soviet Union is gone. Dialectically as it were, it may turn out that we needed the Soviet Union to show the heterogeneous and differential groups in struggle that it couldn’t work. Now that they are gone, after a period people may say, Well, what the hell! Maybe we should try something new. So, it may be that the Soviet Union played a certain role in stabilizing our own power, and it may end up in this new multipolar world that the power elite may miss the Soviet Union. They may end by calling on Stalinists to return to take over. By the way, Bush did something like that in China. Certainly, Bush’s support for China looks that way to me. I'm going to devote my energies to criticize this society where I happen to be.

Castoriadis: I think one ought to have no illusions about the U.N. or any other such organizations. In theory, Lenin always thought in terms of the relationship of forces. In realpolitik, you will see that there is a relationship of forces in the U.N. It is not even a white man’s club, although many white men are members of the club. There are the three groups you talked about in fact, Europe is not much of a group but you also have the force of the rest of the world in the situation it has been left in by both colonization, half-colonization, decolonization and half-decolonization which are muddling through and not going anywhere.

And that's the actual situation. That it's rather bleak, there is no question about it and I wouldn't want to make a forecast that everything we do will be all right in the end. The point is not to make a forecast. It is to see the situation we are in, the problems that we have to address, and to keep on working.

Azinna Nwafor: Unfortunately there is not enough time to do full justice to an account that one finds terribly tendentious and schematic; an exemplary instance of what used to be known as cathedral Marxism. Let me raise two questions: First, you said that one of the reasons you felt you had to leave Marxism was because of its shortcomings. The question to this then is how do you address people like Georg Lukács who said that they had to remain within the movement to exercise any kind of influence on what is called underdevelopment; influence not only politically but also intellectually and theoretically as well. It's a red herring when you say you are not looking for answers in Marx. One of the most creative developments, what in fact I've called an ahistorical movement, was found in people who remained within the movement and Antonio Gramsci would be an instance of this. In any case, how do you address such questions?

My second question addresses your comments on the colonial movements. You found finally there was a revolution in Ghana which presumably went against the dogmatic instance of mechanical development, but in fact they found out that the hope for socialism exists because China, India, and Africa constitute the largest segment of the world's population and that the grasp has to be found in what has to be seen as the weakest link in the chain of imperialism, not necessarily that they [these countries] had to develop to a certain stage, but that they constitute the weakest link in the chain. Also in the answers which Marx gave to his Russian questioner when he was asked, Does it mean that Russia also has to go through all of this? To which he replied: No, they don’t have to go through that. These were all there long before the Ghanaian Revolution. Why do you continually insist upon what is seen as a schematic movement in development?

Castoriadis: First of all I was terribly schematic, not tendentious, because I had to say in twenty minutes what I have written in three thousand pages. So, if you think you could do better, that's fine. Second, it's funny that you bring up the sentence by Lukács which says one must remain within the movement in order to influence it. This proved to be suicide for Lukács. Lukács was an important theoretician in 1919-1923 when he wrote History and Class-Consciousness (1923). After that he became silent, he became a lackey of Stalin, he didn't open his mouth. He wrote this ghastly book in 1948, The Eclipse of Reason, which is the purest zhdanovian book written by a philosopher and that was the fate of Lukács who wanted to remain within the movement. Which movement? At the time of Lukács, already, you could ask and that was also true for Jean Paul Sartre and a whole bunch of other intellectuals – what is a movement? Why was this the movement? It was the movement because it had guns and prisons. And Lukács and Sartre and all the other fellow-travelers were bowing, not before the working class, but before state power. But, at the present time, what is the point of your question? Which movement should I remain in? Where is it?

As to the third point of your question, I did not say that I discovered the colonial question when James talked to me about Ghana. I said that this was a triggering point in my mind to see that colonial people could display this self-activity, self-mobilizing and self-mobilizing stance which, in classical Marxist terms, only the proletariat could achieve. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that the Russian revolution degenerated because Russia was a backward country but Marx knew that backward countries as well can make a revolution. It’s either one or the other. I said that contrary to what Marx and Lenin thought about colonialism and racism. Marx condemned half of the European population (the Russians, the Slavs, the Hungarians, the Rumanians, the Czechs) as inferior in his foreign policy article, and Lenin’s position was that the masses should revolt under the leadership of the party. James called for the self-mobilization of the masses, and that was the important thing. And this self-mobilization, according to strict Marxist theory, could only be the task of the industrial proletariat which is not true, and, if true, would doom all revolutionary movements, since the industrial proletariat properly speaking is today a vanishing minority.

Winston James, an assistant professor of history at Columbia University, is the editor of Inside Babylon. Paget Henry, chairman of the Afro-American studies program at Brown University, has coedited C.L.R. James's Caribbean with Paul Buhle. The late Clinton Jean was the author of Behind the Eurocentric Veils. Azinna Nwafor wrote the introduction to George Padmore's Pan-Africanism or Communism. [Editor]

  • 1Castoriadis was one of the authors of Facing Reality (1956). [Editor]
  • 2Marx's famous sentence, I am not a Marxist is usually quoted out of context. When shown some writings by people in Germany who were saying they were Marxists, Marx retorted, If this is Marxism, I am not a Marxist. The clause is conditional. He was a Marxist. Both the events in the First International and the construction of the German Social Democratic Party demonstrate that Marx was a very strict adherent to his own orthodoxy.
  • 3We all used pseudonyms at that time because the police were much less tolerant than they became afterwards, especially for people like James, who was an alien and finally was deported, and for myself, who was an alien in France who could be deported within twenty-four hours without any legal recourse.
  • 4See Dunayevskaya’s letter to James, 22 September 1947, reproduced in this volume. It might be useful to contrast these remarks with those of Lou Turner in this volume, Epistemology, Absolutes, and the Party. [Editor]
  • 5Castoriadis's source of anger seemed to have come from the alacrity with which James published Facing Reality without fully working out the ideas contained in the pamphlet and without having Castoriadis's final approval to publish his section in the pamphlet.
  • 6In 1947 James, Lee, and Dunayevskaya published The Invading Socialist Society as a pamphlet of the Johnson-Forest Tendency.
  • 7Rick Roderick’s lecture, Further Adventures of the Dialectic, was delivered on the same occasion as Castoriadis's lecture. In this exchange he also responds to the questions that were asked from the floor.