Castoriadis, Cornelius, 1922-1997

Cornelius Castoriadis
Cornelius Castoriadis

A short account of the life and politics of Greek libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis.

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2003

Cornelius Castoriadis was born Kornelios Kastoriades in Istanbul to a Greek family. Growing up in Athens he joined the Young Communists in 1937 and the Communist Party in 1941.

During the war he read "several books that had miraculously escaped the [censors] of the dictatorship: Souvarine, Ciliga, Serge, Barmine". He joined a group on the extreme left of Trotskyism, and was involved in the resistance to the German occupiers. At the end of the war he was physically threatened by both fascists and Stalinists, forcing him to leave for France. Here he joined the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, but broke with it in 1948. Along with Lefort and Lyotard, he helped set up the Socialisme ou Barbarie group,( S ou B) initially made up of ex-Trotskyists and ex-Bordigists, often writing in its paper of the same name under the pen names of Pierre Chaulieu or Paul Cardan.

He broke with Leninism, thinking that the revolution could be made only by the workers themselves, not by the party. Workers' councils would be set up in the early stages of the revolution. He did think that some form of revolutionary organisation would be essential, uniting the revolutionary forces, and that once the revolution began, the revolutionary organisation would have to fight inside the organisation of councils to stop possible Leninist take-overs. Similar ideas are expressed by anarchist-communists.

In the first issue of S ou B, the group denounced the Trotskyist characterisation of the Soviet Union as a "degenerate workers state". They developed this in No 2 and 4, applying a Marxist critique to the Soviet Union itself, saying that the Party bureaucracy had collectively taken over the means of production and surplus of labour. By 1960 they were saying that the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, defined as the need to reduce workers to simple order-takers opens a crisis which touches every aspect of life. From 1964 , in No 36 up to the last issue of the paper No 4, Castoriadis definitively broke with Marxism.

The S ou B group exerted their influence outside France with Correspondence in the USA, Unita Proletaria in Italy, and the Solidarity group in this country. Indeed, Solidarity published many works of Castoriadis under the name of Cardan, and he influenced many libertarian socialists and anarchists. The influence of the group was apparent also in May 1968 in France, even though the S ou B group had dissolved 2 years before. As D. Blanchard, a former member wrote in Courant Alternatif, paper of the Organisation Communiste Libertaire "...The activity of the group was not limited either to a critique of Stalinism or the publication of a review. On the theoretical level, the analysis of the bureaucratic phenomenon in Eastern Europe found its echo in that of the bureaucratisation of workers organisations - unions, parties - and in the bureaucratisation of the vital organs of capitalism, the State, business corporations. To this study largely contributed... the daily experience of comrades in the workplaces. Finally, very consciously, we were preoccupied with enlarging the field of political analysis in extending it, as had already been done by the workers movement in its most fertile moments, to the situation of women, of youth, the content of work, education, urbanism, leisure, consumerism, cinema etc.".

In his last period, Castoriadis directed himself towards philosophical investigations, to psychoanalysis. In this period, his lack of knowledge of current social events and movements led him towards a tentative defence of the West - because struggle still remained possible within it - against Stalinist imperialism.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union he revised his ideas, returning to a critique of market capitalism and globalisation. However, whilst he was full of sarcasm for the bosses and the madness of the system, there was a distinct streak of superficial sociologism in his writings. When asked whether the work abandoned by S ou B should be taken up again, he replied that, in the absence of a social movement that took on the critique of capitalism in its most modern forms, this was not possible!

The best of Castoriadis' thought lies in his radical libertarian vision which puts at the centre of a critique of capitalism , not economic laws or a fatal contradiction leading to its collapse, but the action of people attempting to take back their lives at every level.

Nick Heath

This article originally appeared in Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation



15 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by freemind on November 16, 2008

Re;Castoriadis! Could any comrade please inform me of any collective work by Castorides or the pick of his writings please?


15 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Devrim on November 16, 2008

ICC obituary:
Death of Cornelieus Castoriadis: Bourgeoisie pays homage to one of its servants

The bourgeois press, especially in France, has made a certain amount of noise about the death of Cornelius Castoriadis. Le Monde referred to it in two successive issues (28-29 December and 30 December 1997) and devoted a full page to it under a significant title: 'Death of Cornelius Castoriadis, anti-marxist revolutionary'. This title is typical of the ideological methods of the bourgeoisie. It contains two truths wrapped around the lie that they want us to swallow. The truths: Castoriadis is dead, and he was anti-marxist. The lie: he was a revolutionary. To shore up the idea, Le Monde recalls Castoriadis' own words, "repeated until the end of his life ". "Whatever happens, I will remain first and above all a revolutionary".

And indeed, in his youth, he had been a revolutionary. At the end of the 1940s he broke with the Trotskyist "4th International" in company with a number of other comrades and animated the review Socialisme ou Barbarie (1). At this time SouB represented an effort, albeit confused and limited by its Trotskyist origins, to develop a proletarian line of thought in the middle of the triumphant counter-revolution. But in the course of the 1950s, under the impulsion of Castoriadis (who signed his articles Pierre Chaulieu, then Paul Cardan), SouB more and more rejected the weak marxist foundations on which it had been built. In particular, Castoriadis developed the idea that the real antagonism in society was no longer between exploiters and exploited but between "order givers and order takers". SouB finally disappeared at the beginning of 1966, hardly two years before the events of May 68, which marked the historic resurgence of the world-wide class struggle after a counter-revolution of nearly half a century. In fact, Castoriadis had ceased to be a revolutionary long before he died, even if he was able to maintain the illusory appearance of one.

Castoriadis was not the first to betray the revolutionary convictions of his youth. The history of the workers' movement is littered with such examples. What characterised him, however, is that he dressed his treason in the rags of "political radicalism", in the claim that he was opposed to the whole existing social order. We can see this by looking at an article written in Le Monde Diplomatique in response to his final book, 'Done and to be done', 1997.

"Castoriadis gives us the tools to contest, to build the barricades, to envisage the socialism of the future, to think about changing the world, to desire to change life politically... What political heritage can come from the history of the workers 'movement, when it is now obvious that the proletariat cannot play the role of motor force that marxism attributed to it? Castoriadis replies with a superb programme that combines the highest demands of human polity with the best of the socialist ideal.. .Action and thought are in search of a new radicalism, now that the Leninist parenthesis is closed, now that the police-state marxism of history has fallen into dust..."

In reality, this "radicalism" that makes highbrow journalists drool so much was a fig leaf covering the fact that Castoriadis' message was extremely useful to the ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie. Thus, his declaration that marxism had been pulverised (The rise of insignificance, 1996) gave its "radical" backing to the whole campaign about the death of communism which developed after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of the eastern bloc in 1989.

But the real test of Castoriadis' radicalism had already taken place in the early 80s, when under Reagan's leadership the western bourgeoisie launched a deafening campaign against the military threat of the "Evil Empire" of the USSR in order to justify an armaments drive unprecedented since the second world war. And it was precisely during this period that

Castoriadis published his book 'Facing war' where he tried to demonstrate that there was a "massive imbalance" in favour of Russia, "a situation that was practically impossible for the Americans to amend". What's more this "analysis" was frequently cited by Marie-France Garaud, an ideologue of the ultra-militarist right and mouthpiece in France for the Reaganite campaigns.

At the end of the 80s, reality demonstrated that Russian military power was actually vastly inferior to that of the US, but this didn't puncture Castoradis' self-importance or silence the journalists' praise for him. Neither was this new. From 1953-4, even before he openly abandoned marxism, Castoriadis developed a whole theory that capitalism had now definitively overcome its economic crisis (see 'The dynamic of capitalism' in SouB 120. We know what happened after this: capitalism's crisis returned with a vengeance in the late 60s. So when a pocket collection (Editions 10/18) of the works of Castoriadis was published in 1973, it missed out certain not very glorious writings, which allowed his friend Edgar Morin to say at the time: "Who today can publish without shame, indeed with pride, the texts that marked his political road from 1948 to 1973, if not a rare spirit like Castoriadis?" (Le Nouvel Observateur).

The same Edgar Morin (who today is a very important person, an adviser to the Minister of National Education in France) went further in the 30 December article published in Le Monde: Castoriadis was not only a "rare spirit" but a "Titan of the spirit" (front page title).

For us, the only thing in common between Castoriadis and the Titans of myth is that they were both Greek. In any case, Castoriadis has had the homage he deserved: the unrestrained praises of the "politically correct" bourgeois press.

F, 2/4/98.


(1) In 1960 a British group, Solidarity, inspired by Socialisme ou Barbarie and Castoriadis, was formed. Although claiming to have gone beyond the "traditional left", Solidarity was never able to break definitively with leftism, whether its Trotskyist or anarchist varieties. It was initially active in the extreme left of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; it defended the shop stewards against the leaders of the trade union apparatus; and it took an ambiguous position on the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, at a time when there were no organised forces of the communist left in Britain, Solidarity's proximity to certain class positions did attract elements looking for a revolutionary coherence, as well as providing a retirement home for burnt out Stalinists, Trotskyists, and anarchists. It was those genuinely seeking clarification who, freeing themselves from Solidarity's swamp of confusion, were able to connect with the historical left communist tradition and form Revolutionary Perspectives (now the Communist Workers Organisation) and World Revolution. But the appearance of these groups also marked the end of Solidarity's temporary relevance. The reappearance of the economic crisis of capitalism, the resurgence of the class struggle, and the sharpening of imperialist tensions brutally exposed the theories of Castoriadis, while the groups of the communist left were able to provide a coherent marxist framework for understanding them.

Solidarity's death was, however, long and lingering. In 1976 it was given a certain transfusion of blood by amalgamating with a split from the SPGB to become Solidarity for Social Revolution. By 1980 it had reformed itself to become plain Solidarity once again, but the contents of its journal became increasingly apolitical. But it could not escape politics: it proved unable to survive the exposure of Castoriadis as an adviser to western imperialism, and finally expired in 1988.

Julien Chaulieu

13 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Julien Chaulieu on February 17, 2011

"In his last period, Castoriadis directed himself towards philosophical investigations, to psychoanalysis. In this period, his lack of knowledge of current social events and movements led him towards a tentative defence of the West - because struggle still remained possible within it - against Stalinist imperialism".

As somebody who has studied all of his works, alongside with Guy Debord and many anarchists-libertarian socialists, I can confirm that the above statement is utterly wrong.

Castoriadis never defended the west. This was a misunderstanding, based on a propaganda by the Greek Stalinist social-fascist party (Communist Party of Greece). In this interview-video (which is unfortunately only available in Greek) he claims that indeed USSR was oppressive and tyrannical but that doesn't mean we should defend the western capitalist powers which are similarly brutal towards the "Third World". The fact he abandoned typical socialist ideas, moving towards autonomy caused massive reactions to the (CPG).

In this interview stated the following:

"The western Societies are not just capitalist societies. If somebody is a Marxist will say that the mode of production in the Western world is capitalist, therefore these societies are capitalist because the mode of production determines everything. But these societies are not only capitalist. They are self-called democracies, (I do not call them democratic because I have a different definition on democracy), I call them liberal oligarchies. But in these societies there is a democratic element which has not been created by capitalism. On the contrary, it has been created in contrast to capitalism. It has been created while Europe was exiting from the Middle Ages and a new social class was being created, the what so called middle class (which has nothing to do with the capitalists) and they tried to gain some freedom over the feudals, the kings and the church. This movement is continuing after the Renaissance with the English Revolution in the 17th century, the French and the American Revolutions in the 18th century which resulted to the creation of the labour movement."

In fact, he appears to be very critical against capitalism, he uncovers the myth of "capitalism is the only system that works, the less bad", the dominant western approach. Nothing pro-capitalist here. On the contrary, he speaks out the truth that has been destroyed by stupid liberals

He talked about the imaginary also.

From Wikipedia

"This term originates in the writings of the french psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is strongly associated with Castoriades work. To understand it better we might think of its usual context, the "imaginary foundation of societies". By that, Castoriadis means that societies, together with their laws and legalizations, are founded upon a basic conception of the world and man's place in it. Traditional societies had elaborate imaginaries, expressed through various creation myths, by which they explained how the world came to be and how it is sustained. Capitalism did away with this mythic imaginary by replacing it with what it claims to be pure reason (as examined above). That same imaginary is, interestingly enough, the foundation of its opposing ideology, Communism. By that measure he observes, first in his main critic on Marxism, titled the Imaginary Institution of Society[13], as well as speaking in Brussels[14], that these two systems are more closely related than was previously thought, since they share the same industrial revolution type imaginary: that of a rational society where man's welfare is materially measurable and infinitely improvable through the expansion of industries and advancements in science. In this respect Marx failed to understand that technology is not, as he claimed, the main drive of social change, since we have historical examples where societies possessing near identical technologies formed very different relations to them. An example given in the book are France and England during the industrial revolution with the second being much more liberal than the first.

Similarly, In the issue of ecology he observes that the problem facing our environment are only present within the capitalist imaginary that values the continuous expansion of industries. Trying to solve it by changing or managing these industries better might fail, since it essentially acknowledges this imaginary as real, thus perpetuating the problem.

So, imaginaries are directly responsible for all aspects of culture. The Greeks for had an imaginary by which the world stems from Chaos and the ancient Jews an imaginary by which the world stems from the will of a pre-existing entity, God. The former developed therefore a system of immediate democracy where the laws where ever changing according the the people's will while the second a theocratic system according to which man is in an eternal quest to understand and enforce the will of God."

For his, the problems of our society are not just financial-economic problems. We build up a society based on imaginary needs and capitalism is responsible for that, but Marxism doesn't even do it better. So he proposed the idea of autonomy which radically opposes every form of government