Cornelius Castoriadis and the Politics of Autonomy.“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx. The Holy Family.
1844. (1) A critical look at the politics of Cornelius Castoriadis, around, and beyond these recent publications:
Castoriadis. Une Vie. François Dosse. La Découverte. 2014. Looking for the Proletariat Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing. Stephen Hastings-King. Brill 2014 Castoriadis. L’Imaginaire, Le Rationnel, et le Réel. Arnaud Tomès. Demapolis. 2015. Cornelius Castoriadis ou l’autonomie radicale. Segre Latouche. Le Passager Clandestin. 2014 Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort: L’expérience démocratique. Editor. Nicolas Poirier. Le Bord de l’eau. 2015. A Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology. Autonomy, Critique, Revolution in the Age of Bureaucratic Capitalism. Beta Version. Anonymous. 2016. Autonomie ou barbarie. Edited Manuel Cervera-Marzal and Éric Fabri. Le Passager Clandestin. 2015.
Cornelius Castoriadis (1922 – 1997) was a landmark figure on the French political and intellectual left. A philosopher, a political theorist, a professional economist at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), Castoriadis was a psychoanalyst (initially linked with the Lacanian school) to boot. He was also one of the founders, with Claude Lefort (1924 – 2010), of the group and publication, Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB, 1949 – 1965, the group dissolved in 1967) whose legacy continues to be debated on the left. As Dosse’s biography, Stephen-Hasting King’s study of SouB, the essays published by Poirier, and by Cervera-Marzal and Éric Fabri, Latouche’s pamphlet, and the philosophical study by Arnaud Tomes demonstrate, Castoriadis remains a preoccupation for radical left thinkers.
To his admirers Castoriadis was the major radical left thinker of the 20th century. After his death Alex Honneth, of the Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforschung, and a student of Jürgen Habermas, compared his stature to that of Herbert Marcuse and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He was, Honneth considered, a significant figure within the tradition of ‘Western Marxism’ that “tired to save the practical-political intuitions of Marx’s work through a resolute abandonment of its dogmatic kernel.” Edgar Morin, co-founder of the ‘heterodox’ left wing journal, Arguments (1956 – 1962), and for decades a respected figure on the French centre-left, wrote a vibrant tribute in le Monde in 1997. For Morin, Castoriadis’ path-breaking contribution to the left stemmed from his belief that “the continuation of Marx requires the destruction of Marxism, which had become, through its triumph, a reactionary ideology”. As Castoriadis put in 1962, to remain revolutionary one had to ditch Marxism. After the collapse of ‘Eastern’ state Marxism and Marxism, both geographically and theoretically ‘Marxism’ Western or otherwise, has further fragmented, geographically, theoretically, academically and politically. Where does it now stand? (2)
Castoriadis remarked in 1992 that, “the wholesale collapse of Marxism has been obvious to me for more than thirty years.” There was nothing worth salvaging in it. “We reject the Marxian insistence on “grounding” it in the “laws of history,” or attributing it to the workers’ movement if only, simply, because this movement is no more than one of the many interest groups that are fighting within rich capitalist societies”. Today 90% of the people could be expected to support the “project of autonomy”. Leftism can pass by not only Marxism, but also the concentration of this special constituency as a historical lever within democratic socialist movements. (3)
On the left Castoriadis is unimaginable without Socialisme ou Barbarie, although it was far from the mouthpiece of one individual. SouB offered an analysis of changes in the post-war Western capitalist society, the structures of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’ in the Eastern bloc. It tried to develop, with limited means, an emancipatory practice within the working class. Jacques Julliard in his influential history of the French lefts has described SouB as “remarkable”(Les Gauches Françaises. 2012) Amongst its achievements it offered a pioneering analysis of “Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration” and, breaking from its Trotskyist origins, “put into question the leading role of the Party in the revolutionary process”. It was, he goes onto declare, one of the “inspirations” of May 68. (4)
Other assessments have been no less unwilling to describe SouB as a significant current within key developments of the second half of the 20th century. Boltanski and Eve Chiappelo’s The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999) placed Castoriadis and the review within the challenge to authority that arose in the late ‘60’s. They identified it as part of the ‘artistic critique’ of capitalist alienation, the market society’s deformation of people’s wills and creative abilities, in SouB’s view reflected in the division between those who give commands and those who carry them out. Demands for “autonomy, spontaneity, authenticity self-fulfillment, creativity, life” took precedence over older attacks on capitalist exploitation and demands for state measures to remedy their effects. In Mai 68, l’héritage impossible (2002) Jean Pierre Le Goff describes the enduring insights offered by Castoriadis and his comrade Claude Lefort, from SouB to their later work. Their critique of Marxism and totalitarianism and the affirmation of the democratic potential of new forms of political struggle had a completely different statue to that of the “simplistic” anti-Marxist ‘nouvelle philosophie’ of the late 1970s (5)First Biography.
Nearly two decades after the Greek-French philosopher passed away Castoriadis: Une Vie (2014) (CUV), is his first biography. Une Vie opens with Castoriadis’ birth in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1922. His family were amongst the Greeks forced out of Atatürk’s Turkey and obliged to re-establish their lives in Athens. In 1937 Castoriadis joined the Youth Wing of the Greek Communists, and the party itself, the KKE, in 1941. He was swiftly a dissident, and part of a Trotskyist grouping around one of its competing leaders, Agis Stinas (1900 – 1997). After studies at the University of Athens – where he displayed an interest in Max Weber as well as being attracted to Marxism – he obtained a grant to study in Paris. In December 1945 Castoriadis left for France.
Castoriadis would later say that the experience of the authoritarian side of Greek official communism, combined with reading of dissident Marxist works by authors such as Victor Serge, left him prepared to defy any orthodoxy. Thus armoured he had no intention of dropping out of left activism. After finishing his academic studies he was employed as an economist for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Out of a very dissident current within French Trotskyist politics, led, with Claude Lefort, he formed SouB in 1949. Leftist political activity was abandoned in the 1960s, with the final dissolution of the group in 1967. He continued his engagement through prolific writing. Castoriadis had joined the École freudienne de Paris in 1964. Opposing the psychoanalytic views of its founder Jacques Lacan in 1969 Castoriadis left and participated in a different body, the Quatrième groupe. Retiring from OECD in 1970, he became a psychoanalytical analyst in 1973. During that decade, marked by the publication of L’institution imaginaire de la société (1975) and the collection and reprinting of SouB texts, his writings reached a wider audience, including academic circles. Castoriadis began to lecture and teach, eventually becoming part of the École de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).
François Dosse is a historian of ideas. He has written a study of the hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricœur, who at Nanterre University was both supportive and at the receiving end of May 68 protests. Ricœur was a thinker with whom Castoriadis, he notes, enjoyed a relationship of “mutual esteem”. Dosse made a mark with the study of two other difficult thinkers in Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari. Biographie Croisée (2007), theorists whom Castoriadis did not hold in equally high regard. The professional philosopher and the radical psychiatrist’s joint writings, most notably L’Anti-Œdipe (1972) are celebrated for the theory of ‘desiring machines’, and critique of psychiatric approaches to schizophrenia. In their philosophical-political works such as Mille Plateaux (1980) they advocated the “creation of concepts” a “box of tools” (boîte à utiles). One of their most famous was the rhizome, a metaphor for the way ideas giving off stalks and shoots.
The pair had very distinct lives. Guattari’s was studded by engagements which brought him into contact with the ‘alternative’ French and European left, while Deleuze stayed largely within the Academy. The chapters covering their intellectual odyssey are held together by themes rather than time-lines, the creations of their “agencement” (their collaboration). One critic suggested that the Biographie Croisée resembled a “Polar”, a whodunit that ends up with the investigator uncovering Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual apparatus. (6)
With this background Dosse is well-equipped to tackle another difficult subject in which the development of theory looms large, politics stand centre-stage, and psychoanalytical theories play a significant part. Castoriadis Une Vie is not a detective story nor is it arranged by concepts and arguments. The biography has a largely linear framework, within which the intellectual content often develops its own momentum. There is nothing resembling the Deleuze-Guattari tandem: Castoriadis’ important political and intellectual relationship with Claude Lefort was not a fusion of minds. To Dosse there was both “dialogue and confrontation” between the group’s top figures. Their work, political and theoretical, in the early 1950s ran a close parallel course, with Castoriadis the acknowledged chief in the Review, There was a split (1958) in SouB, renewed co-operation in the late 60s to the mid-1970s, followed by further falling outs. By the 1980s their political and theoretical approaches had diverged considerably. Yet it is, when we consider the nature and limits of democratic politics in the project of autonomy, hard to come to terms with the one thinker without the other.Labyrinth.
To cover the different aspects of Castoriadis’ life, in which this was only one, but significant element, is not an easy task. Dosse uses the metaphor of a “labyrinth” (taken from the title of some of his collected writings, Les Carrefours du labyrinthe 1978 – 1999) to describe the intricate passages of his thought. Nevertheless, for the author, if Castoriadis never created a ‘system’ his ideas are “roborative” (tonic) and still form part of a “coherent bloc” resting on the theme of autonomy.
This suggests that we should follow his guiding thread through the different routes that his writings developed. Dosse also manages to convey a sense of the day-to-day detail of an intellectual’s existence – a hard feat – without losing attention of the important issues at stake. In view of his interest in relations of authority, one would have wished for more information about the Economist’s career as a high official in charge of scores of subordinates in the OECD. By contrast, there is a welcome wealth of detail on Castoriadis’ life in SouB and on the left. Castoriadis’ role as a theoretician and a potential political leader, as a dominant force within SouB, was, electric. Dosse cites member and contributor Sébastian de Diesbach, who said that this “extraordinary “ (hors du commun) individual was “Plato, Socrates, power did not interest him” (7)
Une Vie also notes Castoriadis’ polemical excesses during disputes, inside, or outside SouB. André Gorz talked of a drive to stand out as the only really critical thinker in the French left-wing intellectual village. A ‘force of Nature’, the biography ends with warmer tributes from the ranks of those affected by Castoriadis’ efforts to rouse his contemporaries and assume the full depth of the political dimension of human existence. (8)
Castoriadis Une Vie is more than a life history. François Dosse considers that Castoriadis’ writings were milestones on the way to emancipatory politics. Beginning with an implacable critique of official Communism Castoriadis first sketched an alternative, socialist self-management, a realm of possibility from the creative roots of a society at present warped by bureaucratic capitalism. Often neglected in academic circles, a “marginal” an “outsider”, Castoriadis, for Dosse, is an enduring source of inspiration, both theoretical and political. From a critique of “heteronomy” – the rule of alienated institutions – the groundwork for much broader liberating social arrangements emerged. As an often-employed explanation begins, autonomy, that is, ‘auto’, self, ‘nomos’, law, is the pursuit of a world where we make our own rules and order our own lives. Dosse considers that with this goal Castoriadis’ historical and psychoanalytical gaze helped open up the social imagination to the possibilities of a more convivial life beyond a “foreclosed” future dominated by profit. From SouB onwards, there was a consistent democratic drive, outlining the contours of “radicalised” self-determination through the “socialisation” of all decision-making.
Not everybody was, or is, convinced of this picture. Claude Lefort came to doubt the possibility of such a sweeping re-ordering of society. In the 1970s he posited the way it conceived the lifting of restraints on autonomy. With the introduction of self-management “the idea of being together, producing together, deciding and obeying together, communicating fully, satisfying the same needs, both here and there and everywhere simultaneously, became possible as soon as the alienation which ties the dominated to the dominator is removed; it is as if only some evil and complicit servitude had for centuries or millennia concealed from people the quite simple truth that they were the authors of their own institutions and, what is more, of their choice of society. If this is believed, there is no need to confront the problems posed on the frontiers of the history that we are living through.”
Jürgen Habermas trenchantly stated that Castoriadis entrusted “the rational content of socialism (that is, a form of life that is supposed to make autonomy and self-realisation in solidarity possible) to a demiurge creative of meaning, which brushes aside the difference between meaning and validity, and no longer relies on the profane and no longer relies on the profane verification of its creations.” He was unable to “provide us with a figure for the mediation between individual and society”. For Alex Callinicos this “voluntarist social theory” ended in what he considered, “wilfully obscure” writings, that began with L’insitution imaginaire de la société (1975). This book was “merely one example of a general trend in contemporary social theory, which was to detach Marx’s philosophical anthropology from historical materialism and transform it into a general theory of action positing a transhistorical human capacity to overturn social structures.” Perry Anderson dismissed Castoriadis’ political and theoretical ambitions as a “pious cult of creativity.”(9)Approaches to Castoriadis’ Ideas.
Castoriadis’ relationship with the organisation and publication, Socialisme ou Barbarie should be the starting point of grasping his politics. SouB was a wider project that extended beyond his own imprint. No discussion of the philosophy and politics of autonomy can ignore the group, whose participants and activity extended beyond him in was engaged in efforts to intervene in the working class. Stephen Hasting King’s invaluable Looking for the Proletariat draws attention to SouB’s political projects and to other figures than Castoriadis. In Lefort’s writing and the activity of Daniel Mothé, the plan developed of recording “worker experience”. Lefort found his bearings in the work of his teacher, the existentialist-phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. But the project of revolutionaries as “phenomenological observers” and the activity of a militant and his allies in the famous Billancourt car plant next to Paris was more than an attempt to register life in the factory.
SouB, King argues, went beyond, outsider’s plunges into working class life, represented by say Simone Weil’s 1930s plunge into the world of work (published posthumously in 1951 as La Condition Ouvrière). It was inspired by the first-hand account of class struggle in the car-industry The American Worker (1947: Paul Romano and Ria Stone – Phil Singer and Grace Lee Boggs – of the Johnson-Forest tendency, associated with C.L.R.James), which SouB translated and published. Mothé, who was to publish his own Journal recording his life at work (Journal d’un Ouvrier. 1959), was to develop reflections on the changing role of activists and how they might politicise everyday worker experience. Mothé came not only to outline how being such a “militant”, contesting both employers and unions, was a metier. He observed that their concerns were increasingly detached from non-factory political issues. One of the few members of SouB to consider the pre-Communist-led CGT ‘syndicalist’ trade unionism, he noted the erosion of their demands for control over the workplaces.
These and other SouB interventions were linked to practical political-class demands centred on activism, and not the product of industrial relations studies, ethnography or cultural studies. Tribune Ouvrière, a worker-activist paper was one result of their approach; intended to be a feedback loop co-ordinating and developing autonomous struggles. The basis lay in new types of informal organisation of “elementary groups” of workers, the co-operation needed to sustain production in the post-war phase of automation, and the unintended reaction against Fordist plans and Taylorist norms. King makes the point that for Lefort and the group, ‘autonomy’, initially referred to “strike actions that workers carried out beyond the control of, and in opposition to, the bureaucratic trade unions and political parties” It developed into “direct-democratic forms of self-organisation” Whether their strategic conclusions went far beyond opposition to all forms of authority, from bosses to unions, remains an open issue. Nevertheless many consider this not only a creative response to the post-war changes in work (in contrast to the traditional bread-and-butter demands of union activists) but perhaps one of the first efforts to develop a left-wing industrial politics that was not reduced to efforts to capture trade unions from the ‘reformist’ leadership and mobilise workers behind (their) party-led vanguards. (10)
In this view, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism was that it both needed workers’ creativity and yet sought to regiment it to order. Workers would always react to this, from the most modest refusal to obey or to doge round rules, to outright rebellion. Taylorism and other forms of managerial rationalisation, the post-war processes – the hey-day of “Fordism” – could never be imposed without day-to-day efforts by workers to maintain and improve their conditions as they saw fit. At some point these conflicts would condense into more global confrontations that would take a political edge. Francis-King draws these into their objectives, “A defining characteristic of this new form of political action was the reappropriation of direct-democratic worker councils. Workers’ councils formed within a sequence that moved from wildcat to an unlimited general strike. For Socialisme ou Barbarie, this sequence was a plausible trajectory for moving from worker control over production to that of society as a whole. The demands formulated by the councils linked the actions back to conflicts that unfolded in everyday life at the point of production.” This self-management became defined as the “content of socialism”, based on workers’ councils (‘soviets’) and not on planning and nationalisation, in one of Castoriadis’ best-known articles of the 1950s. (11)And the Broader Independent French Left…
In accounts of SouB there is a tendency, which for all his merits King tends to reflect, to ignore other left independent currents that developed during the same period. Nevertheless the activist left of the period ended by forming a material embodiment of the New Left way beyond the review’s ambit. Bolstered by not just Suez, Hungary but in the developing struggle for Algerian national liberation, and the crises that culminated in a potential military take over in 1958, ended the Fourth Republic and brought de Gaulle back to power with the Fifth Republic, finally succeeded in creating an organised expression of their ideas, and a place where they hoped to be effective as a political force, the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU). This was the party that left a lasting trace in French politics, its anti-colonialism, support for autogestion, early championing of green issues and feminism, making it a magnet for a thick forest of leftist, radical reformist, democratic socialist ideas and individuals.
SouB was hostile to the founding tendencies of the PSU. It loathed the centre-left politician Pierre Mendès France who became associated with the party on the basis of its fight in defence of Algerian independence. It was, from its own creation in the 1940s, hostile to Yugoslavia, a model with some attractions to PSU members, SouB saw ‘Titoism’ as a variant of bureaucratic capitalism, despite its adoption of self-management in the 1950s. SouB’s dislike went beyond particular political stands, to the criticism that its founding currents stood candidates in Parliamentary and other contests. The fusion of a group of anti-parliamentarian ‘Bordgists’ with the organisation in the early 1950s, which may help explain how this attitude developed. If SouB was alone, that is, stood aside from this central part – intellectual and activist – of the developing new lefts, this was its own choice.
In the recent and valuable history of the PSU Quand la Gauche se réinventait (2016) Bernard Ravenel outlines the role of their key strategist Gilles Martinet, in promoting self-management in the context of a national – democratic and participative – “counter-plan”. Ideas, which influenced the PSU about autogestion, developed in relation to the theory of the “nouvelle class ouvrière” the new working class, devoted to research, and the preparation and organisation of production. This layer, to Serge Mallet, and other theorists such as André Gorz who placed its productive role within the terms of Marx’s concept of alienation, had a degree of “professional autonomy” (comparable to pre-mass production skilled workers). It could be the social base for wider autogestion. Castoriadis and SouB were resolutely hostile to the industrial sociology underpinning this approach, and its emphasis on the leading role of technicians and qualified workers. They pointed, as we have already cited, to another potential in informal but essential ‘elementary groups’ of workers at all levels of production. Castoriadis considered this a potential challenge to management’s existence. It is not surprising, collecting these views together, with their harsh stand against electoral interventions on the left, that SouB would not participate in the career of this central actor in the 1960s and 1970s French New Left. (12)
If SouB offered a series of important reflections on the evolution of bureaucratic capitalism, workers’ struggles, and self-management, its politics were sterile. They would appear to belong to the category of leftist groups known for permanent opposition. The range of their targets, within the left itself, was immense. To cite a typical statement by Castoriadis, “For a century the proletariat of all countries has been setting up organisations to help them in their struggle, and all these organisations, whether trade unions or political parties, ultimately have degenerated and become integrated into the system of exploitation. In this respect it matters little whether they have become purely and simply instruments of the State and of capitalist society (like the reformist organisations), or whether (like the Stalinist organisations) they aim to bring about a transformation of this society, concentrating economic and political power in the hands of a bureaucratic stratum while leaving unaltered the exploitation of the workers. The main point is that such organisations have become the strongest opponents of their original aim: the emancipation of the proletariat.” As “cogs in the machine” of exploitation and capitalist command they had to be constantly fought. Whether all at the same time, or only in the shape of their individual representatives, this is a hefty task. (13)Castoriadis: from SouB onwards.
Internal clashes, and eventual scissions, began soon after SouB began publication, in 1951-2, reached one climax with Lefort’s departure in the late 1950s and resumed, in the wake of Castoriadis’ 1961 announcement that he has surpassed Marxism. In all these disputes one theme was to the fore: how can we organise to create this new society ? Was it a matter of linking together workers’ protests into one big surge that would challenge bureauratic capitalism, or was a party or a more closely knit form of organisation required ? Amongst the many issues that preoccupied Catrodis himself was the nuts and bolts of running an egalitarian society that could emergence from a succesful revolution in Le Contenu du socialisme (1979, from 1950s SouB originals). This was an effort he was to abandon to the decisions of the autonomous associated individuals in L’insitution imaginaire de la société (1975).
The approach to the ‘reforms’ offered by these associations also has the attractive characteristic of never being provably wrong. Nobody was able to offer the prospect of self-management. Nobody has found as way of abolishing the distinction between directors and executants. Nobody has solved the problem of bureaucracy. Nobody has abolished ‘heteronomy ’ and instituted personal and social autonomy.
Castoriadis himself moved on. Modern capitalism, he began to claim in the early 1960s had thwarted any attempt to constitute an independent class working movement. The emancipation of the proletariat was not on the cards. He was to announce, in lines that Dose, but not all of his admirers, take account of, that the whole world was becoming ‘totalitarian’. In Modern Capitalism and Revolution (1961) he reached his apogee. “Thus modern societies, whether “democratic” or “dictatorial,” are in fact totalitarian, for in order to maintain their domination, the exploiters have to invade all fields of human activity and try to bring them to submission. It makes no difference that totalitarianism today no longer takes the extreme forms it once took under Hitler or Stalin or that it no longer utilizes terror as its sole and special means. Terror is only one of the means by which power can break down the resilience of all opposition, and it is neither universally applicable nor necessarily the most profitable way of achieving its ends. “Peaceful” manipulation of the masses and the gradual assimilation of any organised opposition can be more effective.” (14)