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Cornelius Castoriadis and the Politics of Autonomy.

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Note: this is long, but because the developing interest in Castoriadis concerns more than small academic circles I am posting it regardless. 

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.


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)

Modern Capitalism and Revolution was the beginning of more pessimistic balance-sheet of the labour movement, which ended with Castoriadis placing ‘Marxism’ as a whole in the camp opposed to autonomy and self-management. This critique, originally published in SouB as Marxisme et théorie révolutionnaire (1064) formed the first section of the book eventually published as the L’institution imaginaire de la société (1975). Castoriadis’ criticism of determinism, technological and ontological, which is far from original, can be discussed. That is the claim that Marxism makes the development of technology the motor of history, “attributes to it an autonomous evolution and a closed and definite meaning. “attempts to submit all of history to categories that have a sense only for capitalist society in developed countries, whilst the application of these categories to previous forms of social life poses more problems than it solves” “is based on the hidden postulate of a human nature considered essentially unalterable, whose predominant motivation would be an economic motivation. (15)

It is far harder to discuses the remainder of the book. Instead of a workers’ movement channeling the distinction between those giving orders and those carrying them out, we have a vast, transhistorical perspective. This ‘projet de autonomie’ is embedded within economic and historical explorations, interlarded with set theory, psychoanalysis, Castoriadis’ opinions on linguistics, and explored in the depths of social and individual being. The work was the foundation statement of Castoriadis’ mature theory. It offered a theory  of social and subjective ontology – further puncutated by neologisms, and displays of his knowledge of clasical Greek, which no doubt would impress graduates of the École Normale Superière but leave most people cold, as Callinicos and many others, have found. Unless one considers that the Greek language of the ancient world  has a special quality of truth-showing, they are less than helpful. The study claimed to unearth the self-creation of society, from the  psyche  to the ‘ social imaginary’. It laid the ground for a strategy of complete social transformation, without any extra-social ‘guarantee’ or final truth, or indeed, mundane detail.

To get to grips with the full range of problems this book raises is not easy. In his study of Castoriadis’ philosophy, Castoriadis, l’Imaginaire, le Rationnel et le Réel, Arnaud Tomès displays the full repertoire of this “obscure” terminology. For Castoriadis the clay of society is moulded by the “social imaginary”, the constitutive element of human societies. This arises from the original ‘chaos’ of Being. Social representations paper over its Abyss, Chaos. To use Castoriadis’ own words, the  ‘magma’ of human existence, “a non-ensemblist diversity”, becomes replaced by ‘imaginary’. The imaginary is not the ‘false’ representation of the world, but the human capacity to create meaning, to picture, to conceive,  “to the extent that the imaginary ultimately stems from the original faculty of positing or presenting oneself with things and relations that do not exist, in the form of representation (things and relations that are not or have never been given in perception), we shall speak of a final or radical imaginary as the common root of the actual imaginary and of the symbolic. This is, finally, the elementary and irreducible capacity of evoking images.” The core of Castoriadis’ critique of ‘heteronomous’ societies, forms of social imaginary in which human projections depend on rules formed around an external object, god, nature, and the market.  In these the processes he called “ensidique” (ensembliste-identitaire), the combinations that make up social institutions, stand over people, outside their control (I have omitted many, many, other neologisms covering the process and the psychological and linguistic aspects of the picture). Autonomy, as a social relation, is both a drive to combat this alienation of human powers and the will to establish self-given norms that will replace these forms….(16)

Castoriadis categorised the shape of these rules, the basis of external norms, in historical terms. They began with the eternity glimpsed in the name of a god, an “outside” force ruling society, the first stirrings of the ‘autonomous’ society in ancient Athens where law-making was brought unto human agency, and ending with present-day ‘technocratic’ capitalist rationality where it escapes us. In his latter writings he filled out this approach, which some might compare to efforts to trace communist aspiration throughout the whole of human history. Castoriadis asserted, the word is perhaps not strong enough, that autonomy – self-made norms – began, imperfectly but gloriously, in ancient Athens, was eclipsed by Macedonian hegemony, was renewed in medieval city states, and has since popped up in workers’ struggles, enjoyed some display in May 68 before suffering another eclipse.

Tomès manages the difficult task of making Castoriadis’ ontology of the Real, his concept of Rationality, and the social role of the imaginary more obscure. Castoriadis, l’Imaginaire, le Rationnel et le Réel repeats, with due reverence, the ontological ground of Castoriadis’ view that limitless, causally free, social creation, politics included, can be the activity of liberated people, working through the “l’imaginaire instituant”, pursuing their “own aims”.

Democracy and Autonomy.

To some the portrait of a democracy as part of a deeper anthological and social project is attractive. But Tomès cannot disguise a whole series of historical difficulties that even a browser would have noticed. To cite just one: the idea that slave-owning and colonising Athens saw the first ‘germes’ (shoots) of autonomy, opens up a vast field of empirical historical enquiry. The special place of democratic creation in Periclean Athens, however bolstered by the authority of Moses Finley’s books and the encouragement of the Hellenist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, above all, lacks comparative depth. To convince readers that this was the first genuine move to self-rule needs a wide range of evidence about ‘primitive’ societies and the non-Greek and Roman ancient world. In their absence Castoriadis’ generalisations about societies and cultures include claims that Imperial China and India had power politics, without an ‘agora’ and therefore no real mechanisms in the “political” sphere to ponder and create their own norms. Only the Greeks began to break free from “external” (heteronomous) projections of authority, tradition, and reliance on the orders of Deities. But this – uniqueness – thesis would involve contesting, for example, John Keane’s contention that in epochs long preceding and long following Athens, there were many examples of popular government, “self-government of equals”, from the Middle East, the Phoenician Empire to the Indian Subcontinent, with written constitutions and other ‘Greek’ features (The Life and Death of Democracy. 2009).  Few, unsurprisingly, have cared to explore in depth these aspects of Castoriadis’ vision of the birth of democracy and the contrasting ‘heteronomous’ traditional world, through this demanding angle. (17)

Castoriadis would have one last attempt at linking with contemporary events. In 1968 he would claim (in a book co-authored with Morin and Lefort) he announced, “The urgent task of the hour is the constitution of a new revolutionary movement out of these recent struggles, based upon their total experience. The formation of such a movement can only be accomplished through the regrouping of young students, workers, and others who have united in these struggles, on ideological and organizational bases that they themselves will have to define.”  But Castoriadis showed no sign of helping to build such a movement. (18)

Castoriadis Today

Yet Castoriadis’ ideas continue to have an impact. Serge Latouche’s pamphlet Cornelius Castoriadis ou l’autonomie radicale (2014) is only one of many attempts to place the abstract theme of autonomy within more immediate political and social terms. Latouche is a leading theorist of ‘décroissance’, de-growth, an ecological current that seeks to end endless accumulation and create a balanced relation between Humanity and Nature. The present text raises some of the themes raised in a debate that Latouche participated in with Castoriadis organised by the group MAUSS  (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales) back in 1994. This touched on problems at the heart of Castoriadis’ portrait of the Progress of Autonomy raised above. The ‘universalism’ of the Greco-Western movement towards self-rule, Latouche suggested, co-exists with the instrumentalisation of Nature, which in turn permits the instrumentalisation (that is, use of them as tools) of human beings.

In this short text he brings to the present Castoriadis “concrete utopia’ of direct democracy. He links this to “décroissance” and using some of the Franco-Greek theorist’s criticisms of the idea of neutral   technology-driven expansion. A sustainable world will be based on the principle of a society’s “self-creation” (‘auto-institution’). Latouche rejects the idea that there is a class revolutionary subject. There is no privileged Marxist or Hegelian “subject of History”. Echoing Castoriadis’ view cited above, he claims that it is the – vast – majority, not just the proletariat, which will lead and participate in this historic transformation. No longer chained to obedience to technical specialists and Capital we will find a proper relationship with Nature in a society of “frugal abundance”. His answer to the democratic problems just cited is simple: autonomy will, through radical and local democracy let everybody decide…..

It is not hard to see that efforts to bring society under self-rule, to have a new beginning with such sweeping ambitions – to replace the workings of technical-rationality in bureaucratic capitalist forms of society – with self-created laws, ‘autonomy’, not to mention a reconciliation with Nature, run up against difficulties. For the moment we signal one: procedural forms of democracy. How can people create their own rules, that is decide on, and vote on, everything to do with ‘society’, whose causal springs exist across the globe. What exactly did Castoriadis mean when he talked of the “auto-limitation” of the processes of autonomy? Does this imply that in a future society, that those who wish to resist the project in the name of transcendent truths will have no effective voice? Does this imply bringing every psyche to self-rule, implies that the fear of freedom will vanish? That opponents of autonomy will not exist?

Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort: l’expérience démocratique (2015) (CCCL) is a collection of papers presented at a 2013 Paris-Ouest Nanterre-La Défense University Conference of the same title. Many of them tackle such issues. The democratic revolution of modernity, sovereignty, of power, of totalitarian societies, and the two thinkers different approaches are covered in sharp and well-presented essays. They range from studies of the thinkers’ place in French intellectual life, their critique of totalitarianism and the legacy of the “anti-totalitarianism of the left’. Perhaps the most valuable are contrasts between Castoriadis’ optimistic, all-embracing, theory of autonomy and Lefort’s focus in the specifics of politics and the pitfalls of democracy. There are explorations of Lefort’s defence of political competition, indeterminacy, the incompleteness of the ‘social’. The idea that sovereign power should be a “lieu-vide”(absent place) that rivals can occupy stands out. He also recognised the importance of, “the historical mutation in which power is assigned limits and right is fully recognized as existing outside power”. In this there are dividing lines, which became clearer over the years, with Castoriadis. The last thing one can find in Lefort’s writing, from the Le Travail de l’œuvre Machiavel (1972) to his reflections on the La Terreur Révolutionnaire, in Essais sur le Politique (1986) – a warning about the Jacobins’ use of violence on the social body to make it whole – is a defence of an easy passage to autonomy and a society without divisions.

In La Question de la Politique dans la pensée de Claude Lefort, Hugues Poltier describes as Lefort’s late 1970s recourse to the  ‘Machiavellian’ belief that all human societies are divided into the Great and the People (Grand/peuple). The shapes of inevitable conflict within the domain that makes up ‘le’ politique, that is the overarching moment of governing the ‘social’, could lead to the rejection of the goal of a classless society. From early hostility to bureaucratisation he appeared to suggest that power ends in the constitution of a dominant layer, which is in turn the object for new clashes. Lefort, he notes, not only abandoned any reference to Marxism as a critique of political economy but also recoiled from the radical wing of the labour movement. In this respect he was publicly hostile to the 1996 mass trade union movement against reforms to the French health service, preferring supporters of the rationality of the Juppé plan from within the moderate ‘deuxième gauche”, CFDT and centre-left intellectuals. The discussion of Lefort’s developing political theory, reminds us of the contrasts between his cautious, or hostile, stand on ‘revolution’- the darkest interpretation of his reservations about social “transparency” in a self-governed world – and his own complex democratic alternative.

The editor of Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort, Nicolas Poirier has written on Castoriadis’ ‘political ontology’, giving centre place to the contention that he offered a revolutionary democratic project open to the creative chaos. In an essay he contends that the two thinkers, in their different and often conflicting ways, were propelled by a parallel inspiration, to make sense of the experience of democracy, above all, of its connection to efforts to transform society. It was in this domain that emancipation could be found – without any foundation but a “desire for liberty”. The exercise of that freedom, was, nevertheless, for Lefort, for the People, implicated in contesting the Law – indispensably knotted into democratic forms  – while Castoriadis focused on the project of popular Law making. To put it more clearly, Lefort put the right to protest and disagree with legislation at the heart of democracy; Castoriadis believed in the prime importance of the autonomous creation of laws and left disagreement to be worked out in the process of decision-making.

A contribution by Manuel Cerveza-Marzal offers an angle on the revolutionary democratic impulse in Castoriadis’ later writings. Castoriadis did not retract his political radicalism. In 1990 he put the 19the century French liberal thinker Alex de Tocqueville right on a few points of American history and dismissed his often cited warning about the conformist dangers of democracy, Castoriadis argued that far from potential tyranny democratic autonomy means that, “no one can reasonably want autonomy for himself without wanting it for all.”. Pursuing the original critique of representative democracy, the “trap” of the “separation of powers” Castoriadis attacked all existing political parties in accents that could have been taken from the pages of SouB. (What democracy?) These reflections stand against Lefort’s worries about the totalitarian potential of direct democracy and revolutionary movements, that – Stalinism always in mind – culminated in the effort to impose the People-as-One. Castoriadis did not share this emphasis on the necessary role of organised opposition, in the ‘indeterminate’ body politic. He retained undiluted faith in radical, total, change, whose only mediators would be self-appointed.

Are there political thinkers preoccupied with the common themes that once drew Castoriadis and Lefort close? In his contribution Cerveza-Marzal brings out “convergences” and differences between Castoriadis and the present-day writings of Miguel Abensour. An attentive reader, he has stated, of SouB in his youth Abensour continues to write on “insurgent” (perhaps what Lefort called ‘sauvage’) democracy beyond the State. There is both a common preoccupation between the thinkers with how emancipatory movements are thwarted and turned from their aims. There is a shared wish to think of democracy in a wider fashion than liberal institutions and constitutions, and in terms of undoing the ‘state form.’ Abensour, nevertheless, has not rejected Marxism en bloc. He has continued to draw ideas from Marx as a source of philosophical, democratic and libertarian, inspiration. In reflections on the “invention” of democracy, such as Le Démocratie Contre l’Etat (2004) Abensour, in equal contrast to Lefort, has opposed to the logic of the totalitarian State not the quest for spaces of partisanship and conflict, but the right to experiment with new democratic forms. In reflections on constitutional liberalism, neo-Machiavellian republicanism and human rights he continues to promote the possibility of non-institutional democracy, fuelled by a spirit of utopianism. Democracy, he writes, cannot be reduced to any fixed synthesis; it refuses order, goes beyond any state, the result of a permanent conflict between politics and the State’s efforts to impose Order. (19)

 Council Communism.

Contributions to Autonomie ou barbarie bring to the fore some of the problems at the origins of distinctive approach. The shapes of socialism and revolution were intimately linked to the types of self-organisation developed before the revolution SouB took this emphasis on self-organised activity from a left tradition, Councillism. In Le Conseillisme by Yoahan Dubigeon outlines how the councillists considered that workers’ awareness, directly lived, was to be the basis for socialism, rather than the ‘external theorising’ of the Party. There was a template, which however modified in contemporary conditions, would be able to put an end to the fundamental division between “dirigeants” and “executants” – those who give orders and those who carry them out.  We can see, from Stephen Hasting King’s study that projects, such as ‘worker experience’, and the publication of self-organised papers by workers, were intended to form the knowledge that was the basis of that challenge. By producing their own narratives they were part of an effort to avoid “substitutionalist” politics, the take over of struggles by self-appointed groups that claim to ‘lead’. Castoriadis, the author, observes, refused to believe that there was an inevitable tendency towards organisations being caught up in these mechanisms. Yet, Dubigeon observes, this continues to be attested. One of the largest anti-system self-managed protest movements of recent times, the Spanish Indignados, is now “institutionalised” in the form of a political party, Podemos.

The political trend known as Councillism, the left wing of 1920s communism, opposed to all forms of vanguard, and the state embodiment of workers’ power, was another source for SouB’s thinking. Lenin’s Left-wing Communism an Infantile Disorder (1920) is the most famous response to this current. The Bolshevik leader attacked the German, Dutch, and the Silvia Pankhurst left of the British Communist movement, for their rejection of participation in Parliamentary elections and ‘reactionary’ trade unions.

The left-wing communist stand is known, if it known at all, through the writings of figures such as Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, and Amanedo Bordiga, the later a significant early leader in the Italian Communist Party. The left communists were not only theorists of a distinct ‘Western’ communist strategy based on a new beginning, apart from unions and all reformist parties, but aspired, as activists, to take part in new forms of workers’ power. Their version of the ‘council’ model was taken not directly from the Soviets which appeared at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and whose power Lenin claimed to incarnate, but from the period of revolutionary unrest in post great War Germany, councils there, in Hungary and Austria, and factory occupations in Italy. Manuel Cervera-Marzal offers an analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution He suggests that nobody has resolved the issue of how the impulse for autonomous power, which he identifies in the early years of the Soviets, became challenged/confiscated by a Party.

This is one of the hardest topics to resolve in SouB and Castoriadis’ legacy It is heightened by the fact that some of their members, such as Alberto Vega, who had fought for the POUM in the Spanish civil war, had participated in fights for workers’ councils and for whom they were part of a lived experience. Throughout the group’s existence they underlined the importance of these efforts as direct worker action. For SouB the Hungarian councils of 1956 were an electrifying moment: amidst the fall-out from Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the proletariat itself challenged ‘Stalinism without Stalin’. The problems begin when we consider that these were not metaphysical Events, calling us back to faith, but the objects of wide historical and – on the left – theoretical research and debate.

One of the 20th century’s most important political philosophers, Hanna Arendt, talked of the public space opened up by workers’ council as the revolutionary tradition’s “lost treasure”. “Spontaneous movements, “spaces of freedom” they were “a new power structure which owed to existence to nothing but the organisational impulses of the people themselves.” They, she asserted, have regularly emerged since the French Revolution, and, after appearing again, were submerged in the political violence of the 20th century. As working bodies they have not been, she argued, successful in running factories or enterprises; primarily political they were led by those selected on that basis, not managerial or technical ability. Their deeper difficulties lay in the conflicts between councils and parties. The former were “organs of action” and  “order” (a new social rule), the latter of “representation”. (20)

Arendt could hardly be said to have resolved the question of how the conflict between the political Vita Activa and more than a brief foray into this “social” sphere could ever be resolved.  The Councillists had declared that the working class could not be represented. Claude Lefort’s early political writings could be said to be an extended reflection on and endorsement of this point. Castoriadis believed that the councils could be organised. To discover a way to extend the freedoms of the council to a wider political space, an instrument for not just (in Hannah Arendt’s wistful words), “breaking up the modern mass society” but to rebuild it, required some kind of leadership, direction and thought. They could avoid bureaucratisation. Groups such as SouB had a role in encouraging the leading forces to self-reflection and independent activity. Yet this would mean accepting the division of labour SouB protested against: the party form. It would also mean competing with other parties, some of which would want to destroy or take control, with the authority of vanguard knowledge, of the councils. It would mean accepting what Arendt, the theorist celebrated above all for her conceptualisation of totalitarianism, called the inevitable role of dissensus in democratic politics. This is a view made popular today in a different shape in the writings of Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe’s picture of agonistic democracy. But how do they face with the difficulties signalled? The dilemma – to whether to include all, at the risk of irreconcilable differences, or to form islands of consensual organisation that exclude radical opposition, was not solved. This applies not only to parties like Podemos but, as the fate of contemporary efforts to build autonomous movement well outside the world of work and formal politics, from Occupy to Nuit Debout indicates.

Issues related to the role of political parties, or even the party form itself, crop up time and time again in SouB’s history. What exactly did SouB mean by “Orientation”? Was it a signpost, a directing message, or a signal from a coordinated – led? – political force? In other words, the journal’s motto raised the need for organisation, either from SouB or from those receiving their call. Discussion of this would be inevitable for any group that wishes to do more than celebrate the spontaneous resistance and self-activity of the working class. The project of a Workers Paper –  (after Lefort’s departure) took shape in with the monthly supplement Pouvoir Ouvrier seemed like proletarian tribune, aimed to assemble the masses through their own expression. This Iskra without Lenin and the Bolshevik wing of Russian Social Democracy, and a few hundred subscribers, had a limited impact

Deep theoretical divisions on these topics, from the threat of bureaucracy, to the need for any kind of political vanguard (however self-organised and ‘coaching’ rather than commanding) remained throughout SouB’s existence. Lefort and Castoriadis famously disagreed from the early 1950s onwards, clashed and finally split on the party issue, as did part of SouB’s membership when his leadership abandoned Marxism. A Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology presents, in lucid translation, articles from a variety of SouB authors from the review on the Eastern Bureaucracies, the world of work, and interesting pieces by Jean-François Lyotard (of later ‘post-modern’ celebrity) on the Third World and the Algerian national liberation struggle

Every left-wing activist should read Lefort’s Organisation and Party, one of the most significant critiques of Trotskyism (with much wider implications) ever produced. Lefort observed that the “microbureaucracy” of these parties was “all the more remarkable in that it is not determined directly by material conditions of exploitation” As an “echo” of prevailing bureaucratic models it shows how hard it is to escape the dominant culture by the Leninist effort to “fabricate” an external leadership for the working class. The answer, that such groups rely above all on an intellectual division of labour, between leaders and led, which one might challenge, remains live to this day.  This judiciously selected collection presented “anonymously”, and introduced by the invaluable David Ames Curtis, is a welcome addition to their extensive English language versions of SouB and Castoriadis’ writings. The download is free…..

Contributors to Autonomie ou barbarie retrace both the history behind these ideas and the challenges they face in what Castoriadis later called the ‘privatisation’ of  society, not the selling off nationalised companies or public services  to large companies but a wider retreat from collective solutions to individual life.  Jean Vogel asks if Castoriadis really came to terms with the details of the structural changes in capitalism. Perhaps he suggests, Castoriadis took refuge in his own intransigent hopes for a final way out, while looking from on high at “triumphant barbarism”.

SouB’s support for the belief that workers’ councils could embody people’s control over their daily lives (a model that extends beyond the enterprise) and the basis of a self-organised society grew after the Hungarian revolt in 1956. To many left observers, outside Communist orthodoxy, this was a new episode during which proletarians took over enterprises and appeared to replace the Stalinist state with their political and social power. These events loomed over, and one would imagine, tended to obscure any of the divisions outlined above. This, it might be said, provides much of the flesh and bones of any account of the foundations of Castoriadis’ politics of autonomy, however much they broadened over the years and faced up to the – unpredicted – hostile environment of triumphant liberal economics, and the fall out on the entire left from the collapse of Official Communism.

Yet it is not hard to see that efforts to bring society under self-rule, to have a new beginning with such sweeping ambitions, to replace the workings of technical-rationality in bureaucratic capitalist forms of society with self-created laws, ‘autonomy’, not to mention a reconciliation with Nature, run up against serious obstacles. One would have wished to discover an extended commentary in this respect on Castoriadis’ assertion that the French Revolution was the first to clearly pose the idea of the “auto-institution explicite de la société” (D, Page 389). The bald claim aside, was not the Sovereignty of the Nation an appeal that excluded the anti-Nation? If we are to believe Benjamin Constant the effects of the Terror cannot be lightly dismissed. Are there no such potential reefs today?  How can people create their own rules, that is decide on, and vote on, everything to do with ‘society’, whose causal springs exist across the globe, without finding resistance? What exactly did Castoriadis mean when he talked of the “auto-limitation” of the processes of autonomy in a future society mean for individuals imply for dealing with those who wish to resist the project in the name of transcendent truths that lay down the framework and the detail of social order. How does he, to repeat, propose to confront those so opposed to autonomy that they are prepared to bring the world to the civil war which the Italian political philosopher, Giorgio Agamben considers the normal state of politics, “stasis”?

Situating Castoriadis Politically.

Given his ambitions, called by Dosse ‘Promethean’, any account of Castoriadis should perhaps reach out to his, and SouB’s place in the left’s wider intellectual, social and political history. How to do this is not immediately obvious. As a theorist he cannot be easily slotted into the “Existentialist” “Structuralist” or “post-Structuralist” ‘moments’ in French.20th century intellectual history. He was not confined by the philosophical problems of existence, of structures, or of deconstruction. The Greek ex-Trotskyist’s formative years, and writings, were not academic but political. Can Castoriadis, in view of his, and SouB’s hostility to Stalinism and denunciation of its bureaucratic capitalist ruling class, be located as part of the pre-history of the 1970s  “anti-totalitarian moment”?  In his influential account of this nexus of politics and intellectuals Michael Scott Christofferson gives him, and Claude Lefort, a prominent place. They became “des icôns vivantes de l’antitotalitarisme français” during this decade (Les intellectuels contre la gauche. L’idéologie antitotalitaire en France (1968-1981. Second – French – Edition. 2013). (21)

It is far from clear that one can simply embed Castoriadis and SouB in the message and acts that made up this particular ‘anti-totalitarian moment’, even if their images, as will be seen, continue to be paraded, largely by those on the Second Left and, almost as a talisman, by Marcel Gauchet. Nicolas Poirier in his Preface to the collection cited above argues that their critique of totalitarianism stemmed form that of capitalism, and cannot be confounded with any kind of liberal ‘anti-totalitarian’ old or new. As for their role as anti-totalitarian forerunners some heavy qualifications are required. The French Editors’ Preface to the Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology points out, SouB was not just concerned with criticising the Eastern bloc, the ‘socialist’ bureaucracy’s collective exploitation, but with a wider critique of all forms of bureaucratic capitalism.  It was a group of revolutionaries, not intellectuals, whose primary focus was one capitalist society, France.

Nevertheless Castoriadis saw the PCF’s gaol through the template of post-war Eastern European take overs of the handles of the state and the elimination of rivals on the left and right. He continued this approach long past its sell-by date, After  the break up of Union of the Left  in 1977 he described the PCF as “a totalitarian Apparatus that can no longer appeal explicitly to a totalitarian ideology and is led to water down gradually the totalitarian mode of  operation of the organization it dominates even as it is forced to maintain its totalitarian goal of power, which is encoded in its very substance and in its genes, but which nevertheless appears for the indefinite future unrealizable in the society it inhabits. The Apparatus can no longer be totalitarian except shamefacedly.” There is little sign of an appreciation of the details of French left politics. Perhaps the most striking not that he did more than dismiss any signs of critical ‘Euro Communists’ within the PCF. It was that, as there was no effort to take any group within the Parti Socialiste (founded in 1971 but with tis main component going back to the SFIO) seriously as socialists, or as social democrats who might transform French society. This indifference mingled with disdain to the non-Communist ‘reformist’ left – the dominant political force in France, then as now –  can be traced, as we have already seen back to the founding years of SouB. (22)

At the beginning of the 1980s, when newly elected President Mitterrand’s first Cabinet included 4 Communist Ministers without any sightings of a French Gulag, Castoriadis raised the alarm at a renewed expansion of Russian totalitarianism. In Devant la guerre, (Vol 1. 1981) he claimed that the Soviet Union, now dominated by a ‘stratocracy’ (the Military fraction of the bureaucracy), had achieved superiority of arms over the West. It was an imminent danger. Territorial aggrandisement was part of its inner nature. In a climate of hostility and and fear towards Moscow  the book was widely praised in the mainstream media, from the right-wing Le Figaro, to Le Monde’s Editorialists. Lefort shared concern, although he was less impressed by Castoriadis’ new terminology or his grasp of empirical sources  Much of the left, by this point little inclined to admire the former SouB theorist,  loathed it on sight. Castoriadis found himself classed in France and elsewhere, with the West in what was called the Second Cold War, launched by President Regan. A planned second volume of Devant la guerre never appeared.

Yet, supportive commentators assert, the principles of Castoriadis’ “radical imaginary” were not an endorsement of the liberal West and a bulwark against all forms of  revolution. Hostility to the USSR was consistent with being on the left. His objectives remained focused on finding means to end alienation, “heteronomy”, the imposition of norms and laws. Castoriadis, in this view, remained true to the goal of abolishing the division between those who Rule and those who Obey. This was the central aim of “praxis”, the combination of reflection and action that could make autonomy possible. Above all Castoriadis still believed in ‘Revolution’. He continued to write, assessing the ‘low decade’ of the 1980s, neo-liberalism, ecology, the Fall of Communism, and his unique views on the ontology of historical creation, a change in inherited “ensemblist-identitary logic” from the depths of the imaginary, the ongoing process of autonomy, and the “germs” of democracy in ancient Greece.

A Spirit of Hope.

François Dosse introduced Une Vie by stating that the book is “born of a paradox. Castoriadis had been called a “Genius” whose thought still leaves readers in a state of star-struck stupefaction (sidération). But despite this, Castoriadis was, he states, at the end of his days, a” who has still to receive the acknowledgment he merits. Perhaps, he suggests, it was because of the “caractère prométhéen” of his project. That is, he had an underlying aim to “think all that is possible” in every “continent of knowledge”. Less grandly: he wrote about many different areas in social studies, psychology, history, even mathematics, and philosophy.

One might equally say that the ‘project of autonomy’ is Promethean. It claims to have found a lever to change the world in the depths of the psyche, to bring it to being across continents and countries, to transform the world from top to bottom. Perhaps it may one day come to fruition. Who knows? Faith in humanity’s boundless creativity still springs forth. The citation at the beginning of this article suggests that human potentials are great. History can be made. But what is clear is that Castoriadis did not end up at the advocate of politics that is negotiation between opposing interests, or democracy, in that these processes are but at the heart of the idea, but the affirmation of Historical Creation


(1) Page 116. The Holy Family. Marx, Engels. Progress Publishers. 1980. The first three words form the heading of Part 1 of Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx For Our Times. Verso. 2009. The reflections From the Sacred to the Profane. Marx’s critique of Historical Reason. On the “unresolved contradiction between the influence of a naturalistic model of science (‘the inexorability of a natural process’) and the dialectical logic of an open-ended history. (Page 58) may be said to over the framework for a reflection on Castoriadis

(2) Last of the Western Marxists. Axel Honneth. Radical Philosophy. No 90. July/August 1988.. An Encyclopaedic Spirit, Edgar Morin. Radical Philosophy, Ibid. Page 20. Marxisme et théorie révolutionnaire. Socialisme ou Barbarie. N 36. 1964, “nous sommes – ‘ arrivés au point où il fallait choisir entre rester marxistes et rester révolutionnaires ; entre la fidélité à une doctrine qui n’anime plus depuis longtemps ni une réflexion ni une action, et la fidélité au- projet d’une transformation radicale de la société, qui exige d’abord que l’on comprenne ce que l’on veut transformer, et que l’on identifie ce qui, dans la société, conteste vraiment cette. société et est en lutte contre sa forme présente.” This claim still rankles, see for example Bensaïd on this “binary choice”:  Bensaïd, Daniel. Politique de Castoriadis. Contretemps n°21.2008. Bensaïd begins by making the valid point that there is no such thing as a single Marxism. The Crisis of Marxism and the Crisis of Politics. (1992).

(3) In Postscript on Insignificancy. Cornelius Castoriadis. Translated anonymously as a public service.

(4) Page 682. Les Gauches Françaises. Jacques Julliard. Flammarion. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappelo. Page 171.

(5) The New Spirit of Capitalism 2007 (1999 France). Translated Gregory Elliot. Mai 68, l’héritage impossible Jean Pierre Le Goff. La Découverte/Poche. 2002/2006. Indeed on only has to read Lefort’s morally serious and historically informed, not least on the left, Gulag Archipelago, Un homme en trop. (1976) to realise the difference with, for example, Bernard Henri-Lèvy.

(6) François Dosse et La marche des idées. C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\Desktop\Temporary\François Dosse et La marche des idées.htm Deleuze, Guattari : peut-on faire l’histoire d’un agencement ? Hervé Regnuad. C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\Desktop\Temporary\Hervé Regnauld @en Deleuze, Guattari  peut-on faire l’histoire d’un agencement.htm.  Page 604. Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari. François Dosse. La Découverte/Poche. 2009.

(7) Pages 10 –11. François Dosse. Castoriadis Une Vie. La Découverte. 2014. An appreciation of Dosse’s biography. François. Castoriadis: l’avocat de la démocratie Web LinlDosse, François (Interview): ‘Maintenir une radicalité critique’ en redécouvrant Castoriadis. Joseph Confavreux. Mediapart. 22/9/2014. Page 11.Une Vie. The labyrinth metaphor in: Castoriadis, Avocat de la démocratie. François Dosse. The claims that his thought is a maze but also coherent are not necessarily contradictory; coherence is not the same as a completed system, otherwise many paragraphs would be one.

(8) Other judgements include: Castoriadis, more than any other theoretician in the group, writes Marie-France Raflin, was the “instrument through which he managed a kind of symbolic blow and which permitted him to exist as a theoretician, if not potential political leader.”  In Christophe Premat. Les scissions internes au groupe “Socialisme ou Barbarie”. Dissidences, Bord de l’eau, 2009, 6, pp.137-147. <halshs-00401201  Gorz: “son désir d’incarner à lui seul la pensée critique.” Page 139. Une Vie. Op cit. In the same paragraph, Dosse equally notes, the “posture guerrière de ‘intellectual soucieux de faire la demonstration de sa puissance et dénoncer la faiblesse de l’adversaire.” One does not have to have had much experience of small political groups to imagine that such a character was not easy to deal with inside Socialisme ou Barbarie. His strong personality was not always appreciated within SouB itself, as Henri Simon, elsewhere, has expressed. « Castoriadis était très autoritaire de par sa personnalité et dès que la contradiction avait tendance à le gêner, ça explosait » given in De la scission avec Socialisme ou Barbarie à la rupture avec I.C.O. 2014. K:\De la scission avec Socialisme ou Barbarie à la rupture avec I.C.O. – Fragments d’Histoire de la gauche radicale. Page 269. Also see: Marie-France Raflin, « Socialisme ou barbarie », du vrai communisme à la radicalité [archive]

(9) The Political Forms of Modern Society. Claude Lefort. Edited and Introduced by John B. Thompson. MIT Press. 1986. On Lefort’s views see also amongst many sources, Nicolas Préface. L’expérience démocratique contre la domination bureaucratique et totalitaire. In Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort: L’expérience démocratique. Le Bord de l’eau. 2015. Trotskyism. Alex Callinicos. 1980. Chapter: Cornelius Castoriadis and the triumph of the will. Pages 320-1, and 324. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Jürgen Habermas. Translated by Fredrick G. Lawrence. Polity Press. 1987. Page 28. The Origins of Postmodernity. Perry Anderson. Verso 1998.

(10) Page 105.  Looking for the Proletariat. Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing. Stephen Hastings-King. Brill 2014 Further see :   Lefort. Claude . L’expérience Prolétarienne. (Unsigned). Mémoires militantes dans la classe ouvrière: cinq militants ouvriers de Renault.   Pierre Bois, Gil Devillard, André Lancteau, Daniel Bénard et Daniel Mothé, cinq militants pour une conscience ouvrière socialiste chez Renault. Robert Paris.  C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\Desktop\Material\Mémoires militantes dans la classe ouvrière  cinq militants ouvriers de Renault – Matière et Révolution.htm. Look   The American Worker. Paul Romano and Ria Stone (1947). Part V. Management Organisation and Worker Organisation.

(11)Page 74 Stephen Hastings-King. Op cit. Socialisme ou Barbarie. No 17. 1955. Pierre Chaulieu (Castoriadis) Sur le contenu du socialisme. Pages 7 – 8 “Les conclusions qui résultent de cette brève analyse sont claires : le programme de la révolution socialiste ne peut être  autre que la gestion ouvrière. Gestion ouvrière du pouvoir. c’est à dire pouvoir des organismes autonomes des masses (Soviets ou Conseils) ; gestion ouvrière de l’économie, c’est-à-dire direction de la production par les producteurs, organisés aussi dans les organismes de type sovietique. L’objectif du prolétariat ne peut pas être la nationalisation et la planification sans plus, parce. que cela signifie remettre la domination de la société à une nouvelle couche de dominateurs et d’exploiteurs; il ne peut pas être réalisé en remettant le pouvoir à un parti, aussi révolutionnaire et aussi prolétarien ce. parti soit-il au départ, parce ce parti tendra fataiement à l’exercer pour son propre compte et servira de noyau à la cristallisation d’une nouvelle couche dominante.” Also see: Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group (1949-65) Marcel van der Linden. Left History. 5.1. 1997

(12) . On the PSU the invaluable Quand la Gauche se Réinventait. Bernard Ravenel. Le PSU, Histoire d’un Parti visionnaire. 1960 – 1989. La Découverte. 2016. Mallet, the canonical explanation is this: “En effet, plus se développe l’importance des secteurs de recherche, de creation et de surveillance, plus le travail humain se concentre dans la preparation et l’organisation de la production, plus s’accroît le sens de l’initiative et des responsabilites, en un mot, plus l’ouvrier moderne reconquiert, au niveau collectif, l’autonomie professionnelle qu’il avait perdue dans la phase de mécanisation du travail, plus les tendances des revendications gestionnaires se développent. Les conditions modernes de la production offrent aujourd’hui les possibilites objectives du développement de l’autogestion gen.ralis.e de la production ET de l’. Conomie par ceux qui en portent le poids.” Serge Mallet.- La nouvelle classe ouvrière et le socialisme. Revue Internationale du Socialisme, N.8, [1965] . Pages 161 to 184. The differences between SouB and the Mallet (and Gorz) approach are made very clear in André Gorz. Une Vie. Willy Gininazzi Page 100 – 105.  SouB hostility to Mallet goes back to the late 1950s, including this attack on “Objective” industrial sociology (including Alain Touraine: Canjures: Sociologie-fiction pour gauche-fiction (à propos de Serge Mallet) SouB 27: 1959 Followed by an attack on his writing on Mothé’s Journal d’un ouvrier. Comment Mallet juge Mothé SouB 28:. 1959. It ends with the, by now familiar, tone of absue against the “professor” Mallet. Autogestion et Hiérarchie. Cornelius Castoriadis.  Texte écrit en collaboration avec Daniel Mothé    CFDT Aujourd’hui, n°8, juillet-aout 1974

(13) Pages 266 – 7. Modern Capitalism and Revolution. Castoriadis, Cornelius. Political and Social Writings. Translated and Edited by David Ames Curtis. University of Minnesota Press. 1988 –1993. Volume 2, 1955-1960: From the Workers’ Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism.

(14) Page 201 Vol 2 Volume 2, 1955-1960: From the Workers’ Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism. Proletariat et organisation,” Originally Socialisme ou Barbarie. , 27 and 28. (April and July, 1 959) Page 74Pages 266 – 7. Modern Capitalism and Revolution.   Castoriadis, Cornelius. Political and Social Writings. Translated and Edited by David Ames Curtis. University of Minnesota Press. 1988 –1993. Volume 2, 1955-1960: From the Workers’ Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism.

(15) Page 29 Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Imaginary Institution of Society Translated by Kathleen Blarney. Polity Press. 1987.

(16) Page 127 The Imaginary Institution of Society Op cit.

(17) The Life and Death of Democracy. John Keane. Simon and Shuster. 2009.

(18)Page 129. Political and Social Writings. Volume 3, 1961-1979: Recommencing the Revolution: F r o m S o c i a l i s m to the Autonomous Society Edited David Curtis. 1993.

(19) What democracy ? (1990) In Figures of the Thinkable. Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘Anonymous’. 2005. Manuel Cervera-Marzal. Cornelius Castoriadis, Miguel Abensour, Quelles Convergences. In: Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort: L’expérience démocratique. Nicolas Poirier. Le Bord de l’eau. 2015. Pages 157 – 8. La Démocratie Contre l’Etat. Miguel Abensour. Le Félin. 2004 For Absenour’s intellectual debts, including to SouB see : Penser la politique autrement, avec Miguel Abensour. 14 février 2015   Davic Munnich. \Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\My Documents\Socialisme ou Barbarie\Penser la politique autrement, avec Miguel Abensour.htm  and Repenser la utopie. Fabien Delmotte.   C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\My Documents\Socialisme ou Barbarie\Miguel Abensour  repenser l’utopie – La Vie des idées.htm.

(20) Pages 255 to 281  On Revolution. Hannah Arendt. Penguin 1990 (1964). Hannah Arendt. For Love of the World. Second Edition, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Yale University Press. 2004.Young-Bruehl’s brilliant intellectual biography notes that Arendt’s views on these issues took account of the direct knowledge her husband, a former German Communist anti-Stalinist, had of the importance of workers’ councils. Castoriadis and Left are generally compared to Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism, which they discovered when French translations became available, in the 6os. See the chapter “Totalitarianism” Hanna Arendt. Politics, History and Citizenship. Phillip Hansen. 1993

(21) Page 392. Michael Scott Christofferson. Les intellectuels contre la gauche. ‘L’idéologie antitotalitaire en France (1968-1981). Agone – revised edition. Agone. 2014 English original. French intellectuals against the Left, The anti-totalitarian Moment of the 1970s. See also the bitter remarks about SouB and Castoriadis’ recognition in the review of Christofferson’s book, Parisian Impostures. Gregory Elliot. New Left Review. No 41 new Series. 2006.

(22) Pages 281 – 300. The Evolution of the French Communist Party. In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 3, 1961-1979

See above all:  Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website

The complete set of Socialisme ou Barbarie is available to download free here: Sommaires de la revue Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949-1967)

Written by Andrew Coates

January 13, 2017 at 2:44 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for posting this utterly engrossing review and exploration of CC’s ideas and milieu

    Mike Berlin

    January 16, 2017 at 1:47 pm

  2. We welcome comments of this character.

    More in a similar vein would be much appreciated at the Tendency’s HQ.

    Andrew Coates

    January 16, 2017 at 5:03 pm

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