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Left Socialist Revolutionaries Win Backing in Leftist Poll on 1917.

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Socialist Revolutionary Party.

There is a popular  quiz, circulated at the moment on Facebook,  on “Who are you in 1917 Russia? Take our test, “Political Compass of the Revolution,” to find out who you would have been 100 years ago – an Anarchist, a Cadet, a Right SR, a Bolshevik or a member of the Black Hundreds.”

No doubt important international leaders of the proletariat, like Tariq Ali, Alex Callinicos, Lindsey Germain and John Rees, would have found that would have been key advisers of the Bolsheviks, commanders of the Red Army and People’s Commissars.

But many people, and not the least, have found that they would have been Left Socialist Revolutionaries.

This is odd, I’d have expected to turn out a Internationalist  Menshevik.

Or this:

But like many I got, Left SR…..

The SR’s, of all stripes, were in favour of continuing the war.

Apart from that many of their policies were not at all bad.

Notably,

At the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries had 352 delegates compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. The Left SRs raised disagreements on the suppression of rival parties, the death penalty, and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Then there was this:

The Left SR uprising or Left SR revolt was an uprising against the Bolsheviks by the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party in July 1918. The uprising started on 6 July 1918 and was claimed to be intended to restart the war with Germany. It was one of a number of left-wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks that took place during the Russian Civil War.

But are there more details on who the left SRs were?

LibCom has this interesting article: Literature and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries.

Revolutionary organizations in Russia in 1917-1921.

At the peak of the political influence the number of organization members were approaching 200 thousands. The Left SRs supported the autonomy of the workers’ councils and the federal structure of the country. They criticized Bolshevik Party for the establishment of the dictatorship.

A very sad fact is that when people talk about the poets and the writers of Russia who accepted and supported Russian Revolution, they immediately associate them with Bolshevism. But supporting Russian revolution and supporting Bolshevism is two different things.

For example, the poet Yesenin was a member of the PLSR and sympathized with Makhno. Yevgeny Zamyatin is an author of the novel “We”, written in 1920. This book is one of the great anti-utopias of the 20th century, along with the works of George Orwell. Zamyatin was subjected to repression in the Soviet Union because of this book. In this novel anti-state rebels are fighting for the “fourth revolution”, which aims to liberate people from the power of the totalitarian state: an allusion to the concept of the “third revolution”, anti-totalitarian anti-Bolshevik Revolution of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists.

In 1919, Zamyatin, along with many well-known artists (Block, Remizov, Ivanov-Razumnik) was arrested during the Left SRs strikes in the factories of Petersburg. The Left SRs were not peaceful legal strikers: their struggle was not limited to economic demands, they fought for free elections to the councils and wanted the elimination of the violent political monopoly of the Bolsheviks. Strikes were carried out by radical methods: factory’s Left SRs militia used weapons. While all of these cultural figures were not related directly to the performances of the Petersburg workers, they had a direct link with the Left SRs.

Since 1916, an informal group of “Scythians” began to form around the famous writer Ivanov-Razumnik, which gravitated toward the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries. It included Andrey Beliy, Alexander Blok, Klyuev, Lundberg, Forsh etc. In the years 1919-1924 in Russia the Free Philosophical Association, WOLFILA, was patronized by the Left SRs. It worked even with a wider circle of writers, artists, social thinkers. Some of them cooperated in the newspapers published by the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, “The Banner of Labour” and the magazine “Our Way”.

Of course, we can not say that they were all standing on party positions, although, for example, Ivanov-Razumnik was a member of the Central Committee of PLSR. But all of them in one way or another sympathized with the revolutionary-socialism LSR based on the ideas of self-government and individual freedom. Aleksandr Blok’s poem “Scythians” is a great anthem of the Russian revolution, which is nothing else than a poetic statement of Left SRs program.

If the concept of “revolution” is ever to be cleaned from the USSR flavour, then, perhaps, the work of poets, writers, scientists, philosophers of the Scythians and WOLFILA would become closer and more understandable to many people.

P.S. Important role in the discovery of the influence of the Left SRs on Russian literature belongs to the modern historian Yaroslav Leontiev.

Alexander Blok. The Scythians

Millions are you – and hosts, yea hosts, are we,
And we shall fight if war you want, take heed.
Yes, we are Scythians – leafs of the Asian tree,
Our slanted eyes are bright aglow with greed.Ages for you, for us the briefest space,
We raised the shield up as your humble lieges
To shelter you, the European race
From the Mongolians’ savage raid and sieges.Ages, yea ages, did your forges’ thunder
Drown even avalanches’ roar.
Quakes rent Messina and Lisbon asunder –
To you this was a distant tale – no more.

Eastwards you cast your eyes for many hundred years,
Greedy for our precious stones and ore,
And longing for the time when with a leer
You’d yell an order and the guns would roar.

This time is now. Woe beats its wings
And every adds more humiliation
Until the day arrives which brings
An end to placid life in utter spoliation.

You, the old world, now rushing to perdition,
Yet strolling languidly to lethal brinks,
Yours is the ancient Oedipean mission
To seek to solve the riddles of a sphinx.

The sphinx is Russia, sad and yet elated,
Stained with dark blood, with grief prostrate,
For you with longing she has looked and waited,
Replete with ardent love and ardent hate.

Yet how will ever you perceive
That, as we love, as lovingly we yearn,
Our love is neither comfort nor relief
But like a fire will destroy and burn.

We love cold figures’ hot illumination,
The gift of supernatural vision,
We like the Gallic wit’s mordant sensation
And dark Teutonic indecision.

We know it all: in Paris hell’s dark street,
In Venice bright and sunlit colonnades,
The lemon blossoms’ scent so heavy, yet so sweet,
And in Cologne a shadowy arcade.

We love the flavour and the smell of meat,
The slaughterhouses’ pungent reek.
Why blame us then if in the heat
Of our embrace your bones begin to creak.

We saddle horses wild and shy,
As in the fields so playfully they swerve.
Though they be stubborn, yet we press their thigh
Until they willingly and meekly serve.

Join us! From horror and from strife
Turn to the peace of our embrace.
There is still time. Keep in its sheath your knife.
Comrades, we will be brothers to your race.

Say no – and we are none the worse.
We, too, can utter pledges that are vain.
But ages, ages will you bear the curse
Of our sons’ distant offspring racked with pain.

Our forests’ dark depths shall we open wide
To you, the men of Europe’s comely race,
And unmoved shall we stand aside,
An ugly grin on our Asian face.

Advance, advance to Ural’s crest,
We offer you a battleground so neat
Where your machines of steel in serried ranks abreast
With the Mongolian savage horde will meet.

But we shall keep aloof from strife,
No longer be your shield from hostile arrow,
We shall just watch the mortal strife
With our slanting eyes so cold and narrow.

Unmoved shall we remain when Hunnish forces
The corpses’ pockets rake for plunder,
Set town afire, to altars tie their horses,
Burn our white brothers’ bodies torn asunder.

To the old world goes out our last appeal:
To work and peace invite our warming fires.
Come to our hearth, join our festive meal.
Called by the strings of our Barbarian lyres.

30 January 1918

 

Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. A Democratic Socialist Review.

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Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. Allen Lane 2016.

In the Prologue to Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion Stedman Jones announces, the “aim of this book is to put Marx back in his nineteenth century surroundings. (Page 5) For many reviewers, this recalled the last major account of Marx’s life, Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013). Sperber begins by declaring Marx to be a “figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own age…” (1)

When Greatness and Illusion appeared last summer there was little agreement about the merits of Stedman Jones’ efforts, with those sympathetic to Marx finding a variety of flaws in its 750 pages. Their reactions are not unexpected. The biography, from the portrait of the young Karl “would-be poet, dramatist or philosopher” to its survey of the continents of 19th century ideas, its survey of the merits of Marx’s critique of political economy,  and lengthy historical chronicles, is never in too much of a hurry to point out Marx’s misapprehensions. Rather than dwell on what would turn out to be a lengthy list (for reviews see the link below), perhaps the most significant aspect of Stedman Jones’ study is the links he draws between Marx’s ideology and political practice, focusing on whether he was, or was not, out of kilter with his own time. (2)

Sperber had argued that throughout his life Marx remained wedded to a “replay” of the 1789 Revolutions in central and Eastern Europe, initially through “Jacobin” republican governments, which would result in a “social revolution (which) would lead from capitalism to communism and replace the rule of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat.”(3).

First International.

By contrast Stedman Jones argues that while strongly marked by the legacy of the French Revolution, refracted through Young Hegelian radicalism, and the search for “social emancipation” greater than political liberty, Marx’s greatest achievement lay in his contribution to a non-revolutionary body, the First International (1864, formal dissolution, 1876). The International Working Men’s Association marked the most significant stage in the radical and working class movement’s turn from the Jacobin tradition. It set demands for political freedom, ‘internationalist republicanism” on an intelligible socialist footing, “the political economy of labour”, and linked the left to the trade union movement.

In Marx’s Inaugural Address to the body, he conceptualised “the emancipation of working classes as a global project and articulate a transnational community of workers’ interests” From a lifetime of hostility most forms of radical politics other than his own he had now been able to master “a language with which politically aware working men at the time could identity” (Page 465) “It was in the formulation of this new social-democratic language that Karl made his greatest contribution to the International…”(Page 466) He did not just advocate that the working classes “conquer political power” and emancipate itself. His “assumption was that the process the process of a transition from the capitalist mode of production towards the society of associated producers had already begin.” (Page 467)

Those looking for an endorsement of Marx’s politics will not find much else to feed on. Stedman Jones’ devotes many pages to a much less glowing tributes to the classical texts of ‘political Marxism’, from the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1847-8), the Class Struggles in France: 1848 – 1850 (1850), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) and The Civil War in France (1871). Crucial “moments”, the 1848 Revolutions, Louis Bonaparte’s Coup d’état in 1851, the 1871 Paris Commune, that is historical points in which Marx grappled with the problems of class, the state, revolution and socialism in historical flesh and bones, are extensively covered, with a running commentary on the failings of Marx’s analysis and his wishful thinking.

Class Struggle.

Karl’s notion of “class struggle” has been treated, he declares, as a “dramatisation of self-evident economic facts of industrialisation”. Yet, historians have come to grasp that “class is no longer…the expression of a simple social-economic reality, but as a form of language discursively produced to create identity.” (Page 306) Marx combined a “teleological account of the place of labour in the world”, derived from Young Hegelian thinking with, the French republican, socialist and even Legitimist terms of “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” used in opposition to the “bourgeois” Monarchy of Louis Philippe. Culminating in the 1848 Revolution and the creation of the Second French Republic the organised “proletarians”, Blanquist and other republican revolutionaries, were like the British Chartists driven by the flames of labour’s destiny and opposition to private property, to confront the contradiction of capitalism, and the political rule of the bourgeoisie.

Such a template led Marx, Stedman Jones asserts, to ignore the ideological and political context of the French uprising. Marx’s emphasis on class struggle missed the key element of the rule of the Monarchy. For Stedman Jones it was the shutting out of the masses from the system of political power under the ‘censitaire’ constitution, a franchise that covered a tiny minority of the population.

“It was not the activities or strategy of a fictive ‘bourgeoisie’ but the attempt around 1830 to construct a political system based upon the political exclusion of wage-earners that created the ‘struggle’ of the ‘working class and the ‘middle class”. “ (Page 311) It was “political exclusion” caused by the ‘censitaire’ (a high payment level for electoral rights), that was the key issue. Stedman Jones asserts that Marx’s “hostility to representation and the ‘political state’” left him in a “poor position to understand the political determinants of working class action.”(P 311)

How did Marx portray working class activity? In his writings on the 1848 Revolutions Marx asserted that the “working class”, in his republican and ‘communist’ associations, was a potential lever for “overturning the world” through actions outside the system. Louis Blanc and those with influence within the French working class had called for “association” linked hand in hand with “universal suffrage”. These dissolved in the face of more ambitious goals. The “proletariat rallies ever more around revolutionary socialism around communism”, for a “class dictatorship of the proletariat”. He criticised attempts to introduce change through a representative republican democratic state, “the peculiar character of social democracy”, “a means of softening the antagonisms between the two extremes of capital and wage labour and transforming it into harmony, of superseding them both (page 176) This nevertheless stands with his 1852 enthusiasm for the Chartist demand for universal suffrage, which would mean the political supremacy of the working class.” (4)

From these brief passages one can see that Marx, may have been hostile to the mechanisms of representation on offer in the Second Republic. But he spent a great deal of time trying to demonstrate how through their institutional weight they might not only divert the ‘revolution’ but also be a practical dead-end (the episode of the National Workshops amongst others). Marx was already considering as the remarks on Chartism indicate, that the “republic” with universal suffrage, could be a key element in the working class “battle for democracy”. Finally if Marx was dismissive of “social democracy”, in this context, it was patent that efforts of ‘party’ had failed to achieve more than fleeting legislative palliatives. As for the importance of the “religious democracy”, a political force which Stedman Jones is more than justified in rescuing from condescension, it is unclear if their belief in “la Cause Sainte” and “Dieu et humanité” helped the fight against “modern slavery”.

Stedman Jones has every right to try to ‘correct’ Marx.  Marx’s claim that Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup d’état, was supported by  the “lumpen proletariat’  – a category which he shows is vacuous – and his description of the peasantry as ‘sack of potatoes’ unable to represent itself (in fact the one major rebellion against him was rural – Page 339) to give a wider social base the  1851 coup d’état, are important, though not exactly novel, contributions to how we understand the period. But we probably do not need the constant presence of  Stedman Jones as Eugène Sue’s Rudolph in Les Mystères de Paris, to save Marx from his theoretical shortcomings.

Languages of Class.

To some of his most hostile critics Stedman Jones stands convicted of deeper faults. His appears to operate with a watered-down version of the apparently “post-structuralist” slant in his Languages of Class. (1983). That is, critics allege, writing about class as “talk”. This would be unfair. A key essay in the book unravelled the distinctive ‘radical’ political approach to the State, “The self-identity of radicalism was not at of any specific group, but of the ‘people;’ or the ‘nation’ against the monopolisers of political representation and power and hence financial or economic power” “In radical terms, in 1832, the ‘people’ became the ‘working classes’.” This remains an important account of British radicals’ distinct concept of “class” and the “people” and the way in which writers and activists in and around the Chartist movement claimed to pinpoint political causes of ‘exploitation’ outside of the relations of production. It does not, nevertheless, demonstrate that “class” can be detached from economic conditions, beginning with the occupations of the Chartists. (5)

In Greatness and Illusion Stedman Jones concentrates on the conflicts over “political exclusion”, with a much less coherent account of the ‘figure’ through which French radicals and the ‘working class’ perceived the Second Republic. The reason is simple: there is no easy comparison between the competing but relatively unified doctrines of an body like the Chartists and broader British radicalism or early socialism, and the multitude of disparate forces swept up into active life in France from 1848 to 1851. The Republic unleashed a multitude of different politics of the excluded, but Marx was not alone in underlining its class character.

As Alex de Tocqueville famously observed,

One thing was not ridiculous, but really ominous and terrible; and that was the appearance of Paris on my return. I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror. There were no bonds, no sympathy between these two great sections; everywhere the idea of an inevitable and immediate struggle seemed at hand. Already the bourgeois and the peuple (for the old nicknames had been resumed) had come to blows, with varying fortunes, at Rouen, Limoges, Paris; not a day passed but the owners of property were attacked or menaced in either their capital or income. (6)

Stedman Jones’ background as an editor and contributor to New Left Review is perhaps another context for the biography.  A taste for lectures on left-wing strategy marked its early years. This can still be heard in Editorial advice on the welcome “knocks” to the “neoliberal order” created by Brexit. One can detect echoes if not of the content but of this style in Greatness and Illusion. By citing Marx’s dislike of the representative state, readers will be excused for thinking that Stedman Jones is offering recommendations on how to improve on his “poor position”. This impression is reinforced in the account of the First International. Marx’s enthusiasm for the Paris Commune, which revived his “critique of Parliamentarism” The description of the self-governing radical democratic Constitutions established by popular rule in Paris (18th of March 1871 to the end of May 1871) was an account of “what might have become”. (Page 502) Marx should have verified his references.

Stedman Jones states that in The Civil War in France (1871) the famous picture of a smoothly running direct democracy gearing up to war was “an imaginary projection of the changes that might accompany a transition towards the rule of associated producers.”(Ibid) Yet Marx, it should be stated here, was so far wrapped in this imaginary portrait that, as Stedman Jones himself mentions he admired and promoted the English translation of  Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s Histoire de la Commune de 1871 (1876)  a book which includes a detailed account of the administrative failings of the Commune. (Page 548)

A particular charge is that, incautiously, Marx underestimated the hostility aroused, not just by the bloody repression of the Communards but also by their own (very limited) violence, amongst British supporters of the International. In short, he had broken with the rule that defined the Association’s alliance: he had begun to preach unfamiliar doctrines. The public scandal created by his words may have pleased Marx and his immediate circle, but began the process which ended in the break up of the International

In The Civil War In France Marx, Greatness and Illusion notes called for “an elected assembly, formed on the basis of democratic and representative principles”. Yet once the proletariat triumphed, “there would be a distribution of general functions assigned as a cooperative factory according to suitability” (Page 528) Stedman Jones’ qualifies this. He points to the need for spaces for differences of opinions and, with a dose of homely doctrine, refers to John Stuart Mill on the importance of individual liberty in a system of “equal ownership” and “combined labour”. As the objective of a proletarian socialist transformation of society, or more simply, democratic socialism, this is a far from a goal that can be consigned to the 19th century.

As others have observed, these thoughts are not developed. Stedman Jones completes his view that Marx spent the last fifteen years of his life trying to produce a theory of modern communism through the “intensive study of ancient, communal and pre-capitalist forms.” Those interested in the Franks, The Gauls, the Germanic Mark, Indo-European cultures, the Slavic Mir and the debate in early Russian Marxism on the place of the village community and its property in the transition to socialism, will find much to reflect on. (7)

*******

(1) Page xii. Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. Liveright Publishing. 2013.
(2) Christian Fuchs Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion. Marx and Philosophy Review (September 2016). This provides a very helpful overview of the reviews and Gareth Stedman’s biography. For one review that really dislikes the book see: Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx? Louis Proyect.
(3) Page 558 Sperber. Op cit.
(4) Page 123. The Class Struggles in France. Page 176. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page 262. The Chartists. All in Surveys from Exile. Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2. Penguin Books. 1973.
(5) Page 104. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832–1982.  Cambridge University Press. 1983.
(6) The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville (1896) (Alexis de Tocqueville) A private journal of the Revolution of 1848 published posthumously.
(7) Page 183. Introduction to The Communist Manifesto. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. Gareth Stedman Jones. Penguin. 2002.

Written by Andrew Coates

March 1, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Momentum’s Crisis: Serious Debate Breaks Out.

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Image result for chesterfield socialist conference

From Socialist Movement to…..Momentum?

“Momentum exists to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign to increase participatory democracy, solidarity, and grassroots power and help Labour become the transformative governing party of the 21st century.”

A common assumption on the Labour Left, so deep rooted that it almost never said, is that the main failure of previous Parliamentary left groupings is that they needed organisation in the country. At the back of their minds I imagine are the “Brains Trusts” set up up in support of Bevan’s ideas in the 1950s, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the 70s and 80s, and the Socialist Movement.

If the first had problems in moblising and co-ordinating with the Parliamentary left around  Aneurin Bevan and his (dispersed) successors, the second was and is a grass-roots body focused on labour constitutional issues (MP re-selection), NEC elections,  the third came closest to the Social Movement model some saw in Momentum.

The Socialist Movement grew out of the Socialist Conferences held in Chesterfield, Sheffiled and Manchester, in the years following the defeat of liners’ strike. Initiators included the Socialist Society, an organisation of left intellectuals including Raymond Williams,  Richard Kuper, and Ralph Miliband, the Campaign Group, a left-wing group in the Labour Party, the Conference of Socialist Economists, and the network generated by the socialist feminist book Beyond the Fragments. The largest conferences were in 1987 and 1988.

The Socialist Movement was open to different left traditions, green as well as red, for exploratory, grassroots debate and research on socialist policy making.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.

Is Momentum A Socialist Conference bis?

Unlike the Chesterfield events, still cresting the ebbing Bennite wave, its role was not clear from the start.

Is ‘participatory democracy’ channeled into supporting Corbyn the Labour Leader?

That would result in the kind of ‘left populism’ attempted by Jean Luc Mélenchon  in La France Insoumise and (in a different more democratic way) Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias, around a rather unlikely figure, who, to his credit has always refused the role of Chief around which everything else revolves.

Or does it mean trying to work in the policy areas that the Socialist Movement tried to think out? Given that Labour seems short of clear policies on a variety of issues – the Welfare state, a recent announcement of a group looking into Basic Income might be one sector where Momentum could contribute?

What structures does it have for this purpose?

Does it mean taking up issues of ‘grassroots power’, which many would take to imply changing the Labour Party’s present make-up with a “movement” that moblises on more than electoral issues?

Or is to be a kind of super Bevanite Brain’s Trust, that Bean never managed to hook up with, that can carry Corbyn’s message from the party into the country?

These are just some of the background issues behind the present crisis in Momentum.

The most recent Workers’ Liberty carries this exchange:  A debate about Momentum   (Solidarity. 15.2.17).

“This explanation by Jon Lansman of recent events in Momentum was circulated in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Since it contains nothing confidential, and is the only political explanation available from the Momentum leadership other than the article by Christine Shawcroft in Labour Briefing (Feb 2017), which we replied to last week, we reprint it here.”

Jon Lansman.

I wanted also to counter the lies and misinformation which are widely repeated by sectarian elements on the Left who wish to turn Momentum from a broad alliance it was intended to be, seeking to maintain the broad centre-left coalition that elected Jeremy Corbyn to support his administration, democratise the party along the lines long advocated by CLPD, and help Labour win elections into a hard-Left organisation reminiscent of the LRC designed to put pressure on Jeremy from the left.

There has been no “coup” within Momentum, though there had been an attempt over the last year by various Trotskyist and other sectarian organisations to use Momentum local groups, often at the cost of driving away non-aligned activists, as a basis for seizing control of regional networks and the former national committee of Momentum. It became very clear how wide the disparity had become between these bodies and the membership of Momentum from the survey conducted in conjunction with a pre-Christmas message from Jeremy Corbyn.

Lansman takes account of what observers have predicted for months, that a National Momentum Conference risked becoming a sectarian bear-pit,

  • We could battle for two months in the run up to a planned national delegate conference narrowly foisted on the national committee — with some delegates who disagreed being forced to vote in favour in spite of having been elected by STV in order to preserve the pluralism of regional representatives, which would inevitably have undermined efforts to maximise left representation at this year’s conference, support local Momentum activists in preparing for CLP AGMs, and mobilise for by-elections and a possible early general election.
  • We could avoid this internal battle, by calling immediate elections for a new national body based on a new constitution reflecting the wishes of members as revealed in the survey and circulated for agreement of members in the way we would have had to do at some point anyway.

Avoiding this predictable fight was the goal.

This is something critics have to grapple with.

Lansman  also notes,

I have personally been subjected to appalling abuse to which it is difficult to respond without simply perpetuating their attempt to personalise “blame” for the alleged wrongs of which they unfairly accuse me. I regret that Martin [Thomas] has chosen to act in this way. I have worked with him within CLPD since the early 1980s. I have done so because he and his colleagues from Socialist Organiser, as his organisation was originally known, showed a genuine commitment to CLPD they never showed to the LRC or any other left organisations in which they pursued the opportunistic self-interested methods we are used to from all Trotskyist sects.

I halt at this point because there is little doubt that Jon Lansman is absolutely right to complain about the abuse.

This is how one of his leading critics, Tony Greenstein, thought by some people to be a “genius” described his action in promoting an on-line survey of Momentum members,  all too recently ( Jon Lansman’s Xmas Punch Could Sucker Corbyn)

There is a reason that dictators have always loved plebiscites.  That is because they get to choose the questions and to frame them in such a way that they get the ‘right’ answer. Most people won’t remember Hitler’s plebiscites on the Rhine and the Saarland but they haven’t had a very good reputation ever since.

Greenstein some might say is a special case, whose vitriol is hurled  at present lie at another target:  Owen Jones – the Final Betrayal – Supporting Zionist Apartheid & the Jewish Labour Movement.  Supporting Israeli Apartheid and the Palestinians is not compatible.

But he is far from alone.

It would take a moment’s Googling to find more abuse.

Now Alan Thomas is, from the AWL, a respected activist and writer, but his reply on this point, is not convincing,

Jon Lansman identifies “sectarian elements” almost entirely with us (“Trotskyists”), but at the same time finds these “sectarians” so numerous among Momentum’s 21,000 members that the clash can be resolved only by abolishing Momentum democracy. At stake here is no “sectarianism” of ours, but the issue of what socialism is and how it can be won.

The liberation of the working class can be won only by a vivid movement where each participant is a lively contributor with her or his own ideas; which is full of bouncy debate; in which even the deepest prejudices and the most revered leaders are subject to question. In a new movement like Momentum, we have reasoned patiently and tactfully, rather than bloviating.

I leave to one side the claims about the AWL, often made by people with their own political – ‘sectarian’ agenda.

The fact is that if we can define sectarians at all – a hard task –  it is that they are loudmouths who are in a permanent storm of self-righteous attack.

Often they come out of the pages of William Hazlitt’s People with One Idea,

People of the character here spoken of, that is, who tease you to death with some one idea, generally differ in their favourite notion from the rest of the world; and indeed it is the love of distinction which is mostly at the bottom of this peculiarity.

Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners (1821 -22)

Other times they are loyal simply to their faction, with no other loyalties.

Those familiar with the left could write a new essay, People with Too Many Correct Ideas…

One is always the Other Sectarian for a Sectarian…..

But I digress…

There are many other problems about Momentum, but whether they are numerous or not, they are still loud. Shouty. And, in Greenstein’s case – I single him out for his visibility but he is far from alone –  highly unpleasant.

Greenstein and another ‘anti-Zionist’. Gerry Downing, are very active in the Momentum Grassroots Moblising Conference. 

This is what the former says, “Lansman’s Momentum is destined for the knackers yard because without democracy you cannot have a movement.”

More simply many people do not want to become involved in a shouting match between different left groups, or, if it happens on more cordial terms, a struggle for influence.

Alan is nevertheless spot on to comment,

Yet Momentum would have contributed more, not less, if it had actively promoted a left Remain vote, free movement across borders, opposition to Trident renewal. It would be stronger now if its national office as well as its local groups had campaigned in support of workers’ disputes like at Picturehouse, and for the NHS. It would have done better if (as we urged) it had organised a presence at Labour conference 2016. It would be healthier if it had had a proper discussion on left antisemitism (in which Jon Lansman and we would have been broadly on the same side), rather than trying to quell the issue administratively. All those things are not “sectarian” caprices, but would have happened if Momentum had been allowed to develop “normally”, democratically.

This is something that Lansman ignores, many people on the democratic left, and this includes the AWL agree on these policies.

We certainly need a voice for them.

Alan may equally well be often right to say,

The new imposed constitution is out of line even with the (heavily manipulated) online survey over Christmas. That suggested decisions by online voting of all members. Under the new constitution, online votes can scarcely even stall office decisions in extreme cases. Real power rests with the office and with a seldom-meeting “coordinating group” in which only 12 out of 28 or 32 places are elected by Momentum members.

10 January was a coup. Imagine its analogue in general politics: Theresa May declares that, on the strength of a 50%-plus-one majority got in an hour’s emailing round the Cabinet, she is abolishing Cabinet, Parliament, and an imminent general election in favour of office rule plus a future “coordinating group” in which elected citizens’ representatives are a minority. Or, if that’s too much, imagine the analogue in any other left movement. Despite it all, Momentum’s local groups will continue to organise, and I don’t think the panic-stricken officials can stop them.

But the real issue is not an organisational form, and behind that whether this or that factional grouping, or alliance, is competing for power in the structures.

It is what aims and functions  does Momentum have beyond rallying support for Corbyn.

Nothing that’s happened so far has disproved the judgement of many left-wingers that clear goals, from ‘think tank’ policy-formulating (that is as a pressure group within Labour with specific ideas), and a hook between Labour and a variety of campaigns (such as Stop Trump!, or union disputes) already have vehicles in Constituency parties, Trades Councils and other bodies.

Many of us are all in favour of Momentum finding some way out of this dispute, a modus vivendi.

But…..

Momentum includes people like Nick Wrack who state (RETHINKING LABOUR: MORE OF THE SAME OR CHANGE OF COURSE?)

… it is important to recognise that there is a huge difference – a vast chasm – between what is called social democracy and socialism or communism. I use socialism and communism as synonyms for a system that is based on a complete transformation of society, breaking with the present capitalist system and the exploitation of labour to make profit. Socialism is a society based on democratic common ownership of the means of production – land, factories, transport, technology and science. It is a society based on production for social need rather than for private profit.

…..I am now of the opinion that all Marxists should, at the very least, join Momentum. We can play a key role in helping to defend Corbyn and defeating the right. Where possible, therefore, Marxists should also join Labour. This is best done as an organised group, rather than as individuals. The purpose of joining is two-fold: to strengthen the forces in defence of Corbyn and against the rightwing in Labour and the trade unions and to argue for a Marxist ideas in the mass movement around Corbyn. There is no knowing how long this battle may last or what the outcome will be. Those coming into Momentum and into the Labour Party will include thousands of people who simply want change. But many will have no clear idea of what that change should be or how it can be accomplished. Marxists have to engage with the debate. What change? How can it be achieved? What programme is necessary?

So what is he doing trying to join or influence a social democratic party?

Wrack’s position, which is shared by others,  is not so easy to dismiss as the notorious cranks who insult ‘reformists’ , ‘Zionists’ and the rest.

It is, crudely, that Momentum should be a kind of political mill pond for them to fish in to build their ‘Marxist’ line.

Never forgetting the “vast chasm” that separates them from social democracy, that is a very substantial chunk of the Labour Party membership and support.

Written by Andrew Coates

February 17, 2017 at 1:31 pm

André Gorz. Une Vie. Willy Gianinazzi. Review.

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André Gorz. Une Vie. Willy Gianinazzi. La Découverte. 2016.

Over the last few weeks Socialist Party contender for the Presidential ‘primaries’, Benoît Hamon, has raised the idea of a “revenu universal d’existence’ (Basic Income) paid to all. Hearing this many people would have remembered the name of André Gorz. The Vienna born but France based journalist, social theorist, and green socialist activist, whose influence extended far beyond the francophone world, promoted this idea from the 1990s onwards. That is, “a guarantee of sufficient income, independent of the duration of labour (which can only decrease), and perhaps independent of work itself”. (1)

Hamon’s left-wing rival Arnaud Montebourg dismissed the idea as a social “cataplasme” (sticking plaster). The right-wing Manuel Valls It is an unrealistic recipe for a something-for-nothing society. Editorialists pointed to the costs and the seeming acceptance that France was fated to remain a society of high unemployment (le Monde 17.1.17). But the proposal, whose paternity was not directly acknowledged, illustrates how Gorz exploration into the changing economy, the world of work, and non-work, ecology, and social philosophy, remains a fruitful source of reflection about the development of capitalism.

Willy Gianinanzzi, a researcher in far left and labour movement history, has written the first biography of André Gorz (1923 – 2007). Closely tied to his subject’s concerns the book displays deep affection for its subject and a perceptive guide to his writings and ideas.

André Gorz was Vienna born, as Gerhart Horst, of an authoritarian Jewish father – said to have declared that he “nothing against Hitler except his anti-Semitism” – and a non-Jewish mother. He left for Switzerland in 1939 to avoid conscription in the National Socialist led army. His German validated Baccalaureate passed he studied chemistry at an Engineering school in French speaking Lausanne. Gorz opted, permanently, for the French language – even to the point, Gianinanzzi points out – of refusing to speak German until the last decades of his life.

Existentialism.

Gorz developed an interest in Philosophy and writing, recounting his early experiences in fictional form in Le Traître (1958). Immediately after the War’s end, with a developing attraction to existentialism, in 1946 Gorz attended in Lausanne one of the many talks given by Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. He became politically engaged in the pacifist and “minimalist” (world government) movement.

From this time on André Gorz, as he came to name himself, would pursue a career in journalism, closely bound to his political commitments. From the late 50 onwards Gorz wrote for a variety of magazine and journals that existed on the burgeoning French independent, ‘third worldist’ and new left. L’Express (opposed at the time to the Algerian war), France Observateur (forerunner of the Nouvel Observatuer), and was on the Editorial Board of Les Temps Modernes. From this point on Gorz mixed with, or at least met with, many of the central personalities in the 1960s radical left, from Marcuse to Cohn-Bendit as well as centre-left media figures like the editor of the Nouvel Obs’, Jean Daniel.

One of the most interesting sections of Une Vie (L’automation et la nouvelle classe ouvrière Chapter 7) is devoted to the early sixties debate over “neo-capitalism” and the “new working class”, terms associated with the sociologist Alain Touraine, and Serge Mallet. Gorz became a supporter of the idea that automation has transformed ‘Taylorism’ and ‘Fordism’. A new group of qualified workers, technicians, existed who were competent to take over running enterprises. With this social base, classical forms of trade unionism could be extended to demands for ‘autogestion” self-management. In this vein, a vision of realisable set of measures to create “economic sovereignty” as the foundation of democratic socialism, Gorz collaborated with the new left Parti Socialiste Unifié, and wrote Stratégie ouvrière et néocapitalism (1964) and Le Socialisme difficile (1967). Both of these books had an impact beyond the borders of the Hexagone.

Gorz became equally known in the English-speaking world, as translations appeared including sympathetic articles on Sartre. To Gorz the Critique de la Raison Dialectique made history intelligible and offered a picture of the “only true model of ‘voluntary co-operation’ …the fused group”. If this might be considered a paradigm of self-management Gorz was also engaged with the social barriers to such change set out Marx’s theory of ‘alienation. The view that capitalist “heteronomy” – the domination of technical reason external to people’s needs – remained an important part of Gorz’s writing throughout his life.

In the midst of the 68 events Gorz remained committed to “revolutionary transformation of the present society by means of a range of intermediary objectives. In 1972 he discovered ecology, and what Gianinazzi, calls “matérialisme naturaliste.” Gorz published in the French green journal, Le Sauvage and produced Écologie et liberté (1977). Scarcity, as Sartre indicated in his Critique was a natural limit to development. Concerns about the danger of upsetting natural conditions led Gorz to back the green campaign against nuclear power. Pursuing his support for self-management he, like Cornelius Castoriadis extended the principle to wider social autonomy. He became interested in the writings of Ivan Illich, not just on “de-schooling society” but on the ‘abolition of work’. Gianinazzi suggests that the reason for the failure for the two to meet and make common causes lay in an angry exchange in the left press (“la polémique oiseuse” Page 211). One doubts if the founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie would have accepted a debate on the foot of equality with a professional journalist, least of all one advocating “intermediary objectives”.

Farewell to the Working Class.

Gorz’s best-known book is Farewell to the Working Class (1981). A Facebook friend suggests that most people never get beyond the title of this interesting, if contentious, study. It did indeed attack the “cult” of the Worker. But its analysis of the evolution of work is perhaps best seen not in relation to Marx’s theory of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat but to the earlier hopes placed in the self-management capacities of the “new working class”. The end of the traditional socialist project of emancipating the working class, that is its positive capacity to challenge ‘heteronomy’, had, according to Gorz,  foundered in this class’s inability to master complex networked “post-industrial” production.

Next to the shirking privileged layer of skilled employees was a growing mass of unemployed and marginalised workers. “This non-class of ‘non-workers’ “has no transcendent mission, no unity beyond the experiences of those who compose it, no prophetic aura, no promise or capacity to reconcile the individual with the social, self and society. It is ‘the possible social subject of the struggle for work-sharing, generalized reduction of work time, gradual abolition of waged work’. In Critique of Economic Reason (1998) Gorz defined the autonomous sphere as the realm of non-commodity activities. (2)

Socialism became part of a wider movement against capitalist rationality. It was entwined with ecology as “Ecosocialism.” He joined with the “décroissance” movement to question the whole basis of economic growth. Yet his social concerns did not fade was. As  Gianinazzi illustrates Gorz dropped the hostility he showed to Basic Income in Farewell. In the 1980s he co-operated with Maurice Pagat, the ebullient and – some considered – eccentric founder of the Syndicat des chômeurs (union of the unemployed). He became part of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN). His last work concerned the impact of information technology, and his L’Immatérial. Conassiance, valeur et capital (2003). It was said to be close to the Italian ‘post-autonomist’ theorists Paulo Virno and Tony Negri’s reflections on the Grundrisse and the ‘general intellect.” (Pages 311 – 312).

Lettre à D.

Une Vie closes with a portrait of Gorz’s final days. The writer’s wife, Dorine, had suffered for many years from great pain. She would never recover her health. Writing in the sublime Lettre à D Gorz described their profound love (Love letter that sealed a death pact). They could not bear to live separated, still less would he wish to follow her hearse to the Crematorium. Faced with this suffering, they had decided to “depart” together.

In September 2007 the couple jointly left the world.

On the final pages  Gianinazzi asks us not to cover Gorz with adulation but to consider his works as materials to help create “une civilisation désirable de l’après capitalisme et l’après croissance” (post growth). That is the best testimony to the value of André Gorz that one could give.

André Gorz. Une Vie is highly recommended and will without doubt be translated swiftly.

*******

(1) The New Agenda. André Gorz. New Left Review. 1990.1/81.
(2) Misreading Gorz. Finn Bowring. New Left Review 1/27/ 1996.

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.

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 dodge 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.”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, Hannah 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, saw as its most fundamental opposition  the irreducible plurality of human individuals. As a result  dissensus has a fundamental role in one of the aspect of active public life she valued the most, political disagreement, compromise, and the ability to hold together without coercion, the new beginnings offered by democratic republican 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 “micro-bureaucracy” 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

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(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

The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. A Review.

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The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. Sussex Academic Press.

“I recently read an interview featuring a cultural commentator of the left. Alongside the interview a photo appeared of this individual against a backdrop which featured an image of Joseph Stalin.” In the Preface to The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine, Tony McKenna observes in this, not uncommon, gesture, a “certain wry sympathy for Stalin’s political endeavours.” The Chair of no less than the Stop the War Coalition, Andrew Murray, has expressed such empathy on many occasions. For these people Stalin’s title of Generalissimo and Hero of the Soviet Union, awarded in June 1945, was due recognition for a leader prepared to “get his hands dirty” in defence of the USSR. This judgement, McKenna states, with appropriate severity, “does a great disservice to the millions Stalin had murdered” (Page xi).

This is a study that attempts to explain the “objective trajectory of Stalinism” in Marxist terms, and the course of a life that is full of “terrible darkness”. Its premise is that the original form of “the Soviet democracy remains the first form of democracy in human history which was not premised on some manner of class exploitation.”(Page 169) This “…fused the economic organs of society, the factories and the workplace with a political decision-making process where power flowed from the bottom-up. (Page vii) That it “abolished the capital-labour relation.” (Page 170) A bold effort, “drowned in blood”. And yet, “Most of all I wanted to challenge the assumption that Stalinist totalitarianism was the automatic and inevitable result of a revolution which mobilised the poorest in society”. (Page x)

McKenna considers, then, that “Stalinism represented the negation of the proletarian revolution”. Lenin stood for the emancipation of the working class “to be an act by the workers themselves” (Page 42) Nothing could be more clearly opposed to Stalin’s “overwhelming distrust – not only for the masses, but for the process of revolution itself” (Page 16) For those who recount the political conflicts of the early Soviet Union as a clash between a growing bureaucracy, and those, siding with Lenin who railed against administrative power and privilege, this is a decisive difference. Leninism was popular creative power; Stalinism was the rules and regulations, backed by repression, of the office.

Lenin.

This guiding contrast in The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is not without problems.  There is a different view, expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that this was not, in practice, how Lenin’s ideology worked. To her Lenin had “a dangerous rigidity in argumentation, certain scholasticism in his political ideas, and a tendency to ignore the living embodiment of the masses, or even to coerce it into accepting preconceived tactical plans.”(1) There is the claim that, under Lenin’s aegis, there were “always various tendencies and groups within the Party, which was considered natural and normal.”(2) There is another picture of less than tolerant Bolshevik, as revealed in his years of exile of “ceaseless polemics with all those he considered philistines, pedants, whiners, sceptics, defeatists. (3) Or, more strongly that when with his hands on the levers of power these were not just arguments, “Lenin, as we have seen time and time again, could not assimilate opposition. It could only be overcome and destroyed. In place of complete creative freedom Lenin turned to a new discourse based on a completely opposite theme – iron proletarian discipline.”(4)

A recent biography of Stalin puts this more sharply, “assertions of a Bolshevik collective leadership predating Stalin’s ring hollow. Lenin’s secretariat took on an essentially limitless range of issues, setting a precedent, and no one did more than Lenin to establish a living example of one-man rule at the top. (When the other ‘collective leaders; disagreed with Lenin he threatened to expel them or, failing that, to quit the party and form a new one.” (5) One may contest this judgement. Others talk of ‘Stalin’s team’, a tightly bound group at the top- broadening some of McKenna’s focus on the General Secretary. In either case the legacy, however reshaped in new hands,  from Lenin’s rule cannot be ignored.  (6)

Iron Discipline.

McKenna’s book does not however shirk from describing the mechanisms used to enforce this “iron discipline” during, and after, the Civil War. This was, above all, the work of the secret police, the Cheka. He defends, “out of military necessity”,  “mass compulsion” “terror” was an absolute requirement in a context where a class or nation state is in the process of fighting for existence goes more or less without saying” (Page 29) But the “generalisation of terror to a social class carte blanche  – and specifically the petty bourgeoisie…. the peasantry” “the bureaucracy was beginning to weave their theoretical rationale for its terrorisation for the very group whose surplus produce was integral to its survival..(Ibid) It used “indiscriminate force” against peasant or proletarians who “bridled against the increasingly coercive power and needs of the bureaucracy itself.” (Ibid)

According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn the Gulag Archipelago could not have built without the early sanction of these measures of compulsion. “In the first months of the October Revolution Lenin was already demanding decisive draconian measures to tighten up discipline” In December 1917, he suggested for consideration, confiscation of all property.. confinement in prison, dispatch to the front and forced labour for all who disobey the existing law.” (6) During the period of War Communism, Trotsky advocated ever tighter punishments, and the militarisation of labour (Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky 1920) He  asserted that the dictatorship of the proletariat was able to make use of organized state power by the working class to crush its opponents and to pave the way for social transformation.

If every Cook could run the State, as envisaged in the State and Revolution, those who broke the rules risked more than admonishing in an acidic polemical article. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was the end of ‘formal’ democracy and its replacement by the ‘superior’ form of workplace rule. As experience rapidly showed, adversaries of ‘Soviet power’ from the right, the dissident left, and not all because of the violent opposition of the left Social Revolutionaries (Uprising 1918. Exclusion: Fifth Soviet Congress, 1918), the right and then the left Mensheviks and Anarchists, particularly those with suspect “class origins” (which began to be treated as a hereditary taint) were progressively excluded from the ‘democracy’ of the Soviets. The system was designed to be the opposite of ‘agonistic’ politics where open clashes between opposed views would be freely expressed.

Lenin’s Last Struggle.

Was Stalin’s hold on these reins of power inevitable? During Lenin’s later lifetime and following his death, disputes between bureaucrats – that is state employees – Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Stalin, to cite some well-known names, continued. But already the shrinking of political freedom had caught up with the Party itself, as factions had been banned, and all dissent was suspect. There seemed to be an inevitability about further moves towards enforced unity – “discipline” –  around One line One leader, on every single issue, economic, cultural, political, and ideological. Yet Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle (1975) underlines the view that his Testament explicitly called for Stalin’s removal from office. Lewin claimed, “the use of constraint – let alone terror – is ostensibly excluded in establishing the foundations of a new society”. (8) This ‘tolerance’, at best putting up with people, was, as we seen, very limited. As McKenna narrates, not only was the Testament suppressed, and Stalin’s office confirmed, not to be, but also the range of forces allied with him, and the hesitations of his opponents, prevented even the document being discussed.

The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is a passionate intervention into debates on these issues. The description of the full “shadow of totalitarianism”, Stalin’s 1930s Great Terror, and a thorough, searing, look at the Gulag, is outstanding. McKenna’s concluding hopes for a direct ‘utopian’ democracy that takes collective control of a socialised economy takes inspiration from the best side of the Soviet ideal. This review has argued that we cannot ignore, with Claude Lefort, and many others, the other side, the ‘temporary’ limitations on democratic expression sketched above. They cannot be ignored. They turned out to be the permanent basis for a totalitarian regime, and whatever form of erratic command economy one cares to call it.  Perhaps truly universal – unblemished – inspiration cannot be found in the early years of the Russian Revolution. The all-too-ready use of force to resolve political issues played some part in the emergence of Stalinism. The means, exile, imprisonment, forced labour and killing, by which the “Pouvoir soviétique se déliverent des enemies”, (how Soviet power got rid of its enemies) are not foreign to the emergence of Stalin’s system of rule, warped by his own personality though it may have been. (9) We should also ensure that this blood-drenched tyranny is never repeated.

  1. Page 85. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by George Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. 2011.
  2. Page 385. Let History Judge. Roy Medvedev. Spokesman. 1971.
  3. Page 110. Lars T. Lih. Rekation Books. 2011.
  4. Page 212. Christopher Read. Routledge 2005.
  5. Page 419. Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878 – 1928. Stephan Kotin. Allen Lane. 2014.
  6. On Stalin’s team. Sheila Fitzpatrick. Princeton University Press. 2015.Pages 19 – 10. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol.2. Colins/Fontana. 1976.
  7. Page 134. Lenin’s Last Struggle. 1975.Un homme en trop. Réflexions sur l’Archipel du Gulag. Claude Lefort. New Edition. 2015 (1976)

Louis Project writes,

The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin.

Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.

Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)

More via above link.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 18, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Communist and Workers’ Parties Meeting in Vietnam: on Syria, and the EU.

with 11 comments

In the Morning Star Robert Griffiths reports,

Communists United Against Imperialism

THIS year’s international meeting of Communist and Workers Parties at the end of October took place in Hanoi, Vietnam against a global background of economic slowdown, political upheaval, rising military tension, forced mass migrations and growing climate instability.

This is of interest:

At least 25 parties also signed a solidarity statement calling for an end to “war, terror and human catastrophe” in Syria. (1)

It condemned the imperialist powers and their reactionary allies in the Middle East for creating a major crisis of war and destruction in the region. Their aim is to consolidate imperialist hegemony, ensuring unrivalled control over the flow of oil and free access to natural resources and markets.

“The US and EU powers are considering altering the existing borders of Syria and Iraq and creating new statelets in their place based along ethnic and sectarian fault lines,” the statement continued. “The New Middle East Plan is speedily taking shape.”

Making a distinction between foreign forces in Syria invited in by the Assad government and those not — who are in breach of the UN Charter — the signatories declared that there could be no military solution to the conflict.

Instead, communists called for all key non-terrorist players to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, respecting the independence and territorial integrity of the country. The arming and funding of terrorist organisations inside Syria should cease.

“The future of Syria and its government should be decided by the Syrian people alone, by their own free will,” the statement demanded.

As is this,

Most of the parties from Europe condemned the austerity, privatisation and militaristic policies of the European Union.“The Brexit vote of the British working class was a blow to the EU imperialists, and important support for our fight against the EU and the EU-EEA Agreement,” declared Svend Jacobsen of the Communist Party of Norway.

Eddie Glackin from the Irish CP said that the referendum result had “caused panic in the Irish ruling class and its subservience to London, Brussels and Washington DC.”

Not to be outdone:

Danish communists pointed out that people in their country had voted against their own rulers and the EU in a referendum last December, to retain national and democratic control over home affairs. Bo Moeller, the international secretary of the Communist Party in Denmark, told the meeting that “a break with the EU will be a major step towards our goal of socialist revolution.”

The German Communist Party (DKP) condemned the “unreformable” EU and its recent anti-refugee deal with Turkey. (1)

“Europe does not need a European Union as a capitalist construction guided by imperialist ideas and practice,” insisted DPK secretary of international relations Gunter Pohl.

We await the socialist Brexit revolution with bated breath.

 

(1)  For an end to war, terror and human catastrophe in Syria

We, the undersigned communist and workers parties meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, during the 18th IMCWP, strongly believe that the policies and actions of the imperialist powers and their reactionary allies have created an unprecedented political, social and humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East. The region is currently going through a major crisis of war and destruction. It has been the focus of carefully orchestrated attempts by US-led imperialism to consolidate its hegemony and to ensure unrivalled control of the flow of oil, the ability to freely plunder the region’s resources and to exploit its markets.

We are concerned that if the current situation continues, the Middle East has only a future of further wars, destabilisation and imperialist domination to look forward to.  Wars and terror in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel, as well as political crises in Lebanon and Egypt have scarred the face of the region.

The real beneficiary of the current situation is imperialism and its plans for continued economic, political and geostrategic domination.

The US and EU powers are considering altering the existing borders of Syria and Iraq and creating new statelets in their place based along ethnic and sectarian fault lines. The New Middle East Plan is speedily taking shape.

Currently there are a number of countries, some legitimately invited by the Syrian government, and others in direct contravention of the UN Charter that are militarily involved in the conflict in Syria.

We are concerned that the conflict in Syria could develop into a large-scale military conflict enveloping the region. From the outset of the crisis in Syria, we have stated that this conflict has no military solution and hence we have advocated a negotiated settlement in Syria respecting the independence and territorial integrity of the country and opposing every manifestation of direct or indirect foreign interference against the national sovereignty of the Syrian state.

We believe that without the people’s struggle and mass solidarity campaigns for peaceful resolution of existing conflicts in the region and in defence of the peoples, the tragedies will only continue to grow. The only victim will be the working people and the poor who have no other option but to take desperate measures in order to survive. In their desperate attempts to flee war and terrorism they have been forced to leave their homes and livelihood behind in a quest to find a place of safety.

We call for the immediate return of all key players in this crisis to negotiations based on the provisions of the UN Charter. There must be no place for any terrorist organization at the table, and the support, financing and arming of the terrorist organisations must be condemned and immediately stopped. The future of Syria and its government should be decided by the Syrian people alone with own free will,and the removal of Bashar al-Assad and the government should not be a precondition for an end to violence and a lasting peace.

We pledge to continue to do the following:

  • Mobilise the widest possible forces against the ongoing interference and aggression of imperialism in the region,
  • Mobilise our movements to disengage with apartheid Israel and pledge varied solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people,
  • Mobilise and organize mass demonstrations and marches for world peace and particularly for genuine peace in the region,
  • Mobilise against sale of weapons of war to apartheid Israel,
  • Organise seminars and other public fora to back the struggle for peace in the region.

Signed by:

  1. Communist Party of Australia
  2. Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB)
  3. Communist Party of Britain
  4. AKEL
  5. Communist Party of Cuba
  6. Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia
  7. Communist Party in Denmark
  8. Communist Party of Finland
  9. German Communist Party
  10. Communist Party of Greece
  11. PPP of Guyana
  12. Communist Party of India
  13. Communist Party of Iraq
  14. Tudeh Party of Iran
  15. Communist Party of Ireland
  16. Communist Party of Jordan
  17. People Party of Palestine
  18. Communist Party of Pakistan
  19. Philippine Communist Party (PKP – 1930)
  20. Portuguese Communist Party
  21. South African Communist Party
  22. Communist Party of Spain
  23. Communist Party of Sri Lanka
  24. Communist Party of Sweden
  25. Communist Party, Turkey
  26. Communist Party of Ukraine
  27. Communist Party of USA
  28. Communist Party of Venezuela

 

(2) German Communist Party Deutsche Kommunistische Partei, (DKP).

For the 2005 federal elections, the DKP endorsed the ticket of the Left Party, successor to the PDS. As of 2008, its membership has dropped to some 4,000, less than a tenth of its pre-unification strength.

The DKP received national public attention in early 2008 when Christel Wegner, elected to the state parliament of Lower Saxony on the list of the Left Party as the first DKP member of a state parliament, allegedly endorsed the Berlin Wall, the Stasi and other aspects of the East German state in an interview. This caused embarrassment to the national Left Party leadership. Despite denying that she made the controversial statements (at least in the form that was reported) she was expelled from the Left Party faction a few days later.

European election vote (2014):  25,204, 0,1%. ( Deutsche Kommunistische Partei)

This is also of relevance:

Dmitri Novikov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, chair of the Duma’s foreign relations committee, shared these anti-Nato, anti-EU positions. But he also pointed to the erosion of democratic rights, incomes and living standards under President Vladimir Putin and his austerity regime.

Statements by the CP’s on Brexit (Updated)

COMMUNIST PARTY OF BRITAIN:

Statement from the Communist Party of Britain on the EU referendum result

The referendum result represents a huge and potentially disorientating blow to the ruling capitalist class in Britain, its hired politicians and its imperialist allies in the EU, the USA, IMF and NATO. 
The people have spoken and popular sovereignty now demands that the Westminster Parliament accepts and implements their decision. The left must now redouble its efforts to turn this referendum result into a defeat for the whole EU-IMF-NATO axis.
But it is clear that the Cameron-Osborne government has lost the confidence of the electorate and cannot be trusted with the responsibility of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union. It should resign forthwith.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 17, 2016 at 12:15 pm