Richard Barbrook on Thu, 9 Apr 1998 16:11:42 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> CORNELIUS CASTORIADIS 1922-1997


Cornelius Castoriadis who died the day after Christmas 1997 was a tough and
tough-minded intellectual  and survivor of revolutionary politics who, more
recently, gained considerable academic recognition. He was born in 
Constantinople and would have been part of the Greek exodus at that time of
mutual ethnic cleansing between Greece and Turkey. By his own reckoning he
began reading philosophy at the age of 13, an activity soon politicized by 
taking place under the dictatorship of General Metaxas. He became a member
of the Greek Communist Party at the age of 17 but three years later, when
the Party was gaining real power through its somewhat tortured relation
with the mass resistance organisation EAM-ELAS, he became a Trotskyist.
Another 3 years later in 1945, so the bald details go,  he fled to Paris on
both Fascist and Communist death lists.
Until a proper biography is written that is as far as it goes. In later
years, commenting on his break with Trotskyism he talked of its
misunderstanding of the nature of Communist parties with specific reference
to the fact that the Greek Communist Party had gone for a coup d'etat in
1944. On a personal note, I met him very briefly in 1993 to help do an
interview and then in a mad taxi dash to get him to the ICA on time for a
debate. He was someone who had helped give me and many other comrades  in
the late 1960s the confidence to be libertarian socialists, but by 1993 I
also knew many Greeks whose fathers and uncles had been murdered as
communists by British-backed death squads in the period after 1945. The
impression given in novels like Captain Correlli's Mandolin (based very
much on the writings of British intelligence officers) had given a
uniformly black picture of the communist resistance, but from the other
side, Trotskyist writers had tried to rescue it from the Communist party
and focussed on Aris Velouchiotis, himself finally murdered by the
communists and EAM-ELAS as a mass organisation distrusted by the party for
being an overhelmingly peasant organisation. I asked him about this in the
taxi but he said it had all, all of it, Velouchiotis too, been Stalinist
bullshit, that it was like that long before the return of the psychotic
Nikos Zachariades
I do not know what then it can have meant to be a Trotskyist in 1942-5
Greece, but am sure it would have been quite possible to be on the two
death-lists of both sides. In Paris he got a job as an economist with the
OECD, and from then on, with a three year break and later as a
psychoanalyst, always worked professionally as he put it. At the same time,
espite the professional job he did not gain French citizenship until 1970,
which meant that in principle he could have been deported at any time with
24 hours notice. I mention this since most Western European revolutionary
socialists have not had such experience, and to forestall any jeers or
sneers at this man.
His break with Trotskyism in 1948 is well documented. It was occasioned by
Tito's break with Stalin and the Trotskyist response to that but went
further in its wholescale critique of the bolshevik model. This critique
was developed in the group Socialisme ou Barbarie (a phrase I had always
thought coined by Rosa Luxemburg rather than Trotsky for whom it is claimed
in most accounts) and, looked at from now, was a great achievment in
broadening out the critique of bolshevism to expressing a proletarian view
of the world. Apart from Pannekoek's work in rescuing the history of
workers councils earlier in the century, there was nothing else to go on,
the history of the mass anarchist movement in Spain being still buried
under a Stalinist blackwash( and of which Castoriadis might well have been
sceptical given the ideological prominence of Bakunin, that bolshevik in
anarchist clothing).
Writing under the pseudonyms Paul Cardan and Pierre Chalieu (I had no idea
until years later that he was Cornelius Castoriadis or that he was Greek,
or was living under immigrant status) this work gained practical urgency
and material to develop with the uprisings in Berlin and Hungary, in which
the working class organised as workers councils against the Communist party
governments. The group also looked to wildcat strikes in Detroit for
inspiration. The theorizing of these experiences had the great virtue of
giving a boost the the working class's confidence in its own abilities. It
pointed out that 'places of work had become the primary unit of social life
for the vast majority of people' (true at the time) and that although some
sociologists studies had shown how much workers self-organisation existed
in order for factories to work, this could not be officially recognised
since it would undermine managerialism. This surely touches a raw nerve of
capitalist self justification (or self-admiration as it now is in an age of
the manager as superstar), especially when it argued that this
self-organisation was so much needed to deal with process fuck-ups and
managerial mistakes.
What is especially impressive is that as early as 1957 he warned against
fetishizing 'soviet' or council-type organisations. Constantly revokable
delegates OK, but this in itself was no guarantee. "Such organisations," he
wrote in characteristic style, "will be a true expression so long as people
do what is needed to make it so." It is impressive when looking at the much
hipper and well known Situationist International which, some time after
this warning (to be followed later again by abuse of Castoriadis by the SI
in its more-revolutionary-than-thou voice,  as a 'specialized' thinker)
discovered workers councils and fetishized them by default. Their acute
descriptive analysis had for presecription just one or two paragraphs in
which workers councils were baldly presented as the solution. 
Socialisme ou Barbarie itself was never more than a small gropescule with
two members in car factories, but with links to CLR James also making a
break with Trotskyist orthodoxy, and which took a principled pro-Algerian
stand from the outset of the national liberation struggle, something which
again demanded a tough courage at that time especially given the rotten
complicity of the PCF with the French state on the question. It finally
split up on the question of whether it should be an activist organisation.
Lefort and others thought it should not be, Castoriadis that it should,
that otherwise the group would be producers of theory for passive
consumers. This argument trickled down some years later into the English
and Scottish organisation Solidarity (with close ties to S ou B)which I
supported. Without I think putting on a rosy glow from hindsight, the
activist West London Solidarity group in its support for the striking Asain
workers of Punfield & Barstow (the first successful strike by Asian
workers) behaved in exemplary fashion. The support was unconditional,
non-recruiting, and tactically shrewd. It did I believe show that such
activism was possible. Castoriadis saw it also in terms of responsibility.
The group dissolved before the events of 1968 but its ideas for
self-management against union and part bureaucracy were surely a part of
the self-confidence of strikers and students alike. In 1972, two years
after he gained French citizenship and could write as himself,  and a year
before he began training as a psycho-analyst, he wrote that 1968 marked the
end of the historical centrality of the traditional proletariat, factory
workers, that many many proletarians did not work and didn't socialize at
Apart from some work with Dany Cohn-Bendit to develop an ecological
politics in which he remained tough minded, asking an anti-nuclear power
meeting in Belguim, OK then you don't want nuclear power what about
electricity, his overtly political engagement seems to have been slowly
replaced by his position on an international academic circuit. He did not
see his writing and talking in this world as a break with the past however,
but kept banging away across a wide range of knowledges (certainly
consistent in resisting the dynamic of ever more specialized knowledges) on
the themes of autonomy, self-management, and the radical imagination. I
would argue that this became somewhat sterile in its abstraction, and that
his thinking is caccooned from other fertile developments in socialist
autonomy, especially in Italy, and cut off from the daily life
contestations he only theorized. I say this not in jeering tone or
judgementally. His remark about the disappearing centrality of the
traditional proletariat tells only one part of the story, it is part of and
continues on from what I would baldly call the defeat of proletarian
conscious aspiration in the West some time in the mid-seventies, which went
with international capitalist use of the oil crisis (on which Castoriadis
is I think naove in his ecological writings), the deliberate move to
floating exchange rates, as well as the technological changes in production
and shifting global geography of production. About this, what is actually
happening in the world, and so well described by Sergio Bologna and Tony
Negri for example, he says nothing. 
I do not jeer about this because for one thing, unlike so many other
theorists faced with this defeat, the displacement activity of his
intellectual fight against determinism may I think have been sterile but
never becomes soft-headed or romanticized flim-flam like Deleuze or
Guattari and their nomads; nor does he rationalise neo-liberalism with
mixes of chaos theory and hippy ideology as done by what Richard Barbrook
and Andy Cameron call "The Californian Ideology"; nor shift to the other
side and rationalize some third way capitalsim like so many Eurocommunists;
nor mind-fuck a generation like Althusser; nor become a media school guru.
Finally sterile or not he sticks to his guns and to the basic revolutionary
tenet, and the one most denied by those with a stake in the way things are,
that we are all, everyone, capable of changing the world. We can see this
in the mirror of an awfully smug outfit called The Complexity Group and one
if its theorists, Gunther Truebner, at a recent LSE conference (June
"At a global level, the unpredictable dynamics of autopoiesis argues
against the unrealistic view of those like Castoriadis who believe that it
is possible to move world society in a desired direction via deliberative
global democratic process. Autopoiesis is closer to the 'new polytheism 'of
Weber which suggests different rationalities have developed their own
systems and that people are exposed to these ongoing rationslising
processes without being able to control a super-process to control the
systems." It is good to see Castoriadis being singled out by this ideology
which like the Californian Ideology's more upbeat version from Kevin Kelly.
happily ignores just how much of the world's resources are controlled by so
few hands. As if he had seen Kevin Kelly and his dodgy analogies on the
horizon Castoriadis says, "The hive or the herd are not societies." (Done
and to be Done, 1989)
In the same essay  he shows he is not stuck in anti-bolshevik groove when
he attacks the pretensions of neo-liberalism:-
"The population plunges into privatisation, abandoning the public domain to
bureaucratic, managerial and financial oligarchies...the public/public
sphere is in fact, in its greatest part, private. It certainly is not so
legally speaking: the country is not the domain of the monarch, nor the
state the entirety of the servants of its 'house'. But on the factual level
the essential features of public affairs are still the private affairs of
various groups and clans that share effective power, decisions are made
behind closed doors, the little that is brought on to the public stage is
masked, prefabricated, and belated to the point of irrelevancy." We see
here the 'crony capitalsim' of the US government and private finance
capital's handling of the South East Asian crisis while it attacked the
'crony capitalism of that region; and we see, to paraphrase Guy Debord,
that scandals are always revealed too late.
In short, Kastoriadis is not, in judgemental language, a sell-out or a
cop-out. He keeps going, but keeps going on the same song, that it is a
whole tradition of determinacy that must be confronted. The attack on this
tradition comes with his attack on Marxism that is first elaborated in the
mid-sixties. Clearly he is right to attack those who have used Marx as a
bible, on the dangers and stupidity of such an attitude. Right too on the
marxist assumption of the development of the forces of production as a
neutral process when technology from the point of view of what and for whom
it creates is not so, nor in its impact on the development of production
processes. But here his critique remains deaf, not taking on board the
similar thrust of Panzieri's work, one also from the working class
viewpoint but which is far more fruitful. This deafness,
non-acknowledgement of the work of the Italian theorists of autonomy in
general is extraordinary, a kind of complacency once he has made a
wholescale rejection of Marxist thought which begins with an attack on
'Capital' for not acknowledging working class struggle and resistance as a
primary historical force, which is then generalized into an attack on its
determinism. The main accusation that the Thesis on Feuerbach, that we are
made by history but that we also make it, is betrayed by Marx .
To get there he makes the reasonable and obvious points about the 19th
century positivist tone of that work (ironically an historically determined
false need for a critique of capitalism to be scientific for it to be taken
seriously), and its search for laws, but loads the argument in such a way
so that he can, from then on, be once-and-for-all the non-Marxist theorist
of self-organisation. The falling rate of profit for example is not a law
but a tendency against which counter-tendencies work especially intensity
of labour (he does not bother to unpick the ideological concept of
productivity which mendaciously merges productiveness and intensity of
labour). He simply turns  his back on these tools which are especially
useful in understanding what is going on in the world at present; does not
bother with the emphasis on commodity fetishism that so informs Volume I;
nor the relation between land expropriation and capitalist discipline so
passionately described in the same Volume; and, when writing of ecological
politics simply ignores the essential Marxist understanding of capital as
being compelled to accumulate, and that being antithetical to the
'self-limiting' he sees as having become the necessary corollary to
self-government in the present period. 
Castoriadis greatly admired Kalecki's wonderful essay on discipline being
of paramount importance to capital (even at the cost of short term profit
losses) but then refuses to use this insight in looking at the state of
things since the mid-seventies. Instead proletarian-imposed Keynsianism  is
seen as the definitively capitalist model despite its abandonment. He can
only attack the cretinism of modern capitalist theory for ignoring Keynes,
Kalecki and Sraffa. All this seems sad, a turning away from looking at the
world as it is. True, the critique of Marx had pre-dated the defeat of the
1970s by ten years, but I can't help feeling that he didn't want to look it
in the face or engage with those who from a similar starting point
continued to do so, who took on the job of analyzing the new class
compositions of a proletariat not defined by work, and their possible forms
of self-organisation. 
Neither is it just that tradition his later work seems cut off from. In
looking at, and rejecting possible 'universals' he makes banal Chomsky's
profoundly anti-etilist work that shows we are all capable with language.
There is no reference to that whole critique of specialized knowledges
(which he does add to) being linked to a tradition of anti-elitism coming
from the Scottish Enlightenment. This cut him off from fruitful
explorations of the relation between elitism and exploitation. Instead we
are left with a bald axis of passivity/activity with much emphasis on the
evils of TV, an axis favoured by the professional middle class, modern day
jacobin/bolsheviks included.
Castoriadis never became a 'reactionary', and his work remained inspiring
for artists creating a new language of spontanaity, witnessed for example
by the great Ornette Coleman's admiration for his work which took practical
form in designing the covers for his books. He remained acute on the
awfulness of bolshevik type organisation in which 'worker comrades' should
express only what is pre-occupying the workers in their sector of
production. His attack on the bolshevik model whereby developing new ways
of everyday living and doing were worthless till the revolution came, have
rightly become common practice, created in large part by the feminist
movement to which he is generous. His taking apart the fetishistic notion
of 'societal collapse' is unmatched; and the argument that we should not be
reactively involved to all the ins and outs of daily official politics 
still germane. But to have this collective self-confidence is not the same
as turning your back on this regressive, ever more managerial capitalist
world, an avoidance which did I believe make his later work schematic and
sterile despite its ecelectic range of knowledge and argument.
This all sounds cold and perhaps presumptuous. In that brief hour in his
company a few years ago he had extraordinary energy, but was also a very
human seventy year old who, on our frantic taxi ride, said he was really in
London to see an old friend in hospital, and had got the ICA gig to make a
long visit possible. When we had safely got him to the ICA an elderly Greek
lady was there, had come to meet him, and then it was him looking after
her, making sure she felt comfortable in that super-cool establishment.

John Barker  (2971 words)

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