Paul Anderson, Sanity, May 1990
Cornelius Castoriadis is a thinker who defies the categories – a leftist who has criticised the peace movement for pro-Soviet naïveté, yet insists he is not a cold warrior.
“Gorbachev is so preoccupied with his crisis domestically that he’s incapable of acting on the international stage. He’s lost the initiative…”
Cornelius Castoriadis is talking with some animation, with a strong French accent, jabbing the air with a cigarette for emphasis. It is the first time I have met him, and the circumstances, a coffee break in a noisy student canteen during an Essex University philosophy seminar, are not ideal for serious discussion with one of the most highly regarded of contemporary French intellectuals, a man whose writings I’ve admired for years and years.
But Castoriadis seems quite at home. He is refreshingly candid, with a mischievous sense of humour, very rude about academic seminars (“They always turn into a series of monologues”) and the intellectual star system. He is never patronising. The incisive thinker, it seems, is also an engaging human being.
This surprised me only because Castoriadis has something of a reputation as an awkward character. By all accounts, his enthusiasm for accuracy in translations of his work is boundless: he broke off relations with the American journal Telos, which published much of his political writing of the late seventies and early eighties, after a series of rows over the way it had rendered his key concepts into English.
But perhaps such apparent awkwardness is to be expected from someone who has spent his adult life writing against the intellectual fashion of the times. Now 67, Castoriadis left his native Greece for France in the mid-forties, a convert to Trotskyism from Stalinism, on the run from civil war. He rapidly became disillusioned with Trotskyism, and in 1948, together with Claude Lefort, then a young student of the existential philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, founded the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.
S ou B ceased publication in 1965, was plagued by schism, and never sold more than a few hundred copies each issue. But the anti-Leninist, post-Marxist libertarian revolutionary politics it developed, largely through Castoriadis’ essays under the pen-names Paul Cardan and Pierre Chaulieu, were enormously influential on the post-1968 new left in continental Europe, which was characterised by a commitment to non-bureaucratic, self-managed political activities. In Britain, Paul Cardan’s essays were published as pamphlets by the libertarian socialist group Solidarity.
Castoriadis today is unrepentant about his advocacy of revolutionary seizure of power by self-managed workers’ councils. “In broad outline, I’m still committed to the emancipatory project which I outlined in the fifties. I still stand by the principle of the self-management of production and the maximum possible decentralisation of decision-making. Autonomous society is about self-management, and we need to start with the places people gather – the firm, the school, the university, the hospital,” he says, although he’d drop the idea of the “centrality of the industrial proletariat” if he were sketching a possible future society today.
Castoriadis’s commitment to autonomous “self-activity” as the means and end of fundamental social change, which he developed in his magnum opus, The Imaginary Institution of Society, published in 1975, was equally at odds with both major seventies Parisian intellectual crazes-the Stalinist structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and others, and the ‘god-that-failed’ polemics of the ex-Stalinist nouveaux philosophes. But the furore created by his attacks on these shooting stars was as nothing to the impact of his assault on the western peace movement in his 1981 book Devant la guerre (Facing War).
The core of the book was an argument that the Soviet Union was becoming a “stratocracy”, a society ruled by the military. This was a matter not of generals taking over in a coup, but of something much more profound. The only efficient economic sector in the Soviet Union was military; the only effective state ideology was military. And the Soviet Union was multiplying its military capacities at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, the west gave every impression of caving in to the first sign of Soviet pressure. The peace movements of western Europe, with their concentration solely on western nuclear arms, were a symptom of the West’s loss of nerve.
Unsurprisingly, the ferocity of this polemic lost Castoriadis many friends, particularly in Britain and West Germany. But he dismisses accusations that he adopted a cold war position, and feels that his analysis of Soviet militarism has been to a large extent vindicated. “What has been revealed in the past couple of years show that I underestimated the extent of military domination of the Soviet economy,” he says.
Which is not to say that he’s not been forced to adapt his opinions by developments since Gorbachev came to power, particularly since the revolutions last year in eastern Europe. His most recent essay on the Soviet Union, “The Gorbachev Interlude”, marks a significant softening of his opinions on the role of the Soviet military, even if it is extremely pessimistic about the likely success of Gorbachev’s reforms. As for eastern Europe: ”I was taken by surprise, as was everybody else.”
But what of the future? He shrugs. “The recent events in eastern Europe show that people can be extremely active in overthrowing a tyrannical regime but are not necessarily so active in creating their own order. There’s a general misconception that what we have in the west is the best of all possible worlds – which I’m sure will remain dominant in eastern Europe for a few years. But a democratic society requires active participation, a degree of passion for common affairs. Today in the west, that is absent.”