Tribune, 15 January 1993
In the second of Tribune‘s occasional series on key contemporary left thinkers, Paul Anderson talks to one of France’s leading libertarian left intellectuals
If the pundits who appear on The Late Show and write for the Sunday reviews pages are to be believed, the days of the politically engaged French intellectual are over.
The great figures who made Paris the centre of the intellectual left’s world for 40 years after the war – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser – are all dead, the argument goes. The only intellectuals around nowadays in France either don’t care about left politics or else don’t matter.
This is, of course, partly true. With television inexorably squeezing print culture, there is no doubt that intellectuals do not have the importance that they had 25 years ago. And, since communism lost its last shreds of credibility, Marxism went out of fashion and Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist government became an embarrassment, the idea that intellectuals ought to be publicly identified with the left has taken a pounding.
But there are exceptions, and none more distinguished than Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek-born philosopher, psychoanalyst and political writer, now 70, who is the nearest to a guru that the European environmentalist libertarian left has. Not that he sees himself playing any such grand role. “I’m just someone who attempts in an unsatisfactory way to rise to the intellectual challenges of the time,” he says with a shrug.
Nor is his political engagement of the sort that one associates with French left intellectuals. He never fell for the French Communist Party (PCF) in the forties or fifties: indeed, he has been an implacable enemy of Stalinism for half-a-century. More recently, he did not throw in his lot with the Socialist Party (PS) after Mitterrand’s election to the Presidency in 1981: for Castoriadis, the PS, like social democratic parties everywhere else in Europe, has been going through “intellectual decomposition” ever since the first oil shock of 1974-75 brought to an end the “30 glorious years” of Keynesian growth in the developed west.
“After one year of repeating stale slogans, the socialists became the bastion of liberal capitalism in France,” he says. “The only difference with Margaret Thatcher was their maintenance of the social safety net. But that was in the interests of the ruling class.”
The “official left”, he says, has failed even to reassert the Keynesian message against the new right. When it comes to the really important questions – the massive global inequalities in power and wealth, the global ecological crisis – mainstream socialists have been hopeless, failing utterly to grasp the scale of the problems.
Castoriadis’s sense of the inadequacies of orthodox social democracy goes back a long way. At first, it was expressed as Leninism: he joined the Greek communists at the age of 15, founded an opposition current in 1941 after the German occupation of Greece and in 1942 became a Trotskyist. After the war, however, he left his homeland for Paris and he began to leave Leninism behind, breaking with the Trotskyists in 1948 over the nature of the Soviet Union and founding, with Claude Lefort and others, 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 of each issue. But the anti-Leninist, post-Marxist libertarian socialist “politics of self-activity” which it developed from the mid-fifties, largely through Castoriadis’s essays under the pen-names Paul Cardan and Pierre Chaulieu (used because he was working as an economist with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), was enormously influential on many of the activists who played a major role in the events of May 1968. Subsequently, S ou B had a big influence on the post-1968 new left throughout continental Europe, In Britain, Castoriadis’s work was published by the libertarian socialist group, Solidarity, but its impact was relatively small.
These days, some of his writings from S ou B recently collected in English in two volumes of Political and Social Writings, seem dated: they deal with a world we have lost, in which the PCF was almost hegemonic on the French left, when “actually existing socialism” actually existed and fundamentalist Marxist catastrophism was left commonsense.
But much from S ou Bremains as fresh as when it was written: the sketch of a society run by self-managed workers’ councils in “On the content of socialism”, the sustained critique of Marxian economics in “Modern capitalism and revolution”, the assault on Marx’s technological determinism in “Marxism and revolutionary theory”, a long essay which was to become the first part of Castoriadis’s magnum opus, The Imaginary Institution of Society.
Castoriadis now says that some of his earlier S ou B work was too Marxist in its assumptions, and for several years he has preferred to describe his goal as “autonomous society” rather than “socialism” because “the term is irretrievably prostituted by the history of the last 70 years, both the history of communism and that of social democracy in the west”. But he sticks by most of what he did for the journal – even the advocacy of revolution. “The project I still pursue is a radical social transformation,” he says. “And that’s what I call a revolution, not storming the Winter Palace or mounting barricades. In broad outline, I’m still committed to the project which I outlined in the fifties.”
After S ou B, Castoriadis co-authored by far the best instant book on May 1968, La Breche (The Break), with Claude Lefort and Edgar Morin, then in 1970 left his job with the OECD to study to become a psychoanalyst.
Since then, he has written on a bewildering range of topics. In the mid-seventies, in a series of incisive essays, he developed his critique of the “totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism” of Soviet-type societies; at the same time, he was one of the first thinkers to take seriously the implications of the ecological crisis. Meanwhile, The Imaginary Institution of Society (published in 1975 in France but not until 1987 in Britain), with its defence of the central importance of creativity in human life and its extraordinary intellectual scope, was widely recognised as a major work of social philosophy. Castoriadis has followed up its arguments in a several learned articles, published in English in two collections, Crossroads in the Labyrinth and Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy.
In the late seventies, Castoriadis played a key role in resisting the Parisian intellectual craze for structuralism (his demolition of Althusser’s Stalinist structural Marxism is second to none) and the “god-that-failed” rantings of the nouveaux philosophes. He has also written many polemics on French politics and psychoanalysis.
But he created the biggest furore in 1981 with a book, Devant la Guerre (Facing War), which took up the perennial Castoriadis theme of the critique of Soviet society, arguing that the Soviet Union was becoming a society dominated by the military and that it was pursuing an active policy of expansionism towards Western Europe. The book earned Castoriadis, by now director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the enmity of the peace movement, but he dismisses accusations that he adopted a cold-war position: if anything, he says, it now seems that he underestimated the importance of the military in the Soviet system during its last years.
Today, with “actually existing socialism” a thing of the past, Castoriadis’s main political concern is once more the dire state of the developed West. He is as scathing as he ever was about the depoliticisation and atomisaiion of the consumerist societies of “fragmented bureaucratic capitalism”, as he describes the developed west, talking of a “paralysis of political imagination and activity” now that it seems to so many people that there is no alternative to consumer capitalism.
With ecological crisis threatening to engulf us, he argues that it is essential that we find a new sense of responsibility for our actions – and the only way of achieving this is a simultaneous radical democratisation of society and transformation of the ways that people understand the meaning of their lives. “In current conditions, ecology and the radicalisation of democracy are inextricably linked,” he told Le Monde in a recent interview.
“I’ve written that the only way to avert an ecological catastrophe is to go back to 1929 standards of living,” he says. “We need a humanity that’s able to live with frugality. But people are not like that. They want more and more of everything. We must change the realm of imaginary significations that hold this together.
“People need to find within themselves new meanings for life and new things to die for – not just a change of car every two years. This is, frankly, a fantastic change.”