Paul Anderson, review of Political and Social Writings, volumes 1 and 2 by Cornelius Castoriadis (edited by David Curtis), Tribune, 30 December 1988
A collection of Cornelius Castoriadis’s political writings is long overdue in English. In Europe, he’s a major figure in the world of political ideas, as serious as Jurgen Habermas and the brains (in a weird way) behind Dany Cohn-Bendit.
In the Anglophone world, he has been taken up in Britain by iconoclastic libertarian socialists (the Solidarity group made him something of a guru in the late sixties and seventies), and in America by academics and Lacanian shrinkophiles. (The latter half-know his seventies attacks on their master.)
All we have available of his written work in Britain up to now, outside academic journals, are a series of Solidarity pamphlets, a collection of brilliant political-philosophical essays published by Harvester a couple of years back as Crossroads in the Labyrinth, and his magnum opus, The Imaginary Institution of Society, put out late last year by Polity a full 12 years after its publication in France.
Castoriadis does not deserve guru stature; he is wrong on plenty, not least his economics – time and again in these essays, almost all from the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie between 1948 and 1965, he overestimates wildly the strength of the post-war Keynesian boom in the developed world – and the workerist conception of the socialist project that was central to him until at least the late sixties.
In many ways, too, the writings here are polemics from a bygone age – when the Communist Party was a serious force in French politics, when substantial sections of the left really believed the Soviet Union to be “historically progressive”, when Trotskyism and other deviant brands of Leninism could be taken seriously, when fundamentalist Marxist catastrophism was left common sense.
It’s difficult to avoid feeling that you’ve read much of this before. But that in itself is a sign of how far the sort of perspective Castoriadis adopted in the fifties and sixties has taken hold of the way the left thinks.
These essays are the work of a man who was, and remains, too much of a Marxist to be a Marxist: as he put it recently, were all Marxists now just as we’re all Darwinians.
His early S ou B Marxist-true-believer demolitions of the socialist pretensions of the Soviet state (in English here for the first time) are unsurpassed in their genre; his later critiques of the irresolvable tensions in Marx’s work between determinism and an understanding of active human agency are still apposite.
Most of all, his emphasis on the centrality of autonomous self-activity to any emancipatory project is as relevant as ever. Sadly, though, I fear that these volumes won’t be read for any of this but because you can’t understand French postmodernism unless you read Castoriadis (the Situationists, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard were all once disciples).
What a bloody world.