Alex Callinicos




4 Heresies

4.3 Cornelius Castoriadis and the triumph of the will

Viewing the USSR as state-capitalist allowed James to re-establish Marx’s identification of socialism with the self-emancipation of the working class. He did so, however, in a form which bore a strong resemblance to the “council communism” of Anton Pannekoek and Hermann Gorter, who in the early years of the Comintern challenged the Bolshevik model of socialist revolution, tending instead to attach primacy to the development of workers’ councils out of the class struggle at the point of production. The most rigorous version of this response to the crisis of the Trotskyist movement emerged in France from Cornelius Castoriadis and the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. Castoriadis – for many years better known under such pseudonyms as Paul Cardan and Pierre Chaulieu – broke with the Greek Communist Party and became a Trotskyist in 1942. After three hazardous years in German- and then British-occupied Athens, he moved at the end of the war to Paris, where he became involved in a faction of the FI French section, the PCI, which developed parallel to, and in dialogue with, the Johnson-Forest tendency in the US (as late as 1958 Castoriadis contributed to James’s key document, Facing Reality). In 1949 Castoriadis and Claude Lefort left the FI to found the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. The group around this journal exerted till its dissolution in 1966 an influence quite out of proportion to its size, and counted among its members several figures who were to assume an important role on the Parisian intellectual scene – notably, Castoriadis and Lefort aside, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. (See Curtis 1988.)

Like James, Castoriadis argued that Stalinism represented not a historical accident reflecting the pressure of Western capitalism on a backward revolutionary state, but a new phase in capitalist development. Basing themselves on the labour aristocracy and the middle classes, the Communist parties were pursuing “an equally independent political line and autonomous strategy opposed to that of the bourgeoisie no less than that of the proletariat” (Castoriadis 1988a I, 37). Initially Castoriadis (1988a: I, 50) saw them in terms similar to Shachtman’s, as the agents of a “third historical solution, beyond capitalism and socialism,” “an unprecedented modern barbarism, entailing an unbridled, rationalized exploitation of the masses, their complete political dispossession, and the collapse of culture”. Subsequently, however, Castoriadis (1988a: I, 67-8) came to the conclusion that the USSR and the other “socialist countries” represented a form of “bureaucratic capitalism”. “[T]he continual merger of capital and the state” was a universal tendency, fully operative in the West, but closer to completion in the East, and reflecting “one identical social and historical need” for

absolute concentration of the forces of production on the national and international scale, “planning” of the production that has thus been concentrated, world domination, fusion of the economy with the state, statification of ideology, and the complete reduction of the proletariat to the status of a cog in the productive apparatus.

The culmination of this process of concentration would be the forcible establishment of “the worldwide domination of a single state” (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 186). In the early 1950s, Castoriadis expected that the Third World War, which he regarded as imminent, would settle the question of which superpower would emerge supreme. He believed that the USSR would enjoy a major advantage in this contest, since its “relations of production are relations of exploitation expressing the most highly developed form of domination by capital over labour” (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 187), and predicted in 1954 that, given the continuation of present trends, “Russian production would surpass American production” in a “relatively short space of time” (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 265).

Castoriadis’s use of the expression “bureaucratic capitalism” to refer to the new socio-economic epoch most clearly represented by Stalinism was in a certain sense misleading. He rejected the concept of state capitalism on the grounds that “it makes one think that capitalism’s economic laws continue to hold after the disappearance of private property, of the market, and of competition, which is absurd” (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 9-10). By contrast, “bureaucratic capitalism signifies only the extreme development of the most deep-seated laws of capitalism, which leads towards the internal negation of these laws” (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 126). Bureaucratic capitalism was thus capitalism not in the sense of being governed by the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production formulated by Marx – on the contrary, “the Russian bureaucratic economy already has freed itself from such laws and now constitutes a new whole that negates capitalism” (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 71) – but in the sense of being the outcome of the operation of these laws, notably the tendency towards the concentration and centralization of capital. Castoriadis increasingly came to see bureaucratic capitalism, in the West as well as the East, as the stage of historical development in which the collective will – primarily of the bureaucracy but also of the working class – supplanted the objective economic processes explored by Marx in Capital.

The voluntarist social theory thereby entailed can be seen at three levels of Castoriadis’s analysis of bureaucratic capitalism. In the first place, he laid increasing stress on the fact that, in the West, “the state has a continuous policy of conscious intervention aimed at maintaining economic expansion” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 234). Keynesian techniques of demand management, made possible by the bureaucratization of “private” capitalism, had caused the post-war boom. Consequently, rather than being a tendency inherent in the capitalist mode of production, “economic overproduction crises are a relatively superficial phenomenon belonging merely to one particular phase of capitalism” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 252). In itself this argument was identical to that of such post-war theoreticians of right-wing social democracy as Anthony Crosland and John Strachey. Castoriadis, however, did not believe that bureaucratic capitalism was less oppressive or irrational than its predecessors. He argued, secondly, that the post-war boom had not overcome “the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, whether in its private or bureaucratic form, which consists of treating the subject of production as an object” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 41). The central thrust of capitalist exploitation is strictly to separate the functions of direction and execution, depriving labour of all creativity and concentrating control over the production process exclusively in the hands of management. This project cannot, however, be achieved:

No modern factory could function for twenty-four hours without this spontaneous organization of work that groups of workers, independent of the official business management, carry out by filling in the gaps of official production directives, by preparing for the unforeseen and for regular breakdowns of equipment, by compensating for management’s mistakes, etc. (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 68)

The existence of this, the “true subject of modern production, ... a collectivity of workers” present in the “elementary groups” formed spontaneously within the factories “for the purposes of production and ... for the purposes of struggle” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 166, 167, 169), forms the third theme of Castoriadis’s analysis of bureaucratic capitalism. Socialism is merely the self-conscious, organized development of workers’ resistance at the point of production, whether this struggle brought them into conflict with the ruling bureaucracy in the East or managers and trade-union officials in the West. Thus, “[t]he content of the socialist organization of society is first of all workers’ management of production”, taking the political form of government by workers’ councils, but constituted by “the abolition of any separate managerial apparatus and the restitution of such an apparatus to the community of workers” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 95, 102). Bureaucratic domination was made possible in Russia by the Bolsheviks’ failure to maintain the workers’ control of production which had developed between the February and October Revolutions (Castoriadis 1988a: I, 97ff.) While “revolutionary organization” was necessary in the struggle against capital, its form should as far as possible resemble the kind of decentralized democracy that would prevail in the workers’ councils (Castoriadis 1988a, II: 213-14). Otherwise it would repeat the pattern whereby the “organizations created by the working class for its liberation have become cogs in the system of exploitation” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 193).

Castoriadis’ analysis of bureaucratic capitalism enabled Socialisme ou Barbarie, like the Socialist Review group in Britain (see Chapter 5 below) and the Johnson-Forest tendency in the USA, but unlike the orthodox Trotskyists, to discern one of the most important developments in the West after 1945, the emergence of shopfloor militancy by rank-and-file workers acting independently of their official leaders – a phenomenon at the heart of the social explosions (above all the events of May-June 1968 in France) which announced the end of the post-war boom. By that time, however, Castoriadis had broken with Marxism. This move reflected a contradiction at the heart of his thought. If there was, as he claimed, an autonomous movement towards socialism that originates in the workers’ struggle against the capitalist organization of production” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 199), what motivated that struggle in an era when state intervention had rendered economic crisis obsolete? As Castoriadis’ (1988a: II, 242-57) criticisms of Marxist economic theory became more radical, he tended to stress capitalism’s tendency “completely [to] bureaucratize society”, which, he claimed, “merely spreads its contradictions everywhere” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 281, 282). But since, as he noted, the bureaucratization of social life bred apathy and privatization among the Western masses (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 226-7), why not conclude that, as Marcuse was arguing at much the same time, the working class had been integrated into capitalism and therefore lost its revolutionary potential?

Castoriadis resolved this dilemma by radicalizing the voluntarism implicit in his conception of bureaucratic capitalism as the “internal negation” of capitalism’s laws of motion. The class struggle had to be seen as a process in which the actions of labour and capital “give rise to a historical creation, an invention of new forms of organization, of struggle, or of life that in no way were contained in the previous state of affairs” (Castoriadis 1988a: II, 264). In an essay first published in serial form in 1964-5, Castoriadis made this insight the basis of a new philosophy of history. He now explicitly abandoned Marxism, condemning it as an “objective rationalism” (Castoriadis 1987: 41), whose determinism distorted the real dynamic of social change and whose internal inconsistencies were an increasing embarrassment even to the orthodox. Nevertheless, certain “intuitions”, notably of the young Marx and of Lukács, pointed to a genuinely “revolutionary element”, “radically opposed” to orthodox Marxism (Castoriadis 1987: 57), which Castoriadis sought to develop. History is not an objective process by the development of the productive forces but the work of the “the imaginary, which is creation ex nihilo”, such that change is “the positing of a new type of behavior, ... the institution of a new social rule, ... the invention of a new object or a new form – in short, ... an emergence or a production which cannot be deduced on the basis of a previous situation” (Castoriadis 1987: 3, 44). The pattern underlying historical processes is not the dialectic of the forces and relations of production, but that arising from the tendency of institutions to become autonomous of society, until broken up by a new creative intervention of the imagination, which itself would inevitably become lost in a fresh process of alienation.

The logic of Castoriadis’s (1988a: I, 32ff.) critique of Marxism led him to initiate the dissolution of Socialisme ou Barbarie in the winter of 1965-66. His influence as a philosopher and social theorist grew in the 1970s and 1980s. In part this reflected the extent to which his politics now fitted the harsher climate of the Second Cold War, especially in Paris, where the nouveaux philosophes led an intellectual reaction against Marxism comparable to that of the New York Intellectuals a generation earlier. Consistent with his earlier view of the USSR as the most advanced form of bureaucratic capitalism, Castoriadis (1988b: 77) depicted the Gorbachev reforms as an “interlude” in a much longer-term process governed by one overriding goal – “the accumulation of force in view of external expansion or: Russia as a dominant world power”. But Castoriadis had more to offer than a political analysis highly congenial to Washington neo-conservatives. He developed the philosophy of history first outlined in the mid-1960s, notably in The Institutional Imagination of Society, which attracted the praise and criticism of Habermas (1987: 327-35). In fact, this wilfully obscure book is merely one example of a general trend in contemporary social theory, which is 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. Anthony Giddens (1981) and Roberto Unger (1987) offer more perspicuous and arguably more interesting versions of this kind of voluntarist social theory. The relevance here of Castoriadis’s variant is that his path to it seems to suggest that preserving the commitment to socialism as self-emancipation requires the abandonment of the substance of Marx’s theories of history and of capitalism – and perhaps also the acceptance of Western bourgeois democracy. Let us finally consider an attempt to avoid this conclusion.


Last updated on 13.3.2001