Scott McLemee
The Radical Imagination of Cornelius Castoriadis
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Lingua Franca, 1997

Paris in the forties was a city awash in forged identities and remade lives. But few transformed themselves as completely as Cornelius Castoriadis. When the young Greek émigré arrived, in 1945, he settled down to write a doctoral thesis on the inevitable culmination of all Western philosophies in "aporias and impasses." But by the end of the decade, he had quit academia to lead a curious double life. As Cornelius Castoriadis, he worked as a professional economist, crunching numbers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Meanwhile, adopting a number of aliases, he developed one of the most influential bodies of political thought to emerge from the non-Communist left over the last half century. Castoriadis's covert writings helped to rally France's beleaguered anti-Stalinist left in the fifties and to inspire the spectacular Paris revolt of 1968.

Yet even as other intellectual heroes of Paris '68 marched on to academic renown in the English-speaking world, Castoriadis's work has remained little known. That may change this year: As he turns seventy-five, academic presses are generating the biggest wave of Anglophone publications by and about Castoriadis yet.

The Castoriadis Reader (Blackwell), with representative extracts from almost fifty years of political and philosophical writing, reflects his long march
from Marx back to Aristotle. World in Fragments (Stanford) presents a selection of readings from Castoriadis's recent work, including papers on ancient Greek democracy, the French Revolution, psychosis, racism, and the history of science. (Both volumes are edited by David Ames Curtis, who for the past decade has been the Greco-Parisian thinker's authorized translator, and each bears cover graphics by Castoriadis admirer and renowned jazz improvisationalist Ornette Coleman.)

Meanwhile, The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis's theoretical magnum opus, first published in 1975, is finally available in paper from Polity, after a decade of hardback near-oblivion. In these books, the high abstraction of his philosophical excursions alternates with an acid wit, trained by years of polemical writing. Typical is Castoriadis's pithy remark on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: "Four words, four lies."

Though Castoriadis's work started out within the Trotskyist tradition, it soon transcended those origins. By the late forties, he saw in American mass production or the Russian labor camp the embodiments of a demented rationalism: an economic will to power that constantly engendered unforeseen crises in the division of labor and responded with totalitarian measures in a desperate effort to avoid its own collapse. In the fifties, Castoriadis analyzed the "bureaucratic capitalism" of Stalinist Russia, explored the philosophical implications of the 1956 Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule, and scrutinized the wildcat strikes of Detroit autoworkers in search of new forms of proletarian self-organization. Castoriadis took seriously Leon Trotsky's dictum that the future of humanity was a choice between socialism and barbarism-with the USSR being, for him, a decisive example of the latter. A circle of workers and intellectuals (including Claude Lefort, now a leading political philosopher) collaborated in hammering out a radically anti-hierarchical conception of direct democracy.

To readers of the group's now-legendary journal Socialisme ou barbarie (1949-1965), Castoriadis was known as "Paul Cardan," among other signatures; for, as a foreigner, he could be deported with twenty-four hours' notice-making the occasional change of pseudonym an understandable precaution, whatever the confusion to the public. Not that there was much of an audience: Given the intimate relationship between intellectuals and the Communist Party, he might as well have been writing in Greek. In 1967 the members of the group voted to disband.

Then, in May 1968, everything changed. Students at the Sorbonne erected barricades and called on the workers to launch a general strike, which they happily did; and the vision of revolutionary spontaneity and worker self-management elaborated by Castoriadis and a few comrades years before suddenly went marching into the streets. In a manifesto, the student radical leader (and later Green Party politician) Daniel Cohn-Bendit, best known as "Dany the Red," acknowledged the influence of "the ideas of Pierre Chaulieu," another Castoriadis pen name.

In the early seventies - as the rest of the intelligentsia caught up with the ideas he had helped launch years before - Castoriadis obtained French citizenship. He proceeded to reprint the old texts from the Socialisme ou barbarie years under his own name. After quitting his job as an economist to begin training as a psychoanalyst, he was not more gentle in his critique of Lacan than he was with Stalin. Meanwhile, by the late seventies, his warnings about the Soviet Union's arms buildup were regularly cited by the New Philosophers, whose work was all the rage at the time. Countless intellectuals began recalling fondly their days as militants in Socialisme ou barbarie- which was surprising, for its membership seldom rose above the high two digits. "If all these people had been with us at the time," Castoriadis noted wryly, "we would have taken power in France sometime around 1957."

In his own intellectual projects, Castoriadis certainly does his best to resist what he calls "the glutting of the market by plastic 'pop' philosophical collages." He focuses, throughout his work, on the question of "autonomy"-the process and condition in which a society recognizes that its values are its own creation, not "given" (by God, or nature, or the mode of production). Yet the potential to create new forms of social relation is constantly hidden-by precisely the institutions society has already generated. "The guiding thread running throughout my writings," Castoriadis explains, is "the obsession with the risk that a collective movement might 'degenerate,' that it might give birth to a new bureaucracy (whether totalitarian or not)." His examples of creative autonomy in action are suggestive in their variety: the city-state of Greek antiquity; the Paris commune; the shop-floor organizations that keep factories running (no matter how stupid the bosses' orders may get); the formal innovations of modernist art and jazz; the activism of Poland's Solidarity trade union in the eighties.

As the final essay in the Reader makes clear, the threat of bureaucratic ossification is by no means averted by the collapse of communism and the near-collapse of the welfare state. Castoriadis takes little joy from the sight of a population that "plunges into privatization, abandoning the public domain to bureaucratic, managerial, and financial oligarchies," succumbing at last to the "generalized conformism ... pompously labeled postmodernism." (The remark is that much more pointed when one recalls the name of another ex-SouBer: Jean-François Lyotard.) And there is more than a hint of Spenglerian gloom in Castoriadis's argument that "the process of competitive decadence" between the old Soviet regime and its Western counterparts yielded not a revolutionary upsurge but a pseudo-paradise of consumerist passivity.

Should academics choose to ignore his ideas about autonomy - preferring, instead, to celebrate laissez-faire or the delights of "transgression" - that would not surprise a grizzled polemicist like Cornelius Castoriadis. After all, as he once wrote of intellectuals, "Paper bears anything; so does a certain public."