Cornelius Castoriadis, 1922 to 1997

In "Workers' Councils, Castoriadis and the Situationist International" (NOT BORED! #26, November 1996), we demonstrated that -- subsequent to Guy Debord's membership in both the SI and Cornelius Castoriadis's Socialisme ou Barbarie group in the 1960-1961 period -- the situationists adopted and claimed as their own the basic programmatic points that had been outlined and explored in great detail by Castoriadis in Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s. Those basic points were workers' management and power to workers' councils. We noted that the situationists, especially after the May 1968 revolution, never really elaborated or expanded upon these basic points, and yet continued to make them the center of their position on modern revolution. The fact that the situationists' readership grew in both size and activity during the 1961 to 1967 period suggested to us the validity and richness of these basic points, even when they are left undeveloped. Finally, we noted that, despite the SI's indebtedness to S. ou B. and to Castoriadis in particular, the situationists refused to acknowledge it and were openly hostile to Castoriadis, whom they insulted relentlessly.

In this essay -- which we intend, along with "Workers' Councils, Castoriadis and the Situationist International," to be a contribution to an appreciation of the work of Castoriadis, who died in late 1997 at the age of 75 -- we will briefly explore the development of the S. ou B. group after 1961, that is, after Debord's departure. Our assumption will be this: just as the situationists needed the ideas and work of S. ou B. to transform the SI from an informal to a formal revolutionary organization, Castoriadis needed the ideas and work of the SI to give S. ou B. a genuinely "new orientation." The paradoxes here are that, though the situationists simplified (even reduced) the ideas of S. ou B., their organization flourished in the early and mid-1960s, while the S. ou B. group, despite the rigor, complexity and originality of its theoretical work, did not.

The crisis within Socialisme ou Barbarie began in October 1962, when Castoriadis -- acting on behalf of "a certain number of us comrades from the Paris area" -- wrote and distributed to the entire S. ou B. group a series of texts that are assembled in the essay entitled "For a New Orientation," which appears in Political and Social Writings, 1961-1979 (University of Minnestota Press 1993, translated and edited by David Ames Curtis).

The group has arrived at a decisive turning point in its history [Castoriadis wrote]. This turning point has been imposed upon it by both external events and by its own internal situation. External events: with the end of the Algerian War, we can no longer continue to avoid answering the following question: In a modern capitalist country, in what does revolutionary activity consist? Internal situation: the great majority of the comrades, in fact nearly all of them, clearly feel that the extreme empiricism and the refusal to respond, as far as we are capable, to basic questions that have characterized for the past two years the conduct and the existence of the group cannot go on any longer without leading to a certain split.

For Castoriadis, the single most important problem facing the S. ou B. group in 1962 was this: "What can revolutionaries say and what can they do in a capitalist country where the regime has achieved stability and does not encounter any difficulties in the short term, where the population is not politically active, where (as is the case in France in particular) even industrial actions occur very rarely and remain very limited in scope?" Castoriadis's provisional answers to this question were simple and direct. "We propose," he wrote, "that the organization adopt, either in a national conference or in a general assembly of the Paris-area comrades broadened to include comrades from the provinces, a platform for the group's ideological and political orientation; a text on the orientation of the group's propaganda; a text on the orientation of the group's activity; [and] statutues and rules for the provisional functioning of the group."

Though Castoriadis did indeed go on to write the platform for the group's ideological and political orientation in March 1963 -- see "Recommencing the Revolution" in Political and Social Writings, 1961-1979 -- neither the national conference nor the general assembly ever took place. But Castoriadis's texts nevertheless had a strong effect on the members of the group. In "Recommencing the Revolution," he writes that "our reconstruction effort" has encountered "at each of its crucial stages, bitter opposition from conservative elements [within the S. ou B. group] representing the type of militant who retains nostalgia for the golden age of the workers' movement (a golden age that, like all golden ages, is, moreover, perfectly imaginary) and who moves forward in history only by preceding backwards, constantly wishing to return to the era in which, as he belives, theory and program were indisputable, established once and for all, and constantly corroborated by the activity of the masses."

The ultimate result was indeed a split within the group. Castoriadis writes that, "The comrades who separated themselves from us [in 1963], among whom are P. Brune, J-F Lyotard, and R. Maille, propose to continue publication of the monthly journal Pouvoir Ouvrier." But the scission -- no matter how acrimonious it was (in a long translator's footnote, David Ames Curtis explains that Jean-Francois Lyotard was still complaining about it as late as 1974) -- did nothing to clarify the underlying issues. Castoriadis writes that,

The customary and logical thing would have been to discuss publicly the reasons for this scission, and the opposing theses. Unfortunately, that is not possible for us to do. This opposition has remained without any definable content, positive or even negative; to this day we know nothing about those who reject our ideas want to put in their place, and just as little about what precisely they are opposed to. We therefore can only explain ourselves concerning our own positions and, for the rest, we can merely note once again the ideological and political sterility of conservatism.

As a result, the S. ou B. group -- unlike the Situationist International, which experienced a very public scission in the 1961-1962 period, during which a Second Situationist International was constituted by a group of members who had either resigned or been excluded -- came out of the experience an organization whose days, as one says, were numbered. In June 1965, what would turn out to be the last issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie was published. Two years later, Castoriadis wrote and distrtibuted "The Suspension of Publication of Socialisme ou Barbarie" as a circular addressed to the journal's subscribers and readers.

"The Suspension" is a very strange document. In retrospect, we may find it nearly impossible to believe that it was written just one year before the May 1968 revolution in France. But then again -- at the time "The Suspension" was circulated -- some people probably found it difficult to believe that this deeply skeptical text was written during the "long hot summer" of 1967, during which riots broke out in dozens of major American cities. More than guardedly pessimistic about the possibility of people forming a truly revolutionary organization in the midst of these putatively non-revolutionary conditions, "The Suspension" seems closed to this very possibility. If S. ou B. couldn't do it, well then no one can: "the construction of a such a [new] political organization under the conditions in which we live -- and in which, no doubt, we take part -- was and remains impossible due to a series of factors that are in no way accidental in character and that are in fact closely interconnected" (emphasis added). Castoriadis's tone seems to suggest that, not only hasn't S. ou B. lived up to its announced intentions since its founding in 1949, but it was on a fundamental level doomed to failure, doomed despite the scission of 1962-1963, doomed in fact from the very first.

We have had a negative experience, regarding both a working-class membership and an intellectual membership [he writes]. As to the former, even when they view a political group sympathetically and recognize in its idea the expression of their own existence, it is not their habit to maintain permanent contact with it, still less active association, for its political views, insofar as these go beyond their own immediate preoccupations, seem to them obscure, gratuitous, and excessive. For the others -- the intellectuals -- what in particular they seem capable of satisfying when they come into contact with a political group is their curioisity and their 'need for information.' We should state here clearly that we have never had, on the part of the public readership of the review, the kind of response we had hoped for, which could have aided us in our work, the attitude of this public has remained, save for the rarest of exceptions, that of passive consumers of ideas. Such an attitude coming from the public, which is perfectly compatible with the role and aims of a review presented in a traditional style, in the long run renders the existence of a review such as Socialisme ou Barbarie impossible [emphasis added].

It is very significant that in "The Suspension" Castoriadis complains that forming and maintaining a revolutionary organization in the mid-1960s was impossible because young people were the only people who, "under these circumstances," wanted to join it.

Our experience has been [Castoriadis writes] that those who came to us -- basically young people -- often did so based, if not on a misunderstanding, at least on motivations that derived much more from an emotional [trans: affective] revolt and from a need to break with the isolation to which society today condemns individuals than from a lucid and firm adherence to a revolutionary project. This initial motivation perhaps is as good as any other; what really matters is that the same conditions for the absence of properly political activity also prevent this motivation from being transformed into something more solid.

The significance of this complaint should be obvious: it was among the young people of France (the deplorable students) that the May 1968 revolution originated. It appears that -- unlike the situationists, who intervened quite smoothly and successfully in the student milieu at the University of Strasbourg in 1966 -- the members of S. ou B. just didn't know what to tell or what to do with all the young people who were, after reading their review, approaching them personally. Since no one else was approaching them personally -- since the "real" working-class either was not reading the review or had decided to remain "passive consumers" of it -- Castoriadis and the rest decided to call it quits.

Someone named Alain Guillerm was among the four members of the S. ou B. group who opposed the suspension of publication of the review and tried to continue the S. ou B. project under another name: it was Guillerm who, in the wake of Guy Debord's departure in 1961, wanted to form a "situationist tendency" within S. ou B., but was unsuccessful. In 1967, David Ames Curtis reports,

the group formed by the dissenting S. ou B. members called itself Communisme ou Barbarie [a.k.a. Groupe Bororo]. It met frequently in the Marais section of Paris, managed to be denounced by the Situationist International during its brief existence, and picked up a few members, including Dominique Frager, who had wanted to join S. ou B. soon before its dissolution. Contacts also were establsihed with people from Noir et Rouge, the Situationists, and radical students from Germany, among others. Right before Christmas, 1967, Frager introduced the group to the soon-to-be student leader of May '68, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Cohn-Bendit [...] thus was in direct contact with the group that made itself the continuator of Socialisme ou Barbarie in the months leading to the March 22 takeover of the Nanterre University Administration building and to May '68. To my knowledge, this quite slender, but significant, thread of historical continuity has never before been revealed in print. Also of significance, Guillerm participated in the Nanterre occupation on March 22 and in the formation of the March 22d Movement. He was on the barricades the first evening in Paris.

Despite the admirable attempts of Castoriadis's translator to locate and call attention to the "slender, but significant, thread of historical continuity" between what we are calling the larger S. ou B. project and the May 1968 revolution, the reader of Castoriadis's "The Anticipated Revolution" (written between 20 and 25 May 1968) is struck by the fact that its author was far more critical than he was excited about the May 1968 revolution.

The students and workers were not even united on a negative objective [Castoriadis writes about May 1968]. Among the students, at least among their revolutionary and active elements, the negative objective of opposition to the government was understood in a different sense than it was by the workers. For the former, the aim is to eliminate the government, whereas the great majority of workers, even though they do not favor the government, are absolutely unprepared to work toward its overthrow. A worker/student alliance cannot materialize under these conditions; it remains a mere wish, based on a misunderstanding.

Indeed, Castoriadis seems no partisan of revolution itself!

Historically [Castoriadis writes], it is revolution that permits the world of reaction to survive as it transforms and adapts itself -- and today we risk experiencing a fresh demonmsration of this truth. These explosions shatter the imaginary or unreal setting in which alienated society, by its very nature, tends to enclose itself -- and they oblige alienated society to seek out new forms of oppression better adapted to today's conditions, even if it finds them through the elimination of yesterday's oppressors.

Quite obviously, neither Castoriadis nor the rest of the S. ou B. group did what the situationists did: namely, foresee or "anticipate" the advent of the May 1968 revolution. David Ames Curtis mentions that "this text ['The Anticipated Revolution'] could just as well bear the title 'The Revolution Anticipated'": that is to say, for Castoriadis, May 1968 was only an anticipation of the real revolution to come, and was not, as the Situationist International called it, the much anticipated "beginning of an era."

And yet Curtis, in his "Foreword" to Political and Social Writings, 1961-1979, claims that "the May 1968 French student-worker rebellion came as a striking confirmation -- both in its negative and its positive aspects -- of the new orientation Castoriadis was developing in the 1960s." Let us offer a corrected version of this sentence: the May 1968 French student-worker rebellion came as a striking confirmation -- both in its negative and its positive aspects -- of the new orientation Castoriadis called for but failed to develop, especially in his October 1962 text "For a New Orientation." (If the "new orientation" was developed by anyone in the early 1960s, it was the situationists who did it.)

The striking thing about Castoriadis's "For a New Orientation" is that it is completely preoccupied with content, and totally unconcerned with form. Though Castoriadis claims that "today" S. ou B. is at a momentous turning point, he is unable to embody his sense of urgency in his writing. "For a New Orientation" is thoughtful and very clearly expressed -- it patiently lays out fairly detailed suggestions concerning the group's propaganda, its main themes, and the group's means of expressing it -- but it is also affectless, boring and uninspiring to read. "For a New Orientation" lacks the very same emotional qualities -- passion, anger, love, rage -- that Castoriadis found so plentiful in the revolt of the young people who approached the S. ou B. group. Quite obviously, if you can't feel what other people are feeling, there is no way that you can really communicate with them, no way that you can "know how to welcome and accept the collaboration and the contributions of people outside the group, and to do so within the framework of a very broad ideological sense of agreement."

Though Castoriadis is clearly aware of this serious problem --

To break with the conceptions and practice of bureaucratic organizations [he writes] is also to break with traditional jargon, which has lost all meaning for people, and even has become an object of derision [...] We must transform our way of speaking and writing, pitilessly eliminating from our speech and from our texts insider terms and a didactic expository style.

-- there seems to be nothing he can do to solve it.

Obviously on this point no one can provide recipes or resolve the problem by fiat in one day [he writes]; only by multiplication of examples and of trial efforts will be able to yield results (some of the texts written by our English and American comrades show the way in this regard). But this need to change our language must become a preoccupation, a permanent obsession for everyone [...] To break with the bureaucratic ideology is, first of all, to break with the themes of this ideology and its corresponding propaganada. It is to broaden the subjects we are talking about so as to embrace all aspects of people's lives in society. It is, moreover, the most profound content of our ideas that makes this incumbent upon us.

But messing around with quantities -- "eliminating" this and "multiplying" that; "broadening" this and narrowing that -- will never produce or guarantee superior qualitity. Revolutionary style is not just a matter of adding good things and subtracting bad things from your texts; it is not a matter of (changing) what you talk about, but (changing) how and why you talk about it.

Not surprisingly, Castoriadis's total lack of attention to form (and to quality) is apparent in his discussions of the revolution itself.

People will not make a revolution over their wages -- not today, in any case; they will not even make one for workers' management as such, and rightly so, since workers' management as such is only a tool, not an end in itself. People will make a revolution in order to make a radical change in the way they live, and this concerns the content of the revolution, its ends, and its values.

What Castoriadis fails to realize is that the desire to change life itself is dialectical: it concerns the form of the revolution, its means and its pleasures, as well as its content, ends and values. If the revolution remains obsessively concerned with its content, and ignores its form, it will be a partial revolution: it surely will not be the "total revolution" that Castoriadis insists elsewhere in "The New Orientation" is necessary ("The crisis of society and of culture is total, and the revolution will be total or it will not be at all"). Quite obviously, revolutionary theory and action must be concerned with both the content and the form of the revolution for that revolution to be total.

Unlike the situationists of 1962, who were obsessed with recuperation by the dominant society, Castoriadis has nothing to say about partial revolutions and the dangers they pose once they have been defeated. Precisely because he unaccountably sees around him no revolutionary activity, no struggles by workers that, "on certain points at least, tend to break with the established order," Castoriadis is not concerned with capitalism's capacity or efforts to recuperate such struggles. His thinking seems to be this: "By definition, there is no such thing as a partial revolution; the revolution will either be total or it simply and literally will not be; when the revolution breaks out, there will of course be no need to be concerned with recuperation, because it won't exist; until such time as the revolution breaks out, there is no need to worry about the recuperation of partial revolutions, because they aren't really revolutionary and therefore can't be coopted."

It is almost funny that Castoriadis -- when he finally addresses himself to the concept of recuperation -- does so in "The Anticipated Revolution," of all texts, and does so to categorically dismiss its importance to revolutionary organizations.

Someone who is afraid of cooptation has already been coopted. His [sic] attitude has been coopted -- since it has been blocked up. The deepest reaches of his mind have been coopted, for there he seeks guarantees against being coopted, and thus he has already been caught in the trap of reactionary ideology: the search for an anticooptation talisman or fetishistic magic charm. There is no guarantee against cooptation; in a sense, everything can be coopted, and everything is one day or another.

This is psychobabble, and I'm sure it convinced no one in the aftermath of May 1968, precisely because this revolution was dominated by concerted and consistent efforts to defeat cooptation. What other way is there to understand the workers' "brutal" rejection of the "incredible swindle" (Castoriadis's words) of the Grenelle Accords? If this rejection wasn't a counter-attack against cooptation, why was it necessary -- just two days later -- for the police to start removing workers from the factories they had been occupying?

Our conclusions are this: though the Situationist International did not have a particularly nuanced and deep understanding of workers' management and power to the workers' councils, its members knew well how to communicate these basic programmatic points in a style suitable for the time and for a young and enraged audience, and thus prospered in the 1962 to 1967 period; while the radical elements in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group knew that their positions were scandalous by bourgeois and bureaucratic standards, they did not know how to create scandals in the bourgeois world that would disseminate and attract people to their positions, and thus steadily declined in relevance in the 1962 to 1967 period.

Quite obviously, these conclusions suggest a new starting-off point: namely, the image of the Situationist International and the Socialisme ou Barbarie group working together, rather than insulting or ignoring each other. We will look into this image in a third and final essay on Cornelius Castoriadis, which will be published in a future issue of NOT BORED!

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