[OPE-L:5898] Cornelius Castoriadis dead at 75

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Wed, 31 Dec 1997 12:47:44 -0500 (EST)

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Date: Tue, 30 Dec 1997 10:35:55 -0600 (CST)
From: "Harry M. Cleaver" <hmcleave@eco.utexas.edu>
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Date: Tue, 30 Dec 1997 09:23:57 -0600 (CST)
From: Dennis Grammenos <dgrammen@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu>
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Date: Sat, 27 Dec 1997 13:45:03 -0500
From: davidc <110031.126@compuserve.com>
To: thesis11 <thesis11@Sociology.resfss.latrobe.edu.au>
Subject: [OPE-L:5898] Death of Cornelius Castoriadis

Dear Friends, Colleagues:

Please excuse, again, the impersonal nature of this letter, which I am
sending to you bcc: Cornelius Castoriadis died last evening, December 26,
of complications from heart bypass surgery in early October. He put up a
valiant fight until the end.

I am including in this e-missive, as a text file, the
draft of an obituary I have written about him which I hope to have

For those who are hearing this news for the first time and for those who
have already heard of his illness and have inquired of me concerning his
condition, I regret that it was not until now, after his death, that I
could begin to inform you and to fill in the details. I was respecting the
private wishes of his family. I am sure you understand.

The man is gone but his work remains, unfinished yet rich with promise and
full of tasks to be fulfilled and visions to be dreamed and achieved.

With sorrow,

David Ames Curtis


Cornelius Castoriadis Dies at 75
Philosopher and Political Thinker Inspired
May '68 Rebellion in France

A major figure of the postwar political and intellectual world has made his
final exit from a historical stage on which his thoughts and actions
remained better known than his name. Cornelius Castoriadis, philosopher of
the social imagination, co-founder of the legendary group and journal
Socialisme ou Barbarie, seminal social and political thinker credited with
inspiring the May 1968 events in France, professional economist at the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, practicing
psychoanalyst, distinguished Sovietologist, and critical conscience of the
international Left died December 26 in Paris at age 75 of complications
from heart surgery. He is survived by his wife Zoé, their daughter
Cybèle, and an elder daughter, Sparta.

To avoid deportation from France, Castoriadis wrote under
pseudonyms. Only in the 1970s did this man of Greek extraction gain French
citizenship. He then began to publish under his own name so that student
radicals moved by his ideas could discover who had inspired them.

In the English-speaking world, many had not heard of him.
Translations of his writings were circulated with a certain success during
the sixties and seventies by Socialisme ou Barbarie's sister organization,
London Solidarity. But books began to appear in English under his own name
only during the past decade. Things began to change this year with the
publication of a new book, World in Fragments, and a retrospective
Castoriadis Reader, the paperback edition of his magnum opus The Imaginary
Institution of Society, a special issue of the social theory journal Thesis
Eleven, and the creation of a webpage:


Castoriadis avoided the intellectual fashions of his day. Such
French trends as fellow-traveling, existentialism, structuralism,
poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism (the latter championed
by former S. ou B. member Jean-François Lyotard) were among the targets of
his fierce and withering, yet often humorous, criticisms. Nor did he fit
the mold of German critical theorists, from Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno,
and Herbert Marcuse to Jürgen Habermas, all notoriously weak in their
criticism of "Soviet" Marxism. He thought for himself and with a small
band of workers and intellectuals who refused to give in to fads or to
countenance oppression of any sort. His journal helped lead the fight
against the Algerian War, but Castoriadis never indulged in "Third World"
rhetoric to protect "left-wing" dictators.

This steadfast, clear-eyed independence won him and his group
admiration and helped to build a non- Communist Left in postwar France.
Though critical of himself as well as others, Castoriadis never renounced
his belief that ordinary people can run their lives and institute
self-governance without bosses, managers, professional politicians,
"leading parties," priests, experts, therapists, or gurus. There was no
"God that failed," for there was no God, no Reason of History, to save
people from self-created folly, or tragedy.

Castoriadis was born March 11, 1922, in Constantinople. His family
expatriated a few months later to avoid strife surrounding the birth of the
Turkish State. He grew up in a prewar Athens marked by dictatorship, world
war, occupation, and liberation. A member of the Greek Communist Youth at
fifteen, he soon formed an opposition group. In the extremely polarized
atmosphere of wartime Greece, most members returned to the CP's ranks.
Castoriadis joined the most left-wing Greek Trotskyist faction, a decision
that placed him under threat of death from both fascists and communists.

The defining political moment of Castoriadis's adult life occurred
in December 1944, when the Greek CP attempted a coup d'état. Even fellow
Trotskyists, hoping the event would drive the CP leftward, thought it
presaged revolutionary changes. Castoriadis disputed their optimism. With
a prescience that would become characteristic, he predicted that the
putsch, if successful, would result not in the revolutionary creation of a
classless society but in the installation of a regime similar to Russia's.
What ultimately determined the course of events was the presence of British
troops in Athens. But the subsequent establishment of totalitarian regimes
throughout Eastern Europe and the rest of the Balkansincluding Yugoslavia,
which was not "liberated" by the Red Armyamply confirmed this prognosis.

Castoriadis escaped what soon turned into the bloody Greek Civil
War when he received a French scholarship. He left Piraeus in December
1945 on a ship, since become famous, that brought a generation of Greek
intellectuals, including Kostas Axelos and Kostas Papaioannou, to France.
In Paris he joined the Trotskyists and began to develop the consequences of
his left-wing anti-Stalinism. Years before ousted Yugoslavian CP leader
Milovan Djilas became famous for characterizing Communist bosses as a "new
class," Castoriadis analyzed "bureaucratic capitalism" East and West. He
distinguished a "fragmented" form in the Westwhere, in the wake of the
Depression, the New Deal, war, and the rise of a welfare State, a stratum
of state and private managers, accompanied by the bosses of business
unionism, began replacing private owners of capital as principal director
of production and the economy and main antagonist of workersfrom a "total
and totalitarian" form reaching demented heights of terror under Stalin's
regime of apparatchiks. The first to translate Max Weber into Greek,
Castoriadis was aided in this original, if highly unorthodox, extension of
Marxian theory by this sociologist's writings on bureaucracy.

It was on the question of the Trotskyists' "unconditional defense
of the USSR" that Castoriadis first opposed the Fourth International. In
1948, French Trotskyists proposed an alliance with Tito's police State,
then on the outs with Stalin's Cominform. Socialisme ou Barbarie, the
group he formed with like-minded internal opposition forces, transformed
itself into a separate organization. Around that time, Detroit radicals
centered around Raya Dunayevskya (Leon Trotsky's secretary in Mexico), C.
L. R. James (the Trinidad-born Pan-Africanist, literary critic, cricket
writer, and Trotsky's interlocutor on the "Negro Question" in his adopted
America), and Grace Lee Boggs (a Chinese-American woman who had studied
philosophy in prewar France) broke with American Trotskyism and co-operated
with S. ou B. during the 1950s. What distinguished S. ou B. from many
other revolutionary groups was its idea that socialism meant not rule by a
leading party versed in Marxist theory but "workers' management" of
production and society.

In S. ou B.'s first issue (March 1949), Castoriadis predicted that
the working-class response to Stalin's takeover of East Europe would be a
revolt against its new bureaucracy. Workers' councils set up during the
1956 Hungarian Revolution strikingly confirmed his prediction even as this
workers' revolt against "Communism" threw the rest of the Left into
disarray. Along with S. ou B.'s cofounder Claude Lefort, Castoriadis and
his review challenged the fellow- traveling of such prominent French
intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre. (Lefort had studied with French
philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who eventually resigned as political
editor of Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes.) Sartre was later heard to
say, "Castoriadis was right, but at the wrong time." Castoriadis quipped
that Sartre had the honor of being wrong at the right time.

Developing his idea of "bureaucratic capitalism," Castoriadis
asserted that the main class opposition had become that between
"executants," or "order-takers," and "directors," or "order-givers." What
distinguishes capitalismespecially in its bureaucratic stage of giant
factories, huge geographically-dispersed corporations, and complex
technical apparatusesfrom earlier class societies based on slavery or
feudalism is that workers now keep the system operating not by obeying
orders (slave revolts or Jacqueries serving as counterexamples from
previous societies) but by resisting and contravening the irrational and
often absurd orders given by a class of managers cut off from the everyday
reality of production (the sure proof being the devastating effect of
"working to rule"). This resistance, expressed initially in cooperation
among "informal groups" at work, also encourages a tendency toward
autonomous action that can serve as a basis for the transformation of
society. With a managerial bureaucracy in state- run enterprises, private
businesses, and top-down unions replacing capital ownership as the
distinguishing feature of capitalism, those who perform the tasks of
production have to be encouraged to participate and to show initiative. At
the same time, management finds it must combat independent decision-making
on their part.

Out of the experience of the Hungarian Revolution Castoriadis
composed his classic statement of how a self- managed society might work.
Still today, "On the Content of Socialism" serves as a reference point for
libertarian socialists. But the uncontested ascension of De Gaulle in 1958
brought another phenomenon to his attention. For S. ou B., Gaullism
represented modernization for France, not incipient fascism. With the
collapse of the revolutionary movement and the advent of "modern
capitalism," bureaucracy both encourages and feeds upon mass privatization
and depoliticization of the populace. Apathy becomes the norm when
people's drive for participation is systematically thwarted.

Yet by the very early sixties Castoriadis also noticed
countervailing trends. Before many others, he recognized that the shop
stewards' movement in England, the nascent youth, women's, and antiwar
movements, and the struggles of racial and cultural minorities offered
prospects for revolt against modern society that might give rise to
prospects for revolt against modern society that might give rise to
unpredictable and unprecedented expressions of autonomy, alternative ways
of living.

The logical conclusion of Russian Communism's bankruptcy and the
rise of modern capitalismwith its simultaneous encouragement and exclusion
of people's participation and the resulting new forms of contestationwas
that Marxism itself had become a deadening ideology of oppression, out of
touch with new movements and aspirations for change. In the final issues
of S. ou B., Castoriadis posed the new alternative in stark terms: one had
to decide between remaining Marxist and remaining revolutionary. He chose
the latter option. In "Marxism and Revolutionary Theory" (1964-5), he
challenged structuralist as well as functionalist explanations of society
and history while Paris was still in the midst of a
Livi-Strauss-Althusser-Foucault structuralist craze.

In 1967 S. ou B. disbanded. But its key ideas continued to gain
ground. The older brother of May 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit
had attended the group's meetings, and "Dany" himself proudly proclaimed
his "plagiarism" of Castoriadis and S. ou B. Still a foreign national
working for OECD and so prohibited from engaging in politics, Castoriadis
maintained a low profile during the student-worker rebellion. But he and
other S. ou B.-ers helped students turn May '68 into the largest strike
France had ever known. Calls for "autogestion" (self-management) in
universities and factories echoed his 1949 inaugural essay and appeals to
the "power of the imagination" recalled his final S. ou B. text.

Castoriadis spent the last thirty years of his life overseeing
publication of his S. ou B. texts (Political and Social Writings in three
volumes) and ceaselessly developing, out of his last S. ou B. essay, a
highly original conception of history as imaginary creationirreducible to
any preestablished plan, whether natural, rational, or divine. In
Imaginary Institution and an ongoing collection of writings (translated as
Crossroads in the Labyrinth, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, and World in
Fragments), he elaborated his views without ever disavowing his original
conception of "workers' management" and expanded that germ of an idea into
a "project of autonomy" stretching from ancient Greece to the present day.

Castoriadis retired from his OECD position as Director of
Statistics, National Accounts, and Growth Studies in 1970, a job that had
enabled him to study in depth the major developed capitalist economies. He
became a practicing psychoanalyst in 1974 and was elected professor at
Paris's Icole des Hautes Itudes en Sciences Sociales in 1979. As a
psychoanalyst and in lectures and books, he developed a distinctive renewal
of Freudian theory based on an original "psychical monad" that must be
socialized by force and that never fully accepts the social individual into
which it is fashioned. Dreams (overtly sexual or not), slips, "acting out,"
transgression, and even subversion testify to the persistence of this
ineliminable asocial core of the psychewhich, when partially socialized,
can serve as a source for imaginative social change.

For Castoriadis, reports by Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and
others concerning the "death of the subject" and the "death of man" were,
like Mark Twain's death, "slightly exaggerated." With his wife at the
time, Piera Aulagnier, Castoriadis challenged the reigning Lacanianism in
French psychoanalytic circles, instigating a break with Lacan's "Third
Group" in 1968. He opposed this rhetoric with the idea that
psychoanalysislike pedagogy and politics, though in different waysaims at
human autonomy. The goal of psychoanalysis is to establish "another
relation" with one's unconscious, one characterized by lucid
self-reflection and deliberation, a clearer recognition and acceptance of
one's unconscious imaginary creations. The Freudian restatement of the
ancient Greek injunction, "Know Thyself," received a powerful new
articulation quite out of step with today's faddish therapeutic,
drug-dependent, and antipsychoanalytic trends.

Two key themes are worked out in his later writings. The first
involves Castoriadis's rediscovery of the imagination. The imagination,
Castoriadis found, unsettles the entire edifice of our "inherited
philosophy." In On the Soul, Aristotle provided what became the standard
view of the imagination, one marked by irreality, mimicry, an impotent
negativity. Although apparently settling things there, Aristotle took up
the phantasia again at the end of his treatise in a way that violated his
canonical separation of sensation from intellection. Conversely, as
twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger noticed, Immanuel
Kant granted the "Transcendental Imagination" a central position in his
Critique of Pure Reason (1781) but then dislodged it a few years later in
the second edition. Heidegger describes this turnaround as Kant's "recoil"
from the consequences of a powerful and unbridled imagination. Curiously,
Heidegger himself then dropped all mention of it. Castoriadis also
observed that, while Sigmund Freud spoke of "phantasies" all the time, the
founder of modern psychoanalysis refrained from naming, let alone
examining, this strange power to bring the imaginary, the non-existent,
into being.

A second major theme is the "co-birth," in ancient Greece, of
philosophy and politics. As the conscious questioning of society's
instituted representations, philosophy develops hand in hand with politics,
which Castoriadis described as society's lucid attempt to alter its
institutions. Both are associated with the autonomy project, which
Castoriadis saw as later expressed in early burgher challenges to Church
and King, the American and French Revolutions, and workers', women's, and
youth movements of Western societies, as well as in modern attempts to
pursue philosophy beyond theological confines. Castoriadis devoted
particular attention to the advent of citizen democracy in fifth-century
B.C. Athens. He examined its direct-democratic institutions in order to
contrast them with "representative" ones that establish permanent
place-holders divorced from average citizens in today's "democracies."
Castoriadis preferred the term liberal oligarchy to describe current
Western political arrangements.

Castoriadis never stopped working. He was to lecture in the United
States against recent fads in psychoanalysis. "We have to keep trying," he
wrote, "to spread across the Atlantic" that "plague" of self-knowledge
Freud said he was bringing with him when he visited America. And
Castoriadis had completed an article on "The Rationality' of Capitalism"
shortly before the recent global market collapse. He wondered how far
capitalism couldaccording to, but also against, its own "logic"go toward
turning the world into a "planetary casino" of currency and finance
speculation. Every few days, he noted, sums greater than the entire US GNP
are electronically gambled worldwide via leveraged bets of no productive

Castoriadis's work will be remembered for its remarkable continuity
and coherence as well as its extraordinary breadth. Autonomy appears as a
key theme in his early postwar writings. Not until his death did he stop
elaborating on its meaning, applications, ramifications, and limits for
physics, biology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, society, politics,
education, and philosophy.

Death itself, it happens, was a recurring theme. We require an
"ethic of mortality" to counter heteronomous promises of eternity. This
ethic was an integral part of the Greek view that an afterlife, should such
a thing exist, is worse than life on Earth. As a democratic institution,
tragedya public performance of a play that ends in deathreminded the
Athenians of the ultimate meaninglessness of one's thoughts and actions as
well as of the need for self-limitation to keep hubris in check:

The sole genuine limitation that democracy can bear is
self-limitation, which in the last analysis can only be the task and the
work of individuals (of citizens) educated through and for democracy. Such
an education is impossible without acceptance of the fact that the
institutions we give ourselves are neither absolutely necessary in their
content nor totally contingent. This signifies that no meaning is given to
us as a gift, any more than there is any guarantor or guarantee of meaning;
it signifies that there is no other meaning than the one we create in and
through history. And this amounts to saying that democracy, like
philosophy, necessarily sets aside the sacred. In still other terms,
democracy requires that human beings accept in their actual behavior what
until now they almost never have truly wanted to accept (and what, in our
utmost depths, we practically never accept), namely, that they are mortal.
It is only starting from this unsurpassableand almost impossibleconviction
of the mortality of each one of us and of all that we do, that people can
live as autonomous beings, see in others autonomous beings, and render
possible an autonomous society.

In his work and in his life, Cornelius Castoriadis lived this democratic
ethic of mortality until the very end.

David Ames Curtis