Today in Fact, 11 March

An original – the libertarian socialist who loathed bureaucracy. One of the great failings of Communist regimes has been their inability to fully release the innovative and autonomous spirit in the humans they govern. In this regard, we might do worse than recall the birth of Cornelius Castoriades in Istanbul on this day in 1922. This left-wing intellectual wrote on a vast array of topics which nonetheless retain a remarkable cogency and coherence.
Castoriades explored the idea of human autonomy throughout his life. Growing up in Athens,he joined the Greek Communists at the age of 17. Soon however he joined the Trotskyites and so became a target for both the Nazi’s and the Communists. His thinking kept him moving to the edges of socialist politics. He earned degrees in politics and economics in Athens.
Cornelius moved to Paris directly after the war in 1945 and this became his home for the rest of his life. 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 left academe 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. Thus, Castoriadis was conducting statistical analyses of global capitalism while preparing at night and on weekends, to overthrow it. 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.
In France his critiques of both Capitalism and Communism was centred around their mutual reliance upon bureaucracies and how bureaucracy is the real evil. He went on to found a libertarian socialist group and the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism), which included Jean-François Lyotard and Guy Debord as members and profoundly influenced the French intellectual left in particular the situationist international as well as the British Solidarity movement and the Italian Autonomia movement. He could not publish anything under his own name however as he was still a foreigner in France and this meant that he could be deported for his ideas.
Castoriadis and Socialisme ou Barbarie group were particularly influential in the turn of the intellectual left during the 1950s against the Soviet Union, because he argued that the Soviet Union was not a communist, but rather a bureaucratic state, which contrasted with Western powers only by virtue of its centralized power apparatus. It seemed by the mid 1960’s however that no-one was listening. The few members of Socialisme ou Barbarie voted in 1967 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 Castoriadis.
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. Castoriades was also led by his thought on human autonomy to explore psychology. After leaving his job as an economist at the OECD, he began training as a psychoanalyst in 1974.
The thinking of Cornelius Castoriades led him to explore many avenues and fields of thought. He also urged the adoption of a “new type of human life … a frugal life, as the only means to avoid ecological catastrophe and a definitive zombification of human beings, endlessly masturbating in front of their television screens:. Cornelius Castoriades died in 1997from complications following heart surgery leaving an apartment filled with manuscripts, including an enormous mass of lectures from his seminars on philosophical and psychoanalytic topics, material indispensable to understanding his thinking on the question of human creativity and autonomy. He left a widow Zoe, two daughters, and a network of comrades and admirers around the world. What he did not leave, unfortunately, was a will.
By the summer of 1999, Zoe Castoriadis, and his eldest daughter, Sparta, had joined with some of his political associates and students to form the Cornelius Castoriadis Association to create an archive for his papers, transcribe recordings of his seminars, and edit his unpublished works for publication. Before long, the group was wracked by personality clashes and resignations, including tensions between his English translator and members of the Castoriadis family.
The irony here was that while Castoriadis had spent his life developing ideas around human autonomy, his widow and followers fail to understand that ideas also have a life, an autonomy of their own. They have created a bureaucratic block to the dissemination of his ideas. The very thing that Castoriades loathed.
Douglas Racionzer (see more of Doug’s original insights at