By Niklas Plaetzer
For the Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), the creative power of imagination was best described in volcanic terms. Much more than a mental faculty that would store and recombine available images, he argued that the “radical imagination” preceded all distinctions between “real” and “fictitious:” to imagine something meant not only to repeat existing forms but “bursting, emerging, creating, […] explosion, split, rupture – the rupture of what is as such.” Against philosophers’ prejudices which have often reduced the imagination to the model of a (more or less true or false) representation of reality, Castoriadis set out to defend it as an ontological well-spring: a volcano of creative form-making, both for the individual psyche and society as a whole.
Although Castoriadis’ seminal work The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975; English translation 1987) thus emphasized the imagination as an instituting force, erupting onto the scene of the instituted, he was not just concerned with moments of demiurgic exception. While reality remained “shot through with volcanic openings,” even the most stable forms “almost never entirely solidified” (p. 313). What Castoriadis called “social imaginary significations” – the vast world of historically instituted meaning, of the lines drawn between the human and the non-human, between nations, genders, classes, races, sexualities, between the beautiful and the abject, between knowledge and non-sense – could never be grasped as a “determinable ensemble of clearly distinct and well-defined elements” (p. 182). Simply put, the world remained irreducible to self-identical, predictable structures, no matter how sophisticated one’s algorithm might get. Imaginary significations were more like magma, with society as the “magma of magmas” (ibid.), constantly shifting forms, but for that reason, no less made of melted rocks. And as magma flows below the earth’s surface, the creative force of the imagination remains active underneath the sedimented forms of the social imaginary. The “project of autonomy” was hence the political correlate to Castoriadis’ ontology: the radically democratic claim that all existing institutions, up to the very “figures of the thinkable,” remain contingent and open to collective transformation. The volcano might seem asleep, but the magma keeps flowing.
In March 2022, Castoriadis would have turned 100 years old: an occasion which led JHI Blog’s German partner website Theorieblog.de to host a centennial forum on his thought (thanks to Andreas Busen, University of Hamburg), which this forum aims to both prolong and make accessible in English. Admittedly, Castoriadis, despite his international prominence, has always remained a bit of an odd figure within political and social theory. For Nicos Poulantzas, on the one hand, he was a Cold War liberal in the guise of a “hyper-revolutionary:” an anti-Marxist “neo-idealist,” suspicious for his nostalgic embrace of ancient Athens as much as his day job as an economist at the OECD. For Jürgen Habermas, on the other hand, Castoriadis remained a radical firebrand whose praxis philosophy might have resonated among Eastern European dissidents, but whose ontology dissolved all normative thinking about democratic regimes into “the anonymous hurlyburly of the institutionalization of ever new worlds.” Finally, among Anglophone readers less familiar with his path on the non-orthodox left, Castoriadis might at times get lumped into “French theory,” even if he himself polemicized against dominant structuralist and post-structuralist approaches from Foucault to Lacan, in virulent opposition to a lack of political commitment in what he called “the French ideology.” As Warren Breckman has aptly put it, Castoriadis’ “campaign against Marxism and then against ‘the French ideology’ ensured that his thoughts were always out of season.”
But at a moment when terms like “radical imagination” or “social imaginaries” have gained unprecedented currency across a variety of fields, a return to Castoriadis seems increasingly timely, as a growing number of publications as well as a recent conference at the University of Vienna (organized by Sara Gebh and Sergej Seitz) can attest.
Cornelius Castoriadis was born in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 1922, but he grew up in Athens, immersed in the study of the French language, philosophy, and, from very early on, Marxist theory. As a teenager under the nationalist dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas and then under German occupation, the young Castoriadis became active in left oppositional youth cells, moving from the Communist Party’s youth towards Trotskyist groups by age twenty. In late 1945, escaping rising conflicts ahead of the Greek Civil War, he found himself aboard the New Zealand ocean liner R.M.S. Mataroa to France, alongside a group of young dissident intellectuals that also included the philosophers Kostas Axelos (1924-2010) and Kostas Papaioannou (1925-1981). In Paris, Castoriadis then quickly made a name for himself within Trotskyist circles, standing out for his outspoken criticism of Soviet bureaucracy as much as for his charismatic persona.
Yet as a foreign philosophy student and later at the OECD, Castoriadis was officially barred from political activity, which led him to write under pseudonyms: first Pierre Chaulieu, then Paul Cardan. In 1947, under the name of Chaulieu, he joined Claude Lefort (who went by the name of Claude Montal) as a leader of the small “Chaulieu-Montal” tendency, which challenged Trotsky’s interpretation of Stalinist rule. While Trotsky and his French followers interpreted the Soviet Union as a “degenerate workers’ state,” Chaulieu and Montal went further. They argued that, with the consolidation of the Stalinist repressive apparatus, the workers’ movement was confronted with a regime type sui generis that required new categories of analysis and combat. What the workers’ movement was facing in Castoriadis’ view was not only bourgeois domination in the “private capitalism” of the West but also domination by party elites, usurping the name of revolution, under “bureaucratic capitalism” in the East, which in turn called for new forms of class struggle.
Castoriadis’ critique of “bureaucratism” was coupled with a defense of workers’ autonomous forms of self-organization, bringing his thought of the post-war years close to the tradition of council communism. By 1949, disagreements with the Trotskyist position could no longer take the form of internal dissidence, which led Castoriadis and Lefort, alongside a small but growing number of comrades, to form the group Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism), which from 1949 to 1965 published the journal of the same name. Influential far beyond its small print run, Socialisme ou Barbarie became a laboratory for radical democratic thought on the Left: from workers’ inquiry to anti-colonial struggle in Algeria as elsewhere, to a theorization of “The Content of Socialism.” As Castoriadis argued in his 1955 article of the same title, socialism and “direct democracy” were synonymous: “Socialist society implies people’s self-organization of every aspect of their social activities,” enacted through participatory institutions that would not only abolish social classes but also the political hierarchy of order-givers (“dirigeants”) and order-takers (“exécutants”).
Importantly, Socialisme ou Barbarie’s break from Trotskyism was not just a French affair. It occurred in an explicit dialogue with the “Johnson-Forest tendency” in the United States, the revolutionary group around the Trinidadian anti-colonial activist, historian, and cricket expert C. L. R. James (J. R. Johnson), author of the seminal Black Jacobins, the Russian Jewish émigrée Raya Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest), who had previously served as Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico, as well as the Chinese-American philosopher Grace Lee (Ria Stone), who, fluent in German, first translated Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts into English, and who in 1953 married James Boggs, organizer and auto worker at Chrysler in Detroit. For close to a decade, Castoriadis remained in exchange with both C. L. R. James and Grace Lee Boggs, a connection that has – with the important exception of Stephen Hastings-King’s ground breaking 2015 study – often been bracketed in intellectual histories of the period. Far from the supposed influence of Heidegger in France, it was this internationalist milieu of apostates from Trotskyism that first gave rise to the “retour du politique” (“return of the political”) on the French Left from which new visions of radical democracy would emerge – including those of Cornelius Castoriadis.
The year 1956 marked a watershed moment, not just for Socialisme ou Barbarie but for the Left around the world, shaken by the Soviet military repression of the revolutionary council movement in Hungary. In the aftermath of the East German June uprising of 1953 and the French general strike of August 1955, exchanges between C. L. R. James, Grace Lee, and Castoriadis intensified, and in response to events in Hungary, the project for a collectively written book was born. Facing Reality was published in 1958: it not only contained an analysis of the bureaucratization of power in East and West as well as a critique of the Leninist model of vanguard organization in the name of “absolute freedom of organization” and “complete democracy” (p. 89).
For the authors of Facing Reality, this democracy was not just a philosopher’s dream, nor a matter of nostalgia for ancient Greece, even if James had celebrated Athenian democracy in his 1956 piece “Every Cook Can Govern.” The memory of Athens would later take up a foundational place in Castoriadis’ democratic thought, which increasingly came to center on what he liked to call “the Greek seed” of autonomy (“le germe grec”); indeed, his recently translated lectures at the EHESS from the 1980s (The Greek Imaginary: From Homer to Heraclitus. Seminars, 1982-1983, Edinburgh University Press, 2023) have further underlined the enormous influence of ancient Greek thought on Castoriadis’ later work. Yet it bears noting that, in 1992, he himself credited C. L. R. James for having been “the first person to speak to me about Athenian democracy in relation to today’s problems,” and both authors’ writings from the period show clear evidence of their mutual influences. In Facing Reality, “complete democracy,” though imagined in light of Athens, was a matter of the present: a “new society invading the old” (p. 114), from the councils of Hungary to the movements for decolonization in Ghana and Kenya.
It is of course easy to dismiss such sweeping claims regarding the connections between struggles as signs of wishful thinking – and dated ones at that, grounded in a philosophy of history that Castoriadis soon came to abandon himself. But perhaps there is also a way of reading Facing Reality in continuity with his later work on the imagination: as deploying a method for theorizing that redirects attention from philosophical models to what Castoriadis in 1957 already understood as a matter of political “prefiguration,” bringing forth newly imaginable forms of instituting social life: “Social upheavals bring out what already exists in society, even though only in embryonic form, or as an aspiration. But they exist. It is the task of the Marxist organization to find them” (p. 114).
Over the following years, Castoriadis moved away not only from Marxist party organization but also became increasingly critical of the work of Karl Marx. By 1964, in the article “Marxism and Revolutionary Theory,” he declared that,
we have arrived at the point where we have to choose between remaining Marxist and remaining revolutionaries, between faithfulness to a doctrine that, for a long time now, has ceased to fuel either reflection or action and faithfulness to the project of a radical change of society, which demands that we first understand what we want to change and that we identify what in society truly challenges this society and is struggling against its present form(The Imaginary Institution of Society, p. 14).
In 1967, after several splits, Socialisme ou Barbarie dissolved, one year before its theses found a new generation of enthusiastic readers among the student movement of May ‘68. Having obtained French citizenship and a professional training as a psychoanalyst (initially, 1964-67, in the École Freudienne de Paris, formed by Lacan, where he met his second wife, the psychoanalyst Piera Aulagnier), Castoriadis quit his position at the OECD in 1970 and started to write without the protection of pseudonyms. In this later period, Castoriadis came to systematically combine his rethinking of political action with a psychoanalytical approach, centered around the notion of the “imaginary,” for which he is today remembered as a philosopher. During the 1970s and 80s, Castoriadis also engaged deeply with ecological movements, which he viewed as potentially revolutionary sites for the reinvention of autonomy beyond the productivist inheritances of a Marxist tradition.
What shaped Castoriadis’ international reception was not least the work of young American activist Dick Howard, who met Castoriadis in Paris in the early 1970s. Howard’s interest in the legacy of Socialisme ou Barbarie’s radical democratic critique of Marxism became an important starting point for dialogues between libertarian socialist currents of the New Left in the United States and the thought of Castoriadis. This was an encounter in which the journal Telos played a key role, publishing an interview with and introduction to Castoriadis in 1975, followed by articles on “The Hungarian Source” and “The History of the Workers’ Movement.” Through Howard’s efforts, in which Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen soon became involved, Castoriadis gained readers among the New Left in the United States, which in turn had a durable, though today perhaps hidden impact on the field of democratic theory – an impact that was put on display at a conference at Columbia University, held in the year 2000, three years after Castoriadis’ death.
Castoriadis’ transnational reception history remains to be told, but what stands out clearly is that, despite his move away from Marxism, he never fit the mold of the kind of right-wing shift that is today often associated with the French “anti-totalitarianism” of the 1970s. Even for the late Castoriadis, the outspoken anti-Marxist, a politics of autonomy could neither cut off its connection to the history of the workers’ movement, nor could the status quo – the “regime of liberal oligarchy,” as he called it in 1988 – ever rid itself of “volcanic openings” of radical creation. The emancipatory horizon of his mode of critique, as well as its attention to movement practices (rather than the blueprints of normative system-builders), might thus make the return to Castoriadis – like the one that this symposium is proposing, in the spirit of an invitation – as worthwhile as ever.
- Jean L. Cohen (Columbia University), “Thinking with and Remembering Castoriadis”
- Avshalom Schwartz (Stanford University), “Between Autonomy and Heteronomy: Castoriadis on the Ancient and Modern Democratic Imagination”
- Nabila Abbas (CNRS, Paris 8): “‘If People Can Imagine Something, There’ll Come the Time When They Can Achieve It:’ The Imaginary in Times of Revolution”
- Victor Galdino (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), “Mbembe reads Castoriadis: Notes from the Postcolony”
Niklas Plaetzer is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. His main focus is in political theory and comparative politics. His research interests include democratic theory, constitutionalism, critical theory, and the politics of social movements.
Edited by Thomas Furse
Featured Image: “The Third Eruption of the Volcano of 1789, Which Must Take Place Before the End of the World, and Which Will Make All Thrones Tremble and Will Overthrow a Lot of Monarchies” (“Troisième éruption du Volcan de 1789, Qui doit avoir lieu avant la fin du monde, qui fera trembler tous les trônes et renversera une foule de monarchies”), lithography by Auguste Desperret, 1833. Gallica.fr, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.