The following interview with Cornelius Castoriadis took place at
the University of Essex, in late Feburary 1990. Castoriadis is a
leading figure in the thought and politics of the postwar period in
France. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s he was a member
of the now almost legendary political organization, Socialisme
ou Barbarie, along with other currently well-known figures, such
as Claude Lefort andlean-Franaois Lyotard. Unlike some of his
contemporaries, however, he has remained firm in the basic
political convictions ofhis activist years . He may be better known
to some Radical Philosophy readers under the name of Paul
Cardan, the pseudonym which appeared on the cover of pamphlets published during the 1960s by ‘Solidarity’, the British
counterpart to Socialisme ou Barbarie.
Castoriadis is notable for his effort to rescue the emancipatory impulse of Marx’ s thought – encapsulated in his key notion
of ‘autonomy’ -from what he takes to be the rigid and dogmatic
structures of Marxism itself. From very early in his career he
unfashionably combined a forceful critique of Communist bureaucracy with an unwavering commitment to the radical Left.
Castoriadis has also played an important role in a range of
debates in the philosophy of science, social theory, political
philosophy and the interpretation ofFreud. The major statement
ofhis social thought is The Imaginary Institution ofSociety, which
appeared in France in 1975 (English translation, Polity Press,
1987). His collected Political and Social Writings are available
in two volumes from the University of Minnesota Press (1988).
Since the late 1970s Cornelius Castoriadis has been practising
as a psychoanalyst in Paris. He is close, theoretically, to the
‘Quatriiime Groupe’ , a group of senior Lacanian analysts who
broke with Lacan in 1969, over his downgrading of clinical
concerns and his bizarre innovations in training procedure.
Castoriadis is also a Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en
Sciences Sociales, where he teaches a seminar. The Revue
Europenne des Sciences Sociales has recently published a multilingual Festschriftfor Castoriadis (Vol. XXVII, 1989, No. 86),
which provides a valuable range of critical perspectives on his
RP: What were the fundamental experiences which brought
you to philosophy and politics, and to the exploration of the
relation between the two?
Castoriadis: To begin with, there was always an intellectual
curiosity for which I am indebted to my family. I came into contact
with philosophy very early on, at a ridiculously early age in fact,
at 13. I came to philosophy through classical manuals; to politics
through Communist publications in Greece, around 1935, and
then immediately afterwards, through the works ofMarx. The two
things have been always there – in parallel. What attracted me to
Marxism, as I saw it at the time, was a very strong feeling about
the absurdity and injustice of the existing state of affairs.
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
RP: What was the political situation in Greece at that time?
Castoriadis: 1935 was the eve of the Metaxas dictatorship which
lasted throughout the war and the occupation. At that time, in the
last year of my secondary education, I joined the Communist
Youth, which was underground, of course. The cell I was in was
dissolved because all my comrades were arrested. I was lucky
enough not to be arrested. I started political activity again after the
beginning of the occupation. First, with some comrades, in what
now looks like an absurd attempt to change something in the
policies of the Communist Party. Then I discovered that this was
just a sheer illusion. I adhered to the Trotskyists, with whom I
worked during the occupation. After I went to France in 1945/46,
I went to the Trotskyist party there and founded a tendency against
the official Trotskyist line of Russia as a workers’ state. We split
in’ 48/49, and startedSocialisme ouBarbarie, which went on until
1965 (the journal) and 1967 (the group).
RP: Is it true to say that you never really accepted Trotsky’s
interpretation of the Soviet Union? Or did you accept it for a
Castoriadis: For a very short time, yes. As soon as I moved out
of Stalinism, the very first thing to grasp was the idea that the
revolution had degenerated and that there was a bureaucracy
which was just a parasitic stratum. But I soon started to reject this.
You must realise that under the Metaxas dictatorship all left-wing
books were burnt. And then there was the occupation. So one was
not really in touch with the literature. Still, in 1942-43 in Greece,
I had the good luck to find copies of Trotsky’ s The Revolution
Betrayed, Victor Serge, Ciliga’s book and Boris Souvarine’s
Stalin – a wonderful book which has been re-issued now in
France. And it was already clear in The Revolution Betrayed that
Trotsky was contradictory.
RP: In what way contradictory?
Castoriadis: Well, he says, for instance, that Russia is on socialist
state groundings because all property belongs to the state. But he
goes on to say that the state belongs to the bureaucracy. So
therefore property belongs to the bureaucracy. If one is logical,
one asks, ‘What has all ofthis to do with the workers’ state?’. The
means of production belong to the bureaucracy. As I discovered
afterwards, this idea had been around for some time already. One
can see it among the inmates of the Russian concentration camps
in 1926/27: the idea that the bureaucracy was becoming a new
ruling stratum and exploiting class. What reinforced me in this
conviction was the first Stalinist attempt at a coup d’ etat in Greece
in December 1944. There really was something there, with the
masses struggling under the leadership of the Communist Party;
and for me it was crystal clear. If the Stalinists had gained power
at that time, they would have installed a regime similar to that of
Russia. I said so and wrote so at the time. It was the only time I was
in disagreement with an elder militant, Spiros Stinas, who I had
worked with all this time, and who, in a certain sense, was my
How could one account for this on the basis of the Trotskyist
theory of the Russian regime that is a proletarian revolution which
has degenerated? Bureaucracy was appearing as a quasi-autonomous historical force attempting to establish a regime for its
own interest and outlook. The whole development of my political
conceptions about bureaucracy – and in contra-distinction to this,
what is socialism? – started at this time. If socialism is not
nationalised property, not just a bureaucratic method of central
planning, then what is it? Immediately, the idea of autonomy
arose. Socialism as self-government in production and political
life; that is, collective organisation and self-determination at all
retrojection of capitalist imaginary significations throughout the
whole of human history. Then there was the philosophical work,
which is there in ‘Marxist Thought and Revolution’, the first part
of The Imaginary Institution of Society, which was published in
the last five issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1964/65.
RP: How did your move away from Trotskyism affect your
understanding of the Russian revolution? As I understand it,
Socialisme ou Barbarie was quite closely identified with the
ideas of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union? Did you
identify politically with the Left Opposition?
Castoriadis: Well, the famous organisational problem was there
all the time. After an initial period during which there were strong
residual elements, including in myself, in favour of the Leninist
conception of the party (which I gave up about 1950), there was
still an internal divide concerning the problem of organisation,
between people who were saying that no organisation is needed
(the proletariat will do everything, we are just a group trying to
work out some ideas) and others, like myself, who insisted, as I
still would insist, that a political organisation is necessary. Not a
vanguard party, certainly, but some sort of political organisation.
Political activity is collective activity, and it ends up with concrete
acts, be it a publication or whatever. You have to take decisions.
And so you have to have some rules about how you take decisions.
Say, majority rules. Obviously, you allow the minority to express
themselves, even publicly. But there are some points at which
decisions have been taken, and they have to be univocal. Some
coordination of the general activities is necessary. But I said very
early on that the only way to do this is on the basis of the idea of
some sort of collective self-government. Also, the political organisation could play the role, not of a model, but of a sort of
exemplary activity, showing people that they can organise collectively; that they can rule their own affairs.
Castoriadis: In a certain sense, yes. But they didn’t go far enough.
Later on, I wrote a text about Alexandra Kollontai’ s paper on the
Left Opposition of 1921, and its limitations. But this is not our
problem now. The defects are obvious there: about the role of the
party, the role of the trade unions and so on. Of course, Kronstadt
was the last mark of some independent activity of the masses,
which was crushed by the Bolshevik party. But once I started the
critique of bureaucracy, it evolved quite rapidly into a critique of
lots of things: of the Leninist conception of the party, and then of
Marxian economics. I had started working as an economist at this
time, and was working on Das Kapital. I couldn’t make much
sense of it in relation to actual developments. I couldn’t make
much sense of it theoretically, either. Here starts all my criticism
of the theory of value, which finds its final form in the text about
Marx and Aristotle which appears in Crossroads in the Labyrinth.
Next came the critique of the Marxian conception of what
socialism is all about, the bad utopian aspect of all this: the
elimination of the idea of politics, the sort of paradisiac state
depicted in the early manuscripts, where in the morning you are
a fisherman, in the afternoon a poet, etc. – I don’t know what you
are after dark! There is also the idea, absolutely central to Marx,
that labour is slavery and freedom is outside the field of labour.
Freedom is leisure. This is written in so many words. Labor is the
field of necessity.
RP: That’s more characteristic of the older Marx, isn’t it?
Castoriadis: It is inDas Kapital. The kingdom of freedom can be
built only through the reduction of the working day. During the
working day, you are under necessity. This is diametrically
opposed to any idea of self-management by producers, and of
production itself – once it is radically changed, and once technology is also changed – as a field of exercise of human capabilities
and human freedom.
RP: There is also the idea of labour becoming ‘life’s prime
Castoriadis: That’s in the early manuscripts. Butthis is abandoned
in the system. Next came the critique of what one can call Marxist
economism. The imaginary signification of the centrality of
production and economy throughout history. This is obviously a
SOCIALISME OU BARBARIE?
RP: Could you say something about the experience of
Socialisme ou Barbarie? What was the political context in
which you operated? And how, given your critique of the
Leninist conception of the party, was the group organised,
internally? How were its interventions made? What do you
think are its enduring achievements?
RP: It sounds quite Luxemburgian.
Castoriadis: If you wish. In a certain sense, yes. From this point
of view, certainly. This led to splits with Lefort. He was against
any formal organisation – ‘We are an intellectual group, we
publish a magazine, that’s all.’ You must remember the circumstances at the time. The Cold War started about 1947 and in
Europe, especially in France, the Stalinists were almost allpowerful, even if they did leave the government in ’47. All the
Left was with them. Remember the stories of Sartre and others,
the fellow travellers? We were absolutely isolated. There was a
period when, after the outbreak of the Korean war, we were less
than a dozen in the group. And the audience was extremely
limited, residual ultra-leftist groups. We cleared the ultra-left
ground. Whatever was really of worth there came to Socialisme
ou Barbarie – not the Trotskyists, of course. But the situation was
extremely hard. Later, after 1953, with Stalin dead, the Berlin
revolt, the Czechoslovakian strikes in ’54, then Hungary and
Poland in ’56, the atmosphere started changing, and the review
gained some audience – never very important. At the time we
were selling about 1,000 copies of the magazine, which were read
around. Then came the Algerian war, and the stand we took
against the Algerian war. There was a kind of renaissance amongst
the student youth at that time. People started coming and the group
grew. Some time in 1958/59, in the whole of France, including the
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
provinces, we were about 100. By ’62, ’63, ’64 we could hold
public meetings in Paris with, say, 300 or 400 people. But all of
this, as you see, was extremely limited. Of course, after 1968 lots
of people said they were in Socialisme ou Barbarie. To which I
have answered that if all these people who say that they were in
Socialisme ou Barbarie had really been in Socialisme ouBarbarie,
we probably would have grasped power in France some time
RP: So you disbanded as an organisation just before that
moment, in the later 1960s, when the left began to open up and
expand as a result of changes in the political and economic
situation more generally?
Castoriadis: Yes. We had some people in the Renault factories
who were producing a paper specifically for Renault workers.
This was not a subsidiary of Socialisme ou Barbarie. It was produced by workers and so on. But all this was extremely limited.
There was much more underground influence, unknown,
anonymous; and it sprung out in 1968 in lots of people, including,
for example, Danny Cohen-Bendit.
produce a magazine the main problem is the collaborators – the
people who write. It’s very funny. We never had money, but
publishing Socialisme et Barbarie was never a financial problem.
We always managed. The problem was the contents. Not enough
people were coming into the group. Also, my own personal
collaboration was beginning to take a different form. I was
digging deeper and deeper into the theoretical underpinning, both
of Marxist theory and of what we needed for a new conception.
This was the first part of The Imaginary Institution of Society.
RP: You were still working as an economist at this time?
Castoriadis: Yes. I was working at the OECD. The review was
taking the bizarre aspect of a theoretical-philosophical magazine
which was also pretending to be a revolutionary organ. It was the
first in France, and all over Europe, for instance, to produce an
extensive account of the Berkeley events. The review anticipated
the movements of the ’60s. It is there, about the students, the
women and so on. It is written down. But this was not enough. And
so at some time in 1966, we said, ‘For the time being, the thing has
become meaningless. We had better stop and begin again later.’
And two years later, of course, came’ 68. I don’t know what would
have happened if we had still been a group in ’68. But ’68 very
quickly fell under the spell of Maoists and Trotskyists and so on
– not at the beginning, I mean the great period, but very quickly.
One can’t rewrite history.
RP: Did you have any relations with the Arguments group, the
people who left the Communist Party in 1956?
RP: Why did Socialisme ou Barbarie come to an end?
Castoriadis: This was a decision which I pushed very strongly.
First of all, there had been a split, a second split, between 1960 and
1963. In 1960 I wrote a text called ‘Modem Capitalism and
Revolution’, which was the most thorough critique of the classical Marxist position at this time: of the idea that the proletariat has
a privileged role to play, of the idea that economic problems are
the main problems, and so on and so forth. It argued that the
problem of the transformation of society is a much more general
problem. There is the question of youth, the question of women,
of the changing character of labour, of urbanism, and of technology – changing technology. All this created a strong reaction from
part of the group, for which the theoretical representative was
Lyotard, who at the time was playing the adamant Marxist. This
led to a split in 1963 which weakened the group. We were the
majority. We kept the magazine, they kept the monthly journal,
Workers’ Power. It was the first paper of this name. Later, the
Italians published Potere Operaio. This was part of the underground influence. In Italy, lots of these people had been reading
Socialisme ou Barbarie. But the group was weakened.
Public influence was expanding, as I have said. We were
selling more and more. People were coming to the meetings, but
they would not actively participate. They were passive consumers
of the ideas. And this was reflected on the review, because to
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
Castoriadis: Yes. But the relations were bizarre. Edgar Morin
published a paper in which he both recognised the role of
Socialisme ou Barbarie and criticised it very strongly, saying that
we were obsessed with bureaucracy and making a sort of panacea
or shibboleth out of self-management. There were answers in
Arguments on our part. But there was not very much contact,
except on some personal levels. Later on, when Arguments had
stopped, Morin participated in some of our public meetings. He
wrote a paper in Socialisme ou Barbarie. But there was never a
close collaboration. From the beginning, Arguments took itself as
being a review by intellectuals for intellectuals. We never abandoned the idea that we aim at the general public, and not at
PHILOSOPHY AND IMAGINATION
RP: Perhaps we could switch the topic back to the issue of
your intellectual formation. What were the main intellectual
sources of your move away from Marxism? What did you
draw upon to fuel your development away from an orthodox
Communist politics? You have defined your relationship to
Marxism negatively, in terms of the things that you gradually
gave up until finally more or less the whole thing had been
given up and you embarked upon an independent intellectual
project. Who inspired you in this second stage?
Castoriadis: It is quite difficult for me to answer your question in
a modest way. I would say that the main source was the immanent
critique. It does not work, this system which had fascinated me as
a 13 year-old boy: the idea that you have a coherent picture of
human history and the world – that that’s how it works – and it’s
going to reach a happy final stage.
RP: You mentioned Aristotle •••
Castoriadis: Yes, but that was 1975. In the whole of my writings
for Socialisme ou Barbarie, which have been published in paperback now in France, there is, I think, in all one mention of Plato,
and one mention ofThucydides. That’s all. Before the first part of
The Imaginary Institution o/Society (’64/65), there is no mention
of any philosopher whatsoever. It’s not that I didn’t want to
mention one. It was because this was an immanent critique. The
main thing that fuelled it was contemporary experience: the
experience of working-class movements. The theme was the
critique of capitalism, the critique of the development of capitalist
economies – the nonsensical character of the aims proposed by the
capitalist economy, which were more or less shared by Marxism:
let’s increase material wealth and so on. Then, after a point, the
questions became for me: ‘What is history?’ and ‘What is society?’. The work about the institution began here, in 1959. There
are already seeds in a 1953 article criticising Marxist economics
and speaking about creativity in history; and even before, in 1950/
51, speaking about creativity and autonomy. The idea was there,
but it was not elaborated.
quia absurdum. You can’t ‘refute’ Tertullian.
So, for a long time, I tried to keep politics and philosophy
separate. They joined in the first part of my article of 1964/65,
‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’. Once I had reached the
idea of institution, of the imaginary creation of history, I started
re-reading philosophy with a different eye. And what I encountered there as forerunners in this field – but only at the level of the
subjective individual imagination, of course – was Kant and
Fichte. Later, I took up Aristotle, much later. That is the first place
you find an examination of the problem of phantasia: the genius
discovering the thing, and the limitations and impossibilities the
discovery of phantasia creates for the Aristotelean ontology.
Then another development starts. I had never stopped busying
myself with philosophpy. I came to France to do a Ph.D. thesis in
philosophy. (The theme of the thesis was that any attempt at a
rationally constructed philosophical system leads to blind alleys,
to aporias and to antinomies. Mostly, what I had in mind was
RP: It wasn’t drawn from Merleau-Ponty?
Castoriadis: No. Merleau-Ponty had nothing to do with it. There
is no idea of creation or creativity in Merleau-Ponty, as far as I can
see. I had been interested in philosophy since my adolescence, but
I kept the two things separate. This is perhaps a bizarre personal
trait. I didn’t want to mix political thinking and political activity
with philosophy. Not for practical or pedagogical reasons – you
don’t go to the workers telling them to read the Third Critiquebut this is a position which I still have. I don’t think you can draw
directly from philosophy, as such, political conclusions.
RP: Yet in your more recent writings you see philosophical
reflection as quite central to the project of autonomy – not the
whole of that project, but very central to it ••.
Castoriadis: That’s true. But my ontology is an ontology of
creation. Creation and destruction. Creation can be democracy
and the Parthenon and Macbeth, but it is also Auschwitz, the
Gulag and all that. These are fantastic creations. Politics has to do
with political judgements and value choices.
RP: For which you can’t find an ontological ground?
Castoriadis: No. I don’t think there is an ontological basis for
value judgements. Once you enter the field of philosophy, you
have already made a value judgement, Socrates’ value judgement: the unexamined life is not worth living (and the unlived life
is not worth examining, as you say in Essex – this is true as well).
But this is already a stand you have taken. In this sense, the
decision to enter the reflexive domain is already a sort of grounding decision, which can’t rationally ground itself. If you try to
rationally ground it, you use what is the result of the decision. You
are in a vicious circle.
RP: So how do you draw people into the reflexive life?
Castoriadis: Yes, through examples and through consequences.
But you can’t force somebody rationally to be rational. There is
no demonstration of the kind: if you don’t philosophize, you are
absurd. Because the other says, ‘I don’t care about being absurd’,
or ‘I have to be absurd, otherwise I am not a true Christian’. Credo
Hegel, but not only.) This remains an unfinished manuscript. So
I was reading things and scribbling and jotting all the time, but not
systematically. It was only after Socialisme ouBarbarie that I took
this up again systematically. Even then my main sources of
inspiration have never been, properly speaking, in the history of
philosophy. They have been much more problems arising out of,
say, psychoanalysis; out of the analysis of the social-historical;
out of the state of contemporary sciences – the crisis of foundations in mathematics, the aporias of contemporary physics, or
problems in biology – the emergence of living things: What is a
living thing? What is the biological closure of an organism?
As far as the problem of imagination is concerned, the main
difference is that for both Aristotle and Kant, as for all philosophers, imagination is looked at uniquely from the point of view of
the subject: the transcendental imagination in Kant, the imagination of the Transcendental Ego in Fichte, etc. There is nothing
corresponding to the social-historical. The same is true of
Heidegger. There is no substantial relation of Dasein to history;
to society even less. If I have made a contribution, it is this: what
I call the radical imaginary, the instituting imaginary, as a socialhistorical element.
I accuse all philosophers of ignoring the ontological status of,
for instance, language. Language is institution. It is a fantastic
paradigm of institution. The philosophers think – they think,
therefore they talk, they use language, but they don’t care to say
what language is and how it came about. And when they do say,
they say, like Heidegger: the gift of Being. Everything is a gift of
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
Being – including death, of course. If one envisages the institution
of language, one has to envisage a creative possibility which
actualises itself in the anonymous collective, which is the instituting imaginary, which posits language, which posits rules, and
thereby enables the singular human being – which is unfit for life
qua singular human being, a biological monstrosity – it enables it
to survive. I am very much attracted by some philosophers. There
is no problem about it. I’m very much attracted by the Great Four
– Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. I always find food for thought
RP: You’ve referred to your classical predecessors, but
someone looking at French intellectual history in the 20th
century can see a very strong thematics of the imagination. For
example, there is one of Sartre’s first books, L’ Imaginaire. When
you arrived in Paris, you attended a course given by Bachelard, for
whom the notion of the imagination is absolutely central. Then
there is Lacan, of course, as well. You do seem to fit into a 20thcentury French tradition of reflection on the problem of the
imagination. Are there really no influences here?
Castoriadis: There is, in a certain sense, a sense of creativity in
Bachelard. That’s true. But I was never really attracted to his
RP: What about surrealism?
Castoriadis: I knew a bit about it because there were some Greek
surrealists, and I was very fascinated by them. Then, when I came
to France, I learnt much more. I was extremely fascinated by
Breton and everything he had to say. At that time, the interest of
Breton for me was the poetic dimension. Twenty-five years later,
I said ‘creation is poesis’ , and I gave another meaning to poesis.
It’s very difficult to make one’s own intellectual biography in a
thorough and honest way. You are exposed to influences all the
time that you don’t even know about; or you don’t know the way
they are going to work through you, perhaps much later. But
among the people who for me were the most important in France
at that time was Breton. And then Benjamin Peret, who came later
to Socialisme ou Barbarie, and published a text in the journal; and
a younger surrealist called Jean-Jacques Lebel who was in the
group and very much in touch with us.
Castoriadis: I think I come from a completely different direction.
Sartre’s imaginary or imagination is purely negative. It is the
possibility of envisaging that something could not be. It’s a
negativizing faculty of the ego. For me, it’s just the opposite. It’s
the capacity to posit something which is not there.
RP: Isn’t the philosophical structure of that process actually
the same, with one side rather than the other being emphasized?
Castoriadis: But there is no given without imagination. In this
respect, my view of imagination is much nearer to Kant. It’s
constitutive, absolutely constitutive. The difference from Kant is
that my imagination is creative in a genuine sense. The Kantian
imagination, the transcendental imagination, always has to imagine
the same thing. If the Kantian imagination started really imagining, the world would collapse. It has to posit the same forms,
otherwise it’s just what he calls empirical imagination. We
remain in the realm of the subject. Lacan’ s imagination is a very
bizarre thing. Vulgarly speaking, it is the illusion. Nothing more
than that; the reflection in the mirror; the image in the mirror, and
the image the other sends to me of myself. Lacan’s imaginary is
the optical illusion.
RP: Is it not also connected to the lack? Isn’t it a more
dynamic process – the filling of a lack? You make it sound
very em?irical, this notion of reflection …
Castoriadis: The attempt at filling a lack is desire. Lacan doesn’t
link it to the imaginary as such, which, for him, has to do with what
he calls’ demand’ . It’s another realm. You have the lack, you have
desire, you have the Law – which imposes the lack in a certain
sense. But the imaginary is not a result of the desire – or of
‘demand’. It is exactly the other way round. Cows do not desire,
for they have no imagination – not in the human sense. Bachelard
is another thing. I followed Bachelard when I arrived in Paris, for
half a year, because he was the only one worth following. Then he
stopped. That year, he was engaged in discussing some aspects of
science from the point of view of his own epistemological
conceptions. It was interesting, but it didn’t go very far. I read
Bachelard much later, but if you know his work you’ll see the
differences. It’s imagination in a very loose sense. It’s not
constitutive in character. And certainly, it’s not a social element.
RP: But there is that sense of creativity there?
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
RP: We were thinking on a more theoretical plane, about your
interpretation of the Freudian unconscious. One can read
Freud in a very deterministic way, but the notion of the
creativity of the unconscious is obviously there, if you read
between the lines. It seems that it was the surrealists who
picked up on that.
Castoriadis: They picked it up, yes; but they never theorised it.
They used it. They interpreted it this way. It is the fantastic part
of Freud, the Freud who is always talking about imagination but
never names the thing. But what else are the phantasies? The
positivistic streak in him is very strong. After all, this is Vienna
at the end of the 19th century, and there are problems of scientific
respectability. He was already creating havoc .by ·saying that
children are polymorphous-perverse people. If in addition he had
said, ‘Whatever I tell you, it’s just the imagination of the subject
… ‘ , he would have been even more laughed out of court than he
was at the beginning. Around 1911 he signed a manifesto calling
for the establishment of a Society for the Diffusion ofPositivistic
Thinking, with Petzold, Hilbert, Einstein and some other people.
He was a very contradictory character.
RP: You have said that your notion of the imagination is not
related back to the subject, at least not only to the subject individuals are formed within the context of a particular
institution of society; and you have written about the
heteronomous institution of society as that which has obtained
historically; and about autonomy as a political value. Yet if
the process of institution is not in some sense the outcome of
collective activity, but is the matrix within which all activity
takes place, how could there by an autonomous institution of
society? It seems as though institution always already precedes
the empirical activity of human beings.
Castoriadis: This is the problem of the politics of autonomy, of
the establishment of an autonomous society. I think that you can
have, you can imagine, you can devise – and you do have, up to
a certain point, you did have, in the Western world – institutions
which are not just institutions of closure. If we have institutions
which not only allow but further the creation of individuals who
are capable of discussing, or putting into question; if we create a
public space where discussion is genuinely made possible, where
information is available, etc.; this is already something completely different, completely other, from the state of classically
heteronomous societies, where you have to think what the institution of society tells you to think.
and deliberation? Is this an Idea in the Kantian sense?
RP: But doesn’t the philosophical structure of the concept of
institution mean that, at an ontological level, it is tied up with
heteronomy in a way that suggests that when one is speaking
of autonomy and heteronomy politically one is actually talking about something else?
Castoriadis: Yes. It must be materially possible. It’s not a utopia.
And it’s not a Kantian Idea. It’s not at an infinite distance. It’s not
the Polar star.
Castoriadis: No, it’s not an Idea in the Kantian sense.
RP: So it’s realisable, then, your concept of autonomy? It’s
philosophically constituted in such a way that it is a possible
object of historical realisation. It must be materially possible?
RP: And yet it’s not already implicit within history, in the way
that some people understand Marx to have thought.
Castoriadis: We are working under the weight of inherited
thought here. Behind what you say, there is a conception of
autonomy which I would call metaphysical freedom, in the
Castoriadis: No. It’s an historical creation, an historical creation
which is up to now unfinished.
RP: Some Kantian notion?
RP: But ifit’s not implicit in history, ifit is to be created in an
open history, how do we know it’s actually going to be
Castoriadis: Kantian, or perhaps even, to be obscene, Sartrean.
That is, one would be autonomous if one were absolutely outside
any external influence and fully spontaneous. Now, this is just
nonsense. This is a philosophical phantasy. Philosophy has put up
this phantasy, and it judges reality against this phantasy. It doesn’t
exist. Autonomy, as I understand it in the field of the individual,
is not a watertight frontier against everything else, a well out of
which spring absolutely spontaneously, absolutely original contents. Autonomy is an on-going process, whereby you always
have contents which are given, borrowed – you are in the world,
you are in society, you have inherited a language, you live in a
certain history. You have been geworfen, as Heidegger says. You
have not chosen to be born in 1952, or whenever, neither have you
chosen to be born in England. This just is the case. You will never
know the great philosopher of the year 2100, who might have
changed your way of thinking. It is in this world that we have to
have a workable and effective concept of autonomy. Autonomy
does not mean I am totally separated from everything external.
And, in relation to my own contents, which are 99% borrowed,
have come from outside, I have a reflective, critical, deliberative
activity, and I can to a significant degree, say yes and no. I can also
allow my own radical imagination, my flux of representations and
ideas – we are talking about thinking now – to well up, and there
to choose again; because my radical imagination may produce
nonsense, or absurdities, or things which do not work. It is this
ongoing process which I call an autonomous subjectivity.
RP: So the radical imagination is a kind of pure source?
Castoriadis: It is the permanent welling of representations,
desires and affects which, in heteronomous societies, are practically
100% repressed and appear only in Freudian slips, dreams,
maladies, psychoses and transgressions. It is always with us, and
can be freed; not that we would accept all its products. But it could
be free to supply contents, new contents, upon which our reflective and deliberative activity can work. So if we consider the
relation to the collectivity: the idea that I’m not free because the
others are there, or because the law is out there, only really makes
sense against this traditional phantasy. Others, and the existence
of the law, are not just constraints. They are also sources of
freedom. They are sources of possibilities of action. They are
sources of facilitation. They are riches.
RP: So what you understand by the project of autonomy is the
maximisation of the possibilities of reflection, self-reflection
Castoriadis: We don’t. We work for it, but we don’t know in
MARKET & PLAN, SYSTEM & LIFEWORLD
RP: Perhaps we could turn more directly to politics. It has
become prevalent on the Left to say, ‘If the plan doesn’t work,
then we’ve got to go back to the market. In a complex modern
society we have to have impersonal forms of mediation,
impersonal forms of collective regulation’ – in Habermas’s
terms, the distinction between system and lifeworld. Habermas
argues that, although systems should ultimately be under the
democratic control of the lifeworld, we can:t abolish the
systems as such. The market and some forms of administrative-bureaucratic regulation of society must remain. This is
the basis of his critique of Marx: that Marx has some notion
of collapsing all social relations back into the immediacy of the
lifeworld. It seems that a lot of your inspiration comes, albeit
indirectly, from the early Marx. Where does your concept of
autonomy place you in this debate?
Castoriadis: Marx was certainly wrong in thinking that all
impersonal mediations have to be abolished. This appears in his
critique of the commodity, and also of money. I repudiated this as
early as 1957 in a text called ‘The Content of Socialism’ which is
in my Political and Social Writings. For me, it’s quite obvious:
you can’t have a complex society without, for instance, impersonal
means of exchange. Money has this function, and is very important
from this point of view. It’s another thing to deprive money of one
of its functions in capitalist and pre-capitalist economies as an
instrument for the personal accumulation of wealth and the
acquisition of means of production. As a unit of value ,and as a
means of exchange, money is a great invention, a great creation
of humanity. We are living in societies; there is an anonymous
collectivity; we express our needs and preferences by being
willing to spend that much on that item, and not on anything else.
This doesn’t, to my mind, create any problem. The real problem
starts when you say’ market’ . Again, in this text from 1957, I said
that the socialist society is the first society where there’s going to
be a genuine market, because a capitalist market is not a market.
A capitalist market is not a market, not only if you compare it with
the manuals of political economy, where the market is transparent
and where capital is a jelly which moves from one field of
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
production to another instantaneously because profits are bigger
there – all that is nonsense – but because prices have nothing to do
with costs. In an autonomous society you will have a genuine
market in the sense both of the abolition of all monopolistic and
oligopolistic positions, and of a correspondence of the prices of
goods to actual social costs.
RP: Will you have a market in labour-power?
Castoriadis: This is a problem. My position is that you can’t have
a market in labour-power in the sense that you can’t have an
autonomous society if you persist in the differentiation of salaries,
wages and incomes. If you do have this differentiation, then you
keep all the motivations of capitalism, of homo economicus, and
all the old hodge-podge starts again.
RP: Won’t this undermine the market?
Castoriadis: I don’t see why. There are no economic and rational
grounds on which I can say, ‘One hour of this man’s work is worth
three times that of some other man. ‘ This is the whole problem of
the critique of value theory, and the critique of what underlies
value theory, which is the idea that you can impute the result of
production to this and that other factor, in a definite way. But in
truth, you cannot do this imputation. The product is always a
social product and an historical product. You have to take into
account that whatever imputation of costs you do, it’s a relative
imputation, geared to social needs and geared to the future which has, of course, to have some relation to historical costs and
reality. But you cannot have differential labour costs based on any
rational or even reasonable justification. That’s a very hard point
sheer outcome of a struggle of forces. Nothing more. This creates
problems in relation to work discipline. If the work collective is
not capable of establishing enough solidarity and discipline, in
order to have everybody working according to some accepted
collective rules, we reach the political hard core of the problem.
Then there is nothing to do; no more than there is in the field of
political democracy, if people are not willing to be responsible for
the decisions of the collectivity, to participate actively and so on.
This doesn’t mean that you have to maintain bureaucratic and
hierarchical structures in production – on the contrary. The
division of tasks is not the same as the division of power.
I spent a lot of my time trying to analyse the functioning of
capitalist factories. I found that the capitalist planning of production
in the factory is half of the time absurd. The factory works because
the workers transgress the capitalist organisation of production.
They work against the rules, or at a distance from the rules, so
production can go on. If they were to apply the rules, production
would stop immediately. The proof is that’ working to rule’ is one
ofthe most efficient ways of breaking everything down. So much
for the capitalist organisation of hierarchy. As soon as you have
hierarchy, you have this fundamental opacity in the production
sphere, because you have the division between executives and
directors: people who manage and people who execute. By virtue
of their position, the workers have to hide what is going on from
the eyes of the directors. This reaches delirious proportions in a
fully bureaucratic society, but is the case practically everywhere.
The collective has to take the basic decisions. It can delegate, but
it elects and it can revoke.
RP: This will entail very high levels of political culture and
Castoriadis: Yes, high levels of responsibility between people.
That’s certain. You cannot have a truly democratic collectivity,
not only self-management and production, but on the sheer
political level, unless people are really active. But we shouldn’t
fetishise this: one can think of institutions which facilitate this
participation. Today, to be responsible, to attempt to participate,
you would have to be heroic 24 hours a day. We have to create a
situation whereby you can participate without being heroic 24
hours a day.
RP: This would mean a reduction of working time.
Castoriadis: Certainly. But there are other considerations. What
is working time spent on? During the war in America production
doubled between 1939 and 1942. And the workers were actually
working for only about four hours in the factory. They were
playing the numbers, or they were playing cards, or they were
‘working for the government’, as the Americans say – ‘Leave me
alone, I’m working for the government.’ That meant he was doing
something which he would take home. What is the English
expression? – moonlighting. In France they call it ‘la perruque’ .
And in Russia, you know the tremendous extent of it. I would
argue that present output under different conditions of participation
of the workers could take place in four hours or six hours instead
RP: So you don’t think that there is any rationality to the
capitalistic distribution of social labour through the wage
relation, in terms of productivity? It’s purely political?
Castoriadis: It’s purely political. The present distribution of
income, both between groups and between individuals, is the
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
RP: Would it be true to say that you are in favour of what is
sometimes called indicative planning, via some general democratic framework at a social level?
Castoriadis: More than indicative. I don’t think there is contradiction between market and planning in this respect. In an autonomous society one must have a true market, not just with consumer
freedom, but with consumer sovereignty: which specific items are
produced for consumption must be decided by consumers in the
day-to-day vote of their purchases where everybody has equal
vote. Today, the vote of Mr Trump is worth one million votes of
the average American. That’s not what I mean by a true market.
But you have to have general decisions about at least two things:
the partition of national product, or national income, between
consumption in general and investment in general; and the share
of the mass of consumption between private consumption and
public consumption – how much society decides to devote to
education, to roads, to erect monuments, to all public endeavours;
and how much it decides that individuals are free to spend as they
want. You need a collective decision about this. You have to have
proposals and discussions, and bring forward the implications of
decisions before the eyes of the people.
In this sense, you have to have a planning, because the
implications of the decision about investment and consumption
have to be foreseen. If you decide that you will have so much
investment, these are more or less the consumption levels you can
count upon in the coming years. If you want more investment,
then you will have to consume less. But maybe you will be able
to consume more in five years time. If you want more education,
you can’t have it for nothing. You will have to devote resources
to education, and you have to decide where you take these
resources from. Do you take them from private consumption? Or
do you take them from investment, that is, from the future growth
of productive facilities? Do you care about any future growth of
productive faculties, or do you just want to renew the existing
capital? All this has to be brought forward, and it cannot be
reasonably decided by market forces.
internal antinomies, which I have analysed for a long time. From
the time of the Hungarian revolution, and even before, people
were resisting passively, but they were resisting fantastically,
even in Russia. In Russian factories they were resisting fantastically. But this totalitarian regime, this bureaucratic totalitarian
capitalism, is not a timeless essence. It has a history. Already after
Stalin’s death, it was obvious that it couldn’t go on as it had before.
You had Khrushchev, and the period under Brezhnev, which I
characterised as stratocracy, in the sense that the regime had
become totally cynical. Nobody believed in any ideas in this
regime. The only objective was sheer force. Brute force for the
sake of brute force. The maximum possible social resources were
put into the military sector. What we know now about what was
RP: This sounds like the kind of debate currently taking place
in the Soviet Union.
going on proves that, if anything, my analysis fell short of the
reality. The degree of the suppression of the civilian economy for
the sake of the military was even bigger than I had originaly
reckoned at the time, in 1981.
The Polish and Afghan events played a very big role in the
change, in the sense that the Russian leading groups realised that
they were confronted with an impasse. They didn’t intervene
militarily in Poland, they intervened in an indirect way through
J aruzelski. And in Afghanistan they failed. What nobody had
foreseen, me as little as anybody else, was the emergence of
Gorbachev and the reforming group. This was totally unforeseeable. A big part of the thing is Gorbachev’ s role as a civilising
autocrat. But it’s not just that. He also happened to be a very clever
and able politician. And he certainly could not have risen to power
without the support of the army and the KGB. That’s quite clear.
They realised that there was an over-extension of Russia’s at- .
tempts to be a world power. This unleashed a series of events
which culminated in Eastern Europe. There, people hated the
regime and were ready to act, as soon as they were sure that the
Russian tanks would not enter.
I gave an interview to Esprit in 1982 called ‘The Hardest and
Most Fragile of All Regimes’ in which I argued that, as long as the
thing holds it appears to be like steel, but in fact it is extremely
fragile -like glass – and could be pulverised from one day to the
other. This is what happened. This amazed people, because all
these organisations, these steely Stalinist people, – ‘We are the
vanguard of humanity’ – became sand from one day to the next.
But the same thing is not happening in Russia. Which proves that
there the thing has much more important roots. Up to now the
process is much slower. You have ethnic strife, and you had this
fantastic miners’ strike in the summer of 1989, with demands
which were not just economic but also political, but demonstrations by the people are only beginning. But Gorbachev is overrun
by events, both in the ethnic field and the general field – that’s why
he retreats constantly in external relations. I wrote in 1977 that of
Castoriadis: In a sense, yes. But I don’t accept this idea of
Habermas’s that because you have to have the system you have to
accept a degree of alienation or heteronomy. I don’t say that you
can be master of everything. You can’t control everything. That’s
not the problem. The point is that you can always look back,
always change things, and establish mechanisms whereby the
function of society is made controllable by people, though certainly
not fully transparent.
EASTERN EUROPE/CURRENT EVENTS
RP: You draw a contrast between fragmented bureaucratic
capitalism and totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism which
makes it look as though the Eastern European societies were
a more closed, more extreme form of the same sort of society
which we have in the West. Yet they have revealed a fragility
which was quite unexpected. Do you think that your interpretation of bureaucracy and capitalism needs to be revised in the
light of recent events? And, given that what perhaps the
majority of Eastern Europeans seem to want at the moment
is simply to exchange the plan for the market, in what sense
was 1989’s ‘Springtime of Nations’ a manifestation of autonomy?
Castoriadis: Eastern Europe is different from Russia. It had an
imposed and an imported regime, which never had the same roots
and the same strength as it had in Russia. I don’t think the events
in Eastern Europe, or even in Russia, have changed the characterisation of the regime as it was. The regime was a form of
bureaucratic totalitarian capitalism. But it was subject to deep
Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990
all the industrialised countries Russia is the first candidate for a
social revolution. Up to now, the social revolution hasn’t appeared, but …
RP: Are you hopeful?
Castoriadis: N0.1f the social revolution happens … that’s another
point. We will probably have to pay the legacy of MarxismLeninism for years from now. It’s true that in Eastern Europe at
the moment, people can’t think of anything else except a liberal
capitalist society. Almost everything else has disappeared from
the horizon. As an Hungarian friend of mind was telling me some
months ago: in Hungary you can’t even pronounce a word which
starts with’S’ – enough of it. Any word. This is the negative side
of it. They are under the understandable delusion that the West is
a utopia, a cornucopia. In actual fact, they are not even going to
have that. They are going to have a very miserable situation. Even
in the political field it’s not clear that anything resembling a
parliamentary regime in the West will be easy to establish; except
perhaps in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. We are confronted with
history in the process of creation.
RP: Are there no grounds for hope, then?
Castoriadis: I don’t much like to talk about’ grounds of hope’. I
think that you have to do what you have to do – and hope for the
best. If you take the rich, ripe capitalist countries, we certainly
should not renew the discourse about insurmountable internal
contradictions. Yet there are at least two facts which make it
extremely difficult to believe in an indefinite reproduction of the
present state of affairs. The first is the ecological limit, which we
are nearer and nearer to. The second concerns the present state of
capitalist society, but is somewhat analogous to the ecological
question. Everybody is lauding the extraordinary efficiency of
capitalism in the field of economic production. This is true. But
up till now this has been achieved through the irreversible
destruction of a capital of natural resources which had been
accumulating for 3 billion years (or at least 700 million years).
This has been thrown away, destroyed, over fifty years or a
hundred years. There were sediments of forests, of land, of
oxygen, of ozone, of a variety of living species, etc. But the same
in true on the anthropological level. Capitalism can function could function – because there was a capitalist entrepreneur who
was fascinated and impassioned by producing things, and setting
up new machines. Very often he was, if not an inventor, at least
a quite clever design engineer – Edison and Ford, for example.
This type is disappearing. More and more, you make money by
playing in the casino, not by setting up production facilities.
Capitalism also presupposes anthropological types – the bureaucrat, the judge, the educator – which are precapitalist products. If
the prevailing philosophy and system of values is that you try to
earn as much money as you can, and to hell with the rest – one
doesn’t see why you should have judges, or university professors,
or even schoolteachers. You will have them, but they will do their
job in the worst possible way: trying to get away with as much as
they can; being corrupt, if corruption is materially feasible, and so
on. In this respect, capitalism is living by exhausting sediments of
previous norms and values, which become meaningless in the
present system. Absolutely meaningness. But this is not a’ ground’
for hope. An ecological catastrophe, for instance, could very well
lead to a series of quasi-fascist dictatorships – ‘The holiday is
over. This is your ration for the coming month: ten litres of
oxygen, two gallons of petrol, etc. That’s all.’
Interviewed by Peter Dews and Peter Osborne.
February 1990, University of Essex
• ISSUE NO.a:
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Scientism in the history of
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