Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


Cornelius Castoriadis (1922–1997)

CORNELIUS Castoriadis, who died in Paris on 26 December 1997, was born in 1922 in what was then called Constantinople. Inspired by his family, he developed a very early interest in philosophy from the age of 13. At the same period, he was drawn to Communist politics and the works of Marx, joining the underground Communist Youth in 1935 on the eve of the Metaxas dictatorship. After several months, he had an early contact with political oppression when his comrades were arrested, and his cell was dissolved. However, he escaped arrest as he was never denounced, in spite of his colleagues being severely tortured, as he recounted in a 1993 radio interview.

He resumed political activity with the Greek Communist Party at the beginning of the German occupation in 1941, co-founding a journal with a view to influencing the policies of the party, an attempt he later described as absurd and an illusion. By 1942, he had left the Communist Party and joined the most left-wing of the Trotskyist groups, led by Spiros Stinas. However, the attempted Communist coup in Athens in 1944 clarified his criticism of the Trotskyist political position. For Castoriadis, it was clear that the Communist Party was not a reformist party, as the Trotskyists would have it, but an organisation attempting to install a regime similar to the one in Russia, namely, ‘totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism’ as he came to call it in the extensive analyses he developed in his writings of the 1950s.

Castoriadis spent this period in Greece avoiding both Stalinist and Gestapo agents. He went to France at the end of 1945, joining the French Trotskyist party, and continued his critique by founding a tendency within it. The final break came at the end of 1948 when the Trotskyists proposed forming a front with Tito after the latter’s break with Moscow. Castoriadis and other comrades left the Trotskyists, and founded the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, publishing its first review in March 1949.

The group was founded at the onset of the Cold War, and as the left was dominated by the Communists during the period of the Korean War, up until the death of Stalin, this first period was one of isolation for the group, which counted fewer than a dozen members. Nevertheless, the critique of Trotskyism was developing, with Castoriadis abandoning the residual elements of the Leninist conception of the party in 1950. Some in the group rejected the very concept of organisation, on the grounds that it was simply an intellectual group which published a review, whilst Castoriadis and others argued for an organisation based on collective self-government in order to coordinate general activities. Thus the critique of Marxism-Leninism was inextricably bound up with the development of autonomy.

With the death of Stalin and the growing unrest in Eastern Europe, the East German workers’ uprising in 1953 and the Czechoslovakian strikes of 1954, culminating in the Polish revolt and the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the political climate started changing, and the review was selling about 1,000 copies. The Algerian War and the opposition to it in 1958–59 saw the group grow to about 100 members, with meetings of between 300 and 400 people in the early 1960s.

It was during this period that Castoriadis’ ideas influenced a group of ex-Trotskyists in England, which led to the formation of Solidarity in 1960, and a fruitful collaboration over a number of years during which his writings were translated into English in pamphlet form under the name of Paul Cardan. This period also saw his analysis of Marxism-Leninism culminate in the critique of Marxism itself in Marxism and Revolutionary Theory, published over the five final editions of Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1964–65. Ironically, the group itself was dissolved in 1966 as the members felt that although the review had been selling well, and more people were coming to meetings, they were merely passive consumers of ideas and not active participants. Furthermore, it was these very ideas that were the initial influence of the social explosion of May 1968, openly and freely borrowed by Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

As Castoriadis gained French citizenship, the threat of instant expulsion to the Colonels’ Greece for political activity was lifted, and he was able to publish his writings in Socialisme ou Barbarie under his own name, having written under the pseudonyms of Paul Cardan and Pierre Chaulieu. These writings were now collected into an eight-volume paperback edition between 1973 and 1979. In addition, Marxism and Revolutionary Theory became the first part of his major work, The Imaginary Institution of Society, published in 1975, with an English edition in 1987, which is now considered to be a modern philosophical classic in France, having undergone several reprints.

Castoriadis worked as an economist for the OECD between 1948 and 1970, later becoming Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales at the University of Paris in 1980.

As Castoriadis developed his critique of Marxism into that of Western thought as a whole with his key concepts of social-historical creation and social imagination, he simultaneously became a psychoanalyst integrating the concepts from that field into those above, from all of which he developed the principles of the autonomous society and the autonomous individual. These ideas are expounded in the five-volume collection of essays under the collective title of The Crossroads in the Labyrinth, published between 1978 and 1997 in France, with English selections under varying titles in 1984, 1991 and 1997. His academic fame was such that a multi-lingual festschrift of 30 essays in his honour was published in 1989 by the Librairie Droz, Autonomie et autotransformation de la societé.

In France, Castoriadis was seen as one of the major thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. His writings, although demanding, have a distinct clarity of thought which he uniquely developed away from the rather ponderous Marxist-Leninist writings of the early 1950s. He is survived by his wife Zoe and his daughter Sparta (by an earlier relationship with Rilka Walter), both of whom actively collaborated with the production of his writings, and a younger daughter from his marriage with Zoe.

Alex Economou

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011