Feb/Mar 2010

Barbarians at the Gate

The annals of an antinomian socialist

Scott McLemee


In the summer of 1967, subscribers to the obscure far-left theoretical journal Socialisme ou Barbarie received notice that it was suspending publication and that its sponsoring organization, familiarly called SOUB, had dissolved. This cannot have come as too great a shock. Two years had passed since the last issue. But the shuttering of SOUB marked the end of an important collective project within the anti-Stalinist left, one whose influence was felt well beyond France.

SOUB had started life in the mid-1940s as "the Chalieu-Montal minority"—a small, beleaguered faction within the French Trotskyist party, which was itself anything but large and powerful. It established contact with a similar American grouping, as lines of communication opened up within the Fourth International. (Or what was left of it—the Gestapo and the Soviet secret police had been diligent about executing as many Trotskyists as they could.) The American comrades were led by the West Indian historian C. L. R. James (party name "Johnson") and by Trotsky's former secretary Raya Dunayevskaya ("Forest"), who tended to attract far more factory workers than intellectuals. Not many in the Johnson-Forest camp ended up as professors. The French group was a different story. One of its leaders, Cornelius Castoriadis ("Chalieu"), was the very essence of a polymath: a Greek émigré philosophy student who became an economist and, later, a psychoanalyst. Another was Claude Lefort ("Montal"), a professor of philosophy close to Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A third and later member of the French affiliate was Jean-François Lyotard, who, strange to say, was at one point the group's most orthodox Marxist, only to become a preeminent theorist of the postmodern condition.

The French and American groups read and translated each other's work and argued about theory and strategy. But they had enough in common to form a distinct current, for which "post-Trotskyist" seems an inelegant but apt label. The French group named its journal after Rosa Luxemburg's assessment of mankind's long-term options: either socialist emancipation or capitalist barbarism. With their comrades in the American factories, the French adherents of SOUB agreed that the Soviet system was not socialist. Nor was it even headed, however slowly, in that general direction. It, too, was barbarous. Workers were exploited and had no power. Stalin's party had assumed the role that capitalists would normally play.

Totalitarianism, by this logic, was the fullest expression of capitalism's inner tendency to dominate the entire social order. It was a system seeking not just profits but control over those who created the world's wealth through their labor. The SOUB comrades called this system "bureaucratic capitalism," while their American cousins preferred "state capitalism." But they concurred that it was a general tendency, not just a Russian quirk.

They also agreed that the system had a weakness. Workers tended to fight back—and not simply to make more money. They wanted control over their own lives, including their time in the workplace. And there they had a definite advantage. The bureaucratic impulse to monitor and control everything tended to short-circuit; for things to function, workers had to ignore or circumvent the more idiotic commands. Workers were constantly finding ways to reorganize the labor process to make it bearable. And sometimes they just shut it all down—for example, with a wildcat strike, as happened in the factories of Detroit and Paris and even behind the iron curtain, though the Stalin-style capitalists were better at keeping this sort of thing quiet.

The class struggle, SOUB theorists found, ran right down the middle of everyday life. On the one side, there was the iron cage of modernity; on the other, an urge toward participatory democracy. This situation was potentially revolutionary. But it did not require a revolutionary party to lead it—and here the analysis broke with any residual vestiges of the Trotskyism from which it had originated. The challenge was not to create a new-model Bolshevism, free of Stalinist distortions. Rather, political movements should foster workers' capacity for self-organization and self-government. You voted for representatives at your workplace and could recall them if they got out of line. Only on this basis could politics and the economy be reorganized and a democratic, libertarian socialism become possible.

Such were the ideas worked out by this little international current during the cold war's wintriest years. The 1956 workers' uprising in Hungary was encouraging, as were the early stirrings of the civil rights movement in the United States. But by the late '50s, the groups were succumbing to the usual fissiparousness; the two organizations became, in time, six. The ideas got out, though—sometimes directly, from the original publications, and sometimes indirectly, through the revolutionary plagiarism of the Situationist International, for example.

One year after the circle around Socialisme ou Barbarie announced its dissolution, millions of French workers and students were in the streets—marching under slogans that echoed themes the journal had pursued for years and very nearly bringing down the government. Theory, as Marx once put it, becomes a material force when it grips the masses. But the theorists themselves don't necessarily have any inside information on when this is going to happen.

All the material in A Society Adrift, a posthumous collection of lectures and writings by Castoriadis, appeared well after that upheaval. The earliest of the texts gathered here, a long interview from 1974, is an extensive political and intellectual autobiography covering the SOUB years and just beyond. It is followed by the transcript of a 1982 radio discussion that provides an excellent introduction to Castoriadis's subsequent philosophical and psychoanalytic work. All but three of the entries are from the 1980s and '90s—by which point "the events of May '68" were subject to periodic celebration and philosophico-journalistic thumb sucking.

One of the appealing things about these commentaries is Castoriadis's evident irritation that intellectuals are expected to package their thinking as instant pontification on the moment's hot topics. He obliges sometimes, to a degree, but usually under protest. "Ours is the period," he tells one interviewer, "when the supremely pathetic expression of 'postmodernism' was invented to conceal eclectic sterility, the reign of the facile, the inability to create, the evacuation of thinking for the benefit of commentary, at best, but usually of wordplay and eructation."

The line of thought Castoriadis began developing over the final decade of SOUB went beyond a Marxist analysis of bureaucratic tendencies in modern society, toward a reflexive critique of Marxism itself as an ideology captured by those tendencies. The revolutionary project had to go beyond Marx—and down into the layers of psychic processes involved in creating individual human subjects who are potentially able to posit alternative modes of organizing society, even as they're prone to reproduce the status quo.

Revolutionary potential versus the inertia of sedimented alienation: This was the problem haunting the radical milieu of which Castoriadis and SOUB were part. Some responses to it were more optimistic than others. My friend Marty Glaberman—an autoworker who belonged to the Johnson-Forest group—remained convinced until his death in 2001 that the working class had the capacity, and indeed the pressing need, to rise up and create a new society, and might well do so on any given Thursday. After all, this one sure as hell wasn't working. He had a point. But as for Castoriadis, it is not so much that he ruled out the prospect—rather, as in the statement sent out to subscribers to announce the suspension of SOUB's efforts (found in his Political and Social Writings, published by the University of Minnesota Press), he maintained that very deep and mutually reinforcing tendencies toward depoliticization and passivity existed under bureaucratic capitalism.

That assessment returns throughout A Society Adrift, as in an interview from 1993: "Most of the population seems to be content with leisure and gadgets, only occasionally making a few inconsequential corporatist objections. They don't seem to nourish any collective desire, any project aside from maintaining the status quo." Nor does this condition make for stability. An inability to frame questions about the public good is cretinizing—and not only for the proletariat: "The reality of the mental decomposition of the ruling classes is far beyond what theory might have reasonably predicted."

That observation does not seem less trenchant now, a dozen years after Castoriadis's death. Part of his work elucidates the present moment, even as other parts (his reading of Marx as technocratic functionalist, for one) seem less compelling. There are periods when the world is set on a given course and unanswerable to any demand for development in a way more suited to the flourishing of human capacities. Right now, the hollowing out of public life—the waning of the very idea of collective action—does not make Thursday look promising for revolutionary self-organization and change. Castoriadis would agree that things do seem that way. He would also acknowledge that we might be wrong.

Scott McLemee is a writer for Inside Higher Ed.

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March 25, 2013
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