Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website

About Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis Dies at 75
Philosopher and Political Thinker Inspired May '68 Rebellion in France

Philosopher of the social imagination, co-founder of the legendary group and journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, seminal social and political thinker credited with inspiring the May 1968 events in France, professional economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, practicing psychoanalyst, distinguished Sovietologist, and critical conscience of the international Left, Cornelius Castoriadis died December 26, 1997, in Paris at age 75 from complications following heart surgery. He is survived by his wife Zoé, their daughter Cybèle, and an elder daughter, Sparta.

Praise now flows in. Le Monde's obituary, written by long-time friend Edgar Morin with whom he coauthored a book on May '68, bore the title "Titan of the Spirit." C. L. R. James scholar Kent Worcester spoke for many left libertarians when he called Castoriadis "our Isaiah," referring to another recently deceased freethinker, Isaiah Berlin. Even the French Communist Party newspaper, L'Humanité, acknowledged the significance of this radical anti-Communist opponent, labeling him "an essential dissident."

And yet Castoriadis's ideas long remained better known than his name. To avoid deportation from France, he had to write under pseudonyms. Beginning in the 1960s Socialisme ou Barbarie's sister organization London Solidarity—and later Philadelphia Solidarity—circulated "Chaulieu" and "Cardan" translations with a certain success. (1) Only in the 1970s did Castoriadis gain French citizenship and begin to publish under his own name so that student radicals moved by his ideas might discover who had inspired them. A first English translation appeared in 1984. 1997 marked a watershed year with the appearance of a new collection of writings, World in Fragments, a retrospective Castoriadis Reader, the paperback edition of his magnum opus The Imaginary Institution of Society, a special Thesis Eleven issue, and a webpage.

Castoriadis avoided the intellectual fashions of his day. Such French trends as fellow-traveling, existentialism, structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism (the latter championed by former S. ou B. member Jean-François Lyotard) were among the targets of his fierce and withering, yet often humorous, criticisms. Nor did he fit the mold of German Critical Theorists, from Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse to Jürgen Habermas, all notoriously weak in their criticism of "Soviet" Marxism. He thought for himself and with a small band of workers and intellectuals who refused to give in to fads or to countenance oppression of any sort. His journal was active in the fight against the French Algerian War, but Castoriadis never indulged in "Third World" rhetoric or offered "critical support" to "left-wing" dictators.

This steadfast, clear-eyed independence won him and his group admiration and helped to build a radical non-Communist Left in postwar France. Though critical of himself as well as others, Castoriadis never renounced his belief that ordinary people can run their lives and institute self-governance without bosses, managers, professional politicians, "leading parties," priests, experts, therapists, or gurus. There was no "God that failed," for there was no God, no "Reason of History," no "inevitable dialectical process" to guarantee success or to save people from self-created folly, or from tragedy.

Castoriadis was born March 11, 1922, in Constantinople. His family emigrated a few months later to avoid Greco-Turkish strife. He grew up in a prewar Athens marked by dictatorship, world war, occupation, and liberation. A member of the Greek Communist Youth at fifteen, he soon formed an opposition group. In the extremely polarized atmosphere of wartime Greece, most members returned to Communist ranks. Castoriadis joined the most left-wing Greek Trotskyist faction, a decision that placed him under threat of death from both fascists and communists.

The defining political moment of Castoriadis's adult life occurred in December 1944, when the Greek CP attempted a coup d'état. Even fellow Trotskyists, who were hoping that the event would drive the CP leftward, thought it presaged revolutionary changes. Castoriadis disputed their optimism. With a prescience that would become characteristic, he predicted that the putsch, if successful, would have resulted not in the revolutionary creation of a classless society but in the installation of a regime similar to Russia's. What ultimately determined the course of events was the presence of British troops in Athens and prior Big Power arrangements. But the subsequent establishment of totalitarian regimes throughout Eastern Europe and the rest of the Balkans—including Yugoslavia, which was not "liberated" by the Red Army—amply confirmed this prognosis.

Castoriadis escaped what soon turned into the bloody Greek Civil War when he received a French scholarship. He left Piraeus in December 1945 on the Mataroa, a New Zealand troop ship since become famous for bringing a generation of Greek intellectuals, including Kostas Axelos and Kostas Papaioannou, to France. In Paris he joined the Trotskyists and began to develop the consequences of his radical libertarian anti-Stalinism. Years before ousted Yugoslavian CP leader Milovan Djilas became famous for characterizing Communist bosses as a "new class," Castoriadis analyzed "bureaucratic capitalism" East and West. He distinguished a "fragmented" form in the West—where, in the wake of the Depression, the New Deal, world war, and the rise of a welfare State, a stratum of state and private managers, accompanied by the bosses of business unionism, began replacing private owners of capital as principal director of production and the economy and main antagonist of workers—from a "total and totalitarian" form reaching demented heights of terror under Stalin's regime of apparatchiks. The first to have translated Max Weber into Greek, Castoriadis was aided in this original, if highly unorthodox, extension of Marxian theory by this sociologist's writings on bureaucracy.

It was on the question of the Trotskyists' "unconditional defense of the USSR" that Castoriadis first opposed the Fourth International. In 1948, French Trotskyists proposed an alliance with Tito's police State, then on the outs with Stalin's Cominform. Socialisme ou Barbarie, the group he had formed with like-minded internal opposition forces, transformed itself into a separate organization. Around that time, Detroit radicals centered around Raya Dunayevskya (Leon Trotsky's secretary in Mexico), C. L. R. James (the Trinidad-born Pan-Africanist, literary critic, cricket writer, and Trotsky's interlocutor on the "Negro Question" in his adopted America), and Grace Lee Boggs (a Chinese-American woman who had studied philosophy in prewar France) broke with American Trotskyism and co-operated with S. ou B. during the 1950s. What distinguished S. ou B. from many other revolutionary groups was its idea that socialism meant not rule by a "leading party" versed in Marxist theory but workers' management of production and society.

In Socialisme ou Barbarie's 1949 inaugural issue, Castoriadis predicted that the working-class response to Stalin's takeover of East Europe would be a revolt against "its" new bureaucracy. Workers' councils set up during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution strikingly confirmed his prediction even as this workers' revolt against "Communism" threw much of the Left into disarray. Along with S. ou B.'s cofounder Claude Lefort, Castoriadis and his review challenged the fellow-traveling of such prominent French intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre. (Lefort had studied with French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who eventually resigned as political editor of Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes.) Sartre was later heard to say, "Castoriadis was right, but at the wrong time." Castoriadis quipped that Sartre had the honor of being wrong at the right time.

Developing his concept of "bureaucratic capitalism," Castoriadis asserted that the main struggle had become that between "executants," or "order-takers," and "directors," or "order-givers." What distinguishes capitalism—especially in its bureaucratic stage of giant factories, huge geographically-dispersed corporations, and complex technical apparatuses—from earlier class societies based on slavery or feudalism is that workers now keep the system operating not by obeying orders (slave revolts or Jacqueries serving as counterexamples from previous societies) but by resisting and contraveningthe irrational and often absurd orders given by managerial strata cut off from the everyday reality of production (the sure proof being the devastating effect of "working to rule"). This resistance, expressed initially in cooperation among "informal groups" at work, also encouraged a tendency toward autonomous action that could serve as a basis for the transformation of society, he argued. With a managerial bureaucracy in state-run enterprises, private businesses, and top-down, integrated unions replacing capital ownership as the distinguishing feature of capitalism, those who perform the tasks of production had to be encouraged to participate and to show initiative. At the same time, however, management found that it must combat independent decision-making on their part.

Out of the experience of the Hungarian Revolution Castoriadis composed his classic statement of how a self-managed society might work. Still today, "On the Content of Socialism" serves as a reference point for libertarian socialists. But the uncontested ascension of De Gaulle in 1958 brought another phenomenon to his attention. For S. ou B., Gaullism represented modernization for France, not incipient fascism. With the collapse of the revolutionary movement and the advent of "modern capitalism," bureaucracy both encouraged and fed upon mass privatization and depoliticization. Apathy becomes the norm when people's drive for participation is systematically thwarted.

Yet by the very early sixties Castoriadis also noticed countervailing trends. Before many others, he recognized that the shop stewards' movement in England, the nascent youth, women's, and antiwar movements, and the struggles of racial and cultural minorities offered prospects for revolt against modern society that might give rise to unpredictable and unprecedented expressions of autonomy, alternative ways of living.

The logical conclusion of Russian Communism's bankruptcy and the rise of modern capitalism—with its simultaneous encouragement and exclusion of people's participation and the resulting new forms of contestation—was that Marxism itself had become a deadening ideology of oppression, out of touch with new movements and aspirations for change. In the final issues of S. ou B., Castoriadis posed the new alternative in stark terms: one had to decide between remaining a Marxist and remaining a revolutionary. He chose the latter option. "Marxism and Revolutionary Theory" (1964-5) challenged structuralist as well as functionalist explanations of society and history while Paris was still in the midst of a Lévi-Strauss-Althusser-Foucault structuralist craze.

In 1967 Socialisme ou Barbarie disbanded. But its key ideas continued to gain ground. The older brother of May 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit had attended the group's meetings, and "Dany" himself proudly proclaimed his "plagiarism" of Castoriadis and S. ou B. Still a foreign national working for OECD and so restricted from engaging in politics, Castoriadis maintained a low profile during the student-worker rebellion. But he and other S. ou B.-ers helped students turn May '68 into the largest strike France had ever known. Calls for "autogestion" (self-management) in universities and factories echoed his 1949 manifesto, "Socialism or Barbarism," and appeals to the "power of the imagination" recalled his final S. ou B. text.

Castoriadis spent the last thirty years of his life overseeing publication of his S. ou B. texts (Political and Social Writings in three volumes) and ceaselessly developing, out of his last S. ou B. essay, a highly original conception of history as imaginary creation—irreducible to any predetermined plan, whether natural, rational, or divine. In Imaginary Institution and an ongoing collection of writings (translated as Crossroads in the Labyrinth, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, and World in Fragments), he elaborated his views without ever disavowing his original conception of "workers' management" and expanded that germ of an idea into a "project of autonomy" stretching from ancient Greece to the present day.

Castoriadis retired in 1970 from his OECD position as Director of Statistics, National Accounts, and Growth Studies, a job that had enabled him to study in depth the major developed capitalist economies. He became a practicing psychoanalyst in 1974 and was elected a Director of Studies at Paris's École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 1979. As an analyst and in lectures and books, he developed a distinctive renewal of Freudian theory based on an original "psychical monad" that must be socialized by force and that never fully accepts the social individual into which it is fashioned. Dreams (overtly sexual or not), slips, "acting out," transgression, and even subversion testify to the persistence of this ineliminable asocial core of the psyche—which, when partially socialized, can serve as an inexhaustible source for imaginative social change.

For Castoriadis, reports by Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and others concerning the "death of the subject" and the "death of man" were, like Mark Twain's death, "slightly exaggerated." With his wife at the time, Piera Aulagnier, Castoriadis challenged the reigning Lacanianism in French psychoanalytic circles, instigating a break with Lacan's "Third Group" in 1968. He opposed this rhetoric with the idea that psychoanalysis—like pedagogy and politics, though in different ways—seeks human autonomy. The goal of psychoanalysis is to establish "another relation" with one's unconscious, one characterized by lucid self-reflection and deliberation, a clearer recognition and acceptance of one's unconscious imaginary creations. The Freudian restatement of the ancient Greek injunction, "Know Thyself," received a powerful new articulation quite out of step with today's faddish therapeutic, drug-dependent, and antipsychoanalytic trends.

Castoriadis's most original and enduring contribution, however, is as the philosopher of the social imagination. The true opposition is not "the individual versus society," mediated by "intersubjectivity," but psyche and society as mutually irreducible poles, for the original psychical monad cannot by itself produce social signification. In creating "social imaginary significations" that cannot be deduced from rational or real elements or forces, each society institutes itself—though usually without knowing that it is doing so and in most cases preventing itself, by heteronomous means, from recognizing its own self-institution. Castoriadis's concept of the "radical social instituting imaginary"—with its enduring difference, and mutual inherence, between "instituting society" and "instituted society"—breaks with both functionalism and structuralism while providing the key to understanding an original form of being, "the social-historical," a self-instituting and self-altering unity that is irreducible to the physical, the biological, or the psychical.

Two key themes are worked out in his later writings. The first involves Castoriadis's rediscovery of the imagination. The imagination, Castoriadis found, unsettles the entire edifice of our "inherited philosophy." In On the Soul, Aristotle provided what became the standard view of the imagination, one marked by irreality, mimicry, an impotent negativity. Although apparently settling things there, Aristotle took up phantasia again at the end of his treatise in a way that violated his canonical separation of sensation from intellection. Conversely, as twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger had noticed, Immanuel Kant granted the "Transcendental Imagination" a central position in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) but then dislodged it a few years later in the second edition. Heidegger describes this turnaround as Kant's "recoil" from the consequences of a powerful and unbridled imagination. Curiously, Heidegger himself then dropped all mention of it. Castoriadis also observed that, while Sigmund Freud spoke of "phantasies" all the time, the founder of modern psychoanalysis refrained from naming, let alone examining, this strange power to bring the imaginary, the non-existent, into being.

A second major theme is the "co-birth," in ancient Greece, of philosophy and politics. As the conscious questioning of society's instituted representations, philosophy develops hand in hand with politics, which Castoriadis described as society's lucid attempt to alter its own institutions. Both are associated with the autonomy project, which Castoriadis saw as later expressed in early burgher challenges to Church and King, the American and French Revolutions, and workers', women's, and youth movements of Western societies, as well as in modern attempts to pursue philosophy beyond theological confines. Castoriadis devoted particular attention to the advent of citizen democracy in fifth-century B.C. Athens. He examined its direct-democratic institutions in order to contrast them with "representative" ones that establish permanent place-holders divorced from average citizens in today's "democracies." Castoriadis preferred the term liberal oligarchy to describe current Western political arrangements.

Castoriadis never stopped working. He was to lecture in the United States against recent fads in psychoanalysis. "We have to keep trying," he wrote me in a note, "to spread across the Atlantic" that "plague" of self-knowledge Freud said he was bringing with himself when he visited America. And Castoriadis had completed an article on "The 'Rationality' of Capitalism" shortly before the recent global market collapse. He wondered how far capitalism could—according to, but also against, its own "logic"—go toward turning the world into a "planetary casino" of currency and finance speculation. Every few days, he noted, sums greater than the entire US GNP are electronically gambled worldwide via leveraged bets of no productive utility.

Castoriadis's work will be remembered for its remarkable continuity and coherence as well as for its extraordinary breadth. It was "encyclopaedic" in the original Greek sense, Morin noted, for it offered us a "paideia," or education, that brought full circle our cycle of otherwise compartmentalized knowledge in the arts and sciences. Castoriadis wrote ground-breaking and trail-blazing essays on physics, biology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, society, economics, politics, philosophy, and art, never claiming a spurious "expertise" conferred by specialization or losing sight of the overall picture. Autonomy appears as a key theme in his early postwar writings. Not until his death did he stop elaborating on its meaning, applications, ramifications, and limits.

Death itself, it happens, was a recurring theme. We require an "ethic of mortality" to counter heteronomous promises of eternity. This ethic was an integral part of the Greek view that an afterlife, should such a thing exist, is worse than life on Earth. As a democratic institution, tragedy—a public performance of a play that ends in death—reminded the Athenians of the ultimate meaninglessness of one's thoughts and actions as well as of the need for self-limitation to keep hubris in check:

The sole genuine limitation that democracy can bear is self-limitation, which in the last analysis can only be the task and the work of individuals (of citizens) educated through and for democracy. Such an education is impossible without acceptance of the fact that the institutions we give ourselves are neither absolutely necessary in their content nor totally contingent. This signifies that no meaning is given to us as a gift, any more than there is any guarantor or guarantee of meaning; it signifies that there is no other meaning than the one we create in and through history. And this amounts to saying that democracy, like philosophy, necessarily sets aside the sacred. In still other terms, democracy requires that human beings accept in their actual behavior what until now they almost never have truly wanted to accept (and what, in our utmost depths, we practically never accept), namely, that they are mortal. It is only starting from this unsurpassable—and almost impossible—conviction of the mortality of each one of us and of all that we do, that people can live as autonomous beings, see in others autonomous beings, and render possible an autonomous society.

In his work and in his life, Cornelius Castoriadis lived this democratic ethic of mortality until the very end.

Bibliography of Cornelius Castoriadis Books in English


N.B.: A more complete bibliography of writings by and about Castoriadis, as well as additional news and information about the author, may be found elsewhere on the Cornelius Castoriadis/Agora International Website.

1. Berkeley Free Speech activist Mario Savio subscribed. London Solidarity, which smuggled translations into pre-Solidarnosc Poland, also produced some classics of libertarian socialism: Maurice Brinton's The Irrational in Politics, on the authoritarian personality, and his Bolsheviks & Workers' Control, on Bolshevik hostility to workers' management.

Text first printed as EN1998w: David Ames Curtis. "Cornelius Castoriadis: An Obituary." Salmagundi, Spring-Summer 1998: 52-61.

    • Reprinted as "Cornelius Castoriadis: Philosopher of the Social Imagination. " Free Associations, 7:3 (1999): 321-30.


rev. 8 viii 2022